SEPANG, Malaysia — The days of Max Verstappen being a teen sensation are officially over, as Formula One’s rising star celebrated his 20th birthday Saturday.
Verstappen was 18 when he became the youngest driver to win an F1 race and to qualify on the front row of the grid, earmarking him as a future great. But what the Dutchman wishes for most now is a competitive car after a hugely frustrating season so far.
Since finishing third at the Chinese Grand Prix in the second race, the Red Bull driver has been hit by engine problems and failed to finish in seven races.
“It’s not my year,” Verstappen said at this weekend’s Malaysian Grand Prix. “But in general you have to try to stay positive.”
He has made it clear to Red Bull that he wants significant improvement in 2018.
“I want to be able to fight for the championship,” said Verstappen, who qualified third for Sunday’s race. “Hopefully we are next year.”
The outspoken Verstappen has already clashed with senior drivers, including his own teammate Daniel Ricciardo.
Ricciardo publicly criticized Verstappen at the Hungarian GP just before the summer break after Verstappen swerved into him trying to overtake and knocked Ricciardo out of the race. Unusually for him, Verstappen subsequently apologized.
After being on the receiving end of reckless driving at the Singapore GP two weeks ago, Vertappen was quick to blame Sebastian Vettel after the German driver caused a first-turn crash that put both of them out.
But it was Verstappen’s aggressive, fearless — and perhaps even dangerous — approach that thrust him into the spotlight last season, almost as much as his superb driving. His father, Jos Verstappen, showed similar aggression in his F1 career, but not the same skill.
Verstappen won the Spanish GP on his Red Bull debut after being promoted from feeder team Toro Rosso and qualified second in Monaco. Then, at the Brazilian GP, shortly after turning 19, he produced a stunning performance.
Way down the field in 14th place, he carved his way through the field in driving rain to finish third in a jaw-dropping masterclass in overtaking. There was fist-pumping galore in the garage and team principal Christian Horner was in awe.
“They don’t get much better than that,” Horner said afterward. “I think what we witnessed today was something very special.”
Some compliment, seeing as Horner worked with Vettel on all four of his F1 titles.
Even Toto Wolff, the head of motorsport from Mercedes, spoke of Verstappen in…