Fresh from a winter break on the back of two Grand Prix victories at the end of last season, Aston Martin Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen is no longer the sport’s young pretender. Writing exclusively for Mobil 1 The Grid, Jennie Gow assesses the mind of a champion in the making, as Max bids to win his maiden F1 World Championship. But first, he’ll have to beat his teammate, Daniel Ricciardo.
In 2016, I wrote an article for this website about Max Verstappen. It was just after his first F1 win in Spain. At the time, I wondered what would be next for the then 18 year old. Many were comparing him to the likes of Sebastian Vettel, Michael Schumacher and even the great Ayrton Senna, but could he go on to join them as one of the biggest names in Formula One?
Two years on and, despite only having won a further two races, Max has a strut, a self-belief and an attitude which belies his age and his relative novice status within the sport. He knows that, given the right car, he can win a title. There appears to be no doubt about that in his mind.
He and Aston Martin Red Bull Racing teammate Daniel Ricciardo make up one of the strongest driver pairings on the grid. Yet, despite the pressure and the expectation on both drivers, there is always time for fun and games.
Arguably more than any other teammates in the paddock, Max and Daniel give off a sense that they are mates in a college fraternity. Joking around, taking part in sometimes off-the-wall PR days and generally being the life and soul of the F1 party.
But beneath the jokes is a young man driven for success.
In October of last year, Max put pen to paper to commit his future to Red Bull until the end of 2020. Still very much friends as it stands, now Daniel has to assess his options and decide if he wants to fight for the number one spot against a young driver who seemingly has the world at his feet. A new contract beckons for him, too.
But whatever Ricciardo chooses to do next, the pressure will be on for Max to prove his worth this season. The team have put their faith in him, and if he has the car to battle at the front, which the first signs of testing suggest he very well may, then he needs to continue with his fearless approach and make the most of every opportunity he can.
Two wins last season, in Malaysia and Mexico, while impressive, is not going to be enough to battle with the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Vettel for the title.
A further step is needed. And Max knows it, too.
One of the biggest problems for him and his prospective title challenge since he started with Red Bull back in 2016 has been the lack of oomph at the start of the season. Red Bull have become famous for their rate of development over the course of a season. But for one reason or another, the team have been slow out of the blocks and have only really been able to compete once the season gets going, in around May and June. By that time, any real hopes of a title fight have gone.
The team’s fortunes are also somewhat in the hands of engine supplier Renault as they seek to find the right balance between performance and reliability.
This year, Max needs to find his inner Raging Bull. If he wants to win a title, he needs to come out of the gates like a rodeo rider as the bell rings. Last year, he suffered five retirements in the first nine races; a stat that must haunt him as he looks back at the season gone. What might have been if he didn’t suffer those three crucial back-to-back issues in Canada, Azerbaijan and Austria?
The question now is, are the team in a better place this year?
The reality is that no one will really know until the first race in Melbourne. And that’s something the young Dutchman knows all too well.
“Even after winter testing, it’s a bit difficult to really say where you are or how quick you are,” Max told Mobil 1 The Grid, in an exclusive interview ahead of the 2018 season.
“I try to stay neutral. You just have to wait and see until you hit the ground running in Australia.”
This year, just to make matters even harder for the 20 year old, it is likely that he will have another team to contend with, not just the Mercedes and the Ferrari, but also the Renault-powered McLaren. Indeed, Max may very well find himself having to compete with a rampant Fernando Alonso who, undoubtedly, remains one of the best drivers in F1, and who is desperate for another title to add to those of 2005 & 2006.
Max is in no doubt that, if he is to compete for a title this year, he wants to do it in the right way. And that means beating the competition.
Commenting on Lewis’ success at Mercedes, he explains that he would rather be challenged on his way to an F1 drivers’ title than “winning easy, like Mercedes”.
“With the package he has, with Mercedes, and being very reliable, of course [he] can win championships,” said Max.
“To have a real challenge, instead of winning it easy, like Mercedes has been doing for a few years, that would give me more satisfaction.”
Comments like that may sound precocious to many but, to me, it’s just Max being Max. He is the son of an extremely shrewd former F1 driver and, when it comes to a winning mentality, I think there aren’t many who would be bettered by Max, despite his young age and modest number of victories in the sport so far.
In all forms of elite sport, mindset is key. If you aren’t on your A-game in all aspects, you are fodder for the rest of the field, especially if you have a teammate like Daniel Ricciardo, who will challenge you all the way and take any opportunity he can to show that he is the better driver.
While Max and Daniel will be competing on track this season – and you sense that the easy banter between the two might not be quite as free-flowing as the battle intensifies – one thing that unites the two, and will hopefully continue to do so for their entire F1 careers, is their honest nature in a PR-driven world. There is no caging the opinions of either driver.
Max and Daniel speak freely and neither is shy of giving a direct opinion; which they sometimes share, sometimes don’t. Max has, however, been blunt with his view on the halo device: “The car is very ugly with it. So I’ll keep saying that for the rest of the season, because I really don’t like it. It’s a shame really for Formula One. So it’s a bit safer but, at the end of the day, you can never make it 100% safe.”
As he grows into the sport, Max realises that what he says now aren’t just words. They carry a certain amount of, not just responsibility but also, power: The power to influence, the power to change and the power to drive a team to greatness.
Let’s see what 2018 brings. With one of the best line-ups in the paddock, this could be a career-defining season for both Red Bull drivers. Will it be Daniel, or will it be Max, who reaches the promised land of a world title first?