Max Verstappen is a tough racing driver. But he insists he is not aggressive. There’s something about that term he doesn’t like.
“I feel like I just race hard,” Verstappen tells The Race in an exclusive interview.
“I don’t feel like I race aggressive. Of course, I will make it difficult if people will try to pass me. I will always try to make it difficult for them, to put them in difficult positions.
“But I think my awareness of where I can position my car is really good and I haven’t been involved in having another car off the track. I have zero penalty points. I think that says quite a lot.
“I have been racing hard my whole career. And the last few years, the aggressive approach is out. I’m just making it more difficult for people.
“Of course, some people might think a bit different about that, but I actually think that the racing side is a really strong point of mine and I also really know how to stay out of trouble.
“But that is not always in your hands if other people drive into you.”
Verstappen ends on a thinly veiled reference to Lewis Hamilton and their controversial collision in the British Grand Prix. We’re speaking to the Red Bull driver shortly before he’s due to face the media on the Thursday of the Hungarian Grand Prix, a few hours before he will get annoyed by the line of questioning about that Silverstone accident, and a few days before a first-corner Hungarian Grand Prix pile-up will knock him off the top of the championship standings.
“I will continue to race like I did,” he says of Silverstone. “I felt like I didn’t do anything wrong in that fight.
“I gave him more than enough space but he completely misjudged the cornering speeds, and especially the angle he went into that corner there was no way he was going to make the corner with the speed he entered it.
Verstappen and Hamilton collide!
The title rivals come together at Copse, pitching Verstappen into a high-speed crash.
— Formula 1 (@F1) July 18, 2021
“When you go so close to the inside wall, on the entry to Copse and then still try to do the same speed as I am doing while opening up the corner again and then giving him more than a car width space, you’re going run out of road. But this time he ran into my right rear and caused me to hit the wall.
“I was very well aware where I was positioning my car and I also know that you go in with such a tight angle, especially from his side, from entry to mid to the exit you have to open up the corner, to give him the space. But he still ran out of space.
“From my side I continue to race like I did. And I think he will also learn from what happened there.”
Our chat is a relative moment of calm in a tense couple of weeks that, come the final races of the season, could have a huge bearing on the outcome of Verstappen’s title bid. Not that he would let on, before or after the events of the Hungarian GP that would cost him the lead of the world championship.
Verstappen will be annoyed that it happened, but it won’t be consuming him over the summer break. He has often been an extremely laidback character off-track. Before Hungary he’d think about the championship standings very rarely. “Maybe once every 10 days,” he says. That’s probably no different now.
What may seem a laissez-faire attitude towards the greatest opportunity of his career so far is actually a reflection of Verstappen’s uncomplicated attitude towards things.
When he’s racing, he is entirely devoted to the task at hand. When he’s not, he relaxes. It has been his approach since youth – something that would drive his father Jos crazy as it gave the impression Max didn’t care.
But he always has, and still does. The build-up to the Hungarian GP gave a reminder that he can quickly boil over when he snapped at getting questions about his collision with Hamilton.
It had echoes of 2018, when the intense scrutiny his run of incidents provoked all got a bit too much in Canada and, having faced several questions about it, he suggested he’d headbutt someone if he got asked about that anymore.
These are fleeting moments of losing an otherwise vice-like grip of control on his emotions. But on-track, Verstappen retains a clarity of thought that observers might believe is sometimes absent.
At Silverstone, where Verstappen refused to give Hamilton an inch more than required in their half-a-lap scrap before the Copse contact, critics suggested Verstappen didn’t drive like a man with a healthy points lead. That’s because he didn’t.
“I wasn’t extra cautious or more aggressive,” Verstappen insists. “I was just being myself and how I approached my racing already for a long time.
“So that points lead doesn’t really do anything.”
You may believe him or not. You may interpret that to be a mix of confidence and honesty, or blind arrogance. But it’s an interesting insight into Verstappen’s mentality.
Verstappen is not to be intimidated in this battle. That was already noted earlier in the season on-track, when he launched a hard but fair move (with Hamilton’s assistance) to take the lead of the Spanish Grand Prix at the first corner. And it was shown off-track when he dismissed a suggestion from Hamilton that he might have something to prove.
A few days later Verstappen won the Monaco Grand Prix and gleefully pointed out in the post-race press conference that it’s better to do your talking on the track.
Verstappen looks completely at home in this high-stakes environment. He has switched from feeding off scraps to feasting at the head table this season and doesn’t appear at all out of place: of the eight grands prix where something dramatic hasn’t befallen him he’s won five and finished second in the other three.
Being a title contender has changed little about his demeanour or his approach. If anything, he says, “I feel more relaxed”.
“It feels better to be honest. It’s nice, knowing that you have the car and that I have to do the job. But for me that doesn’t give me any more pressure because that’s what I have to do anyway.
“That’s what I always wanted to do. Otherwise, it’s better to stop, right? If you don’t feel comfortable with trying to perform.
“So, I’m enjoying it a lot. And when you’re at home, you don’t need to think about it.
“I don’t get carried away. I’m just very focused on every single race weekend. It’s a lot better going to race weekend knowing that there is a big chance of fighting for a win compared to just occasionally having a shot at it. So, I feel a lot better.”
This is an opportunity he has been preparing for years. When he was just aged 17, Verstappen was already clearly talented enough for F1. The years since have been spent rounding him out as a driver – a process most go through in other junior categories, which Verstappen skipped.
Last year Verstappen was remarkably consistent, a thorn in the side of Mercedes at every opportunity, quick enough to split them a surprising amount of the time and – were it not for bad luck – so good in a clearly inferior car that he arguably should have finished second in the championship.
Red Bull’s legendary chief technical officer Adrian Newey speaks incredibly highly of the driver and person Verstappen has become.
“He has the same steely grit that any world champion needs to dig in and keep going in the face of adversity,” says Newey. “If things go wrong he can put that behind him and look forward to the next one.
“His driving ability is obviously superb, his ability to live with a neutral car where the rear end moves around a little bit, is exceptional.
“And he’s matured into a great racer. He’s really not made any mistakes this year. If you include Hungary, which was semi-effectively a DNF, then he’s had three DNFs through no fault of his own. But he’s kept his head and bounced back from all of those.
“His natural speed is very clear. His feedback is very good. I’ve seen it all in terms of driver feedback which is a huge variable, you get some drivers who talk endlessly and start with the first stage of entry into Turn 1 finishing at the last stage of exit of Turn 20. I’ve fallen asleep by then, I’ve lost concentration. Whereas Max has got a very good balance of concentrating on the key parts he needs to make the car fast.
“He’s very easy to chat to. He’s got a range of interests, which I think is very important for an F1 driver. If your only interest is F1, that can almost make it too important when the pressure comes on. Max has a very good balance in that sense.”
But this was the case last year too. It may have even been underappreciated just how good Verstappen already was in 2020.
F1 sporting boss Ross Brawn suggested earlier this season that Verstappen had learned in this title fight that he needed to grasp every chance and bank every point possible and worked out how to balance risk and reward.
We suggest to Verstappen that this was, with precious few exceptions, already the case last season.
“Yeah, for me as well,” he agrees. “I think I got a lot better at that over the years, even though I think it’s very natural.
“I did one year of F3 and then I went straight into F1 so you have to learn that, especially when you have a car just fighting more at the front, you don’t need to race all or nothing all the time.
“You need to score points on every single grand prix. That’s not always possible or in your hands to score points, but I do think it’s been going well already since 2018 I would say.
“You still get better at it, but I had that approach ready for a long time. This year, knowing that you have a car to fight for the championship, you have to be extra on it.
“But I also felt like last year I was doing that.”
The reference to 2018 takes us back to his run of incidents at the start of that season and the questions about whether he needed to change his approach. Despite his protestations, it turned out he did change his approach. He admitted to it later that year.
Now he says: “I always wanted to be first, before. Every single practice session. I always wanted to be the quickest where it’s not always necessary. That’s what changed a little bit over the years.”
It moulded Verstappen into a driver who, at his best, seems almost robotically in-tune with his car. And he’s at his best an awful lot.
It’s rare to see him struggle through a session or get worked up, although the last couple of events Red Bull’s struggle with understeer has perhaps drawn some more frustration to the surface. Anything less would be odd, though, given the intensity of the title fight. His opposite number at Mercedes isn’t exactly ice-cool 100% of the time either…
Though Verstappen has been at a very high level for a couple of seasons now, there are bound to be ways he’s better in 2021 than 2020. One thing he shares with almost every other driver in F1 is that each season he spends in F1 he gets a bit more experience and that helps improve something, somewhere, in his arsenal.
But in his case, it’s hard to judge where he is a better driver this year. Even he doesn’t know. There’s a difference, he reckons, but it’s not in his driving technique or his on-track results.
“It’s difficult to say if I’m better or whatever, have I improved,” Verstappen admits.
“I do think everything is a bit smoother. I have more experience again, which I guess helps in terms of overall performance.”
It’s a slightly dismissive response but it’s not a case of Verstappen shrugging his shoulders. The days of big year-on-year gains are already behind him. Acknowledging that things are coming together a little easier each season is easier than identifying exactly why that’s the case.
Part of it will be the Red Bull relationship. Every year the team wraps itself around Verstappen a little more, knowing how good he is and how important he is to Red Bull’s ambitions.
This is something that happens with all of the rare, truly great drivers. It creates a very strong relationship, with the team and driver increasingly confident that each side can get exactly what it needs from the other.
Curiously, Verstappen even cites Red Bull’s response to the Silverstone clash with Hamilton as an example of that.
“I was very disappointed because of what happened in Silverstone,” he says.
“But what happened afterwards really shows that we are just one big family with the support I had from everyone within Red Bull. Sometimes you forget about these kinds of things, but that really shows how much we all care for each other.
“It was for me a confirmation that I’m at the right place.”
And, finally, at the right time as well. Because Red Bull has given Verstappen a championship-worthy car and he has slotted seamlessly into the role of title challenger as a result.
His evolution as a driver meant that was widely anticipated but you never know until it happens, especially as Verstappen has not won a title in car racing because he only spent one season in the junior categories (fighting for the F3 title but as an underdog) before joining the F1 midfield.
Not that Verstappen lets on too much about whether his shift into championship-challenging mode has gone as planned.
“It’s difficult to really expect anything,” he says. “I was hoping to have a really competitive car from the start and we had that.
“We’ve had a lot of great moments. Of course, a few little hiccups, but overall still very strong. I’m very confident that we can have a very strong rest of the season.”
During which we can be confident of a few things. He’ll win more races, he’ll drive as “hard” as he feels is necessary to do that, and the championship situation will not sway his approach.
This is Max Verstappen in a title fight. And he’s not going to change a thing.