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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.

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Cooper Webb leaps from obscurity to Supercross lead

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Cooper Webb could not even locate the radar tower before the 2019 season began – let alone expect to see his number dead center in the radar screen.

His ascent to 450 competition came with little fanfare. Finishing 13th in Supercross in 2017 and then eighth in Motocross, Webb did not turn many heads as a rookie. Last year was more of the same.

Through Round 7 at Arlington, Webb failed to record a single top five. That elusive result would come the following week at Tampa with a fourth-place finish. Two weeks later, he stood on the podium at Daytona for the only the second time in his Supercross 450s career. But at season’s end, Webb was only ninth in the standings in both Supercross and Motocross.

No one expected much from him when Anaheim rolled around this year.

Webb started the season much the same as he ended 2018. A fifth-place finish in Anaheim I in muddy and equalizing conditions was followed by a modest 10th at Glendale, but the rider from North Carolina believed in himself.

In professional racing, nothing is more difficult than winning the first race. Webb’s first taste of victory came in Heat 1 of the Triple Crown at Anaheim II. Everyone remained skeptical – it was only one heat race after all. The skepticism turned to interest when he won Heat 2. Then Webb finished third in Heat 3 to take the overall victory. It was his first win in the 450 class.

That was all it took to unleash his potential. Webb won the following week in Oakland and then again two weeks later in Minneapolis.

The Supercross riders left Minnesota and headed straight down Interstate 35 to Arlington with four of them separated by two points. All eyes were focused on Ken Roczen, Eli Tomac, Marvin Musquin – and, oh yeah Webb who sat in second.

Someone was likely to stumble in Arlington and the odds on favorite to do so was Webb. That seemed to be confirmed once the feature started. While the three more experienced riders led by Tomac scooted away from the field, Webb was mired outside the top five for the first six lap.

It was Tomac who tripped and fell, however. Webb passed the stricken rider and surged to fifth on Lap 7. He was in fourth by Lap 10 and third on Lap 16.  As Webb and teammate Musquin battled for the second, they slowly reeled in the leader Roczen. Once Webb broke free on the conflict with the runner-up position firmly his, he could see the red plate on Roczen’s Honda like a cape being waved in front of a bull.

Webb charged through the final six laps getting closer and closer until he edged Roczen for the closest finish in Supercross history. It was Webb’s fourth victory of the season, coming only four weeks after he scored his first career win.

Relive the final laps in the video posted above.

As incredible as Webb’s rise to the points lead is, it has been done before.

Last year Jason Anderson seemingly came out of nowhere to lead the standings after Round 2. Anderson held the advantage for the remainder of the year, while Webb has been part of a game of hot potato in which no one seems to want to don the red plate for more than a week.

The pressure continues to mount. Webb now has a two-point advantage over Roczen, who is the only rider to sweep the top five this season.

Webb’s advantage over third is a mere four points, while Musquin has a current five-race streak of podium finishes to his credit.

Tomac’s trouble in Texas serves as a cautionary tale that a single loss of focus can be devastating and Webb still lacks the seat time of his three principal rivals, but last week’s incredible come-from-behind victory is showing that Webb is riding above experience level.

Follow the complete Supercross and Motocross seasons on NBC Sports, Gold.