Mercedes may have been the team to beat so far this year, sweeping to five straight one-two finishes, but for many, neither Lewis Hamilton nor Valtteri Bottas has been the stand-out driver so far this season.

Instead it is Max Verstappen whose performances have gained widespread praise throughout the Formula 1 paddock. Despite being in the third-quickest car (theoretically meaning P5 is the most he can typically wish for on race day), the Dutchman is yet to finish any lower than fourth so far this year, claiming two podium finishes.

Verstappen has seized every opportunity presented to him so far this season, getting amongst the Ferraris, and even beating both red cars on two occasions this year. After practice on Thursday in Monaco, he looked to be the only real threat to Mercedes’ dominance. And so it proved on Saturday in qualifying when he finished third, with the gap to the Mercedes on the front row of the grid being exaggerated by a difficult Q3 for the Red Bull man.

It’s a world away from where Verstappen was this time last year. In the aftermath of qualifying in 2018, he was put in front a throng of eager media to discuss his sixth incident in as many race weekends, after crashing out in FP3 so severely that his car could not be repaired in time for qualifying. The typical confident front put out by the youngster remained, but you never really believed it when he brushed off the incident.

Things certainly changed after that. Verstappen adjusted his approach and stopped over-driving, and the results immediately turned around. He scored 10 podiums – including race wins in Austria and Mexico – in the final 15 races, missing out on P3 in the drivers’ championship by just two points; a remarkable achievement in light of his torrid start to the season.

And the momentum has continued through the early part of this season. Empowered as team leader at Red Bull following the exit of Daniel Ricciardo, Verstappen has been foot-perfect.

Red Bull team principal Christian Horner spoke on Thursday about how crucial that mistake in FP3 last year was in turning things around for Verstappen.

“I think really if you wind the clock back 12 months, it was probably the lowest weekend of his career, having a car capable of winning and crashing in FP3 and not being able to take part in qualifying,” Horner said.

“That was very tough for him. I think he went away from that race and he reflected hard on it. Since Montreal last year, he’s really just stepped things up a gear and he’s been a phenomenal force whenever he’s been in the car.

“The way he started this season has been outstanding. He’s overachieved in certain aspects and I think he’s got that roundedness of maturity and is very much leading the team development-wise. I think he’s enjoying and relishing that role as well.

“If you compare Max Verstappen [of] May 2019 to the equivalent time last year, he’s evolved a tremendous amount.” 

So Saturday in Monaco this year offered a good opportunity to reflect on how things have changed for Max in the last year. He joked himself in the post-qualifying press conference how it was actually only his third completed qualifying despite being his fifth time in the grand prix, having crashed out in Q1 in 2016.

When asked by Crash.net about how things had transformed in the last 12 months – going from being pressed by the media about his shunt to fanfared as the only driver looking capable of stopping Mercedes from winning in Monaco – Verstappen offered a mature answer, but rejected Horner’s suggestion; the confident front was in place again.

“I don’t think it was the lowest point of my career,” Verstappen said.

“Those things happen, unfortunately, and of course last year we had a great opportunity to win it.

“Yes, sometimes you need the ones which hurt a bit more to become a better driver. That’s exactly what happened last year.”

After Mercedes locked out the front row of the grid on Saturday, it will take something special for Verstappen to beat them to victory today, such is the challenge of overtaking in Monaco.

But even a podium finish behind the two silver cars would be a fine act of redemption for a young man who is now consistently delivering on the great promise seen so many years ago.

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