Why Max Verstappen has been the most exciting F1 driver of 2016

Red Bull teenager has put in performances belying his years

Red Bull, Max Verstappen,

Red Bull's Max Verstappen during the preview day at Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi. Picture by David Davies PA Wire/PA Images

Like 2014 and 2015, this year's Formula 1 world drivers and constructors championships were all about what was emerging from the Mercedes garage.

But as Nico Rosberg finished ahead of Lewis Hamilton on points for the very first time in his career, the rest of the grid provided plenty of interest in 2016.

One name in particular. Verstappen... Max Verstappen.

The son of former F1 racer Jos Verstappen, Max arrived in Formula 1 as a fresh-faced young 17-year-old ahead of the 2015 season as one of the two drivers in Red Bull's junior team Toro Rosso.

That first season was solid when taking account of his age and machinery, with a 12th place finish overall in the drivers' standings peppered with excellent fourth place finishes in Hungary and USA.

Fast forward a year and he's still fresh-faced, having turned 19 just two months ago.

But he's already experienced what it took the likes of recently retired Jenson Button and Felip Massa years to achieve by winning a Grand Prix.

Coming into 2016, Verstappen again found himself at Toro Rosso but a window opened up at the main Red Bull team due to uncertainty over the ability of Russian driver Danil Kyvat.

After the first four races of the season, the decision to swap the two by promoting Verstappen was made. 

As Newstalk.com F1 contributor Thomas Maher wrote at the time of the switch in time for the Spanish Grand Prix, Red Bull factored in a couple of motivations: "With attention from Mercedes and Ferrari sniffing around the young Dutchman, Red Bull ensured they locked him down by moving him into the senior team the moment they got a whiff of an opportunity. Demoting the merely very good Kvyat to Toro Rosso in place of the potential superstar Verstappen is cruel but, in a sport renowned for its ruthlessness, the most ruthless driver program in F1 doesn't make allowances for mistakes."

They probably didn't realise that ruthlessness would pay off so quickly.

It owed much to a crash between Hamilton and Rosberg at the start of the Spanish Grand Prix which wiped out both team-mates, leaving the race victory open to the Red Bulls or Ferraris.

And it was the youngster, aged just 18 years and 228 days, who took full advantage by scoring a record victory by holding off the challenge of the vastly more experienced former world champion Kimi Raikkonen - the youngest driver to ever win a F1 race.

As Thomas said, it proved that magic and fairytales can still happen in motorsports' grandest series.

Verstappen's success was not a one-off either as podium places have followed in Brazil and Germany, as well as numerous strong Top 6 finishes in a grid dominated by the Mercedes who tend to lock out the front two places.

When you consider that he spent the first four races at Toro Rosso, fifth place in the driver's championship is excellent.

Talented team-mate Daniel Ricciardo finished 52 points clear of him but they have been on a par for the last five races, with Verstappen edging the final two in their head-to-head battle. 

But it's not results that are even the main thing, impressive though they are. It's his exciting driving style, lack of fear and willingness to overtake that has caught the eye. 

In the penultimate race in Brazil, he finished third in treacherous conditions having masterfully fought his way back from down the field and as his team boss Christian Horner concluded: "I think what we witnessed today was something very special."

In Abu Dhabi on Sunday, he also slalomed his way up to fourth after an early spin had left him at the back of the field.

Indeed, new world champion Nico Rosberg thought he had seen the last of the Dutchman, only for him to pop in the mix at the end as Hamilton bunched up the field, acknowledging that after the race.

Verstappen's aggressive style in attack and defence has put some noses out of joint already which is a sign of his impact.

Kimi Raikkonen wasn't happy after the Belgian Grand Prix after a run-in during the race, saying, "Obviously there are always different opinions from everybody. It doesn't change an awful lot, maybe he needs an accident before things become clearer to everybody, but hopefully not, because it can be a bit bad for somebody.

He's also had a run-in with Sebastian Vettel during the Mexican Grand Prix.

But those issues aside, his star is ascending and while predictions are often a game that reaps no dividends, we are probably looking at a future world champion.