MAX VERSTAPPEN: DRIVING FORCE
It’s easy to look at Max Verstappen and just see the friendly, race-car driving wunderkind. The one who made headlines in 2015 when, at the age of 17 years and 166 days old, he became the youngest driver ever to compete in Formula 1.
The one who, having made his debut in the sport at an age when many teenagers haven’t even taken driving lessons (and so young that F1’s governing body, the FIA, subsequently changed the rules to stop anyone under 18 from being awarded a super licence), took just over a year to register his first Grand Prix win. A victory that established the flying Dutchman as not simply a racing prodigy with a knack for overtaking, but one of the most precocious talents in motorsport history.
But beyond the grin and those boyish good looks, if you look a little deeper into his cold and serious blue eyes you’ll find an inner confidence and a burning desire not just to race, not just to take part… but to win.
To his rivals, he is the driver who will never give up and many consider the 21-year-old as “fearless”, “fantastic for the sport” and an “awesome young talent”. And after four years at the top level of elite motorsport and with five Grand Prix wins (and counting) under his belt, it is clear that Verstappen is not merely reaching his prime, but arguably on the brink of becoming one of the most complete drivers on the grid.
One thing is certain: he is undoubtedly the most exciting. That quality was perfectly illustrated by his performance at the United States Grand Prix in Texas back in October 2018. A broken suspension for his Aston Martin Red Bull Racing car in qualifying meant Verstappen started from 18th on the grid. Had it not been for a pair of hapless back markers, he would have been stuck on the very back row like a naughty schoolboy.
Frustrated and fired up by his poor start position, from the moment the lights changed he was on a charge. Cutting a swathe through the field, powering through gaps that barely existed and finding grip where other drivers dare not venture, he pushed so hard that by the time he crossed the finishing line in second place, not only were his tyres utterly destroyed. So was his right shoe.
“That was vintage Max!” his overjoyed team boss Christian Horner exclaimed afterwards. “It was hard but fair, and an unbelievable race. We run a whole bunch of simulations to try and monitor the tyres and everything was telling us they were done with six laps to go, but Max was saying he could manage it. All our telemetry was saying there was no way he would finish the race, but somehow he made it work.”MAX VERSTAPPEN'S #33 ASTON MARTIN RED BULL RACING CAR
Talking to me from Brazil before the penultimate race of the season and fresh from a game of futsal with his teammate, Verstappen tells me that although he was fairly pleased with the result in Texas and enjoyed the thrill of all that overtaking, he didn’t share Horner’s delight. Why? Simple… because he hadn’t come first. “Winning is always more enjoyable than finishing second, no matter how exciting the racing is,” he tells me matter-of-factly. “Racing and overtaking is good fun, especially when you have to come from the back. But being on the top step is always the best.”
Fans, once again left breathless by Verstappen’s driving, would probably disagree with that, I explain to Max. He laughs good-naturedly. “I can see it from both sides,” he says. “I understand that from the fans point of view, seeing a driver coming from the back and charging through the field looks so much more exciting. But as a driver, winning takes priority over everything else.” There is a pause down the line, before he continues... “The most fun for me would be lapping everybody from the front, and then taking the chequered flag!”MAX VERSTAPPEN'S FOCUSIN ON RACE DAY
Verstappen’s talent for racing maybe genetic. His father Jos took part in over 100 F1 races during the 90s and his mother Sophie was a young Belgian karting champion, so it was perhaps inevitable that he would follow in his parents’ tyre tracks. Having started racing go-karts at the age of four, despite trying different sports such as football, ice hockey and cycling, he always knew that going fast on four-wheels was what he was best at and enjoyed the most. He wasn’t, he insists, obsessed with Formula 1 though. “I never really had a hero and I didn’t have any pictures of Formula 1 drivers or Formula 1 cars on my bedroom wall,” he explains. “I don’t really know why… I suppose I didn’t think it was necessary. I just fell in love with the thrill of driving.
I think most drivers on the grid would share that passion,” he continues. “And for me, it feels as though I have been practicing and honing my skills all my life.
I don’t really think about it that much, but when my dad tells me stories about how we trained in every new classification of racing, I have always been perfecting the art of overtaking.
Is it instinctive? “Most of the time it is, yes. I do have a feel for when I can get past someone, but the more you race and the better the standard of opponent, the more you learn to be patient. You study other drivers, you learn the way they handle a car, the areas of the track where they are stronger or weaker, and then you can be more strategic about when to overtake. But at other times, in the heat of the moment, you have to trust yourself.”MAX VERSTAPPEN #33 F1 CAR IN ACTION
During the first half of the 2018 season, however, Verstappen admits that for the first time in his career, his instincts were not serving him well. A few bad races, some disappointing results, and the subsequent criticism from fans on social media, and suddenly the image of the sport’s golden boy was starting to look a little tarnished. It was, Verstappen says, a difficult time.
“I would say that after the first six races, I really wasn’t enjoying myself. I think I was trying a bit too hard, pushing things too much, and that just wasn’t helping the outcome. But what changed was that I started to drive a little slower. And the result was probably that I ended up driving a little faster. I went back to having a slightly calmer approach and it has worked out well.
My dad says I drive better when I am angry and it does help when I need a little boost.
For example, in Mexico I was quite angry after I had been fastest all weekend but missed out on pole to my teammate and it was good. I won the race, but you can’t be like that all the time. It isn’t good for your health.
Six podium finishes in the last nine races of the season is Championship-winning form and Verstappen is already looking ahead to 2019 and he is hopeful that Aston Martin Red Bull Racing can provide him with the car he needs to challenge for a title. Having worked together since 2015, it is a partnership that clearly works for both parties and Verstappen has nothing but good things to say about one of the paddock’s more eccentric gangs.
"The thing with AMRBR is that not only are they a very cool brand, but they do a lot of crazy things. I’ve driven my F1 car in the Rocky Mountains, raced with my teammate when we were both pulling caravans, and we even wore race suits that made us look like cowboys. I don’t think there are many other teams out there that would do things like that.” He chuckles… “It is definitely never boring, I would say.”MAX VERSTAPPEN WEARING DITA FLIGHT.006
Verstappen is also a fan of another of the team’s sponsors, eyewear specialists DITA. And for a man that doesn’t usually wear sunglasses, that is high praise indeed. “They are actually great to work with and although I am not massively into sunglasses, I have to say they have some really cool frames and they have converted me.”
Things, it seems, are only getting better for Max. And he certainly has no regrets about his journey from rookie to racing superstar. “I have grown up quickly, but I like that,” he tells me. “I may not have experienced life as a ‘normal’ teenager, but I really like doing my own thing and not being dependent on my family any more. I am living an incredible life, doing something that I truly love.”
As we finish, my final question is one he has probably heard before, but his answer is unequivocal: If you could go back in time and give your 17-year-old self some advice before you began your racing career, what would you say? “I would tell myself not to do anything differently,” he says thoughtfully. “The thing is, you need to make mistakes in F1 to learn and become a better driver. The more I think about my career, the more I think I wouldn’t change anything. Personally, I don’t think you should over-complicate things. My advice would be simple: I would say, ‘Max, drive as fast as you can.’ And that’s it.”
He certainly doesn’t need telling twice.
Words: Paul Henderson @hendogq
Images: Courtesy of Aston Martin Red Bull Racing
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