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Verstappen returns to face inquisition on his and Red Bull’s future

Red Bull Racing driver Max Verstappen. Photo: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP

Max Verstappen will return to Saudi Arabia and the scene of a rare defeat last season expecting to face an inquisition this week about his future and that of his Red Bull team. 

After a turbulent week of stories, speculation and a majestic triumph at the Bahrain Grand Prix, the three-time world champion will need to draw again on his deep well of mental resilience to steer clear of trouble on and off the track. 

Last year, he was undone by a driveshaft problem in qualifying and started 15th on the grid. 

He charged forward to finish second behind team-mate Sergio Perez, one of only two races won by the Mexican.

This time, after a season-opening win last Saturday, he will be seeking a ninth consecutive victory and a 100th career podium finish, preferably as a winner for the 56th time in his career. 

But the racing will not be the agenda-topping story following the furore created by his father Jos — who will be absent this weekend, instead taking part in a regional car rally in Belgium -– by claiming Red Bull faced being torn apart if Christian Horner remained as team boss.

Horner, 50, was cleared of alleged inappropriate conduct involving a female colleague last Wednesday by an internal investigation and remained the focus of attention following the release of messages allegedly sent by him. 

The commotion continued throughout the Bahrain weekend and throughout Monday when Verstappen senior held a 52nd birthday party in Dubai –- to which Horner, reportedly, was not invited, suggesting that a clear rift existed between them. 

Horner was reported to have held a clear-the-air meeting with Verstappen’s agent Raymond Vermeulen, hoping some normality can return at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit where he won under the lights in 2022. 

Further controversy

The world champion will hope to continue as he left off at Sakhir, but the much smoother and more sympathetic asphalt surface is expected to reduce the advantage he enjoyed on the abrasive Bahrain track in his RB20 car. 

“It’s a completely different layout with a lot more high-speed corners,” said Verstappen. 

“The Tarmac is different too so there will be less degradation and, probably, that will help other teams as well.”

Among those seeking to register an immediate improvement will be Ferrari and McLaren, with Aston Martin and Mercedes also keen to show more of their potential on the calendar’s second-fastest and second-longest circuit. 

Following his feisty drive in Bahrain, Carlos Sainz, whose Ferrari seat will be taken by seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton in 2025, could be a threat to Red Bull.

So, too, could Hamilton as he seeks to end a drought of 46 winless outings back at the place where he last triumphed in 2021 — the inaugural Saudi event. 

“It’s a chance to step forward immediately,” said team boss Toto Wolff, who last Saturday said Verstappen’s form and superiority “was from another galaxy.” 

“We aim for a more consistent weekend to understand our true performance relative to the rest of the grid.”

A more keenly-fought race is in prospect along with more off-track personal and political controversy surrounding not only Horner, whose former Spice Girl wife Geri Halliwell is not expected to attend, but also the president of the ruling body, the International Motoring federation (FIA), Mohammed Ben Sulayem. 

He is alleged to have interfered with a penalty that was overturned last year, allowing two-time champion Fernando Alonso to finish third for Aston Martin, and allegedly attempted to prevent approval of the Las Vegas circuit.

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