Does Verstappen have the mixture of genetic advantage
and raw ability to own F1’s future podium?
Max’s dad refused to buy him a new pair of jeans until he tidied his bedroom
How much is down to natural aptitude versus opportunity repeatedly knocking? He cites two prime examples: The Beatles and Bill Gates, both of whom surfed to gargantuan success off the back of a unique confluence of possibilities. But they also racked up 10,000 hours of hard graft. Nobody is born a genius.
You might want to add Max Verstappen to the list. He remains the youngest driver in history to start a grand prix, and also the youngest to win one. When Red Bull promoted him from Toro Rosso to the A-team in 2016, just four races into the season, what looked like a calculated leap of faith was immediately repaid by that debut win.
There were two more victories, in Malaysia and Mexico in 2017, but it was Verstappen’s drive through the field from 14th to third place in the 2016 Brazilian GP that had even the most phlegmatic observers falling over their superlatives. In biblically awful conditions, he was conjuring grip where none seemed to exist. If Senna and Schumacher are Formula One’s greatest outliers, this was surely Verstappen’s application to join the club.
Of late, though, he’s looked less celestial. Verstappen weathered his Red Bull’s unreliability last year, but compounded a luckless streak with some dodgy moves of his own. F1’s future boy suddenly looked vulnerable. TopGear is meeting Verstappen four hours before qualifying for the Azerbaijan GP; the next day, he and team-mate Daniel Ricciardo will commit the cardinal sin of crashing into each other. This lap 40 contretemps was precipitated by a snarky, wheel-banging race-long battle, and left both drivers looking uncharacteristically diminished. Now F1’s best driver pairing are really digging deep.
Rewind. Max, it turns out, matches his on-track confidence with an easygoing manner some way short of the blunt self-possession you might expect. He’s still only 20, already into his fourth F1 season, but is less guarded than Lewis, more genuine than Vettel, infinitely more engaged than Räikkönen, and easier to read than Alonso. To name but four. He and Ricciardo have been on a sponsor ‘activation’ in Lada Nivas, in Gobustan National Park. Verstappen still actually enjoys this stuff. “There were a few moments where they couldn’t see what we were doing, and we were flat-out,” he remembers. “I had Daniel right beside me, and we were drifting the cars. Sometimes when you go back to basics – it’s really fun. It’s old-school shifting, and I grew up basically only driving automatics, but it was good fun.”
Are you saying you don’t know how to drive a manual?
“I do, I do. I just don’t really do it very often. So the first 10 metres I’m thinking, ‘Oh, I do still remember how to do it…’ Then it comes back to me.”
The son of ex-F1 driver Jos Verstappen and Belgian karting star Sophie Kumpen, Max was never going to become an accountant. He was just four when he first sat in a kart, began competing when he was seven. “My dad had a karting team. My friend, still one of my best friends now, was three when he started. I saw him on the track, and said, ‘I want to do that.’ My dad was still in F1 at the time, so I asked him. He said, ‘Wait until you’re six.’ I started crying and didn’t stop for days and days, until my mum called him and said, ‘I think we need to buy him a kart now.’”
The precocity was quickly rewarded. “I definitely got the genes, and the karting went well,” Verstappen says with masterful understatement. “But that’s no guarantee because we’ve seen many karting talents drop away, or guys who weren’t that good in karts excel in cars. It’s tricky. But I always had the right guidance. My dad was hard on me; I had to help clean and maintain the karts – it wasn’t a playground, you know? He knew what it took to become an F1 driver, so I think he was preparing me for that from a very young age, even if I didn’t like it much in the beginning.”
No pain, no gain. Verstappen’s gifts saw him win 68 out of 70 kart races he took part in, regularly trouncing older kids.”My dad kept telling me, ‘You know there will be a moment where somebody will beat you.’ And I always thought, ‘How will that feel?’ There was a race where I came second, when I went off the track and came back… it didn’t feel nice, I can tell you. But it had to happen.”
Inevitable it may have been, a regular occurrence it was not. Max was a prodigy. School? “Boring,” he says.
But surely he missed out on things… a normal childhood interrupted. “No. No. [ firmly] For me, what I loved was being at the track. Being at school meant being trapped. It’s a big risk to step out of education, of course, but luckily it worked out.”
I ask Jos Verstappen how he would have reacted if his son had suddenly lost interest and gone down the pub. The former Benetton and Arrows F1 driver, and a man not renowned for his infinite patience, almost snorts with derision.
In Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book Outliers: The Story of Success, the author attempts to decode high achievement.
“I would have been disappointed. But he was in love with motor racing, so I never really had to think about it.” From running his own kart team, Jos soon realised what he had on his hands and turned his attentions exclusively to his son. For any ambitious parent – or indeed child – it’s proof that the path to outlier-dom is tough; everything else is left simmering on a distant back burner. “I was only interested in motor racing. I didn’t really care about the rest,” Verstappen Snr says. “I was always racing with him – my social life was basically not there. I was his mechanic, van driver, engine tuner, seven days a week. It was more like a job, 8am until 10pm, I was hardly at home. I think I made more sacrifices, preparing everything.”
So while Max might still be young, the pressure of F1 is of little consequence. Genetic predisposition is one thing, but the self-belief comes from some other place. “I just jump in the car and go as fast as I can. The mental thing, it comes naturally. I don’t need to think about which state of mind I need to be in when I get into the car. As soon as you get your helmet on, you get into a different zone.”
Ross Brawn always credited Michael Schumacher with an amazing ability to race with a big chunk of mental capacity in reserve. “That depends on the situation you’re in,” Max says quickly. “If you’re in a car that’s a second faster than the others, you can play ping pong on the back straight. When you have that margin compared to the others, you can drive at 90 per cent and still be faster. If your car is a bit slower than the best one, you have to work harder to get close.”
I wonder if he’s drawing on some extra mental strength right now, given his current dip in fortunes. Isn’t this when we all find out what he’s really made of, himself included? He shuts that one down instantly.
“I wouldn’t call it a dip. If it’s a dip, you’re just slow. Every year so far I’ve been improving in terms of pace. Looking at every race I’ve been very quick, just a bit unlucky with the result or the outcome of an incident. Of course, you learn from those things, and I always try to find the positive. We’ve been quick. That’s the most important aspect. The other thing is an easy fix.”
Has anyone asked him just to… back off a bit?
“I definitely don’t need to be a hero in every move, but that’s also not my intention. Some of what’s happened, like in China for example, will make me a better driver. The thing is, I knew how to do it last year, I knew how to do it the year before… at the moment it’s just not working out for me. It doesn’t mean I need to change.”
Mention that stellar drive in Brazil, and his reply is bracingly honest. “It was good, but luck was also involved. It was 50/50. I look like a hero now, but there could have been a shunt, and people would have said, ‘What a waste.’ Now, so far this year, I’m on the other 50 per cent. This year just hasn’t worked for me, like the move on Lewis in Bahrain. That could have been, ‘What a hero, I overtook Lewis Hamilton.’ In China, I made a miscalculation. There are things that are on the fine edge between being brilliant or… loser. It can be like that in racing. You have these keyboard warriors criticising you, and it’s fine – everybody has an opinion. [ calmly] At the end of the day, it doesn’t make me sleep less.”
For his part, Jos is even more resolute than his son. “I like Max’s style – he’s a fighter. For me, he doesn’t need to change. Lately, it’s a bit more difficult. But he’s very cool about it. ‘This is how I am, this is how I race.’ He’s right. And I think the luck will turn.”
Max insists he’s generally “quite calm, relaxed”. So he wouldn’t have responded the way Vettel did in last year’s race in Baku [he smacked wheels with Lewis Hamilton]? “Those things can just happen very quickly. That’s a four-time world champion.
You suddenly lose it, driving on the limit, in heated moments, as a person it can be on/off sometimes. I don’t think it’s a bad temper – it’s a desire to win. He was very motivated to win, and he thought
Lewis had brake-tested him and destroyed his race.”
We talk about his Aston Martin DB11 (“It has orange stitching on the seats and orange brake calipers”), and the Porsche 911 GT3 RS he also owns, not a car your average 20-year old has access to (“The insurance bill is not nice,” he admits). His eyes still widen when I ask him to describe how an F1 car feels. “In a fast corner, you think at first, ‘No, this isn’t possible.’ It’s fascinating how the car sticks to the track. Even when you go down in fuel by 30kg, the difference on turn-in is incredible.”
The glimmer of the karting kid is suddenly visible. The talent, though, is transcendent. Jos Verstappen, taskmaster, mentor and father, remembers watching in the Red Bull garage, in Interlagos, in 2016.
“I had seen it before, in a kart. But to do it in an F1 car, in very difficult circumstances…
I was wondering why other drivers didn’t try other lines. But it’s a gift to know where to go, to look for the grip, having the feeling. When we were karting, if it started to rain, everyone else was packing up, but I put the rain tyres on. We walked on the track, and he learned so much. He’s confident, in himself, in the car, with his braking. Taken altogether, he’s very special.”
Max was rendered speechless by Jason’s shadow puppet medley