“Formula One is the worst it has ever been.”
No, that’s not a quote from a disgruntled fan, it’s a damning statement from Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone, made just last month.
Ecclestone’s appraisal came after an utterly uncompetitive 2015 season, where McLaren drivers Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg won every race bar one, crowds and TV ratings were down and rule changes confused fans.
But all hope is not lost.
In 18-year-old Max Verstappen, Formula One has a potential superstar on its hands.
The Toro Rosso driver is their beacon of hope.
The Dutchman didn’t even have a road licence when he made his F1 debut at 17 years and 166 days old last year, becoming the competition’s youngest ever driver in the process.
But nine top-10 finishes and fourths at the Hungarian Grand Prix and American equivalent belied his years, while his aggressive style of driving won him many fans.
Those results saw him linked with moves to Red Bull and Ferrari, but Verstappen has stayed put at Red Bull-run Toro Rosso for now.
Formula One’s powerbrokers will hope his car is even more competitive in 2016, because his fresh face and youthful exuberance is their way into the younger audience it desperately craves.
A racing family
Verstappen was destined to drive cars for a living.
His father, Jos, made 106 Formula One starts for teams including Benetton, Tyrrell, Stewart and Arrows.
‘Jos the boss’ recorded two podium finishes in his 1994 debut season, but failed to live up to that promise, a tale that is particularly cautionary for his son.
Max Verstappen’s mother, Sophie Kumpen, was also a well-known kart driver, while his uncle currently competes in the NASCAR series.
The 18-year-old, who was born in Belgium but races under the Dutch flag, was given his first kart at four.
He immediately showed promise, dominating the local and then national scene.
A swag of trophies followed, and his move to single-seat racing in 2013 was similarly successful, leading to him join Red Bull’s junior driver programme.
Red Bull placed him in their secondary F1 team, Toro Rosso, for the 2015 Formula One season – a decision they did not regret.
Verstappen is currently dating Swedish driver Mikaela Ahlin-Kottulinsky, who races in the Audi Sport TT Cup series.
Like Verstappen, she comes from a racing family and she dreams of driving in the DTM, a car series based in Germany.
The Australian Grand Prix
While Mercedes – again represented by Hamilton and Rosberg in 2016 – are expected to dominate proceedings this year, Ferrari are also expected to improve significantly.
Four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel and 2007 winner Kimi Raikkonen will drive for Ferrari once more.
Of course, the performance of Aussie Daniel Ricciardo will be of significant interest to the locals.
The Melbourne race, which opens the 2016 Formula One season, begins at 4pm (AEDT).
Verstappen will start from fifth place on the grid, while Hamilton starts from pole, ahead of Rosberg and Vettel.
Ricciardo qualified eighth fastest.