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Formula 1

‘You shouldn’t stress it’ – The F1 title fight’s mental battle

by Edd Straw
7 min read

Max Verstappen is saying all of the right things when it comes to how he is dealing with the intensity of his first Formula 1 world championship fight.

But with it all coming down to a quickfire run of seven races in 10 weeks, the pressure is only going to grow at the business end of the season and the title could be decided by one unforced error.

You can never know what’s going on inside someone else’s head, but Verstappen doesn’t appear flustered either inside or outside the car.

The only real question that some have posed about him is whether he’s too aggressive in battle, but that’s a longstanding debate that is cast into sharp focus by the title contest rather than created by it.

It does seem that the 24-year-old is taking his first title fight in his stride and looks every bit the champion-in-waiting.

“We’re very relaxed but also very focused and of course we want to win, the whole team wants to win so that mentality is definitely there,” said Verstappen.

“There’s nothing you can force or you have to stress about because we always want to do the best we can anyway so that’s what we’ll try to do this weekend.”

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Turkish Grand Prix Practice Day Istanbul, Turkey

The word ‘force’ is key here. Both for Verstappen and his opponent Lewis Hamilton, who has the advantage of being a veteran of 10 F1 title battles of varying intensity as well as the confidence built winning seven of them, the challenge is focusing on the process of the weekend. It’s easy to say, and many elite athletes certainly talk the talk, but to do so in the decisive moments is the key.

This is why you always hear the cliches about taking it step by step, one race at a time. If you rush it, or force it, then that’s when the mistakes happen. The outcome you desire, the world championship, is the product of following the process and obsessing over the end goal risks being destructive.

Hence Verstappen’s relaxed attitude, recognising that even if he loses, if he and the Red Bull team have followed the process effectively then they will by definition done their job.

“I always do my best and I know that the team is also doing the best they can,” said Verstappen. “If that’s going to be, at the end of the year, first that’s an amazing achievement and that’s what we work for.

“But even if we would finish second we still have a great season and at the end of the day it’s not really going to change my life. I enjoy what I’m doing and I think that’s also very important so for me there is not much to worry about.”

Verstappen knows how he needs to approach it but is he really able to? That’s the question you have to ask of anyone performing in the rarefied environment of sport and it’s possible even he might not know the answer.

F1 Grand Prix Of Turkey Practice

But what is clear is that on track he continues to deliver, which does support the notion that he’s dealing with the title fight well.

If he can continue to do so as the pressure ramps up over the coming two-and-a-half months then he will be in a great position. That’s one of the key components of a champion – the ability to thrive under pressure.

“You shouldn’t really stress it,” said Verstappen. “I know that my team does the best they can and they expect that from me and I always try to get the best out of that.

“We are fully committed to try and make this a success together but you cannot force things, you just have to work well and work hard together and then we’ll find out at the end of the season where that will put us – is that first, is that second, we don’t know.”

What’s unquestionable is that Hamilton’s experience does put him at an advantage. That doesn’t mean it will be a decisive advantage, but given he’s got eight seasons more experience under his belt and more than a decade on Verstappen, how can it fail to be of benefit?

Hamilton knows how to deal with this situation and is better-equipped than he was in his younger days for a title fight. But beyond that, what he says is very similar to Verstappen’s message about following the process.

Lewis Hamilton Mercedes F1

“I generally find it relatively easy,” said Hamilton when asked by The Race how he deals with the intensity and how he has improved in this regard over the years. “I have these other outlets so I’m able to blow off steam in lots of different ways.

“The most important thing is always to be able to come back into the racing environment fresh, recovered, positive and not really have any worries. So I’m able to arrive and just do my job. We just take it one race at a time just always trying to elevate.

“I spend plenty of time talking to the team about how we can advance and improve. I’ve been doing this a long time, so I’ve found ways personally – and what works for me won’t work for everyone – and I know how I tick, what makes me on course and what can put me off course.”

The big difference is that while Verstappen says a world championship won’t change his life, it’s difficult to imagine it won’t. After all, there’s no guarantee that he will be in this position again next year or even beyond, so he will know as well as anyone that he needs to grasp this opportunity. The achieving of a lifetime’s goal can’t fail to have some impact and Verstappen can’t know what that will be any more than the watching world can.

But in Hamilton case, it clearly won’t. He’s a global sporting star, arguably the greatest F1 driver of all time (and given there is no definitive answer to this subjective question, that’s as high a status as anyone can attain) and an eighth title will make little tangible difference.

While it will give him a record for most titles given he currently shares that status with Michael Schumacher, his legacy is already close to fully-formed. That in itself could be a real strength in the closing stages of the season because the stakes are, if not lower for him than Verstappen, they are certainly more familiar.

“It’s not a case of ignoring it because it’s there, but it’s the understanding that what will be will be,” said Hamilton of the title pressure. “All you can do is prepare the best way that you can, all you can do is give it 100% and what’s coming up is coming up, so I just don’t worry about those things.

Lewis Hamilton Mercedes F1

“I’ve been very fortunate in the past. I’ve had lots of ups and downs, but had an amazing time, a lot of growth. So I just don’t worry about what if that’s up ahead, I just try and prepare for now and that means making sure I’ve done the work with the guys back at the factory, with Bono [race engineer Peter Bonnington] and the team.

“You’ve just got to enjoy what an amazing season it has been so far. It’s been super exciting for fans, massively engaging with Netflix round the world, new people coming in. We finally see two teams neck and neck, which is amazing and of course we want to win but you’ve got to learn to let that not overtake everything in your life.”

And that could prove key. Whoever performs when the stakes are at their highest with the freedom they might drive with while blasting around a kart track with nothing at stake could be the decisive factor in becoming 2021 world champion. Hamilton has been there before, Verstappen hasn’t and we’ve yet to see how he stands up to a title run-in.

Max Verstappen Red Bull Lewis Hamilton Mercedes F1

But while that’s good news for Hamilton’s chances, the fact Verstappen appears to show no hint of struggling to deal with the intensity either in and out of the car suggests he’s eminently capable of thriving in this milieu. And that’s the new dimension for Hamilton – facing potentially the toughest title rival he’s ever faced and one who will never back down.

Car performance, team performance and luck will play their part and all could potentially be decisive. But it’s the human beings in the cockpit that have the greatest potential to swing the result in such a close title fight, which is why their approach, outlook and what Jackie Stewart always calls “mind management” could be so critical.

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