Abu Dhabi Grand Prix: Christian Horner says Max Verstappen lifted Red Bull to Mercedes challenge

Abu Dhabi Grand Prix 'bigger than World Cup final' - Horner

Max Verstappen has "driven out of his skin" in chasing world title success, and given Red Bull hope of a "David v Goliath" upset, says team principal Christian Horner.

The Dutchman goes into Sunday's final race of the season knowing he will win the drivers' championship if he finishes ahead of Lewis Hamilton.

That would end Mercedes' seven-year run of producing the title-winning car.

"They've been totally dominant," said Horner.

"So to be at this final race tied on points, it's exciting to be part of.

"It's been so intense between these two gladiators. It's been an enthralling battle to be part of it and now we're at the climax."

Speaking to BBC sports editor Dan Roan on The Sports Desk podcast, Horner said: "It's the first time Mercedes have been in this position where they're being challenged.

"You can see they're uncomfortable with it.

"Mercedes is a big machine - they have more people in marketing than we have in mechanics. It's been very much David v Goliath this year."

Verstappen and Hamilton are both locked on 369.5 championship points going into the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, a race the Red Bull driver won in 2020.

The 24-year-old could end Hamilton's four-year grip on the title if he can finish ahead of the Briton, who could become the sport's most successful driver ever by surpassing Michael Schumacher's mark of seven world titles.

The narratives add to a landmark event that Horner believes is on a par with a football World Cup final and the sprint finals at the Olympics.

"When you take your Red Bull hat off - just as a fan of the sport - it's an amazing thing for F1, and I'm sure it's going to be one of the biggest - if not the biggest - sporting event of the year," he added.

Horner says a world title for the Dutch driver would be Red Bull's "biggest" achievement, despite the team guiding Sebastian Vettel to become the youngest world champion in history aged 23 in 2010, the first of his four titles with the team.

He says Verstappen has helped the team to a position that is "beyond anything we could have hoped for coming into this season".

"Lewis and Mercedes have had the better car since the summer break arguably, but Max has driven out of his skin - the wins in Austin and Mexico standing out," Horner added.

"There's been massive pressure on him - if you look at his home Grand Prix [in the Netherlands], and the way he's dealt with that at a time when mental pressure of young athletes has come under such scrutiny, I think he's been a shining light of how to deal with that pressure."

Hamilton questioned Verstappen's driving after the last race in Jeddah at a chaotic Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, calling him a "crazy guy" on the radio. The Dutchman was told to give back a position to Hamilton that he had gained illegally.

Communication confusion then resulted in eventual winner Hamilton being caught off guard by his rival slowing down, and he crashed into the back of the Red Bull.

"Lewis is a wily competitor," said Horner, suggesting the driver's criticism of Verstappen was unfair and an attempt to unsettle his rival. "He's been around a long time and he's been in this situation, without the intensity of this competition, for so many years that he knows how to put the spotlight on his competitor, how to put the governing body's [FIA] torch on him, effectively."

If neither driver finishes on Sunday, Verstappen will claim a maiden title because he has won more races this season. But Horner said he would not be asking his driver to change tactics, and dismissed fears he could be tempted to collide with Hamilton in order to win a maiden title.

"He [Verstappen] has just got to approach it exactly as he has every other race this year. The best way to win this and the way we really want to win it is we want to do it on the track - that would be the most rewarding way to win this world championship."

Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen hold champagne on the podium
Hamilton (left) will claim his eighth world title and become the sport's most successful driver ever if he finishes ahead of Verstappen

The focus on Sunday's title-decider has prompted an agreement between Sky and Channel 4 for the race to be shown on free-to-air television to ensure a bigger audience.

Horner also says increased exposure of the sport on streaming service Netflix through the Formula 1: Drive to Survive series has been "very significant" in building an audience, and that moments such as Sunday's Hamilton-Verstappen battle will bolster interest.

Asked if he feels key figures feel the need to be actors in a drama, Horner replied: "We're not actors - we're just part of a reality show.

"It's fantastic to see younger fans, more girls coming into the sport - following these amazing drivers and teams. The sport is really having a resurgence at the moment, its popularity has never been bigger.

"Of course I'm going to tell you that the best thing that can happen to the sport is for Max to win because serial winning is never good for any sport, but I think the fact there's been such strong competition, people want to see unpredictability."

Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen stats
Max Verstappen has won one more race than Lewis Hamilton this season

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