Verstappen can challenge for F1 title if Red Bull car allows

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PARIS (AP) — If Max Verstappen carries on where he left off, this season’s Formula One title race could be a thrilling three-way tussle.

Whether the Dutchman is competitive against Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes or Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari depends less on Verstappen’s undoubted ability and more on his Red Bull vehicle’s questionable reliability.

Problems with the Renault engine powering Red Bull’s car cost Verstappen and his former teammate Daniel Ricciardo multiple retirements from races in the past two years. Red Bull ditched Renault and trusted the future to Honda, despite the Japanese engine provider’s much-publicized problems with McLaren in recent years.

Give Verstappen a car that lasts the distance and you could get a Formula Champion this year. Pre-season testing left him feeling optimistic.

“Our performance seems pretty promising and we hope to be competitive from the beginning of the year,” he said. “Overall, I think we have a pretty good package, but we won’t know where we are until we get into the race weekend and see if we have closed the gap to Mercedes and Ferrari.”

Verstappen will find that out next Sunday, when the season kicks off at the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne. He will line up on the grid alongside a new and ambitious teammate in 23-year-old Frenchman Pierre Gasly, a rival from their junior karting days. Gasly has a steely streak that could test Verstappen, after some awkward moments with Ricciardo led to Verstappen alluding to head-butting media .

Temper has always been an issue with Verstappen.

But in terms of pure ability, only five-time champion Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso – now retired – have been better than the 21-year-old Dutchman since he burst onto the scene in 2015. But in the latter stages of last year’s F1 campaign, Verstappen was so good he even outclassed Hamilton on occasion.

Verstappen had four podium finishes in the last four races of last season and scored 76 points to Hamilton’s 77. It would have been 83-70 to Verstappen if not for a moment of brazen and unjustifiable one-upmanship by French driver Esteban Ocon during the Brazilian GP.

Despite having already been lapped, Ocon refused to let race leader Verstappen go past him – something he never would have done with Hamilton behind him. Instead they tangled and bumped, sending Verstappen’s car spinning back to second place and pushing Hamilton up to first.

Verstappen found Ocon after the race shoved him three times before angrily pointing a finger at him as he walked away. He was typically unrepentant over his altercation , even suggesting the French driver got away lightly.

“I thought it was quite a calm response,” he said. “What do you expect me to do? Shake his hand and say, `Thanks very much.”‘

Don’t expect anything different from Verstappen, who simply does not deal in diplomacy. For while he has curtailed some of his the overly risky driving that drew criticism from Vettel and even the unflappable Kimi Raikkonen , the only currency Verstappen deals in is victory.

Verstappen was 18 when he became the youngest driver to win an F1 race and to qualify on the front row of the grid.

He says he’s now more mature, calmed by the two days of community service he was ordered to do by F1’s governing body following the Ocon incident. It was hardly exerting, he had only to attend a Formula E race in Morocco as an observer.

But it had a surprisingly illuminating effect on the hot-blooded Verstappen, who understood how difficult things are for stewards on race day in the slower Formula E format – let alone the full-throttle world of F1.

With his speed intact and his temper in check, Verstappen appears ready to challenge Hamilton and Vettel.

Whether his car allows remains a key question.

Jack Miller wins the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix as Fabio Quartararo stops his downward points’ slide

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Jack Miller ran away with the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix at Motegi as Fabio Quartararo stopped his downward slide in the championship when a last-lap accident from his closest rival in the standings caused Francesco Bagnaia to score zero points.

Starting seventh, Miller quickly made his way forward. He was second at the end of two laps. One lap later, he grabbed the lead from Jorge Martin. Once in the lead, Miller posted three consecutive fastest laps and was never seriously challenged. It was Australian native Miller’s first race win of the season and his sixth podium finish.

The proximity to his home turf was not lost.

“I can ride a motorcycle sometimes,” Miller said in NBC Sports’ post-race coverage. “I felt amazing all weekend since I rolled out on the first practice. It feels so awesome to be racing on this side of the world.

“What an amazing day. It’s awesome; we have the home Grand Prix coming up shortly. Wedding coming up in a couple of weeks. I’m over the moon; can’t thank everyone enough.”

Miller beat Brad Binder to the line by 3.4 seconds with third-place Jorge Martin finishing about one second behind.

But the center of the storm was located just inside the top 10 as both Quartararo and Bagnaia started deep in the field.

Quartararo was on the outside of row three in ninth with Bagnaia one row behind in 12th. Neither rider moved up significantly, but the championship continued to be of primary importance as Bagnaia put in a patented late-race charge to settle onto Quartararo’s back tire, which would have allowed the championship leader to gain only a single point.

On the final lap, Bagnaia charged just a little too hard and crashed under heavy braking, throwing away the seven points he would have earned for a ninth-place finish.

The day was even more dramatic for the rider who entered the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix third in the standings. On the sighting lap, Aleix Espargaro had an alarm sound, so he peeled off into the pits, dropped his primary bike and jumped aboard the backup. Starting from pit lane, he trailed the field and was never able to climb into the points. An undisclosed electronic problem was the culprit.

For Quartararo, gaining eight points on the competition was more than a moral victory. This was a track on which he expected to run moderately, and he did, but the problems for his rivals gives him renewed focus with four rounds remaining.

Next week, the series heads to Thailand and then Miller’s home track of Phillip Island in Australia. They will close out the Pacific Rim portion of the schedule before heading to Spain for the finale in early November.

It would appear team orders are not in play among the Ducati riders. Last week’s winner Enea Bastianini made an aggressive early move on Bagnaia for position before the championship contender wrestled the spot back.

In his second race back following arm surgery, Marc Marquez won the pole. His last pole was more than 1,000 days ago on this same track in 2019, the last time the series competed at Motegi. Marquez slipped to fifth in the middle stages of the race, before regaining a position to finish just off the podium.

In Moto2 competition, Ai Ogura beat Augusto Fernandez to close the gap in that championship to two points. Fernandez holds the scant lead. Alonso Lopez rounded out the podium.

Both American riders, Cameron Beaubier and Joe Roberts finished just outside the top 10 in 11th and 12th respectively.