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Formula 1 needs someone to challenge Max Verstappen

Max Verstappen’s victory at the Japanese Grand Prix on Sunday was the perfect way for him to bounce back from the disappointment of his retirement in Australia.

Red Bull’s third one-two in four races in 2024 highlighted the setback in the previous race was simply a blip and sparked inevitable talk about the Driver’s Championship.

A quick look at Verstappen’s odds on leading sports betting platforms to win another world title highlight why many people are concerned about his dominance in F1.

The 26-year-old is just 13 points clear of teammate Sergio Perez after four races, yet is rated as a 1/16 shot to win his fourth successive title.

Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff was in no doubt about the destination of the title after the race in Japan, declaring that ‘no one is going to catch Max’ this season.

Ferrari driver Carlos Sainz took a similar view after finishing third behind the Red Bull duo, although he remained hopeful of closing the gap later in the year.

“They are definitely going to have an advantage in the first third of the season until we bring one or two upgrades that make us fight them more consistently,” Sainz said.

“But by that time maybe it’s a bit too late with the advantage that they might have in the championship.”

Sainz’s comments are undoubtedly worrying for a series which markets itself as being competitive, but has been anything but since regulation changes in 2022.

With Wolff already eyeing 2026 as the season when Mercedes may become title contenders again, the pressure is on other teams to knock Verstappen and Red Bulls off their perch.

Lewis Hamilton’s move to Ferrari next season could boost their hopes, particularly if he can build on the momentum generated by the Italian team this year.

This would unquestionably hand a major boost to a series which can ill-afford for one team to be the dominant force for too long.

Verstappen won 19 of the 23 races last season and has claimed victory in three out of four this year. While this is great news for the Red Bull driver, it leaves F1 with an image problem.

Aside from his setback in Australia, the last time Verstappen failed to secure top spot on the podium was at the Singapore Grand Prix last September.

Trying to sell F1 as anything other than a foregone conclusion is becoming increasingly tricky and will not get any easier unless something dramatic happens.

With Perez the clear number two driver in the Red Bull team, Verstappen will not be placed under any pressure from within his own set-up.

However, F1 bosses may be able to find a crumb of comfort in the qualifying times in Japan, which showed the other teams have closed the gap slightly.

While that did not translate into a meaningful challenge on Sunday, the qualifying sessions at Bahrain and Saudi Arabia also painted a similar picture.

If the upgrades Sainz alluded to work the oracle for Ferrari, we may see them mount a more effective challenge to Red Bull later in the season.

While those changes will arrive too late in the day to impact this year’s title race, they could open the door for F1 to rediscover its mojo in 2025.

The narrative behind a seven-time world champion leading Ferrari’s bid to dethrone Verstappen and Red Bull is potentially exciting for the sport.

If the British star is unable to get the job done, F1 fans may have to resign themselves to a seemingly endless stream of Verstappen demonstration laps.