The Canadian Grand Prix weekend was always going to be a big one for Max Verstappen. His teammate might have won the previous race and become the leading championship contender for Red Bull, but such is Verstappen’s potential that his mounting errors had put him in the spotlight instead.
Monaco was particularly costly because Red Bull should have finished one-two in whichever order it chose, but yet again Verstappen crashed and left himself fighting from the back.
One of the jobs I sometimes do at a race weekend is to host the FIA Press Conference that features four drivers on a Thursday. A brief chat normally takes place with the FIA to discuss topics for each driver – in this role you’re facilitating the press conference rather than asking the hard-hitting questions – and as Verstappen was one of those taking part, the topic of Monaco was lined up.
The Red Bull press officer was nearby, so we asked him whether Max would be OK with being asked by the FIA about comments from team management after Monaco, or if it should be left to the media. The response was that it was fine, and Max knew exactly what sort of scrutiny he would get.
You’ve probably seen by now, but Verstappen’s readiness didn’t mean he was happy… In response to the first question he said he was tired of talking about it, and that it felt like there were no better questions. Then came in a more strongly-worded query from the floor: “Why have you had so many accidents?”
“I don’t know,” Verstappen responded, before a long pause. “And, like I said in the beginning of this press conference, I get really tired of all the questions, so… yeah… I think if I get a few more, I’ll head-butt someone.”
The lack of a smile at the end of the reply suggested he was serious. Not about literal violence, but in his desire to face no further questions on the topic. The problem is, when you’re paid millions of dollars per year to race and enjoy all the adulation that comes your way with a good performance, you’ve got to be able to stand up to questioning after a poor one.
Of course Verstappen didn’t want to answer the questions, just like he didn’t want to have a bad weekend in Monaco. But just like any job, you’re really earning your money doing the bits you don’t like.
After the race in Monaco, Verstappen had admitted he had reined in some of his attacking instincts as he tried to recover through the field because he couldn’t afford another big mistake. It was the sort of self-reflection I praised in China earlier this year, but by the time he arrived in Montreal he seemed empowered again. It was not the approach I was expecting to start the weekend.
So you can imagine the reaction I got when I was told a couple of hours later that I would be getting a Pirelli Hot Lap – a new initiative this year supported by Mercedes, Aston Martin and McLaren – with Max behind the wheel.
“He’s going to head-butt you!”
“He’s going to put you in the wall!”
Not that I ever believed he would, but fortunately (depending on your point of view) he did neither.
Shouting over the V8, I joked that driving an Aston Martin Vantage was a lot more fun that doing interviews on a Thursday (yes, of course I was sucking up, I wasn’t in control of the car). But I needn’t have worried. The playful Verstappen had emerged, providing guests with a once-in-a-lifetime experience while getting out of the spotlight himself.
Smiling, relaxed, power-sliding his way around the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, the switch was quick and impressive. But it’s also just what racing drivers do. They get behind the wheel and forget what has been bothering them.
It’s a testament to Verstappen’s temperament that he judged the weekend perfectly from that point onwards. Throughout practice he was faultless and topped all three sessions. The advantage was never big enough to suggest pole position was ever a realistic proposition, and yet he delivered a mightily impressive final lap to secure third on the grid.
“I guess I still know how to drive,” was his team radio response to Christian Horner’s congratulations. Something was still bubbling under the surface.
And with that, he was back in the same seat to face the same media just 48 hours after suggesting he could head-butt someone…
Inevitably, a question was asked about his demeanor on Thursday, but even if there was still a tinge of frustration as his radio message suggested, Verstappen could joke about it, interrupting the question and laughing: “Be careful, huh?”
Of course, it was much easier for him to be in a good mood after a good qualifying performance, but if Monaco had taught Verstappen anything it’s that one mistake at the wrong time can overshadow your whole weekend, no matter how well you’re driving.
So the pressure was still on in the race, and the opening two corners immediately provided an opportunity to crack. Diving down the inside of Valtteri Bottas at Turn 1, Verstappen had the high ground and in the past may have tried to run the Mercedes out of road to a greater extent than he did. That left the door open at Turn 2 and Bottas fought back, with Verstappen forced to yield on the exit.
Verstappen insists he didn’t change his approach, but subconsciously it must have been on his mind that an incident would lead to even greater pressure. It was a fight that I’d describe as measured rather than aggressive, and that hasn’t traditionally been the case with the 20-year-old.
After a strong drive to third, putting pressure on Bottas in the closing laps, it all added up to a very impressive weekend performance. And then came Horner’s admittance that there had been something very different about Canada: Verstappen had been on his own – without family and management – for the first time.
“It was something that was discussed with him,” Horner said. “It is something that will be between him and his team.
“We just wanted to try it this weekend. I’m not saying it’s contributed in any way; it was just something a little bit different. He’s been very immersed in everything the team has been doing this weekend.”
Those quotes would hint that the original suggestion came from Red Bull, and suddenly it makes the whole performance even more significant. After the reaction to Monaco, to go it alone will have been a risk. Add in an ill-advised – not that I want to stop drivers speaking honestly – comment at the start of the weekend, and the ingredients were there for trouble.
But Verstappen took it in his stride. He’ll have already believed it, but he proved to himself in Canada that he really is his own man. He doesn’t need the watchful eye of anyone but his race team around him to perform, and to perform well when under pressure.
It has been said by those working closely to him that Verstappen is much more sheepish in the presence of his father Jos and manager Raymond Vermeulen, compared to the relaxed and confident youngster seen away from that environment. Those different dynamics were not at play in Montreal, and a consistent weekend was the result.
It doesn’t matter how much Formula 1 race experience he has under his belt already. At 20 years old, Verstappen is still finding his way as a person. Monaco will have been a big learning experience on the track, but Canada was a big one off it.
If Red Bull was after a reaction, it got exactly the one it will have wanted.