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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Max Verstappen is box office on and off the track but it's time to 'move forward' from Esteben Ocon conflict and focus on Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

Dutch driver has taken a defiant stance over the fall-out from Brazil, and while the added drama is welcome, attention must turn back to racing

Max Verstappen is following in Lewis Hamilton's footsteps as F1's next big superstar. Getty Images
Max Verstappen is following in Lewis Hamilton's footsteps as F1's next big superstar. Getty Images

Max Verstappen may have caused a stir at his news conference for the Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Thursday, but the fact he did was a breath of fresh air.

The Red Bull Racing driver is well aware of how much interest he generates in Formula One these days.

"You guys like the drama, don't you?" he said in the media centre at Yas Marina Circuit.

This was Verstappen's first public appearance since he was sanctioned by the FIA for shoving Force India's Esteban Ocon in the pit lane in Brazil after their collision in the race cost the Dutchman victory.

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Read more:

Abu Dhabi Grand Prix Weekend - all the latest updates on and off the track

Abu Dhabi GP talking points: Ferrari's big chance and Robert Kubica in action

'I was after an apology': Max Verstappen defends pushing Esteban Ocon

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The FIA, motorsport's ruling body, ordered Verstappen to do two days community service at a time yet to be decided. Despite his punishment, Verstappen was not exactly circumspect over his behaviour towards Ocon.

During a lively 20 minutes of questioning, Verstappen, with Ocon sat in the same room, spoke passionately about why he wouldn't have done anything differently. He insisted he was "really calm" and believes his FIA penalty was "harsh".

This writer did not agree with everything he said, but in the PR-controlled era of F1 it was great to hear a leading driver be open and honest about his feelings.

It may have been youth talking - Verstappen only turned 21 in September - but he spoke from the heart.

It is a credit also to Red Bull that they have not controlled him. There may be choice words behind closed doors, but in public both he and teammate Daniel Ricciardo are allowed to speak freely.

Ocon, on the other hand, said it was time to "move forwards" and refused to elaborate when asked what he allegedly said to Verstappen that provoked the Dutchman's response.

One line from Verstappen that stood out was: "What do you expect me to do? Shake his hand? Say thank you very much for being second instead of first? I think it was probably a normal response."

Verstappen crossed a line by getting physical with Ocon. He compared it to football, yet pushing an opponent in that sport normally results in a yellow card.

But his point on naturally being angry after losing out on a likely race win was true, and something people can relate to.

It would have been more shocking if Verstappen went over to Ocon with grin on his face, put an arm around his rival, and had a 'never mind, these things happen' attitude.

Verstappen is an exciting character: brilliantly fast on the track and out-spoken off it. He has become a cult hero, not just to Dutch fans but also to supporters across the world.

There is a reason he is the first F1 driver to have a dedicated part of a grandstand at Yas Marina Circuit set aside for his fans. The area in the Marina Grandstand will be awash with orange-coloured shirts this weekend.

Verstappen is box office, not always for the right reasons, but he is the sport's next big superstar after world champion Lewis Hamilton.

Fans love him, journalists enjoy having someone who speaks so openly, and the sport's owners, Liberty Media, will be pleased with the extra column inches and TV viewers he brings in.

He clearly still feels wronged by what happened in Brazil. His challenge now is to, like Ocon "move forwards" and do his talking on the circuit in Abu Dhabi as he looks to end the year in style with a third win on Sunday.