MAX

Top Gear (Malaysia) - - Life & Style - WORDS: JA­SON BAR­LOW / POR­TRAITS: DAR­REN HEATH & VLADIMIR RYS

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

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