Max Verstappen has, for years now, been Formula One’s hottest talent. At just 23, he’s taken the sport by storm with his searing speed, his razor-sharp overtakes, and his frenzied, orange-shirted fans that — pre-pandemic — packed the grandstands by the tens of thousands to cheer him on. But while his first six seasons at the pinnacle of motorsport were strong, he was always the underdog — even at top squad Red Bull Racing, where he’s been since Spain 2016, and where he’s stolen the occasional race win (10 in all between 2016 and 2020) from the table of dominant marque Mercedes, and its juggernaut driver, seven-time F1 world champion Sir Lewis Hamilton.
All that has changed this year, though, with Red Bull’s RB16B car. It’s a rocket; Honda threw open the paddock gate to bring all the horses home in its final year as power unit partner before pulling out of F1. The result is that, for the first time in his career, Verstappen has a car that’s equal to the field’s fastest — enough to beat Mercedes, a team that has dominated F1’s turbo-hybrid era since 2014 and secured seven straight title doubles. But to lift that maiden crown, Verstappen will need to go 23 rounds with Hamilton.
Did the Dutchman immediately realize the RB16B was going to be so strong, from the first shakedown test at Silverstone in February? “Not immediately,” he says. “There’s always a bit of time where you have to set up the car to what you like, because of the regulation changes. But I think during the test, we saw that we were in a decent shape. So, that’s, of course, very satisfying.”
So far, Verstappen and Hamilton have been trading blows. At the Bahrain season opener, Verstappen finished second to Hamilton only because he illegally passed Hamilton off-track for the lead in the race’s closing stages, forcing Verstappen to give the lead back to Hamilton. At the next race, a wet Imola racetrack in Italy, Verstappen barged past Hamilton for the lead on turn two of lap one. He never looked back, securing his 11th win in Formula One. (His rival, though, finished in second after going off-track at the famous Tosa hairpin on lap 31, which meant impressively fighting his way back from ninth.)
Verstappen recently secured victories in France and Monaco following Hamilton wins in Portugal and Spain, both of which saw Verstappen cross the finish line in second. But the Dutchman knows Hamilton can be rattled. “Clearly, you can see when the pressure comes on, people can make mistakes,” says Verstappen. “Have I learnt anything from [Hamilton]? I know that he rarely makes mistakes. Of course, he did at Imola, and he then got a bit lucky with the red flag to unlap himself. I guess that’s champion’s luck. But it’s fine. It’s still such a long season that these races aren’t going to define it yet. Of course, we have to keep on going, try to improve, and do even better.”
All of this is mostly going on behind closed doors, given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic — meaning it’s something of a lonely fight, too. “Yeah, it feels a bit different, of course, because of the lack of atmosphere around the track,” says Verstappen. “Sadly, we’ve got a bit used to it because of last year, and I think it will be a bit weird when they finally come back again. But, of course, it would be really nice to see them all back. And I’m pretty sure the first race where full attendance is allowed is going to be great. So, at the moment, it’s a shame, but we just have to get through with it, get on with it, and try to not think about it too much and hope that everything will be back to as normal as possible very soon.”
But if you think a lack of fans at the track and a protracted title battle with the sport’s most successful driver would tip Verstappen over the edge, think again. He is super-resilient and doesn’t need mind-management tricks to get what he wants: that World Championship. “To be honest, I don’t really think [my mental game is] a problem,” he says. “We just need to make sure that — as a team — we have a fast car and we do things well and without mistakes. That is going to be the most important thing for the rest of this season because people will get a bit tired; people will make mistakes. We have to make sure we make the fewest mistakes.”
He has also not made any changes to his lifestyle. He is doing exactly what he loves, has a routine locked in, and knows what he needs to do — on the track and off — to keep achieving as he has. It’s about keeping it simple. “I just like to go home and spend time with family and friends,” he says. “I think that’s what I’ve been doing for quite a few years, and it works well for me. Like, basically, not doing much travelling.”
Make no mistake, though, it is a gruelling season. A record 23 races on the calendar and two triple-headers (races held across three straight weekends) are likely to put the F1 paddock under maximum strain. “[It doesn’t matter] if it’s 21 or 23, it’s pretty similar in the way that you handle the season,” he says. “But, of course, there are some double-headers and triple-headers, and they’re going to be quite tough. But we also did that last year. To do 17 races [in 23 weeks last year], it was very busy. I think we’re ready for it, though. Personally, I think it’s too much. But we cannot decide the calendar. I think it’s going to be fine. Luckily, I’m still very young. So that helps.”
Thankfully, Verstappen can bank on more support from his new teammate, Sergio Pérez, who Red Bull Racing drafted after Pierre Gasly and Alex Albon wilted under the pressure of matching the Dutchman in qualifying. Pérez is an F1 veteran — 2021 is his 11th season in the sport — who is taking his shot at the top with both hands. The Mexican got the call-up after winning last year’s Sakhir Grand Prix from last place. And he’s delivering for the team, even grabbing a win in Azerbaijan and outqualifying Verstappen at Imola — an important achievement that leaves the Dutchman in need of a strong rear gunner for strategic options to outsmart Hamilton’s Silver Arrows. “Yeah, I think that’s going quite well,” Verstappen says of his new teammate. “From my side, I think he’s a very nice guy, he fits very well into the team, and we’ll just try to make it more difficult for Mercedes now in the coming races.”
And Red Bull is strengthening in other ways, too. With its power unit partner, Honda, set to pull out of the sport at the end of 2021, the team is taking on its own engine development program, extending its own facilities. It has even poached a number of staff from Mercedes to get up to speed. “It’s quite normal,” says Verstappen of Red Bull taking the next step in its F1 journey and becoming just the second team, after Ferrari, to develop chassis and engine “under one roof” — namely, its Milton Keynes base. “If you want to do well, and you’re seeing such a dominant force [like Mercedes], you will always try to find a few people to strengthen your team, and that’s what we are doing. So for me, that’s not really a surprise. It’s more a must, to be more competitive.”
Naturally, responses like this make you think he’s either playing it down, or just ultra-serious. But Verstappen knows what he wants — and sees he’s getting that, finally, after years of sitting behind a Mercedes. So, ask if there’s a buzz in the factory, given the competitiveness of the car, and it’s straight back to thinking about the long game. “It’s good, and you can get excited for a bit. But we just have to keep on working, because it’s nice to be competitive,” says Verstappen. “We can’t live in the moment. We always have to work harder and try to be better.”
The biggest question long-term is whether Verstappen will stay with Red Bull; rumours persist that he will one day jump ship to Mercedes and replace Hamilton, who is now in the twilight of his career. (It’s the same hopeful rumours that once projected Hamilton moving to Ferrari.) But why would Verstappen move now? Red Bull is only getting stronger, and his team is custom-fitted to him like a Savile Row suit. Together, they’re fighting for the greatest prize in motorsport. “That’s what we are trying to do already, of course, this year,” he says. “And we’ll try to do that for a long time. I feel good in the team, and this is exactly what we want, and what we also agreed to for the future. So, of course, it’s always hard to picture a year where that’s finally going to happen. Of course, we wish it had already [happened], but we are on a good track, and hopefully we can do this together for a long time.”
It’s been a long and winding road to the 2021 title fight, but Red Bull Racing and Max Verstappen are ready for it. It’s game on.
How does it feel knowing you’re going to be fighting for pole position and the win at almost every round?
For us, it’s a great start and we know it’s still a long season. So we can’t afford any mistakes, and we just have to keep on trying to score good points every single weekend. And, basically, so far, we’ve done that. So I’m pretty pleased with that.
In late June, you head to Austria for two races at the Red Bull Ring. You have won there twice (2018 and 2019). Which is your favourite victory?
I think the second one, because of the start. I had the anti-stall kick in, and then coming through the field [from seventh] on a track where it’s hard to pass. And in general, it was the first victory for Honda in the hybrid era. So it was nice; it was really enjoyable. Of course, we also [had to wait for] the stewards’ decision [after an aggressive overtake for the lead on Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc that was cleared], and that took away from it. But it was definitely a good one.
Later in July is the British Grand Prix. The two races at Silverstone were so different last year, with the British Grand Prix all about those chaotic final two laps [both Mercedes cars had tire blowouts], and then you won the 70th Anniversary race comfortably. What was that like for you?
It was a double-header, and the first one [the British Grand Prix] was a bit boring for me. I was in third and then everything went crazy in the last two laps. But we basically over-performed there getting into second place. And then we had the right strategy with the tires on the second weekend. It seemed like our car was handling the tires a bit better in the heat. That’s how we could win in a season where Mercedes was, of course, very dominant, especially in the beginning and the middle of the season.
All images: Red Bully/Getty