Verstappen won his first grand prix last year
Verstappen has two years of F1 experience under his belt and a GP win to his name – which is quite a record for a teenager
“Are you the world’s fastest driver?”
There’s a long pause from Max Verstappen before answering the question, probably more out of politeness than any doubt he believes the answer to be yes.
“Difficult to say. Maybe there’s someone in Africa you don’t know…”
I rephrase the question: is he the fastest guy on the Formula 1 grid? “As a driver, you’re always very confident,” he says, the smile now wider but the answer still diplomatic.
Few would disagree with the inference he’s making, for Verstappen has been nothing short of a phenomenon since becoming the sport’s youngest-ever driver, at 17, two years ago, and its youngest race winner last year in a car that had no right to be winning races.
Now 19, Verstappen has secured a reputation as the sport’s toughest racer, the driver most prepared to go for a gap that doesn’t appear to be there, and as a driver with quite supreme and instinctive car control, best demonstrated by his physicsdefying save in the wet last year in Brazil, with the car practically at a right angle. In the same race, he was 16th with 15 laps to go and still ended up on the podium.
I meet him in Barcelona a few days before the Spanish Grand Prix, the scene of his first race win, a year ago in his debut for Red Bull Racing. He is considered with his words, all of them interesting, none of them the drab, generic soundbites you might expect from a slick young driver at the start of his career. There is hint of neither shyness nor arrogance, just calm confidence and self-belief.
“Driving a car fast” is what motivates Verstappen, not a desire to go and break Sebastian Vettel’s record as the youngest-ever world champion, at 23, also in a Red Bull. “That’s what I like, all the time I jump in a car,” he says. That’s why I love doing it. So long as I can win races and eventually try and win championships, it doesn’t matter at what age. I’m not really targeting that record.”
Verstappen started karting aged four and competing more seriously aged eight. He was instantly successful. His father, ex-F1 driver Jos Verstappen, is well known; his mother, Sophie Kumpen, less so, although she was a double Belgian karting champion, a contemporary of Jenson Button and Jarno Trulli, both of whom she used to beat.
Verstappen junior says his dad was a much greater influence than his mum on his young racing career. “He did everything for me: he was my mechanic, my engine tuner, he was setting up all my go-karts.” So do genetics play a part in his talent? “For sure it helps having parents in racing, but you also need to use it and work hard off-track as well to make it all happen.”
He can’t pinpoint exactly when he knew he could make it all happen. “You grow into it a little bit. I don’t think you can say, ‘Now I have the talent to make it.’ You need a bit of luck as well. So over the years you become better and better.
“Up until I was 12 I raced national [karting] races: out of 75 I think I won 73. You see there is some talent, but how good you don’t know because then you go race internationals. Again, there it was going really well, but that was go-karting and you still need to make the step to cars.”
He didn’t drive a racing car until October 2013, but within 10 months, still aged just 16 and without a driving licence, he was confirmed as a Toro Rosso F1 driver for 2015. His only season of racing outside F1 was in the European F3 championship, where he won 10 races.
Verstappen senior also helped teach his son how to spot that gap that others simply don’t see. “It’s something very natural. I have been practicing that since I was very young, with my dad and my friends. We created mini races on a go-kart track – just five laps. Once you start first, then you start last, then you start in the middle. You start overtaking on spots where it was very hard, and sometimes you pulled them off, sometimes it failed. I think that’s where I got my experience from.”
He’s made quite an impression on his peers, too. I watched him earlier that afternoon in the official pre-race FIA press conference where he sat next to Lewis Hamilton, who’d brought his dog along, much to Verstappen’s amusement.
“Pretty bad, to be honest…” is how Hamilton rates Verstappen’s progress when I ask, with his tongue firmly in cheek. “He burst into F1 and did an amazing job. He’s growing, with a long way to go. He has an incredible career ahead of him.”
Verstappen is not in awe of Hamilton nor any other rivals, and nor does he fear them. “Of course, you respect them. I don’t look up to them.” He seemed comfortable in Hamilton’s company, the two sharing jokes and smirks at some of the questions being asked. There was mutual respect, although, intriguingly, in our interview it was Fernando Alonso who Verstappen name-checked first as “really quick as well”, compared to himself, before mentions for Hamilton and Vettel.
Perhaps surprisingly, Verstappen also had no heroes growing up, not even his dad. “That was a different relationship. I didn’t see him as a hero because I could see him as my dad, as my friend, and we always did everything together, and that creates a lot of respect as well.”
He doesn’t deny the fact that he’s different from his competitors, either. “That comes from when I was very young. The way I was prepared was quite different to a lot of drivers in F1 in general and a lot of sports.
“My dad was an ex-F1 driver. He spent so much time with me, teaching me to become a better driver, and steer in the right direction, since a very young age. I think that helped me a lot to become the driver I am today.”
Some driver he is, too. While he has no specific desire to be the youngest world champion, becoming world champion regardless of his age is still the target: “That’s my goal.”
He’s philosophical enough to know that the best driver more often than not still needs the best car in order to have a chance to win the title. “If you don’t have the best car you’ll never make it. And from there you need to be very talented, you need to be on it, you need to be a good racer in general, you need to be consistent, and you need to work really well with the team.”
He also saw no sentiment in following in Vettel’s footsteps from Toro Rosso to Red Bull in trying to become a world champion. “[It’s] not just Sebastian; it could have been any driver [winning the title] with that car. But it’s just a great team, and they give young drivers the opportunity to drive in F1.”
Away from the track, Verstappen has had to adapt to a new life. He grew up in Belgium but moved to Monaco about 18 months ago. There he rides his scooter, with coastal rides a particular favourite, although he has an Aston Martin DB11 on order. Surprisingly, he says he’s just as happy as a passenger on the road than behind the wheel. Other interests? “Go-karting and being on the water. I like to be on the water, skiing. I like to be on a jetski. Everything, really, with an engine, I’m into.”
Water was in play that day in Brazil when Verstappen performed his quite extraordinary save at a soaking Interlagos. When he felt the car sliding, he says, he hit the brakes with the deliberate intention of locking all four wheels to hold the slide and stop him shooting off to the inside. He held the brakes for some time, coming off them at the same time as applying some steering angle, getting his calculations spot on to somehow stay out of the barriers on either side, all while driving at over three figures with next to no visibility. “Quite a big moment,” is Verstappen’s understated summary.
He reckons it’ll be “tricky” to win races this year, but we can expect extraordinary drives through the field, as in Brazil, to challenge the dominant Ferraris and Mercedes.
He’ll surely get the chance to start racking up titles, not to mention wins, soon, be it with a revitalised Red Bull or elsewhere. Indeed, Verstappen speaks of wanting to still be in F1 in 15 years’ time, with one title “not enough if it happens very soon”. For this quite extraordinary young talent, his era of recordbreaking has only just begun.