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Formula 1

Max Verstappen interview: Why he’s embracing his funny side

by Scott Mitchell-Malm
9 min read

This was meant to be Max Verstappen’s year. He was widely tipped to be Lewis Hamilton’s strongest rival for the Formula 1 title and put together his first championship challenge. Thanks to some serious graft, persistence and opportunism, Verstappen’s a surprise second in the points and is Hamilton’s nearest challenge. But the fact that’s a surprise tells you that this season has not gone according to his and his Red Bull team’s expectations.

You wouldn’t know that by listening to Verstappen. Red Bull’s hopes, and those of its star driver, were brought down to the ground with a bump at the start of the season, but Verstappen has emerged from the wreckage of that sky-high optimism… funny.

“Well, that was a simply lovely start!” he shouted to his team on the opening lap of the Hungarian Grand Prix, just a few minutes after the mechanics had finished the mother of all repair jobs on the grid because Verstappen had shunted in damp conditions on a reconnaissance lap.

Two weeks later, waiting for the formation lap to begin in the British Grand Prix: “I don’t know about you guys but it feels a bit more relaxing this time around, preparing the car?”

And in the same race: “Remember to drink,” he instructed his race engineer Gianpiero Lambiase on a hot Silverstone Sunday. “GP, remember to drink.”

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship 70th Anniversary Grand Prix Practice Day Silverstone, England

There have been more since. These bursts of humour are not just at odds with Verstappen’s competitive situation given Red Bull’s ultimate performance deficit to Mercedes, they are unusual for the high-pressure, intensely-focused environment of an F1 race.

But it should not be confused with Verstappen not caring. It’s more of a reflection of how he has accepted the reality rather than tried to frustratedly push against it.

Being in a good headspace on the team’s bad days is much healthier for everybody involved, and Verstappen’s learning that his steely side can be tempered with some comedy as well.

And Verstappen has an even simpler answer in conversation with The Race: “Now I probably speak up a bit more, because why not?

“It’s also funny for the guys taking a bit of pressure off. Sometimes you can see maybe like a mechanic being nervous or whatever. I like to take the pressure off for everyone.

“That doesn’t mean that you’re not focused but sometimes it’s nice to have a little laugh just before it starts. It can relax the body a bit more. I think it’s good for everyone.”

Max Verstappen RBR

Verstappen’s speaking to The Race around the launch of a new Red Bull collaboration with team technology partner IRIS. He’s helping front a limited-edition range of headphones with an emphasis on ‘finding your flow’ – or as you might hear it more commonly known in F1, being in the zone.

Cracking the odd joke might seem like the antithesis of that. But as Verstappen sees it, a bit of humour goes a long way. His situation this season is unique – most of the time he’ll be clear of anybody behind, but not quite on terms with the Mercedes drivers in front.

The 70th Anniversary Grand Prix, which took place around 72 hours after our conversation, proved that if an opportunity arises, Verstappen’s game face comes on at the flick of a switch and he can send his team into rapture. In the meantime, he’s finding other ways to make them smile.

Take his message in Hungary. “Well, they had just managed to repair my car so we were not sure how the car was actually going to be, if everything was straight,” he says.

“And then of course I went from seventh to third in the second corner already. I was like, ‘well, that was a simply lovely start!’

“They were like ‘ah, Max, can you please focus’ – after what happened. I mean, I’m focused. It was a bit of fun, you know? Everybody was still probably sweating from preparing the car you know.

“It was also towards them. I think they were laughing, so it’s good.”

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Hungarian Grand Prix Race Day Budapest, Hungary

Verstappen went into the British GP, the race he told his engineer to hydrate, knowing that “the guys behind were also going to be too slow, so it was going to be a bit of a race on my own”.

In some races, even this year, that would be inappropriate. There are plenty of situations during a grand prix where conscious attention is absolutely critical. But it’s a fascinating insight into just how dialled in a driver of Verstappen’s calibre is that even in the quieter moments of a race he has the spare capacity to make a joke, knowing that his subconscious brain will take care of the rest.

The car never stops needing to be driven – he just doesn’t have to think about it. That, Verstappen says, is a driver in full flow.

“At one point you become a bit like a robot where everything just happens very naturally,” says Verstappen. “You don’t need to think about it anymore. You know, lap after lap you know what you have to do.

“But also if you have like changing conditions that’s a different thing again because then you probably need to focus more, like you need to be really alert.

“Like a race like last year in Germany, there is never really a time to rest because the track is changing all the time, you’re on different tyres, it’s wet then it’s dry, pitstops, want to make the right call.

“[In the British GP] I was not really under pressure. You get more like on autopilot or something.”

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship British Grand Prix Race Day Silverstone, England

Verstappen doesn’t have a set trick to reach this state. He says it’s something that has just improved throughout his time in F1, and there’s no specific tradition or routine in the build-up.

“Sometimes I’m listening to music,” he says. “Sometimes I’m playing a game, sometimes walking around, sometimes I need to change quickly because I was busy with something or I’m on a call”.

So you won’t catch a broody Verstappen walking to the grid with a hoodie up and headphones on, blocking out everything around him. To him, getting in the zone is more about having a mindset he can switch on when necessary. That’s when he does his damage.

“I’m not really too fussed about it, and I also don’t want it to be like that because then let’s say you don’t have the opportunity to do it, and then you think ‘ah, because I didn’t do my normal procedure I’m not gonna perform’ – and that would be just stupid,” he says.

“That’s why I don’t add too much value to it.”

Keeping things loose is probably helping him handle the current situation, which he accepted early into the season.

He even tells The Race that had the British GP’s dramatic conclusion gone differently and handed him a victory, instead of Hamilton holding on to win with a last-lap puncture, he’d have found it “a bit weird”.

“Because you win the race, but did you actually win the race? Maybe not,” he argues.

“It’s just a very lucky victory then.”

Verstappen’s had his own misfortune, too. Had he not retired from the season-opening grand prix he’d actually be tantalisingly close to Hamilton at the top of the championship, but it would likely be a misleading picture anyway.

He was fortunate to even start in Hungary let alone finish second, and was runner-up again in Britain despite being comfortably third-best behind the Mercedes duo.

The underlying truth is that Verstappen probably can’t achieve what he hoped, or expected to, this season and that has the capacity to eat away at a driver. But there is no sign of Verstappen becoming the frustrated, edgy character he was while making mistakes in early 2018, the last time things were going awry.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Monaco Grand Prix Saturday Monte Carlo, Monaco

“If I don’t accept the situation then yes, you’re gonna be really upset and frustrated,” he accepts.

“But there’s no point to be like that. It is what it is at the moment, we are too slow, of course, but I just keep working on and we have to appreciate that when we have a good race which is like third or second.

“You have to be happy with that because that’s the best we can do. And maybe we anyway overachieve by being second. You just have to appreciate what you’re doing at the moment, because it doesn’t make sense to keep being frustrated about not being first.

“You have to accept what’s going on.

“We all know that we are a little bit slow to fight first, but it’s also not the end of the world fighting for third – or, driving in third! And that’s still good, it’s not like we are driving last, that would be really depressing.

“Maybe we are sometimes a bit spoiled as well. We want to win. Everybody in the team wants to win, we have a winner’s mentality, but you also have to respect what the competition is doing and you have to be realistic.

“And that at the moment is that we can’t really win on our own pace.”

Verstappen doesn’t know it when we’re speaking, but he’s just three days from that situation changing. At least for one Sunday. The circumstances of the 70th Anniversary GP played into Red Bull’s favour and when that happens Verstappen can be trusted to perform at the absolute highest level.

Refreshingly, though, the humour seems to be sticking. Verstappen might have been driving like a robot on his return to being in contention victory but he wasn’t acting like one.

“We’re a little bit close for tyres at this stage,” Lambiase warned early on. “Just pull back.”

“Mate, this is the only chance of being close to a Mercedes,” Verstappen complained. “I’m not just sitting behind like a grandma.”

Then he added: “I’m being sensible, don’t worry.” And he was. Verstappen had the command of the situation to be confident that pushing a bit more and keeping on in that stage of the race would not be critical for his tyres but could be critical for his chances.

He pressured Mercedes when they were vulnerable and reaped the words. And the soundbites kept coming.

“Forget the tyre management, as fast as you can within the limits of the tyre,” he was instructed.

Verstappen replied: “So basically, we’re just gonna fully send it?”

Then, with the race nearing its conclusion and victory in sight: “GP, did you hydrate during the race? You must have some sweaty hands as well so don’t forget to sanitise.”

Max Verstappen and Alex Albon

F1’s a much better place when Verstappen’s able to provide some on-track entertainment and these moments are Verstappen at his cocky, enjoyable best.

Warm weather in Spain means Verstappen could reprise his role as a huge thorn in Mercedes’ side at Barcelona, or he might be reduced to sniping from a distance once again. Which would be a shame.

Verstappen’s prodigious driving talent is wasted if he’s just the joker of the pack. But there’s a lot to be said for the current version of the Dutchman, who has found a compelling way to combine the two.

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