After two stunning wins in three races, the force in Formula One is with Max Verstappen who will this weekend bid for another victory at the Hungarian Grand Prix.
The 21-year-old Red Bull driver, whose father Jos reached the podium in Hungary in 1994, is hoping to sign off before the mid-season break with another flourish.
Verstappen’s powerful performance in winning last weekend’s tumultuous rain-hit German Grand Prix lifted him within 63 points of the defending five-time champion Lewis Hamilton with 10 of this year’s 21 races to go.
The Dutchman is a distant third in the driver standings, behind the Mercedes pair of Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas. Yet the Silver Arrows’ self-described “Armageddon” on home soil at Hockenheim, has inspired Verstappen’s team to dream of greater glory.
The Dutchman played down his potential in the championship on Sunday night but Red Bull sporting director Helmut Marko thinks Verstappen might snatch the title from Hamilton. “I would not rule it out,” he said.
Hamilton’s Hockenheim horror
Hockenheim marked Hamilton’s worst outing since joining Mercedes and with questions being raised about the Briton’s durability and exhausting ‘jet-set’ lifestyle, Verstappen is emerging as the man to beat.
Hamilton was ill throughout the weekend and did well to step into his car but was clearly shaken by his error-strewn race. He finished outside the top 10 but was awarded two points when Alfa Romeo’s two cars were penalised, moving him up to ninth.
It was scant consolation for Mercedes on a day when Bottas crashed and the team, distracted perhaps by their own ‘retro’ celebrations of 125 years in motorsport, made some poor decisions on strategy and pit stops.
“We know that they weren’t good enough, and that’s why we ended up with such a bad result,” said Mercedes engineering director Andrew Shovlin.
Mercedes were unbeaten in the opening eight races. Yet they could start to feel the pressure if they have another bad weekend, if Verstappen can turn the screw or if the Ferraris, with a more extensive upgrades package, can continue the resurgence they signalled in Germany.
Ferraris’ own rising star, Charles Leclerc, started well in qualifying before being undone by the persistent Ferrari mechanical problems that forced him to start 10th. His team-mate Sebastian Vettel started in 20th.
The young Monegasque crashed out in the rain but four-time champion Vettel delighted his home support by picking his way through the field to finish second ahead of Daniil Kvyat’s Toro Rosso.
Hamilton won last year’s race in Hungary from pole and, if he is recovered from his illness, should start again as favourite. But neither he nor Mercedes are invincible, especially if Verstappen continues to drive so fearlessly.
“I like the Hungaroring,” said the Dutchman. “It’s one of my favourite tracks and I’m looking forward to going there. It’s technical and you have to hit the apexes to position yourself well for each corner.
“It feels a bit like you’re driving a big car on a small track, as it’s so narrow, but that doesn’t make it any less fun. The whole team looks forward to this race. It’s one of the warmest and it’s a good track for us. We’ll give it everything before the summer break.”