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Verstappen already a crowd pleaser at ‘home’ race

26 Aug 2016

His father Jos Verstappen was always hugely popular in Belgium, as his compatriots flocked across the border - only 45 miles away - to watch him race, and the organisers of this year’s Spa-Francorchamps round say that 20,000 tickets have already been pre-sold to Dutchmen keen to see their hero Max Verstappen in action for Red Bull.

The situation has even been likened to Michael Schumacher’s popularity in his heyday, but in Verstappen’s case there is the added bonus that mother Sophie Kumpen is Belgian. It was a similar story recently at Hockenheim, further endorsing the view that it’s F1 heroes who keep boosting the sport’s popularity.

And with Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton deciding to take a grid penalty here to even out the remainder of his season, Verstappen has high hopes of getting on the podium yet again on this super-fast track.

“Even though I haven’t driven here a lot, definitely I think this is the closest I can get to a home race,” the 18 year-old said yesterday. “I think there are also a lot of fans coming, so I’m definitely looking forward to that.”

Now that Red Bull have overtaken Ferrari in the world championship for constructors and are on a roll, they are keen to stay there and Verstappen believes that they can still do that even on a circuit where horsepower is hugely influential.

“I think the last few races have been very positive for us. We got the jump on them and now the most important thing is to stay ahead of course and try to close on Mercedes, even though I think that will be very hard. But we keep pushing, we keep developing and so far it has been very positive for us.

“I think here first of all we have to get the car working really well in terms of set-up and then we’ll see what happens.”

Of course, Verstappen will not be the only teenager on the grid this weekend. In an amusing media moment on Thursday he was asked - as an ‘old hand’ - what advice he would give to French rookie Esteban Ocon, who makes his race debut with Manor here.

“Just jump in the car and go out and drive as fast as you can,” was the simple reply, but he expanded: “I think in the end it doesn’t really matter where you come from as long as you do a good job. Once you’re in Formula One it’s up to yourself to show that you’re ready. I don’t think it has to be in F3 or GP3. Once you go to Formula One you have to show it.”

“I agree,” 19 year-old Ocon said. “Age is just a number in the end, you have to show that you are capable of driving in F1 and to show to the right people. I think that’s the most important thing. When you arrive in F1 then you have to deliver like Max did. That’s the target for me as well.”

Verstappen arrives in Belgium sitting sixth in the drivers’ championship on 115 points, just 18 behind third-placed team mate Daniel Ricciardo.