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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 December 2018

Lewis Hamilton may find he has a rival for most popular driver at the 2018 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

Yas Marina Circuit officials have confirmed an area in the Marina Grandstand will be dedicated to Max Verstappen fans this weekend

When Lewis Hamilton lines up on the grid for the 2018 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix next weekend the five-time world champion can count on plenty of local support, given the capital's large British diaspora.

Traditionally, Union Jack flags have dominated the Yas Marina landscape when the grand prix rolls around each year. And Hamilton has given those flag-waving British fans plenty to cheer about, winning at the capital's track three times.

With the drivers' title already in the bag Hamilton arrives in the UAE looking to secure an 11th win of the campaign. But he could find he has competition for best-supported driver.

Yas Marina Circuit officials have confirmed an area in the Marina Grandstand will be dedicated to Max Verstappen fans this weekend, all of whom will be likely wearing orange T-shirts waving the Netherlands tricolor in support of the 21-year-old Dutchman.

It highlights the growing fanbase of the Red Bull Racing driver, who looks well placed to succeed Hamilton and Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel as Formula One's next superstar.

Since first lining up on the grid in 2015 as a 17-year-old rookie at Toro Rosso, Verstappen's rise has been spectacular. Highlights include winning his first race with Red Bull in Spain in 2016, while his drive at that year's Brazilian Grand Prix stands out after he passed half the field in a matter of a few laps in the rain at Interlagos.

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But it is Verstappen's performances in the second half of this year that has underlined just why he is so important to F1.

It was looking pretty ugly for him six months ago after a crash in Monaco during practice. It wrecked his hopes of a victory on a weekend where his Red Bull team were the fastest package.

That had been the latest in a series of mistakes, prompting his team principal, Christian Horner, to air his concerns in public.

“He needs to learn from it, and stop making these errors,” Horner said in Monte Carlo. "He knows that more than anybody.”

Fast forward six months and Verstappen has undoubtedly learnt from Monaco and rallied to produce arguably the best run of form of any driver other than Hamilton.

If the season had started from the seventh round in Canada in June, Verstappen would be second in the standings with 199 points from 14 races – averaging 14.2 points per race. Pretty impressive, considering Red Bull have generally been the third best package behind Mercedes and Ferrari this year. Only Hamilton (273) has scored more than Verstappen since Canada.

An ugly spat on and off the track with Esteban Ocon at this month's Brazilian Grand Prix, which earned Verstappen two days of community service by the FIA, took attention away from a superb drive that saw the Dutchman pass three world champions in Kimi Raikkonen, Sebastian Vettel and Hamilton as he made his way up from fifth to lead before eventually finishing second.

Brazil was a reminder that Verstappen is not the finished article. While Ocon was arguably in the wrong for racing so hard and trying to unlap himself from the race leader with a risky move, there was no reason for Verstappen to have risked the contact himself.

A more experienced driver would have given Ocon space. Why take the chance of being hit when the chequered flag is there for the taking?

But history tells us that virtually every recent F1 world champion has had trod a similar path of controversy and clashes with authority on their way to the top. Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso, Michael Schumacher, Mika Hakkinen and Ayrton Senna are obvious examples.

Verstappen has plenty of years in F1 ahead of him, plenty of time to learn from his mistakes. He learnt from his difficult start to the season and he will learn from Brazil.

Inferior engines means Red Bull have rarely been able to fight on a level playing field with Mercedes and Ferrari. But, when they have, Verstappen has taken the fight to his rivals.

He won in Austria and Mexico, and should have won in Brazil. He has consistently out-performed teammate Daniel Ricciardo, who, lest we forget, not too long along ago was considered a future world champion, look ordinary by comparison.

Ricciardo is leaving for Renault next season , and Verstappen’s brilliance has to have been a factor why the 29-year-old Australian has taken the decision to make a step back to a less competitive team.

UAE race fans are already familiar with how good Verstappen is. He finished fourth in 2016, having spun to the back of the field at the start.

Despite the fact he will have a large contingent of orange-dressed supporters at Yas Marina this weekend, a third victory, and a sixth of his career, seems unlikely.

The two long straights on the 5.5km track should favour Mercedes and Ferrari and it will be a tall order for either Red Bull to challenge for victory.

But, that will not deter Verstappen from giving it his all and, if the second half of 2018 is anything to go by, spectators at Yas Marina should be in for an entertaining weekend.