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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 December 2018

Abu Dhabi GP: Max Verstappen can go on to become one of F1's 'greats', says Christian Horner

Dutchman qualified just sixth in his Red Bull Racing car in Saturday's qualifying session, but team principal believes in his potential

Max Verstappen has the potential to be one of the greatest drivers of his generation, according to Christian Horner. EPA
Max Verstappen has the potential to be one of the greatest drivers of his generation, according to Christian Horner. EPA

Max Verstappen faces a challenge to finish on the podium in Sunday's Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix after he could only qualify sixth in his Red Bull Racing car in Saturday's qualifying session.

But even if the Dutchman cannot achieve that in the 55-lap race, his team principal Christian Horner believes his driver's form in 2018 has demonstrated he is set to go and become one of the sport's "greats".

Verstappen has won twice this season in Austria and Mexico, finished in the top three 11 times, and has consistently out-paced his more experienced teammate Daniel Ricciardo as he sits fifth in the title standings on 234 points.

Horner said on Saturday at Yas Marina Circuit: "I think he has got all the hallmarks of being one of the greats of this generation.

"At such a young age, he has only just turned 21, what he has achieved so far in the sport is remarkable so we see that he has got a huge amount of potential for the future and he is already starting to realise that potential."

Verstappen was in the headlines for the wrong reasons for the past two weeks following his clash, on and off track, with Force India's Esteban Ocon in Brazil.

The pair had collided while Verstappen led the race, with Ocon trying to unlap himself.

An upset Verstappen, who ended up finishing second, confronted his French rival and pushed him three times before walking away.

Verstappen has been sanctioned by the FIA for his behaviour, being told he has to do two day's public service to motorsport's ruling body at an unspecified date, but Horner said he understood and accepted how his driver had conducted himself.

"Max is a driver who drives with his heart on his sleeve and that is what makes him so popular," Horner said.

"Any competitive individual couldn't be blamed for reacting the way he did after the race in Brazil.

"You see it so many other sports but it is just one of those things and it is unusually seen in Formula One.

"We don't condone violence in any way or anything like that, but to me that was not violence, that was just emotion boiling over having been cost a grand prix victory."

Verstappen had defended himself in Thursday's news conference ahead of the race weekend, claiming he had stayed "really calm" despite making physical contact with Ocon and that he felt his punishment was "harsh".

Horner said he approved of allowing Verstappen to be so outspoken, when in the modern era of sport when safe public relations have created an environment where few sportsmen and women are confident to speak openly.

Red Bull Racing principal Christian Horner defends Max Verstappen's temperament, saying he is a competitive driver. Getty Images
Red Bull Racing principal Christian Horner defends Max Verstappen's temperament, saying he is a competitive driver. Getty Images

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"It is a certainly a Red Bull philosophy that we allow the drivers to vent frustration or to show emotion," Horner said.

"That is what sports in our mind is all about is sporting moments for us is where emotion is involved."

Saturday was a rare day, given he has won the inter-team qualifying duel 15 times in 2018, that it was Ricciardo who came out on top between the pair as he took fifth, 0.188 seconds quicker.

The Red Bulls were competitive in the first and third sectors, but lost ground on the two long straights at Yas Marina as the Renault power unit they use struggled compared to those of Mercedes and Ferrari.

Red Bull are moving to Honda engines next season and Horner said that the car design for 2019 was being worked around given their Japanese partners as much opportunity as possible to give them more power to work with so they can avoid occasions like this weekend next year.

"Chassis and engine have to be integrated but we haven't stipulated size and spec to Honda," he added. "We've said go away and build your most competitive engine and then we will work out how to package it.

"Because the trade of horsepower versus downforce, you can see in the current set of regulations that horsepower is our Achilles heel.

"We can then find a way of packaging that into a competitive car."