Max Verstappen exclusive: The mindset of an F1 champion in waiting
Max Verstappen exudes a serenity you would not expect from a driver in the middle of an intense battle to become Formula 1 world champion for the first time.
Verstappen’s brilliant fightback victory in the French Grand Prix extended his championship advantage over Lewis Hamilton to 12 points after the opening seven races of the season.
The Red Bull driver is seeking an elusive maiden title in single-seaters as he heads the F1 world championship standings for the first time in his career.
He may still only be 23, but Verstappen has carried himself with an incredibly composed approach and does not seem at all fazed by finding himself in uncharted territory this year.
Verstappen’s relaxed nature was apparent when this writer sat down with him over Zoom for an exclusive interview with Crash.net ahead of last weekend’s race at Paul Ricard.
“To be honest I don’t think about it too much,” Verstappen said of his championship lead. “People keep telling me that I am [in the lead], and I know that I am, but when I’m at home I’m not thinking about that.
“I just want to go to the next race and try to win again. I know that’s not always possible, but of course we try as a team every single weekend to get the best out of it.”
Adopting a new mindset
Verstappen has never been short on confidence. He has boasted it in spades ever since he burst onto the F1 scene as a fresh-faced 17-year-old back in 2015.
That faith in his own abilities helped Verstappen earn a quick-fire promotion to Red Bull and then take a sensational maiden victory at the first attempt in race-winning machinery, making him F1’s youngest ever victor at just 18.
While moments of impetuousness have at times gotten the better of Verstappen, they ultimately provided a source of valuable experience that he has learned from, enabling him to improve.
2021-spec Verstappen now holds another weapon in his armoury to compliment his electrifying raw speed and natural talent that has never been in question; a new-found maturity and calm.
“Of course experience over the years helps but I also think once you have a good car, everything becomes that little bit easier and nicer to work with,” he explained.
“The pressure is still on in the race, especially when you have a close battle with Mercedes to make the right calls. But I think overall, everyone knows what they have to do and we have been trying to get to this place already for a few years. And the team showed in the past they can do it.
“We are more or less back to where we want to be. Of course, it’s never perfect, and we still want to be more competitive, but you can see there are people in the team who are very experienced in this role as well, so it helps a lot.”
Having a car underneath him that is a match for Mercedes - and faster at some tracks - has allowed Verstappen to adopt a new approach. Unlike in previous years of Mercedes supremacy, he no longer finds himself having to take massive risks to win.
“It’s completely different if you have a really good car, you think ‘okay this might be a risky move, should I really do it?’” Verstappen said.
“It’s all about points. You need to score every single weekend and of course sometimes that means second place is better than zero points.
“Back in the day when we had a car where sometimes we could win a race, you had to go for it and take a risk to try and get that result, because you knew at the next race you would not be that competitive again. So it’s a different mindset.”
Going up against Hamilton
Standing in the way of Verstappen achieving a maiden world title is one of the greatest racing drivers of all time in seven-time world champion Hamilton.
Verstappen acknowledges that this season presents Red Bull with “definitely our best chance” to win a world championship for the first time since 2013. But even then, he knows it will take something special to overcome Hamilton, who has only suffered a title defeat once in the last seven years.
Verstappen and Hamilton have three wins apiece this year and have engaged in some breathtaking wheel-to-wheel battles in Bahrain, Imola, Portugal and Spain.
After Hamilton led the way in the early rounds, Verstappen has since seized the initiative in what is shaping up to be an epic title race for the ages with a commanding maiden win around the streets of Monte Carlo, and his latest victory at Paul Ricard.
Verstappen could have been even further ahead had he not suffered a dramatic tyre failure while leading the Azerbaijan Grand Prix with five laps to go.
The intense nature of their on-track rivalry has led to some entertaining exchanges off it, though ultimately the pair share a great respect for each other - even if Verstappen is adamant he is quicker.
Responding to Hamilton’s claim in Baku that Red Bull has the better car, Verstappen told reporters he would be two-tenths faster than Hamilton if they were in the same car.
“It was just a counter because he keeps saying the Red Bull is faster than his car, so I’m like ‘I’m happy to swap and we’ll see the difference’,” Verstappen said of his post-race comments.
“It’s just a bit of talk from both sides, which is fine. You have to believe in your own capabilities and I do believe I’m the fastest, but he also believes he’s the fastest.
"Probably other drivers like Lando [Norris] and Charles [Leclerc] think the same. I think that’s pretty normal.
“There are so many good drivers out there who I think also could have won seven titles,” he added. “I do enjoy battling Lewis but I would also enjoy battling Fernando [Alonso], Sebastian [Vettel], Charles, or Lando if they were in that car.
“You always have to just fight your competition and of course you try to be ahead of them. For me, it’s just nice to be racing against very good drivers.”
Why he doesn’t take F1 too seriously
Although Verstappen is extremely determined to achieve his ambitions by winning the world title, he is not prepared to let F1 completely dominate his life.
Verstappen is considered to be a once-in-a-generation talent and has been tipped to win many world championships before he eventually calls it a day.
In recent years, Hamilton has re-written the record books with his seven world titles and 98 victories (and counting) to become F1’s most successful driver of all time.
While Verstappen is viewed by many as the driver most likely to eventually threaten those records, he insists he isn’t bothered about statistics.
“Even if I wouldn’t [win a title], it’s not going to make my life more miserable or whatever,” he said.
“I’m doing what I enjoy and you need luck in your life to be at the right place at the right time for a long time and some eras are longer than others.
“Sometimes there’s more competition and you have years where you are fighting for a title with different teams, and sometimes it’s just like proper domination by one team, but you see it in every sport.
“If you are in the wrong era, I wouldn’t say you are fucked, but there is less of a chance that you can reach those statistics. For me, it doesn’t define the greatest driver ever.
"Who is the greatest driver ever? I don’t know, maybe it was Graham Hill or Jim Clark, Michael Schumacher or maybe Aryton Senna. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter because everyone is good in their own respects.
“I just want to win as many races as I can. Of course I hope to win a championship but if I don’t, at the end of the day, I still love what I’m doing and that’s what is most important.”
Verstappen sees no point in setting specific goals for his F1 career “because you cannot really control it”.
"It’s a bit different to a marathon, like running,” Verstappen added. “We are so dependent on material at the end of the day that you need to have the whole package to succeed.
“A lot of drivers in F1 are good enough to win a title but they don’t have the car. It’s a bit of a tricky situation.”
And Verstappen is adamant he would be satisfied ending his time in F1 with just one world title to his name.
“If that was my only chance at getting one and I got it, of course I would be very happy [because] F1 is just one part of your life,” he said.
“I think a lot of people think of it too seriously. Everything that happens in F1, if you are not performing there or you are not happy, it influences their private life and I don’t think it should.
“I have a good private life besides F1 and for me, that works really well to keep those two separate.”
Just how good can Verstappen get?
Verstappen is driving better than ever this season and as Hamilton has demonstrated, age appears to be no barrier to improvement, with the Briton still able to make gains at the age of 36.
Considering the incredibly high level Verstappen is already operating at and his seemingly limitless potential, it is scary to think how good he could be 10 years from now.
But how close does Verstappen feel to reaching his peak?
“I think in terms of pure pace, I don’t think you actually improve a lot because you either have that talent, or not,” he replied when asked that very question.
“You cannot be quick one year and then slower. It’s more like by experience over the years I think you understand more of the car, of the tyres, the tracks you’ve been to, bad and good situations you’ve been in. Because it’s all about the small details at the end of the day that make the difference in Formula 1.
“That just gives you that little bit more confidence, preparation and understanding in those decisive moments to pull out a good lap, or just be competitive in general. I think that just gets better every year and you never stop learning. When you are 35 or 36, you have that experience in your bag.”
Verstappen used the analogy of footballers compensating for losing their pace as they get older by banking on a combination of invaluable experience and their natural talent to read the game better than ever before.
He cited Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, who recently set a new goal-scoring record at football’s European Championship at the age of 36, as being the perfect example of this.
“It’s like a football player, sometimes they can lose a bit of speed, but they can compensate by just reading the situation better than maybe five years before, where they would maybe sprint a bit faster but not fully understand the awareness,” he explained.
“For me, I think Ronaldo is an amazing example. For sure he’s not at the same speed as he was five or six years ago, because you do slow down when you get older, in terms of purely running.
“But I do think he improves by awareness and just by the experiences he has on the pitch for example.”