here’s a methodology for easing a rookie into F1. The trick is to lift the weight. Expectations must be lowered, hope downplayed. It’s a tough job and a tough environment. The emphasis should be on the learning curve, not the results. Failures are to be expected. This is, after all, a novice – not someone who should be expected to pull up trees from the get-go.
Or you could take the approach chosen by Red Bull motorsports advisor Dr Helmut Marko, in the case of Max Verstappen: announce that your new charge should be competitive from his firstfifi lap and compare him to a young Ayrton Senna. Off you go Max, no pressure.
The belief that the usual rules do not apply to Max Verstappen has spread through the F1 paddock. There are always rumours of a ‘next Senna’ or a ‘next Schumacher’ tearing up the junior formulae, but they rarely gain traction. Reality eventually catches up and the driver finds their level. That hasn’t yet happened with Max.
“You’re looking at a future champion,” is the view of grand-prix-winner-turnedcommentator David Coulthard. “In his rookie season what really stood out was his racing. There are lots of quick racing drivers who can turn it on for one weekend, but his wheel-to-wheel combat racing was exceptional. There’s no doubt he’ll win grands prix and championships in the future.”
Coulthard’s is not a lone voice. “To be honest, I’m flabbergasted,” says Damon Hill. “If you had put me, aged 17, in F1, I would have looked a complete twit. I hadn’t got a clue what I was doing, or where I was going. Max’s debut has been stunning, it really has.”
The show needs heroes to sell, and were these comments coming from the usual purveyors of hype they could be ignored. But they’re not. They’re coming from serious voices and serious racers; people who have made their judgements watching Verstappen attack a corner, not a photocall.
“He has an ability to brake and steer the car in a way that it’s almost like Schumacher in the Benetton days,” muses former F1 driver Karun Chandhok. “Michael used to be able to steer the car on the brakes and Max has that too – it’s almost a karting style.
“He loads up the car on corner entry and, because of that, he can get a lot of the corner done in terms of the car’s angle relative to the apex. He then opens up the steering wheel from mid-corner onwards. That means he won’t eat the tyres. This confidence to almost brake-steer the car is one of his strengths, and the fact that he’s had a car that’s let him to do that has helped.
“He also has supreme confidence on the brakes. It’s reminiscent of what we see with Lewis – a great ability to feel the load through the left leg and feel the tyre and get the car stopped for the low-speed corners. That’s a huge asset when it comes to overtaking people. Max has supreme braking feel, when he’s off-line, or on a dusty, uneven surface, so he can always get the car stopped. This gives him the confidence to outbrake someone, and because of that he makes the big moves. This is what has caught people’s imagination: he overtakes people and does a good job. He didn’t outqualify Carlos Sainz in year one – but his confidence to race and pass people appeals to everyone watching.”
Verstappen is frequently described as “mature” – usually with the attached caveat “for his age”. It’s a term that does him a disservice. His maturity is personal, rather than professional, exhibited in the wry confidence with which he speaks when out of the cockpit. In the seat, however, the speed and ability he demonstrated in 2015 wasn’t the manifestation of a maturity beyond his years. What gets the paddock salivating is that the speed and car control come from what is still a very raw package. Already good enough to compete at the sharp end of F1, imagine where he’ll be once he develops his race craft, learns about cars and circuits and becomes a more cunning animal.
Those who know Max are certain there’s more to come. Frits van Amersfoort, eponymous boss of the Van Amersfoort Racing team that ran Verstappen (and also Max’s father, Jos) in Formula 3, phrased it thus: “He’s a long way from his peak. He can only get better. He’s like Roger Federer. He was good enough when he arrived, but just got better and better and better. Max is that sort of sportsman. I reckon he’s one of those rare people who has just been put together for what he’s doing. That’s what it seems like when you watch him in the car.”
Closer to home, James Key, Toro Rosso’s technical director, reasons that Verstappen will get quicker as a natural consequence of experience. “Last year there were bits and pieces, processes you’d observe a rookie going through that a guy wouldn’t if he’d been doing it for a few years. Qualifying is a good example: you need to get that extra three or four-tenths with every new set of tyres you run. That’s a difficult thing to do. That’s what experience is. That’s what Max has got to add to all that really good stuff he did in his first year, to become a more complete driver for the future.”
Where maturity of personality does count for something in the car is not in the speed but rather the ability to shrug off the setbacks, of which there have been a few, and maintain self-belief. Martin Brundle summed it up very well on stage at last year’s Autosport Awards: “What has impressed me about Max is his confidence,” Brundle opined. “He had a few crashes and some difficult times and somehow just rebounded from that. It has reminded me of Michael Schumacher crashing Nelson Piquet’s spare Benetton at Suzuka in 1991. I thought: ‘Okay, now we’ll see how good Michael is’. Piquet was livid that he had crashed his car. And the next lap, through 130R, Schumacher was flatout. He was even faster that lap in his own car. It is that confidence, self-belief and sheer speed that I see in this young man.”
In terms of strict results, however, the highlights of Max Verstappen’s career so far are two fourth-place finishes. Last year’s Toro Rosso STR10 was a decent enough car but perhaps not good enough to claim those finishes on technical merit alone. So they’re a major plaudit for the driver. More than that though, the real success of Verstappen in 2015 was that, one year into his F1 career and with 19 races under his belt, no one in the paddock was prepared to debunk Marko’s original assessment. In fact, there are more and more willing to buy into the idea that Max Verstappen really is worthy of the comparisons with Senna, Schumacher – and Roger Federer.
Have fun storming the castle, Max.