Formula Spy's Thomas Maher on the newly promoted Red Bull driver and the Spanish Grand Prix
As Formula 1 prepares for the fifth round of the championship, and the first in Europe this year, one would be forgiven for thinking that all eyes are on the continuing battle at the top heading to Spain.
But, rather than Mercedes' Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton's rivalry hogging the limelight heading to the Circuit de Catalunya, the main question is just how well can Max Verstappen do?
If you're not an avid follower of F1, you're probably asking "Who? Is he anything to do with that Jos fella from 20 years ago?". The answer is yes, he's the 18-year-old son of the '90s journeyman driver and he is the hottest prospect in the sport since the arrival of Lewis Hamilton a decade ago. In controversial circumstances, he has just been given a seat at Red Bull Racing and a genuine shot at unbalancing the current status quo at the top.
The younger Verstappen's rise through the ranks has been, to put it mildly, meteoric. Born in 1997, he began karting in 2001 and spent over a decade honing his craft. Winning a couple of high ranking championships, he first drove a single-seat racing car in 2013, showing immediate speed driving a Formula Renault car. He landed his first single-seater drive in 2014, driving in F3 with Van Amersfoort Racing. In August 2014, he was signed to the Red Bull Young Driver program and shortly after, unveiled as a Toro Rosso driver for 2015. Having driven the Toro Rosso in practice at the Japanese GP just days after turning 17, his appointment raised eyebrows due to his youth and inexperience.
Becoming the youngest F1 driver ever at the 2015 Australian GP, Verstappen immediately silenced his critics by qualifying P11 and running in the points before an engine failure. He scored P7 next time out in Malaysia and made points a regular thing last year; he scored two headline grabbing P4s in Hungary and the US. His only moment of madness came at the Monaco Grand Prix when he crashed heavily in an impetuous overtaking move on Romain Grosjean. Staying with Toro Rosso for this year, he scored points in the first three races before getting the call up to Red Bull.
The senior team had been running the combination of the highly rated Daniel Ricciardo alongside the somewhat more anonymous Daniil Kvyat. The 22 year old Russian, also a Red Bull Young Driver like Verstappen, drove for Toro Rosso in 2013 before replacing the departing Sebastian Vettel in 2014, having fared respectably in his debut year. Kvyat outscored Ricciardo in 2014, albeit with greater mechanical misfortune hitting the Australian, but scored his first podium in Hungary in what was an uncompetitive year for RBR.
Starting 2016, his year began horribly with mechanical failures in qualifying and on the formation lap in Australia, followed by poor qualifying in Bahrain. He scored a podium in China, although he had been trailing Ricciardo until Daniel had a puncture early on. His home race, however, proved a nightmare. He slammed into Sebastian Vettel's Ferrari at Turn 1, also causing a collision with Ricciardo in the sister car. Going through the next corner, Kvyat then hit Vettel yet again and knocked the Ferrari out. Both Red Bulls were damaged and merely endured through the remaining laps. RBR bosses were furious and, days later, announced Kvyat had been moved aside for Verstappen.
With attention from Mercedes and Ferrari sniffing around the young Dutchman, Red Bull ensured they locked him down by moving him into the senior team the moment they got a whiff of an opportunity. Demoting the merely very good Kvyat to Toro Rosso in place of the potential superstar Verstappen is cruel but, in a sport renowned for its ruthlessness, the most ruthless driver program in F1 doesn't make allowances for mistakes.
Verstappen now has the front running seat that many in F1 felt he deserved, but has it considerably earlier than many imagined. All that pressure now lands on his shoulders and, at just 18 years of age, that's a lot to handle. He's just seen how one bad weekend has all but scuppered Kvyat's career and will know the same scrutiny now applies to him. What happens if he crashes into his teammate, like he did at Toro Rosso with Carlos Sainz mere weeks ago at the Australian GP?
Away from the Red Bull/Toro Rosso camps, Mercedes go to Spain with the intent of giving both their drivers a clean weekend after costly mechanical problems for Lewis Hamilton in China and Russia. ERS issues on two different engines for the reigning Champion, with no significant issues for Rosberg, has drawn the conspiracy theorists out; so much so, that Mercedes and Hamilton have both issued open letters to the fans to quell the discontent.
Nico Rosberg had the better of Hamilton in Spain last year, out-qualifying and out-racing the British driver. With Pirelli bringing the same compounds, as well as the addition of the Soft tyre, will he repeat the feat? His current form suggests he can, but Hamilton's bad luck will eventually have to end and Rosberg will have to work far harder to continue his winning streak when that happens.
Ferrari's luck will also change eventually, particularly for Sebastian Vettel after another retirement last time out. The team are not enjoying the start to the season they would have hoped, and some rumours suggest that team boss Maurizio Arrivabene is facing the axe from FIAT CEO Sergio Marchionne, to be replaced by technical director James Allison. For now, these are just rumours, but there does appear to be discontent behind the scenes at the Scuderia.
Spain also sees the first of the two scheduled in-season tests take place on Tuesday and Wednesday immediately after the GP. Several of the teams have already announced their driver line-ups, and the two days will allow the teams to address some of the issues they may have, as well as testing out upgrades which could shake up the pecking order before the next race in Monaco in a fortnight's time.
Thomas Maher is the co-founder of Irish motorsport website Formula Spy.com.