Max Verstappen interview: "Not winning kills you on the inside"
Max Verstappen is living in the moment, just as you would expect from a Formula 1 driver who is still only 20 years old.
Does he ever wonder what he’s missing out on, given the time and commitment he must sacrifice to be a top-line F1 star?
“I do, but I also very quickly realise I can do other things when I’m 40 years old,” he says. “I’ll try to make the best out of the upcoming 15 or 16 years, I would say. It depends if I am getting tired of it in that time, but I don’t think so.”
What he says next sounds much like an echo of his old man. The paternal influence is profound.
"You very quickly realise when you stop F1 what’s better than driving such cars and basically having a great life,” he says. “Speaking to ex-F1 drivers, try to do it as long as you can. You still have a very long life after that.”
Jos Verstappen’s lad hasn’t changed much since he burst on to the scene as a youngest-ever 17-year-old in 2015 – because he was remarkably fully formed from the start. As the son of a head-strong ex-grand prix driver, and a mother who was a talented kart racer, he’s happy to acknowledge he’s not normal.
“I was getting prepared from four years old, which is different to other people, and [my development] was a lot faster as well,” he says. “I learned things as I grew up just because of my dad. Of course, he pushed me hard and sometimes I would ask why he was like this. I wouldn’t call it pressure, but [I had to be] professional from a very young age.
“I saw my team-mates or people my own age just playing around and having fun. I had fun, but in a different way. Now I understand why it had to be like that because of course it prepared me for big things.”
At times, it’s disconcerting how clinically he was bred for this F1 life, like some prize bull. The focus is total and all directed on the end result.
When asked whether he still gets a boyish thrill from driving, he says: “In practice you are always thinking ‘how can I improve the car?’ At that time you are not enjoying it because you are thinking about how can I do better? Once you are in the race and in your position you can enjoy it a bit more. But practice and qualifying, it’s not about enjoyment, it’s about how can I go faster? When you are thinking like that I can’t enjoy myself.”
But this is no automaton. Verstappen has bags of character and while F1 clearly dominates his life, it doesn’t consume him.
“You have times when you switch off,” he says. “You know your moments to pick when you can relax. You can’t be 365 days a year fully focused on F1. Or on any sport – nobody is like that. You need your own time, to spend time with your family and friends, when you don’t have to think about how am I going to set a purple sector time next weekend…”
Speaking of purple sectors, how many will he be setting in a Red Bull-Honda next year? Daniel Ricciardo seems to think not many, given his shock switch to Renault. Verstappen, who committed his future to Red Bull surprisingly early, isn’t about to make any rash predictions.
“I’ll have to wait and see,” he says. “At the moment it’s difficult to judge. We are all very motivated for next year already, and we won’t need to wait two or three races for parts to be validated as we do at the moment because the factory team gets them first. Next year if there is something new it will come to the car straight away.”
The change up from Renault customer to Honda factory team is clearly a focus for Verstappen. He’s banking on that counting for Red Bull.
“If you are fighting Mercedes and Ferrari you need to be like a factory team because they are like that,” he says. “Every single weekend they try to optimise everything they have and we would like to be like that. We just hope we’ll have some more horsepower. Then we will surely do a very good job because our car is very strong.”
Verstappen is comfortable in his F1 life, even if a title bid is beyond his team right now. He’s relatively content in the moment, and certainly wouldn’t swap ‘his’ era for an earlier one. The past holds little interest.
“Not really,” he says. “This is the fastest car to be in and safest as well. I would like to try a car for a day, like a 1992 or 1994 car, something like that. Not older than 1992. I’m not really interested in historic cars.”
He approves of modern F1 – mostly.
“Except for the halo it looks really good,” he offers. “Look at that picture” – he points to a photo of a 2018 Red Bull on the wall – “Now you are pretty much used to it, but it still looks ugly. Take the thing off and the car is brutal and looks really nice.”
But he has opinions on what he’d like for the next generation of F1 car, stating a desire for “more equal engines and not as complicated, so more engine manufacturers would join F1”.
“I like the new cars,” he adds, expanding on the theme. “The 2016 cars were toy cars to drive. They were so limited. And also if you look at them now with the rear wings being lower and wider they look a lot better.
“But I think we could have got the performance we have now in a different way, not relying so much on the front and rear wing. If you made a bigger floor with skirts you could get to this lap time we have now, and it would be easier to follow. The wings are too complex and the turbulence that is coming off the cars is too much.”
Away from F1, he’s too well connected to his sport not to be interested in other areas. But he’s not about to take a leaf out of Fernando Alonso’s book and race at Le Mans or the Indy 500.
“I think it mainly happens with drivers who are not winning: they want to win again,” he says. “That gives you the motivation to keep going and [in F1] Fernando hasn’t been in a position to win lately. My dad had exactly the same: he was in F1, not winning and at one point your motivation just disappears. You can do it for a few years, but it’s just killing you on the inside.”
Those words might come back to haunt him if Honda doesn’t step up in 2019. Red Bull has gambled all on a manufacturer that has underperformed woefully for nearly four seasons. If that continues next year, how long will Verstappen’s patience last?