At just 19 years old, Red Bull Racing driver Max Verstappen already has one Grand Prix win and several podium finishes to his credit, and many are tipping him to become one of Formula One‘s greats. But just what is it that makes him so special?
The Boy who would be King
In the careers of Formula One’s finest drivers there are often standout moments that serve to either rubber stamp greatness or to push a young driver from the category marked ‘one to watch’ to that labelled ‘champion-in-waiting’. Think Jackie Stewart’s 1968 German Grand Prix win in the wet, a staggering four minutes clear of his nearest rival; Ayrton Senna’s first-lap rise from fifth to the lead in the rain in the European GP at Donington in 1993, which served as a mesmerising reminder of the Brazilian’s skills, or Michael Schumacher’s blistering qualifying performance to claim seventh on his debut for the lowly Jordan team at Spa-Francorchamps in 1991.
For those who last year stood trackside in the pouring rain at São Paulo’s Interlagos circuit, such a moment arrived almost three hours into a Brazilian GP repeatedly neutralised by safety-car periods and stoppages. With 16 laps remaining, Red Bull Racing’s 19-year-old driver, Max Verstappen, pitted for wet weather tyres and dropped to 14th place. However, over the course of the remaining laps, the Dutchman scythed through the pack as if he had found a dry line where none existed. Within five laps he was seventh, and by the time the flag was waved on lap 71 he had risen to third behind Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg and race winner Lewis Hamilton.
Verstappen’s Brazil performance was a signal moment, the point at which the sport’s youngest-ever driver arrived. “We witnessed something very special,” Verstappen’s team boss Christian Horner said. “It stands out to me like Ayrton Senna in Monaco.” Three-time champion Niki Lauda added: “Verstappen was outstanding. I knew the guy is good, but he proved to everybody what he can do.”
Six months earlier, the young Dutchman had announced himself loudly, with a jaw-dropping maiden win on his first outing with Red Bull Racing, in Spain, but his performance in São Paulo perhaps said more, for it not only came at the end of a tough race, but it closed out an intensely difficult period for the youngster.
In the weeks running up to the race, his aggressive, no-holds barred driving had seen him criticised by many rivals – veteran Kimi Räikkönen lambasted him in Belgium and four-time champion Sebastian Vettel called him “a bastard” in Mexico.
His style had caused the sport’s governing body to issue new guidelines on defensive driving. And he had been vilified by the media as an accident waiting to happen. Brazil blew the criticism out of the water. So much so that Senna’s own teammate, 10-time grand prix winner Gerhard Berger, likened the youngster to the legendary Brazilian.
“When I see Max, Senna comes to my mind,” said Berger after the race at Interlagos. “This is the first time I say something like this, because I was really close to Ayrton and I think he was the greatest. I’ve always respected that and so I avoided comparisons, but with Max it’s hard not to.”
This month Verstappen heads into his third season in Formula One, his first full campaign with putative front-runners Red Bull Racing. The regulations for 2017 are changed hugely, moving the pendulum away from engine and back towards the traditional chassis and aerodynamics strengths of Verstappen’s team.
Ahead of a season in which he might turn breakthrough into achievement at the highest level, The Red Bulletin caught up with the Dutchman to analyse his rise and where it might take him in the future…
THE RED BULLETIN: Let’s go back to your earliest memories of driving. You first sat in a go-kart aged four. Was racing something you were programmed to do?
MAX VERSTAPPEN: I had a choice, because it’s your decision to tell your parents that you want to race or not. I could easily have become a footballer, but very early on in my career I realised that go-karting was the way to go and that’s what I liked. My father never pushed me. I remember when I was four years old, I called him and said: “I want to start driving go-karts.” His first answer was “No, we have to wait until you are at least six years old.” But I kept pushing and two or three weeks later I got my go-kart.
Your father was a Formula One driver and your mother, Sophie Kumpen, was a champion karter. Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers: The Story of Success, posits the idea that great sportsmanship is learned, that 10,000 hours of practice make up the “magic number of greatness”. Is that true? Is it nurture rather than nature?
That sounds a bit too easy. First you need the talent. If you don’t have talent then it will never work. You can do a million hours of practice; you still won’t get there. Of course I’ve been lucky with my parents and you need the right guidance around you with the right people. They need to teach you from a very young age and guide you in the right direction, but you have to have a talent. Just repeating the same task over and over again won’t get you all the way there.
Your father, Jos, gave you that guidance. As an F1 driver he had the reputation of being very single-minded. Was he a hard taskmaster?
Sometimes he was quite hard on me, but I’m happy he was because it brought me to where I am now. He was not all “you have to win”, or “you have to be this way or that”. It was about preparation, making sure I was putting in the effort and not just seeing it as a fun thing. At one point, it becomes your profession and you need to go for it. But in terms of results, he was never pushy.
There’s an old adage in F1 that says if you’re good enough, you’re old enough. Do you think you would have benefited from a year of GP2 or GP3 before F1?
No. I think it would even make it more difficult. You need a bit of luck [to get into F1] and if you’re not at the right team at the right time… maybe you have a bad season and then people think different of you. I was pretty happy with how I did it. It was a risk to jump in that early, but I was confident I could do it.
After your first season, at Toro Rosso, you were last year drafted into Red Bull Racing just before the Spanish Grand Prix. In doing so, you displaced Russian driver Daniil Kvyat. Those were momentous career moves for both of you. Is Formula One a cruel sport?
With all the experiences my dad had, he always told me that you have to be prepared, that it can be a hard world. But at the end of the day, you have to do the best job for yourself as a driver; you have to get the best opportunities for yourself. So yeah, it is cruel, but many drivers have experienced those kinds of things.
You won on your first outing with Red Bull Racing, took seven podiums, scored 204 points and finished fifth in the Drivers’ Championship last year. Where did you improve last season?
I think just the experience you get from race to race. It’s not one single thing where you say I really learned this or that, because I think everything is already at 95 per cent, and every time you improve one per cent on one small element and then another one per cent somewhere else. You try to get to 100 per cent. You don’t know when that will happen, but it’s about working slowly towards that.
It wasn’t all wine and roses last year. You came in for a lot of criticism as well. Were you surprised at some of the things people said about you?
It didn’t matter to me. Everybody can have his or her opinion.
It reached the point where at the driver’s briefing in Austin your rivals took you to task. How did that feel? Did you want to stand up and walk out?
Yeah, but I’m pretty relaxed. They can say what they want. I will not change my driving style. They just have to deal with it.
You wouldn’t feel pressure to change?
I don’t think you can. It’s like with a footballer: if you’re a striker you can’t suddenly become a defender. Your nature is to be a striker and even if you were told that you had to become a defender, the striker in you would come out. That’s just how it is. So, no, I won’t change for anyone.
Does it sow any seeds of doubt, though, and how do you banish those thoughts?
I never had that issue. You have to look to yourself and not listen to other people, just to the people you trust. After that, you have your own confidence, so why would you change? As for doubt, it’s pretty simple. I just do what I like, and that’s driving a racing car. The most important thing is still driving the racing car.
F1 has a pretty short memory and in Brazil you were hailed at the next Ayrton Senna. Was there any feeling of revenge?
No, because that’s F1: you’re only as good as your last race. One race they talk really positively and the next race it’s really negative. That’s why it’s better to not read any media. I’m not on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram.
In São Paulo you were finding lines nobody else could. How did you do that?
It’s just common sense. It’s something you learn in go-karting. You always try different lines and my dad taught me especially to do that in the rain – the location of the grip can change very quickly. Once you have the confidence that you’ve found the grip, you brake later, brake harder; you generate more temperature. The temperature goes from the disc into the rim, heats up the tyre and it gets just better and better.
So why wasn’t anybody else doing that?
I think a lot of the older guys maybe just forgot, through not doing a lot of karting and not practising a lot in the wet. Maybe they were thinking about more complex ways to become faster, when in fact it’s pretty basic.
Let’s talk about those older guys. The criticisms levelled at you came from drivers such as Vettel and Räikkönen, yet when they came into F1, the same criticisms were levelled against them, with older rivals saying they took too many risks and needed to calm down. Have they forgotten the fire of youth?
I think when you get older you do tend to get a bit more conservative. That’s pretty normal. I think when I’m like 65 I’ll be the same! When you’re younger you try to get the best result all the time, you’ve got a lot of fire inside and maybe when you get older that’s less and less the case.
So would you say that your style at the moment is one of acceptable risk or over the line?
The first one. I think I am on that at the moment – acceptable risk.
Do you have a ruthless streak, the instinct needed to be a champion?
I think so, yeah. You have to have that instinct if you want to achieve something in Formula One. It doesn’t come just by itself. You have to work for it and fight for it on track and off track.
You’ve got a tough opponent in teammate Daniel Ricciardo. That relationship between drivers is always easier when the team isn’t battling for major honours. How will it be if there is a title in the offing?
You have to respect each other on and off track and I think we are doing that really well. Even when you start fighting for a world championship, I think it will always be there because respect is the most important thing between drivers. From there, you just have to find out on track who is the fastest, but in a fair way, and I’m pretty sure that between me and Daniel that will be the case.
You’re 19 now. You’ve won a Grand Prix, finished fifth in just your second season, you’re mentioned alongside F1’s greats and you could be doing this for another 20 years. Where does the talent end?
I don’t know. Hopefully it ends when I retire. Hopefully until then I’ll just keep improving.