Fernando Alonso has hailed Max Verstappen as Formula One’s best driver since Michael Schumacher – with the Dutchman on the brink of clinching his third world crown.

The 26-year-old needs to score only three points in Saturday’s sprint race in Qatar to complete a hat-trick of world titles.

Lewis Hamilton has won a record 103 races and stands on seven world titles with Schumacher. But Alonso, 42, omitted the British driver when asked if Verstappen must now be ranked alongside the sport’s modern-day greats.

“I’ve only been wheel-to-wheel with Michael, but with Michael maybe, yes,” said the double world champion.

“And for the next few years he will keep adding championships so we will compare him with Michael even closer in the future.”

Following a Red Bull blip in Singapore, Verstappen returned to his all-conquering best at the last round in Japan to take his 13th win from the 16 rounds staged so far.

Since Verstappen claimed his maiden title, at Hamilton’s expense, at the controversial season-ending Abu Dhabi race in 2021, Verstappen has won 28 of the 38 races staged – including a record run of 10 straight victories earlier this year.

Hamilton, third in the championship in his Mercedes and 210 points adrift of Verstappen, said: “I wouldn’t rank him because ranking people is an opinion-based thing.

Fernando Alonso Fernando Alonso hailed Max Verstappen as the best since Michael Schumacher (Darko Bandic/AP)

“But he has earned his position, and he has done an amazing job with the package he has. Him and the team have been phenomenal and faultless this year.

“They have raised the bar and as a team we have to look at that, and look at the areas where we can be better and match that and compete.

“I do hope at some stage we can fight them and have them defending, but they should enjoy the moment because they have worked for it.”

Verstappen will be the first driver to clinch the championship in a sprint race if he finishes sixth or higher in Saturday’s 19-lap dash at the Lusail International Circuit.

Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton is third in the F1 standings but 210 points behind Max Verstappen (Ariel Schalit/AP)

He will become the 11th driver to have won more than two world titles, emulating the likes of Sir Jackie Stewart and Ayrton Senna with three. His dominance has been compared to Schumacher’s stranglehold on the sport at the turn of the century.

Verstappen said: “Michael’s achievements were incredible, but when he was achieving these kind of things it was seen as normal because it was an amazing driver with an amazing team and everything came together. Maybe people got bored of it? But it was incredible to have achieved those kind of things.

“I don’t think about reaching seven. We will see year-by-year what happens, but I am very proud. I live in the moment and I want to achieve more.

“I know when I stop racing I will be able to look back and I will be able to appreciate it more but it wasn’t something I ever thought was achievable when I was a little kid.”