By Alan Baldwin
(Reuters) – Formula 1 championship contender Max Verstappen was born to race, hailed as a future world champion even before he made history as a 17-year-old rookie in 2015 .
The 24-year-old Red Bull driver is now just one step away from being crowned as he prepares for Sunday’s season finale under the floodlights of the Yas Marina racetrack in Abu Dhabi.
Equal on points with Britain’s Lewis Hamilton, the great Mercedes driver in pursuit of a record eighth title, Verstappen leads 9-8 in wins.
That means he will become the first Dutch world champion by beating Hamilton or not scoring a single point if the 36-year-old fails to finish in the top 10.
Born in Belgium, Verstappen has been involved in the sport since he was a child, on wheels almost as soon as he was able to walk and lead to grand prix greatness by the steady hand of a man. father and former F1 driver Jos.
Senior Verstappen won two podiums for Benetton in 1994 as a teammate to Michael Schumacher, and their family vacationed together.
Max’s mother, Sophie Kumpen, is a top Go player who has raced against future F1 world champion Jenson Button and Red Bull team boss Christian Horner.
“Jos and Sophie have created a child with the right genes together,” former F3 team coach Frits van Amersfoort told the BBC. “And after a while, Max was programmed to be a racer.”
Verstappen has set a F1 record as the youngest driver, scorer and race winner (at age 18) and could become the first non-Mercedes driver to win the title since Sebastian Vettel with Red Bull in 2013.
Hamilton saw the threat coming years ago.
“There is always someone waiting to take my place. I got that Max was just sitting there waiting to get it,” he said in 2017 after winning his fourth title.
“You definitely have a potential world champion in Max and he’s going to get stronger with age.”
The long-awaited battle of generations became a reality this season when Red Bull and engine partner Honda finally supplied Verstappen with the car his talent demanded.
While he and Hamilton were in a showdown of their own, they were also at opposite poles.
As the Briton gets into fashion and music and uses his background as F1’s only black champion and driver to promote racial equality and diversity, Verstappen is little more distracted.
“Favorite hobby? That is a difficulty. Outside of F1, I do a lot of (virtual) sim races. I guess it’s a preference,” Verstappen said at the Saudi Arabia Grand Prix last weekend.
“But in a way not because I take it very seriously.”
Verstappen is uncompromising and belligerent, though more relaxed than his father, a racer who takes everything out of the car but sometimes crosses the line – literally and figuratively.
Hamilton said at Jeddah he felt Verstappen raced as if the rules didn’t apply to him while former driver Martin Brundle was also concerned about some of his moves.
The Sky TV commentator said: “It’s Max’s ability to control the car and his wisdom, he can sometimes make bold moves and leave some doubt that it’s a tough race. or simply a professional foul outside of the rules,” Sky TV commentator.
Horner said people didn’t give Verstappen enough credit.
“Max drives like Tyson Fury fights. He has that heart, too,” he said recently.
“You just know he’s going to give everything and if you knock him down, he’ll bounce back. He has that burning desire, that commitment. “
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin in London, editing by Toby Davis)
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