There has seldom been a weekend this Formula One season where Max Verstappen’s name hasn’t hit the headlines.
This year has seen the 24-year-old Dutch driver getting closer to that championship-winning moment than ever before in his 20 years of racing. (Yeah – he started racing professionally when he was just four years old.) But the battle isn’t over yet. Far from it.
While his season so far has been nothing short of a 200mph rollercoaster ride of ups, downs, twists and turns – not to mention more than a few high-profile crashes – it’s undeniably his best yet.
“Some drivers who are really quick just don’t have the car to fight for a championship, but that’s how Formula One is,” shrugs Verstappen, when we meet in his makeshift, trackside team office at Sochi Autodrom ahead of the Russian Grand Prix.
“I mean, I’ve experienced that every single year up until now – if you don’t have it, then you can’t fight for the championship.”
Despite still being in his early twenties, the 2021 Formula One season marks Verstappen’s seventh campaign in the sport after he first landed a seat with the Scuderia Toro Rosso squad in 2015. On his debut, the Dutchman was aged just 17 years and 166 days, making him the youngest driver to ever compete in a Formula One World Championship race.
After graduating to the top-tier Red Bull squad the following year, he claimed his maiden F1 victory on his debut for the team in the 2016 Spanish Grand Prix, which earned him another record as the youngest driver to ever win a Formula One race. Although being in the championship title fight is new territory for Verstappen, the young driver has been in the spotlight ever since he first stepped foot in the paddock.
“I didn’t think about my age, to be honest,” admits the Dutchman. “When I was little, I was with my dad around in the paddock, so it was all familiar to me. I don’t care if there are 30 people or ten people working on the car or if it’s an F1 car or a go-kart because, at the end of the day, the only thing I can do is to try and get the best results for the team. For me, my age didn’t add any extra pressure, because I always knew what I had to do in the car. Of course, I had a lot to learn, but that doesn’t mean that I couldn’t go fast,” he adds, coolly.
From the moment he stepped up to Red Bull, the victory tally grew, as did his championship standing: 12th in his first season before climbing to third last year, and – potentially – first this season.
Of course, I had a lot to learn, but that doesn’t mean that I couldn’t go fast
“I know I’m in that fight, but it doesn’t change my approach. In previous seasons, sometimes you could take a few more risks, but now it’s all about just trying to maximise the points, all of the time.”
Despite Verstappen’s championship chances looking stronger than ever, it’s difficult to ignore the major threat that lurks around every corner – one Sir Lewis Hamilton. While the end of the season is fast approaching, the Dutch driver still has to survive a number of races to be in with a chance of prizing the championship trophy from Hamilton’s clutches.
With both drivers going hammer and tongs – frequently ending in disaster for at least one of the duo – it’s easy to forget the fundamental differences between Verstappen and his main rival.
Twelve years older than the Dutchman, Hamilton is one of the most senior drivers on the grid now and, without a doubt, one of the most talented of all time. With seven World Championship titles to his name, Hamilton is playing for bonus points as he approaches the twilight years of his career. But Verstappen, as the young challenger, is desperately trying to earn his place in the Formula One hall of fame.
“I mean, we’re how competitors should be – we’re not exactly going to have dinner together but that’s fine,” insists Verstappen, visibly irked by yet another question about his relationship with the British driver, but he remains calm and collected.
“You have that competitive spirit and we always try to beat each other on track, but also try to respect each other off track as well. So far there have been some tense moments, but overall it’s been all right.”
Of all those tense moments, the most memorable occurred in this year’s Italian GP, when Verstappen collided with the Brit and stacked his car quite literally on top of Hamilton’s head, taking them both out of the race.
“We were racing for position in Monza but you need two people to work together to make the corner and Lewis just kept squeezing until there wasn’t room anymore for two cars and that’s when we crashed,” explains Verstappen.
“I was there to try and race hard but fair. It’s very unfortunate what happened but we are both professionals – we move on.”
But alongside all the drama, the Dutchman has also had his fair share of moments to celebrate. With several wins already this season, the most significant victory came when Formula One returned to the Netherlands for the first time in 36 years.
In Zandvoort, Verstappen snatched a sensational victory in front of a sea of orange fans who came out in force to support their home race hero.
“I mean, it was just crazy,” he says with a wide smile, thinking back to the fan frenzy that ensued. “Of course the fans expect a lot from you – they expect you to win and because we did, it was incredible.
The whole atmosphere after the race was just super crazy and amazing to see so much orange over the whole weekend. It was a very special moment. Even though there’s a lot going on, when you’re driving past you can see it and, on a slow lap, you can even hear their support.
“It was a relief to cross the line – anything less than a win would have been disappointing to the fans so I was super happy for myself but also for the team as we took the lead in the championship again. I mean, to win in front of your own friends; I think the best that can happen, right?”
Such a commanding win at Zandvoort was a colossal and well-timed confidence boost for F1’s main championship challenger. While his skill and ability to perform under pressure had never been in doubt, Verstappen and Red Bull had been chasing the tails of the Mercedes silver arrows for years.
Proving that he was the man to pull ahead and deliver a decisive blow to the German outfit and – more importantly – Lewis Hamilton, was crucial to instilling confidence in his championship campaign.
Max shares his thoughts
On the 2022 rule changes
“I hope the rule changes next year just make it better for racing, because that’s why it’s been introduced. [The 2022 regulations have one guiding principle: to allow closer racing – with less disturbance from ‘dirty air’.]
These cars are amazing at the moment. They are so fast, but it’s really difficult to race each other a lot. Hopefully, with that, it will bring it all a bit closer, and the racing will become better. I guess that’s the aim, but of course it will be very different for everyone, so it’s going to be interesting to see how everyone will do.”
On the 2022 car
“I haven’t driven the new car yet. There are still so many things that will change now, in the coming months, before the car will be released, so I’ll wait until it’s in the final stages of development. For me, it’s coming to be more about getting used to how you have to drive the car, because the grip will be quite a bit less. That will be important and it’s why winter testing will be so crucial – you need to do a lot of kilometres there. Let’s just hope that it’s going to be a competitive car – that’s the most important thing.
While the G-forces might become a bit less, on the other hand, you’re spending more time in the corner, because you are slower, so you have to endure the forces for longer. I guess the peak is probably a bit lower but, nonetheless, when they’re harder to drive – like less grip – you still have the engine power that brings another dimension to it. I don’t expect it to be easier – it might even be more difficult, because the car will be moving around a bit more.”
On how drivers improve
“You see it in every sport – there is a lot more information about how you can perform and how you get the best out of your body. But there is also a lot more data available in F1.
Back in the day, when somebody would be losing time in a corner, you could only time it on a stopwatch – you didn’t have the data presented on a computer screen, which you could analyse. That’s why I think drivers would rely a bit more on pure talent. Now, it’s about how you differentiate yourself from the others. And you do that by working hard.”
“This year we are a lot more competitive, but it was always difficult to really judge how much we would catch up. I’m just positively surprised, I guess.”
With a career in racing dating back to the early 2000s, Verstappen first got behind the wheel of a kart aged just four and half after seeing a similar-aged child racing around his father, Jos Verstappen’s, karting track in Genk, Belgium.
“My parents never pushed me into driving. It was actually me, after going to the go-kart track and seeing a younger kid driving around,” he explains.
“I was like, well, if he can drive already, I want to drive as well,” he shrugs. When I was three years old, I was already driving on quad bikes, so it wasn’t like I didn’t do anything before go-karts.”
While most racing drivers start their careers young, Verstappen was particularly early to the game. Armed with a desire to compete as early as three years old, Verstappen is – and always has been – a challenger.
“I mean, you are naturally born with a competitive element,” he insists, nonchalantly. “You also grow up with it and you see it around you, so I guess that helps.”
Both of Max’s parents were in the game – his father Jos was an F1 driver, who retired from racing in 2003, while his mother Sophie Kumpen was a karting champion in the 1990s, who cut her driving career short when marrying Jos. Racing is in his blood.
Given his early dedication to the sport, the Dutchman has gained a disposition and professionalism more in line with older drivers like Hamilton, Fernando Alonso and Kimi Räikkönen.
He’s attentive, focused and, above all, controlled. While cracks in his composure occasionally appear on track, there are few sportsman who can claim to deal with pressure as well as Verstappen.
“I’m a more relaxed driver these days,” he says reflecting on his journey in F1 over the years. “I have a lot more experience now. I’ve been through a lot of different scenarios and situations over the years. It just makes you anticipate a lot more things, and you have so much more knowledge about a Formula One car nowadays – all these things just help to make things a lot easier,” he admits.
Despite appearing on the grid since 2015, Verstappen is still the face of the younger, new generation in the sport. While Hamilton has the trophies, Verstappen has time on his side.
“I mean it’s a natural thing in F1, right, because every ten or 15 years, there is a bit of a shift and younger guys come in. I definitely think that it’s a little bit more than normal at the moment, with more guys coming in at the same time, which I think is good for the sport as a whole,” he says.
Huge advances in technology over the past decade have opened the data floodgates, meaning that information on a driver’s performance and development can be poured over, analysed and acted upon in ways that were never possible before.
“Now, with all the data available, there is so much more knowledge in general,” he explains. “That’s where you can also improve a lot, because now, after every session or lap, you can look through things and be like, ‘Oh, I’m maybe a bit off in that corner,’ so then you see the lines, you have the onboards.
“There’s a lot more information you can use to actually become better, and I guess that’s why the racing is so close these days. Back in the day, you didn’t really know what the guy did in that corner to be faster than everyone else.”
As a keen gamer, Verstappen sees his tendency to willingly jump on the simulator in his free time as an advantage in the F1 driver arms race.
“I think it definitely doesn’t hurt – you basically stay in the same zone. You’re fighting, you’re overtaking, you’re defending, you’re doing pit stops, fuel strategies and working on the car setup.
“You keep pressuring yourself and your brain, in the same way that you would in an F1 weekend. But not everyone believes that – not everyone thinks the same way as I do, but for me it is definitely a good thing.
"I enjoy it and when I jump back in a Formula One car, it doesn’t feel like I’ve been away, even in the off-season. Driving on a simulator is kind of having a holiday and just relaxing as well,” he says with a smile.
With the most important part of the season still yet to come, all but a fragment of Verstappen’s focus will fall on clinching the gleaming championship trophy for the first time. For the other small portion, his thoughts will invariably already be focused on his future in the sport and leadership of the new generation of drivers that he finds himself fronting.
“I’m very happy where I am,” he says sharply. “[Red Bull and I] are very dedicated to winning this championship, and hopefully we can do this for many more years. At the moment, I really feel like I would never want to leave this team but we’ll see where we’ll end up,” he says breaking into a wry smile.
Regardless of where the championship hopeful places come the season finale in Abu Dhabi in December, the young driver already has an outstanding track record in Formula One.
While his career is showing no signs of slowing, now is the time for Verstappen to accelerate. Only by mustering all his strength and holding his nerve will he stamp his name into F1 history and judging by the past two decades, he looks destined to do just that.
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