Max Verstappen is calmer and faster than ever before, though the glint in his eye remains as mischievous as ever. Speaking to Jennie Gow ahead of this weekend’s Monaco Grand Prix, the young Red Bull driver discusses his school days, sumo-wrestling and why his quest to become an F1 World Champion remains a mission he intends to complete.
This time last year, Max Verstappen was enduring something of a rough patch.
Fast forward to where we are now, and Max has come a long way. The Aston Martin Red Bull Racing driver is now a calmer, happier, more relaxed young man, who is nothing but a pleasure to talk to. Indeed, at no time in our sit-down did I feel like I was walking a tight-rope. Far from it. This was Max at his charming best.
My first question is a little ice-breaker about Baku, from where we are speaking at the time. And though the question is a simple one, his answer speaks volumes about a more relaxed mind-set.
“I haven’t really explored the city much. In general, it’s just hotel to track, track to hotel. You can go earlier… I prefer to be at home and have my time off in between races. In my first season, I went a day earlier. But now, I’ll try and stay home as long as possible.”
He smiles from under his Red Bull baseball cap, and you can tell there is no trepidation. This is a confident young man who is happy to bat away unwanted questions and who, having grown up in the spotlight, has an innate, increasingly mature understanding of when to raise his defences and when he can just be Max.
The contrast between this year and last year is stark. The turning point seemed to be Monaco, where an overly-bold display in FP3 left his hopes of qualifying on pole as broken and damaged as they did his Red Bull car. In a bid to set the fastest time, Max slammed his RB14 into the barriers just after the swimming pool section, and the team weren’t able to put the car back together in time for the qualifying session. The impetuous Dutchman was left to lick his wounds, watching on as his teammate at the time, Daniel Ricciardo, qualified on pole.
Red Bull team boss Christian Horner was repeatedly asked what they could do to help their young charge. Was it all too much too soon?
Whatever conversation took place after that Grand Prix weekend, it surely worked. Max went on to win both the Austrian and Mexican Grands Prix later that year, and was barely off the podium in the second half of the season, after the summer break.
A new teammate for 2019 will have helped Max feel more settled in the team. Now, he is standing tall in the paddock… Hovering above Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel in the World Championship standings.
With Max in relaxed mood and seemingly happy to chat, I move the conversation on. I want to talk to him about his childhood. His mother Sophie Kumpen was one of the best female kart stars of all time, and his father Jos Verstappen, was of course an F1 driver himself. It feels like something close to destiny that Max would go on to race in the series.
“I remember when I was 3 years old cycling around the paddock, the go karting paddock initially, my dad had his own racing team. The whole day, I was gone, and only came back for a drink. And then I was again cycling around, watching the races on my own, or I found a little friend. Sometimes, we couldn’t understand each other because we spoke different languages, but when you are little, you don’t care, you just do stuff together. My Dad was still racing in F1, so the paddock was like a big playground… I was running around, touching things, rolling over. For me, it always felt pretty normal, because it was normal at the time. But when you look back, you realise it wasn’t so normal.”
“Most of my friends are involved in racing, [so] I would race against them as well. It doesn’t mean that we are always talking about racing. Of course, I had friends at school, but they were not as close to me as the ones who were racing. For me, that was what I always wanted to do. And we were always travelling together for races, so I never felt like I was missing out because friends were out partying. They were not! Because they were also racing.”
On the subject of school, Max grins, and looks across at his press officer Victoria, before the pair burst into laughter… It is clear that Max was not an academic who wanted to study. Instead, at a young age, he found his talent for driving.
Did he like school, I ask him?
“Not at all…”, he explains, in no uncertain terms. “I really didn’t like it. I mean, of course school is important if you need it. I always said to myself that I wanted to make sure I didn’t need school to have a good life… Let’s say it like that.”
We natter some more about gaming and SIM racing. Max has recently gone cold turkey on his FIFA playing, and has switched to driving in the simulator when he’s not in the car. We also talk food, something which seems to be a constant topic for the drivers, who are so often away from home and travelling the world. So what does Max like to eat? He admits, cheekily, that if he could eat all the things he would like to eat, he would have to be in a different sport than F1.
“I’m one of the heaviest and tallest drivers. It’s your body composition. It’s a bit genetic. In my family, we are all a bit heavy build. If I would eat what I like, I’d probably go into sumo-wrestling or something. I like unhealthy food – I would like a burger, a pizza, pasta. I really like pasta. My favourite food is tomato soup and carpaccio.”
But Max has a keen appetite for more than just food.
At 21, Max is totally devoted to racing and giving himself every opportunity to win a World Championship title with Red Bull. The plan has always been to become a World Champion. But winning in F1 takes more than just being fast. You have to be in the right place at the right time, and for Max, he arrived just after the dominant years of Red Bull.
Since Max starting racing in F1, Mercedes have won the title in every year. Furthermore, he has sat through the spat between the team and their engine supplier, Renault.
But he is coming out the other side. Now, Renault is gone and Red Bull has a shiny new relationship with Japanese engine manufacturer Honda. The partnership has started very well and appears far healthier than was the case with Renault. And if the team can unlock the potential of the car, they certainly have a driver who can be a race winner, and much more.
“The only thing left for me to do at the moment is to win more races… and to win a World Championship. That’s definitely the target. As a driver, you are constantly improving, so hopefully at one point, we can get the package together to achieve that.”
With the Orange Army behind him, his legion of fans will be cheering him on. In the meantime, it’s safe to say that Max Verstappen has come a long way since last year. Now, he is happier, at ease with himself and ready to take the challenge to Mercedes and Ferrari.
Images courtesy of Getty Images.