By Dan Knutson and Livio Orrichio
The driver who most consistently challenged Lewis Hamilton during the closing stages of the Formula One season was not Sebastian Vettel, whose championship hopes were fading, but instead Max Verstappen.
After a rocky start to the year, Verstappen closed it out with a win, three second-place finishes and two third-place efforts during the final seven races. By contrast, he had just one podium finish in the first six rounds.
Verstappen came under a lot of criticism during those six races because he was making mistakes and having accidents. Plus there were mechanical woes. It culminated in Monaco where he clipped the wall during qualifying and started the race from the back of the grid. He finished ninth, while his Red Bull teammate Daniel Ricciardo won the pole and the race.
Despite his critics, Verstappen resolutely stuck to his promise that he was not going to change the way he drove. And then the tide turned. After the disappointment of Monaco, Verstappen had three solid races in a row — third in Canada, second in France and first in Austria.
“After Monaco I would say the rest of races were quite good,” he said.
What caused the turnaround?
“Of course, there is a constant progress in the car and that definitely worked,” he noted. “The first six races didn’t go the way I liked, but we made some little changes and I feel like I am also performing better.”
What went wrong at the start of the season?
“I wanted too much,” Verstappen acknowledged. “I wanted results. I was too eager. So from my feeling I slowed down a little bit, which made me faster in a way. I was a bit more in control. Before it was not all or nothing, but it would be a little more risk. I found a nice way of balancing it — still being aggressive but in a little more of a balanced way.”
That balanced aggression led to points finishes in all but two of the final 15 races.
AGE OR EXPERIENCE
Verstappen, who turned 21 Sept. 30, keeps getting better and better as a driver. He graduated from go-karts to Formula 3 in 2014 and moved up to Formula One in 2015. Then, in May 2016, he was promoted from Scuderia Toro Rosso to the senior Red Bull Racing and he won his debut race with the team. Asked about making the jump to Formula One at such a young age, and if other drivers can do the same, Verstappen believes age is relevant to experience.
“It depends on the way you have been preparing from a young age,” he pointed out. “I had my dad (former F-1 driver Jos Verstappen) helping me a lot. He knew what it took to become a F-1 driver, so that is why I was already very experienced for my age. I don’t think everybody can do it like that — it just depends on the people you have around you to make you already that experienced with a car and the knowledge of doing things.
“That is one scenario, but you also have a lot of talented people who maybe come into the sport a bit later in life and also achieve a lot. For me, everything was a bit fast-tracked because of my dad.”
Max Verstappen continues to learn on the job.
“Now it is more about overall general experience, which makes me better,” he said. “There are some little things which could be better. I have been racing a car now for five years — four years in Formula One and one year in Formula 3. So I didn’t really have a lot of experience or a lot of qualifying sessions to get the experience. So through the years I just got better; you understand the tires better as well and how to get them to the limit.
“People are comparing you to drivers who have been driving formula cars for 10 years or more,” Verstappen added. “So it is never easy initially because everybody in F-1 is quick and when you don’t have that experience initially it is hard to beat them. Through the years you become better at it.”
Verstappen renewed his contract with Red Bull in October 2017 to extend through 2020. What was not announced was his increase in pay, which reportedly will soon be $30 million a year.
But was he tempted to look elsewhere, specifically Mercedes and Ferrari?
“Hmmm, well you always speak to people around the paddock when your contract runs out,” he said. “But anyway, I have a good relationship with the team principals. They are very nice people, so there is nothing wrong about saying ‘hello, how are you?’ Or to have a conversation about life or their family. For example, with (Mercedes boss) Toto (Wolff) I have been a visitor at his house.
“So for me it is not only talking about contracts because if they really want you then they will have a contract for you to sign,” Verstappen added. “But I felt really comfortable at Red Bull and I believe in the team. So that is why we renewed.”