Max Verstappen set for first F1 title battle in 2020 with record in sights
He's proved he's a star, and now Verstappen might have a title-contending car. Can he challenge Hamilton?; Watch the season-opening Australian GP live only on Sky Sports F1 this weekend
By Matt Morlidge
Last Updated: 10/03/20 4:24pm
We've seen him smash records. We've seen his career-defining drives and victories. We've seen him build a passionate fanbase to make 'Max mania' a grandstand force at most Grands Prix. And now, finally, it could be time for Max Verstappen to make his Formula 1 title charge.
A great driver, with a potentially great car - the stars seem to be aligning for Verstappen in 2020, making a blockbuster head-to-head battle with Lewis Hamilton a very real, and very tantalising, prospect.
"Heading to the first race, I'd like to think Max has an equal chance of winning the world championship," said Sky F1's Martin Brundle.
And while Hamilton's shot at ultimate F1 greatness is likely to dictate the storyline of the season, Verstappen himself has history in his sights.
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Already F1's youngest-ever driver and youngest-ever race winner, this is Verstappen's last chance to become the sport's youngest-ever champion.
If ever Max and Red Bull needed more motivation.
Verstappen, the driver: A 'powerful combination'
Verstappen's talent has never been in doubt, ever since bursting onto the scene as a 17-year-old at Toro Rosso in 2015. By the end of the following season, he had already earned a call-up to Red Bull, won his first race on his debut, and produced a dazzling drive in the rain in Brazil to draw comparisons to Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher.
Since that breakout year, he has become a more complete driver with every race. Seven more victories have been added, often in a car which has been third-fastest, and now - entering his sixth season at the age of just 22 - Verstappen represents a scary prospect for his rivals.
Never before has a driver been this good, this young, and this experienced.
"With Max, he has the absolute youth - bullet-speed reactions in his mind, absolute peak human body reaction times - and he also has the experience," noted Sky F1's Nico Rosberg last season.
"That makes for an unbelievably powerful combination."
Verstappen has also added, dare we say it, Hamilton-esque consistency to his sublime speed and fearless overtaking in recent years, while still possessing that assured confidence in his own ability which has helped him through the inevitable, but all the more rare, blips.
That unrelenting self-belief was evident again this winter as he talked up the prospect of challenging Hamilton for the 2020 championship:
Do Red Bull now have a car to challenge Mercedes?
Couple those qualities with a title-contending car, and Hamilton - after seeing off Valtteri Bottas and Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel in recent years - could have his biggest challenge since Rosberg's Mercedes departure.
And for the first time in his F1 career, Verstappen may well have that car.
2019, the first year of Red Bull's new partnership with Honda, was hugely encouraging, culminating in Verstappen's best F1 season as he finished third in the standings.
The Honda engine improved so much towards the end of the season Hamilton even suggested it was now a more powerful engine than Mercedes' - giving Red Bull the ideal platform for a 2020 charge.
The early signs this year have been positive, with Red Bull enjoying their best testing in many years, although just slightly off the pace and mileage of Mercedes.
"Somebody said to me this is the best-prepared their car has been before a season starts," said Brundle.
Red Bull have established themselves as the favourites to challenge Mercedes, ahead of Ferrari, and will be looking to start as close to the six-time world champions as possible at this weekend's Australian GP before attempting to out-develop the Silver Arrows through the season.
Verstappen's quest for another F1 record
Sebastian Vettel is currently F1's youngest world champion, having won his first crown with Red Bull aged 23 years and 134 days.
As Verstappen will only turn 23 on September 30, less than three months before the end of the season, he would set another F1 record with a 2020 title.
The Dutchman insists he is not thinking about it, but Mercedes are already sure that Red Bull are desperate for that record.
"I think Red Bull [are the main challenge] because Max can be the youngest world champion if he wins," Mercedes boss Toto Wolff told Sky F1.
"I think Red Bull and Helmut [Marko, Red Bull advisor] are going to give this a massive emphasis, it would be a nice thing for them, so I believe Red Bull are going to be the ones concentrating a lot on 2020."
A record-holder if he wins the title, but Verstappen has a big future ahead regardless of whether this season represents a changing of the guard.
He could define the next decade of F1.