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Auto Racing  

Another milestone on offer for F1 champion Max Verstappen at season-ending Abu Dhabi GP

After a record-breaking year, Formula One champion Max Verstappen isn't ready for 2023 to end just yet.

Especially when another milestone can be reached at the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Sunday.

Another victory would take him to 54 career wins and past former Red Bull star Sebastian Vettel into outright third place on the all-time list.

“Of course it’s quite a crazy number. We had a crazy, crazy year," Verstappen said. “It will end at one point, but hopefully not too soon."

Verstappen sewed up his third straight title weeks ago and is looking for a record-extending 19th win of the season — he held the previous record of 15, set last year — but acknowledged he already has one eye on 2024.

“I love driving, that’s the foremost (thing) and winning is the best thing in Formula One,” he said. “At the same time I’m very focused on what’s ahead of me and hopefully next year we have a competitive car again and continue that momentum."

There will be new targets next year: chasing a fourth F1 title to move level with Vettel and Alain Prost, and closing in on seven-time F1 champions Michael Schumacher (91 victories) and Lewis Hamilton (103) for most race wins.

But Verstappen is only 26 years old and has many years left to close the gap.

His highlights for 2024?

“Winning the comeback race in Miami was great, I think that was an important one," he said. "Winning in Suzuka (Japan), after the tough race we had in Singapore (when Ferrari won).”

It's hard to believe now because Verstappen leads Red Bull teammate Sergio Pérez by 276 points — the approximate tally for 11 wins — but heading into the fifth race of the season it was close between them.

Having won two of the first four races, Pérez declared himself a championship contender — a claim he backed up by taking pole position at the Miami GP in May.

Verstappen botched qualifying, started from ninth and still won. Pérez never recovered, and the title was never in doubt after that.

“Max has just been incredible this year, no one thought we could better than 2022,” Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said. “You have to start to talk about him among the greatest names in the sport. He's got a lot of racing still ahead of him.”

BARREN SPELL

Ferrari's Charles Leclerc hasn’t won since the Austrian GP in July last year.

“To be honest, it’s been a disappointing season," he said. “After last year we wanted to try and fight for the championship, (but) after the first race (this year) we straight away understood how difficult it would be.”

Leclerc's superb last-lap overtake on Perez to finish second at last weekend's Las Vegas GP showed he is in top form — raising hopes for 2024 when he is expected to have a quicker, more reliable car.

“There’s a big gap to fill," he said. “Hopefully we’ll come back stronger next year with a car that’s capable of winning.”

CONSTRUCTORS' TITLE

Red Bull's dominance has given others so little to compete for. But something is at stake this weekend for both Ferrari and Mercedes at least: the quest to finish second in the constructors' championship.

Mercedes has a four-point lead by 392-388 but Leclerc has podiums in two of the past three races.

“Momentum is good but the big work remains to be done on track,” Leclerc said. “We will have to put everything together in order to fight them and beat them in the constructors’ championship."

His teammate Carlos Sainz Jr. clinched victory at the Singapore GP two months ago and remains the only non-Red Bull driver to win a race this year.

Mercedes driver George Russell expects the difference will be made on race day.

“We’re going in with an open mind," he said. "In qualifying I think they will have slightly the upper hand, as they’ve tended to do so this season, but come Sunday I think it will be a different story.”

HOW'S THE JET LAG?

A flight from Las Vegas to Abu Dhabi is more than 8,000 miles and takes nearly 20 hours.

Hardly the ideal way for tired drivers and team members to travel at the end of a long 22-race season.

“It’s a bit tough to understand what time zone you’re in," Verstappen said.

Not great for the environment, either.

“It’s a little bit odd that we’re on the other side of the world before coming here and especially when you’re talking about sustainability," Verstappen said. “It’s probably not very sustainable. Not only for the emissions but also for the human body.”

PRACTICE SESSIONS

Russell led the first practice session ahead of Aston Martin reserve Felipe Drugovich and AlphaTauri’s Daniel Ricciardo. Most big names sat it out as nine of the 10 teams fulfilled one of their mandatory young driver test days.

Leclerc led the second practice ahead of Norris and Verstappen. That session was interrupted after nine minutes when Sainz lost control of his car coming out of Turn 3 and slid sideways into the crash barriers, prompting a red flag.

Drivers restarted after 25 minutes but another red flag came out immediately when Haas driver Nico Hulkenberg lost the rear of his car at Turn 1.

___

AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing



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