Max Verstappen: ‘I never really see the mental side of racing’

“The only title that matters to me today is winning the Formula One World Championship,” says Max Verstappen in this chat.

Max Verstappen... marked for greatness.   -  Getty Images

For a 20-year-old, even in a normal world, it is something of a challenge to achieve good things in life. And in Formula One, it is much more of a battle in that respect. For Max Verstappen, though, it seems as if nothing is unattainable.

The son of former F1 driver Jos Verstappen took to karting when he was just four and a half years of age, and there was no looking back for the Dutch driver from thereon.

Following his first karting title, at the age of nine, in 2006, Max won a number trophies, quite enough for the racing community to start speaking of his highly competitive nature besides his speed and talent. His European Formula 3 stint in 2014, after the Florida Winter Series run — he finished third in both the championships — seemed enough for Red Bull to mark him as the next potential world champion. The energy drink giant promptly signed up Max for his Formula One debut in 2015 with Toro Rosso — after a few FP1 drives in 2014 — despite the interest from Mercedes, who later signed Verstappen’s rival and 2014 European F3 champion, Esteban Ocon.

Since his F1 debut, it is a no-brainer that Max is a real deal. Some exciting drives with Toro Rosso, especially in the 2015 Hungarian Grand Prix and the United States Grand Prix, and the daring move from outside on Sauber’s Felipe Nasr at the dreaded Blanchimont corner at Spa Francorchamps — which won the young Dutch the FIA Action of the Year prize — propelled Max to a Red Bull Racing seat in only his second year in F1.

And how did he respond? With a victory in his first race with Red Bull Racing, at the 2016 Spanish Grand Prix, beating team-mate Daniel Ricciardo and the two Ferraris (Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel).

Although Verstappen’s performance in 2017 was well below expectations for various reasons, there is no doubt about the impact he has made on Formula One. And Red Bull Racing has signed him up until the 2020 season.

Sportstar caught up with Verstappen in Red Bull’s hospitality during the 2017 season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix at the Yas Marina Circuit.

Question: Let’s talk about the start of your career, was it something you always wanted to do after growing up watching your dad go racing?

Answer: I think it is always very important that it (racing) comes from yourself. To commit to something like this, you really have to love it yourself. So, my parents never pushed me into it. Of course, they liked it when I said I wanted to race as well, but the decision really came from me.

How was it racing for the first time?

I (really) loved it. I was running the whole day with my helmet on (laughs). I wanted to keep driving.

You then began racing professionally and started winning championships. Did your dad say, or did you yourself feel, that you were doing something extraordinary here?

Well, I talked a lot with my dad about these things. (But then) it is always difficult to say how good you’ll be or whatever, because karting is of course not car racing — a lot of other things are involved as well, (but) of course I could see I was heading in the right direction.

It was indeed moving the right way, with your move to F1 just after one season in the FIA European F3. Was it a move too early, especially at that time of your career?

I think it was the right decision for me. Also, I didn’t have to pay for another seat (for another year) in junior categories. In the end, it is always personally the best to be in Formula One, so I didn’t really want to spend another season in other categories.

Do you think it was a calculated risk? Was it shocking at first to realise how much you had to learn coming into F1?

It’s always a risk, as you never know how it is going to work out in Formula One, but luckily for us, it has worked out quite well. I talked a lot about it with my dad, because he had raced in Formula One as well — that helps a lot. Of course, there’s a lot of things to learn (always), and I got the time for that as well at that time. So in the end, it actually worked out quite well.

Max Verstappen and Red Bull Racing have forged a splendid partnership. The team, run by the energy drink giant, has signed the Dutch until the 2020 season.   -  Getty Images

 

Your move from F3 to Toro Rosso in F1, and then from Toro Rosso to Red Bull in such a short time. Did it play with your mind?

I feel I was ready for it because that’s where I wanted to be — Formula One. And from Toro Rosso to Red Bull, it is like, you always want to go to the top team and that’s what we did.

Coming to the present, will you say you needed this kind of a year (2017), since all world champions have a year or two when they go through a hard time?

Yeah, I think at one point in your career, you have things that are not quite happening. So, it is important to learn how to deal with that. And I think, I did that pretty well (this year).

Were the retirements (seven), and also the penalty in Austin affecting you mentally? You had different reactions in those circumstances. Does age too have a say in your reactions?

Nothing, I was just disappointed when it (DNFs) happened, but you have to try and stay positive, and try to take positives out of it, even though you retired in the race. And no, I don’t think much (about different reactions). You just have to get on with it. I never really see the mental side of it. I think it’s a normal thing to do, if people have the same thing happening to them.

Is it difficult for you to accept defeat?

Well, if it is a fair defeat then you have to accept that, because then you just haven’t been fast enough. But of course, when you lose out because of technical issues, it is a different story.

On the race track, it seems like you have ‘I don’t care about reputations’ kind of attitude, whether it’s your team-mate or the World Championships...

Yeah.

So, effectively, you don’t have a racing idol?

No one.

But you want others to make you their idol?

I am not too focused on that. I just want to get good results, that’s what I wanted to do since I was very young.

Anyway, you are now in search of your first single-seater title, so naturally the goal would be to win your first F1 title...

Yeah, I want to win the championship, I think that’s everyone’s goal in the paddock. I have race wins now. So, when you win more races that means you win the championship, so that’s what my next target is, for sure. It doesn’t matter if I haven’t had a title win in the junior categories. Today, the only title that matters to me is winning the Formula One World Championship.