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FI: Max Verstappen’s recent form bodes well for 2019 championship

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ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) The way Max Verstappen has driven recently offers encouragement of a more open Formula One title race next year.

Verstappen has been in typically daredevil form, with some overtaking moves of the highest class, and the Red Bull driver is aiming to sign off the season in style at this weekend’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

F1 needs him to carry over his form into 2019, too.

Because each year since 2014, the championship contest has been between Lewis Hamilton and one other driver: his former Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg and more recently Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel. Although two of those championships went down to the last race – Hamilton won in `14 and Rosberg in `16 – it was always a two-way contest. This year and last, Hamilton beat Vettel into second place, with everyone else lagging behind.

Given that Vettel’s title wins with Red Bull from 2011-13 were overwhelming victories, there has not been a wider contest with multiple drivers since 2010, when several fought for the title heading into the season-ending desert race under floodlights at Abu Dhabi. Vettel won that dramatic race for his first F1 title.

But Verstappen has finished this season so strongly he has surpassed Vettel and even matched Hamilton, which bodes well for 2019.

Over the past four races, Verstappen has had four podium finishes including a win in Mexico for 76 points compared with 77 for Hamilton in the same span. But the tally would have been 83-70 in Verstappen’s favor if not for a reckless attacking move by French driver Esteban Ocon in the latter stages of the Brazilian GP two weeks ago.

Although he was already lapped and had no points to fight for, Ocon stubbornly refused to let race leader Verstappen past him and they tangled on the track , sending Verstappen spinning back to second and pushing Hamilton to first. It led to a heated incident after the race, where an irate Verstappen squared up to a grinning Ocon and shoved him three times in the chest before pointing an angry finger at him as he eventually walked away.

Verstappen’s actions drew criticism from some observers, but they also highlighted the 21-year-old Dutchman’s fiery will to win. Despite his young age he already has five GP wins to his name, including two this season.

Hamilton’s Mercedes teammate, Valtteri Bottas, has not won a race this season despite having a quicker and considerably more consistent car.

It fuels the view that Verstappen, in a Ferrari or a Mercedes, would already be a serious title contender now.

He is fifth in the standings, but could overtake Bottas and move up a spot at this weekend’s Abu Dhabi GP. Verstappen is also more than 60 points clear of his Red Bull teammate Daniel Ricciardo, the senior driver, although the margin is blurred by the fact both have been undone at times this season by engine problems.

Verstappen has failed to finish four races while Ricciardo’s wretched luck has seen him retire from eight races. Yet both have managed to win two races each despite the car’s inconsistent nature.

By contrast, Hamilton has finished every race except for Austria in July, and Bottas has finished all but two, underlining the more reliable Mercedes.

The complex engine problems ultimately forced Red Bull to split with Renault as its partner and choose Honda from 2019. Yet there is no little irony in that switch now, considering how strong Verstappen has been in recent races when his engine has held up.

It is a risky move for Red Bull to partner with Honda, considering the complications of the McLaren-Honda partnership in recent years.

But Red Bull is optimistic Honda has sorted its problems out and will provide a more powerful engine than Renault.

If so, Verstappen could well be pushing Hamilton and Vettel hard for the 2019 title.

More AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/tag/apf-AutoRacing and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Todd LeDuc advances two positions in Monster Jam Power Rankings

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Neil Elliott held onto the top spot in the Monster Jam Power Rankings, but he has a new driver sniffing his exhaust as Todd Leduc advanced two positions to second this week.

The Stadium Series Green continues to hold the advantage in the Power Rankings with Elliott topping the chart, Morgan Kane in fourth, and Ryan Anderson eighth, but there is an equitable distribution among the other series throughout the field.

Notably, Leduc and his Monster Energy truck in the Stadium Series Red closed the gap with a 38-point overall victory at US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, MN. Leduc achieved his win through consistency, pocketing the overall without winning a single individual event. Leduc’s best session was a second-place finish to Mike Vaters II in Overkill Evolution by .001 points.

Meanwhile on the West Coast, Elliott rambled on. Elliott won his sixth skills challenge in seven contests so far. That contributed to his 35 points for the event at PETCO Park in San Diego and allowed him to hold onto the No. 1 slot in the Monster Jam Power Rankings.

Colton Eichelberger also held station. Third last week, he entered the Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse on a mission in the Triple Threat Series Central. He topped the event points in all four events with timed race wins in each session, ATV race wins in three of the four, three wins in the speedster obstacle course, two freestyle wins and one win in the donut competitions.

MORE: Ryan Anderson and the anatomy of a Monster Jam freestyle run

Morgan Kane and Grave Digger had a rough night. He was ousted from the racing event in Round 2 by Max-D and Elliott. He failed to win either of the other two competitions of the night and ended with 29 points, which was a distant third to Ryan Anderson’s Son-Uva Digger (37) and Max-D (35).

Brandon Vinson moved up to the fifth position with three wins in the Triple Threat Series West. During the weekend he earned seven session wins, including a sweep of the speedster obstacle course and two victories in the two-wheel skills challenge.

Tom Meents debuted on the Monster Jam Power Rankings in 10th by winning the overall in back to back nights of the Stadium Series Yellow. The Saturday show can be seen Feb. 22 at 11:30 p.m. on NBCSN (click here for streaming). The highlight of Meents’ weekend were race wins on Saturday and Sunday, defeating Coty Saucier in a Monster Energy truck on Night 1 and Eric Swanson in Obsessed on Night 2.

Power Rankings

1. Neil Elliott–same
2. Todd LeDuc–up 2
3. Colton Eichelberger-same
4. Morgan Kane–down 2
5. Brandon Vinson–up 1
6. Tyler Menninga–up 1
7. Coty Saucier–down 2
8. Ryan Anderson–same
9. Linsey Read–up 1
10. Tom Meents-new for 2020

Upcoming TV Schedule (All showings on Eastern time on NBCSN)

Oakland: February 22 (Saturday); 11:30 p.m.
Miami: March 1 (Sunday); 12 a.m.
Jacksonville: March 9 (Monday); 6 p.m.
Detroit: March 21 (Saturday); 11 p.m.
Las Vegas: March 28 (Saturday); 7 p.m.
Santa Clara: April 11 (Saturday); 7 p.m.
Philadelphia: April 17 (Friday); 2:30 p.m.
Denver: April 25 (Saturday); 6:30 p.m.
Monster Jam World Finals Racing: May 9 (Saturday); 5 p.m.
Monster Jam World Finals: May 19 (Tuesday); 4 p.m.
Monster Jam World Freestyle: May 20 (Wednesday); 12 a.m.
Monster Jam World Finals: June 20 (Saturday); 2:30 p.m.