For many racecar drivers, Formula 1 is all-consuming. But not for Max Verstappen.
“Sometimes people take F1 too seriously, like it’s a life-or-death situation, thinking ‘If I don’t make it to Formula 1, my life is over,’ or something like that,” Verstappen of Red Bull said in an interview.
“For me, that was never the case and never will be. I’m very happy that I am in Formula 1 now, but even if I wasn’t, I would still do something else, racing-related stuff to have fun, to have a good time.”
That underlines his calm attitude to not only his life, but also his first serious challenge for the Formula 1 drivers’ title.
Before the Turkish Grand Prix in October, Verstappen surprised many when he said that if he failed to win the championship this year, finishing second would not alter his life.
“I know that if my car is fast enough until the end of the season, I will win the championship, but if it’s not, then we probably won’t win it,” said Verstappen, who is Dutch. “At the end of the day, it’s not going to change my world.
“Of course, the goal, the dream is always to win the championship, but you need to have a bit of luck, you need to have the right car for it to be at the right time of the season or across the whole season.”
Verstappen has maintained his philosophical, grounded approach from an early age. He does not rely on a psychologist or other well-being experts to help channel his energy as some other drivers do. It comes naturally.
“I like what I’m doing in F1, and I always try to do the best I can, but there is no additional pressure,” Verstappen said. “I would say if you have a good car it even takes more pressure away.
“It means you can go into a weekend knowing you can have a good result. I think that makes me really calm.”
Verstappen’s relaxed attitude about winning is helped by the fact that he drives one of the best cars for one of the best teams in Formula 1. It has helped Verstappen win eight Grands Prix and open a 12-point lead over Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes with five races remaining. The first is next weekend in Mexico.
The season has been turbulent at times, with Verstappen involved in high-profile incidents with Hamilton. The first was during the British Grand Prix where they touched wheels, sending Verstappen into a barrier at 180 m.p.h.
In the Italian Grand Prix, they crashed into one another, with Verstappen’s car ending up on top of Hamilton’s.
“Yes, I’ve had to back out of certain scenarios with Max because otherwise we are going to crash, and I’m just like, ‘I’ll beat him in another way,’” Hamilton told ESPN last month.
“I know he’ll probably learn from the experience, as I will. I can’t expect things to change, so I will just try to apply myself better moving forward, and that’s all I can control in my space.”
After that accident, the three-time champion Sir Jackie Stewart described Verstappen as the fastest man on the grid, but he is “still slightly in the puppy stage.”
This is Verstappen’s seventh season in Formula 1, and he has competed in 136 Grands Prix after becoming the youngest driver ever in the sport in 2015 at 17 years and 166 days. He is now 24.
“I always respect Sir Jackie’s opinion, but I think Max has shown great maturity this year,” said Christian Horner, the team principal of Red Bull. “Of course, you’re always evolving, always learning. I’m sure Sir Jackie made a few mistakes in his time.
“That’s the journey of life, you learn from every experience, and when you see the progression from a 17-year-old, when he came into Formula 1, to the driver he is today, it’s pretty impressive.”
Toto Wolff, the team principal of Mercedes, Red Bull’s top competitor, said he was also impressed by Verstappen.
“Obviously, Max isn’t driving for Mercedes so I don’t know him really well, but his trajectory is impressive, not only with his speed but also the way he tackles the weekends,” he said.
Verstappen started in karts when he was 4. With his father, Jos, a former Formula 1 driver, to guide him, he became a world karting champion at 15. Less than two years later, he was driving in Formula 1.
Verstappen naturally cites his father as his biggest inspiration.
“Without him, I wouldn’t be sitting here right now,” Verstappen said. “What he did for me from a very young age was very important for me to be as prepared as I am now.
“We had a lot of moments together in go-karting, of course, traveling all over Europe. He prepared everything for me with the go-karts, tuning my engine. It was a real father-and-son job together trying to achieve the goal of being in Formula 1.”
The target was achieved in 2014 when, a month before his 17th birthday, it was announced that he would be driving for Toro Rosso the next year.
There were difficult moments early on. Verstappen crashed into a barrier in his first Monaco Grand Prix in 2015, and he was sometimes criticized by his fellow drivers for his aggressive driving.
Charlie Whiting, the sport’s race director at the time, met with Verstappen in 2016 to warn him that he risked getting “a bad name for himself” if he did not curb his aggressive driving.
Verstappen’s talent has always overshadowed his teammates. Sergio Pérez is his fourth at Red Bull.
Pérez said “it is not easy being Verstappen’s teammate because he is at one with the car.” Verstappen, he said, had “no obvious” weaknesses.
“He is really delivering at a very high level,” Pérez said. “Max has been the driver of the season so far. He has done the least mistakes of anyone out there, putting things together at a very high level.
“I have been surprised, in a very positive way.”
The obvious progression would have Verstappen beating Hamilton and winning the championship this year. Despite Verstappen’s remark that finishing second would not alter his world, he said he “will be disappointed” if he did not win with the fastest car.
Verstappen said that he had to “maximize everything every single weekend,” and that he “still needs to be perfect” to beat Hamilton, even if the Red Bull car is the quickest.
“It’s all about the little details that can make a big difference,” Verstappen said. “It’s the general focus of everyone, pit stops, the setup work and preparation before you go into a weekend.”
If all that comes together, then he will finally be a Formula 1 champion.
“It’s a dream from when I was a little kid together with my dad, to get to Formula 1 in the first place and then trying to fight for a title,” Verstappen said.
“For sure, it would mean a lot if we can win it.”