First of all, Max Verstappen would like to issue a clarification to the world’s grandmothers. The Dutchman raised the hackles of senior drivers everywhere at Silverstone last Sunday, when, told by his race engineer to conserve his tyres rather than mount an all-out attack, snapped: “Mate, this is the only chance I’m getting to be close to the Mercedes. I’m not just sitting behind like a grandma.”
“When I heard that message, I let them know that I wasn’t going to back off,” he smiles. “The speed I was going at the time, you would still be a very fast grandma. And I know plenty of fast grandmas.”
The canon of great Verstappen drives is already voluminous: the crazed dash from 16th to third under Sao Paulo downpours in 2016, the perfectly-judged final-lap overtake to seize victory from Charles Leclerc in Austria last year. But somehow, the sheer maturity and judgment displayed during the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix marks out his latest win, his ninth overall, as his masterpiece. “It’s definitely one of my favourites, because of the management that went through the whole race,” he says. “You’re fighting against two Mercedes cars on your own.”
Most compelling, perhaps, was Verstappen’s rejection of the received wisdom that Mercedes have a seventh straight double of drivers’ and constructors’ titles wrapped up. He has long questioned the homilies to Lewis Hamilton’s dominance in Formula One, claiming that Fernando Alonso could have delivered similar results given such superior machinery. At a sun-baked Silverstone, he showed the same streak of defiance, starting third on the grid but still beating rivals who held up to a second-per-lap advantage in qualifying.
“Nobody is invincible,” he argues. “Sometimes they are really strong and difficult to beat, but it’s not impossible. I always try to make the best of it. As a team, we don’t give up. And I think that was a good example of not giving up.”
Today, auspiciously, he is back at Barcelona’s Circuit de Catalunya, scene of his maiden triumph in F1 four summers ago and one that he seized just a week after his elevation to Red Bull from Toro Rosso. At 18 years and 228 days, he beat Sebastian Vettel’s record as the youngest grand prix winner by more than two years. Even with the maelstrom of publicity attracted by that feat, which owed much to an opening-lap collision between Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, it is a memory he cherishes.
“A lot of people were looking at what I was going to do at Red Bull,” he recalls. “Some were saying it wasn’t a good decision. Ultimately, I’m not fazed by that. It was a completely different car to the one I had been driving. The steering wheel, the switches were all different. So, it was all about learning. We got lucky with the two Mercedes cars crashing early on, and then I was just practising what I had learned over the past year, keeping the tyres alive. Of course, I was surprised by winning the race. I had gone into that weekend just trying to score points. It was a very unexpected result.”
His precocity is still a marvel. At 22, the same age that Hamilton made his debut at this level, Verstappen is about to start his 108th race. That is more than Sir Jackie Stewart managed in an entire career. “I’m not a proper veteran of the sport, but there are not many other people who have driven more races than me. I’m definitely not a rookie any more. When you’re in your sixth year, there are no excuses any longer.”
There is little doubt as to his perfectionism. Ever since Canada in 2018, when he threatened to “head-butt” the next journalist who asked about his mistakes, Verstappen has matched consistency with blistering speed, eclipsing a succession of team-mates. No sooner had Daniel Ricciardo scuttled off to Renault than Pierre Gasly lasted all of a dozen races. Alex Albon, sadly, looks likely to go the same way. Verstappen is in such a different league to the Anglo-Thai driver that he is out-qualifying him by an average of four tenths. After five rounds, he has more than double Albon’s points haul.
His leap forward can be ascribed partly to the rigorous winter training he conducted with Bradley Scanes, his fitness instructor, but only to a point. “I’m not a cyclist or a runner, who depends on all that much more,” he explains. “As long as you’re fit enough to drive the car without any trouble, I don’t think there is any more to gain on the physical side. I’m just becoming more and more experienced as a driver. Understanding the car and the people around me, that is what’s making the difference.”
The sheer peculiarity of competing during a pandemic also gives Verstappen more time to invest in his twin passion of simulator racing. Throughout lockdown, he was rigged up to his living-room sim in Monte Carlo, taking his craft so seriously that he won a virtual title. “I couldn’t go outside, so it wasn’t the worst thing. I was trying to keep my skills at a high level.”
Would that fans could be physically present to witness the conversion of his astonishing talent to the track. In May, more than 100,000 of his disciples had been due to congregate on the North Sea coast for the first Dutch Grand Prix since 1985, while this month, Belgium’s Ardennes forest would typically be carpeted with orange. “It’s a shame that it’s not happening, but at the moment we should just be happy that we’re racing again at all,” says Verstappen, who acknowledges Holland’s restlessness for him to be their country’s next global superstar. “I think they appreciate everything I’m doing in F1. They love this sport.”
More than ever, Verstappen’s sport, suffocated by Mercedes’ supremacy, needs him and the shot of pure adrenalin that he provides. “I can’t complain,” he grins, as he plots his next efforts to thwart Hamilton. “I’m happy with the progression. And you never stop learning.”