In only his first race for RBR, the then-18-year-old captured the checkered flag, quickly becoming the youngest—not to mention Holland’s first and only—driver to ever win a Formula One Grand Prix.
Five seasons later it’s become clear that only the GOAT Lewis Hamilton blocks Verstappen from notching his first F1 Driver’s Championship. In fact in the fifth GP of the season when Max took podium at the famed Monaco Grand Prix he became the first driver without a Mercedes Tri-Star on his car to stand atop the Driver’s Title standings since the 2013 season. And he’s the first driver to perch ahead of Lewis since 2017. The immense pressure—and glory—apparently all rest on his shoulders.
Of course it’s not just the AMG/Lewis hegemony that Max has to battle: the F1 field is flooded with young, hungry talent nipping at the heels of RBR’s premier driver.
Verstappen’s surely got his work cut out for him, but all signs point to great potential this year: the young Dutchman has won five of eight races so far this year piloting his RBR racecar, and yesterday at Silverstone the Hamilton/Verstappen rivalry possibly hit an apex when — while ruthlessly sparring on the very first lap of the famed British GP — Lewis collided into Max trying to overtake him, sending Verstappen spinning off into the barriers and out of the race. Despite the results, Verstappen remains 8 points ahead of Lewis in the standings.
We sat down with Red Bull Racing’s Great Young Hope before the current season began for MAXIM print to discuss all things Formula One.
You finished on a really high note in Abu Dhabi with a victory in the very last race of 2020. How do you feel looking back at that season?
It is always nice to win the final race of the season, but it doesn’t guarantee you anything for the next year. We still have to put a good car on the track and we know that Mercedes will be strong again. They are always very strong, especially from the start, so that’s where we have been lacking in the last few years. I hope that we learn from it and can be more competitive to start this new season.
One of the hardest things for some fans to wrap their head around is how you guys mentally deal with the fact that you’re always competing against a significantly superior car, e.g. Mercedes-AMG.
Well, that’s Formula One. This is something that you know already from when you are very little watching the sport, that some cars are better than others. When I joined [Red Bull Racing junior team] Toro Rosso, at the time you know you’re not going to fight for victory [right away], and that it takes a bit of time.
And now we are very close. We can win a few races here and there, but we all want to fight for the world championship. They clearly also have a lot of good people, but we are trying our best. I’m just always very motivated to try and get the best out of it, but there’s no reason to be disappointed or frustrated because there are other cars behind us which are quite a lot slower.
Let’s talk about your history a bit. Your father raced in Formula One and everyone looks up to their dad. When did you realize you were faster than him?
Difficult to really say…. I would say around the age of 14, 15, in go-karting, at the time. Before that I was still learning a lot from him. We weren’t driving together. He was of course also my coach, he was tuning my engines. He was my mechanic and we were always traveling together, so I was just learning a lot from all his advice. And of course I’m getting faster and faster and he’s not particularly getting faster, he’s getting older. And at one point you go over your peak, so it’s a bit of both. I think I was becoming better and he was maybe becoming a little bit slower.
That must’ve been both a proud moment and incredibly frustrating to see a 14-year-old keeping up with him.
Well it was always his goal to make me better than him. He was always way more nervous when I was racing than when he was racing himself. Basically, once he stopped racing in Formula One, he dedicated his whole life to me, to try and get me to Formula One. We talk every day, still, and also throughout the F1 season.
You are known in F1 for having a very technical understanding of the car, much more than the average driver. Would you say that is one of your advantages?
From a very young age my dad was explaining a lot to me: how things worked when he was tuning my engines, like opening up the whole engine and showing me what he was doing to just get a bit more of a technical understanding.
He was always there to try and test me as well, changing a few things to see if I could actually really feel the difference. He wouldn’t tell me what he changed, and then after a run I would come back and tell him. And that’s how you learn how to feel stuff. And then it advances more and more, the more you are driving, and into Formula One as well. Of course the technical terms become a bit more complicated, but throughout the years you learn how to get on with it.
You had great success early on in your career, but initially you were also seen as a little bit wild or aggressive. Do you recognize a breakthrough at any point, or do you just see that as a natural evolution?
I think it’s just natural. I only did one year in car racing before I got to F1, so I had to make a few mistakes and become better to learn. Everyone makes mistakes. Nobody is a robot and it’s always good to admit mistakes as well. It’s just been a natural process, I think.
But besides that most of the time I had to take a lot of risks to try and force a good result. If you have the best car in the field, you don’t need to take as much risk because you know that your car is anyway good enough to be first or second. Whereas we maybe had a few weekends a year where we could really perform and try to win. So then of course you have to risk it a bit more, knowing that this opportunity is not there every single race weekend.
At the end of the day last season you finished third; but you came in pretty close behind Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas, and what is understood as a much better car. Given the context, was that gratifying?
I think it was a good season. I look at it from my side: Did I perform better than I’ve done before? I think I did. I was more consistent, made fewer mistakes, and always tried to maximize the result. But we had too many retirements—we retired I think five times over the season. One time with a tire blowout and then four times with issues. That’s too much if you really want to do something in the championship. At the end of the day being second or third for me is not going to change anything because you’re only there to win. But you have to always look at your own performances and there are always things you can do better; but it was an improvement from the year before. That’s what you like to see.
I don’t think nowadays you’re going to make big jumps in terms of performance because otherwise you wouldn’t be a Formula One driver. You’re now becoming a more complete driver just through experience, from what you learned in F1, what you did wrong, what you did right, and then at the end of the day you put that all together to try and get a better result.
What’s the sweetest moment you’ve experienced so far in racing?
I think you will never forget your first victory in Formula One, because that’s what you always worked for. To get to Formula One first of all was a great achievement, but then the work starts. Then finally being on that top step—two years before I was sitting on the couch. I could only dream of one day hopefully achieving something like that, and I was only 18 years old at the time.
And then, standing there, seeing your dad under the podium, that was a very emotional moment, where you look at each other and you actually say, We did it. After all that work and go-karting and leading up to Formula One. Yeah, that was definitely an amazing moment.
You were the youngest to ever have done it, at that point. Thrilling, but it must have put a ton of pressure on your shoulders, too, because you won on your first race.
Yeah. It was, but we just try to keep it going. I’m pretty relaxed, so I always say, ‘We’ll see what happens.’ I just try to do the best I can and hopefully that’s enough. That I think keeps the pressure away.
What are your realistic expectations and goals for the rest of 2021?
Well hopefully we can put the fight to Mercedes. That’s what we want to do. That’s why we are in Formula One: we want to win championships. The team has shown in the past that they can do it, and everyone is very motivated to try and beat them. It’s not going to be easy. They’ve been so dominant the last few years, but we’re going to try again and see how close we can make it.