Max Verstappen is one of Formula 1’s most exciting talents and a potential future world champion.
He’s right up there. He’s right up there…” Red Bull Racing team principal Christian Horner had started his answer on Max Verstappen in analytical style. But staring into the middle distance now, introspective in tone, he’s veered off to seemingly remind himself of the talent he has in his hands.
“He’s at a very early stage of his career; he’s still only 20,” Horner continues, reconnected with the RACER journalist sat across from him. “He’s in his fourth year of car racing in total. And to achieve the kind of results that he has already and to show the promise, the bravery and skill that he has, I think is quite phenomenal.”
It is all too easy to overlook just how far ahead of his contemporaries Verstappen is. He only left his teen years at the end of September, but already has 56 grand prix starts to his name – including a remarkable victory on his Red Bull Racing debut in Barcelona last year – as F1 heads to the U.S. GP at Austin’s Circuit of The Americas.
At the same age, Fernando Alonso had started just 12 races, Sebastian Vettel had a single start with BMW Sauber, and Lewis Hamilton was a full two years away from making his F1 debut. They have nine world titles between them, soon to be 10.
“It is very easy to forget that,” Horner says. “He’s the first driver I’ve had that I’m old enough to be his father! He carries himself with a great deal of maturity and has matured even during the past 12 months, significantly. I think the exciting thing is, what is his ultimate potential?”
Despite carrying himself with huge confidence at such a young age, Verstappen is much more modest when it comes to talking about what he thinks he has that other drivers don’t.
“Well I think a lot of it, of course, is because of my dad [former F1 driver Jos], but I think it’s also just the way you are,” Verstappen says. “In your own mind you’re not doing anything special; it’s just how you grew up and how you live your life, I guess.
“You learn from situations that you do right or wrong; mistakes you make. A lot of it is natural, just instinct. But things like start procedures, qualifying, certain situations in a race – that’s what you learn in something like F3. That gives you the basics for F1, and then you’re learning more every moment you’re in the car and with the team.”
From his first press conference at Suzuka in 2014, aged just 16, Verstappen has never appeared overawed by his surroundings. Having a father who raced for seven different teams in eight seasons of F1 is one of the reasons Verstappen gives for his ability to feel comfortable in such a high-pressure environment. Another is knowing and appreciating the limitations of each situation he finds himself in.
“I think you want the best car every single year, so in that way the age doesn’t matter,” says F1’s youngest winner of all time. “I think everybody has this as well in the F1 paddock, but nobody can really control that, so it’s just the way F1 is.
“That’s your mindset already when you join F1. I joined with Toro Rosso [in 2015], and wasn’t going to win races, so that’s your mindset. Then I moved to Red Bull [four races into ’16], and at that time even they were not winning races. We had the surprise win, because of the retirements for Mercedes, but then you reset your mindset again and say, ‘Let’s try to score podiums.'”
One of the frustrations for Verstappen this year has been the reliability – or lack of – from the No. 33 Red Bull RB13. After retiring in front of a massive Dutch contingent at the Belgian Grand Prix (his father and the flag he races under are Dutch, but his mother is Belgian, putting Spa-Francorchamps at the epicenter of “Max Mania”), Verstappen even hinted his patience was running out with RBR and power unit-supplier Renault.
“It’s of course not ideal, especially with the positions we were in to score some good podiums and then eventually you end up with nothing,” a now calm Verstappen reflects. “It’s not nice, but you always try to stay positive and just try to do better in the race after.”
All those retirements served to strengthen speculation that Verstappen could well end up at Mercedes or Ferrari in the not-too-distant future. Having only been picked up by Red Bull in the summer of 2014 with the promise of a Toro Rosso race seat, he doesn’t have the same attachment to the energy drink manufacturer as those who benefited from its backing for their whole junior career. (UPDATE: Verstappen has now re-signed with the team through 2020. -Ed.)
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