Max Verstappen showing wisdom beyond years at F1 Canadian Grand Prix
Growing up in public is never easy, doubly so under the extraordinary scrutiny to which drivers are exposed. As well as the intensity of the racing, everything that flows from it – interviews, opinion and relationships with other drivers – are all subject to the spotlight. The glare firmly caught F1’s youngest ever driver, Max Verstappen, in the buildup to the Canadian Grand Prix, but to be fair to the 17-year-old he has handled it with a calm assurance that belies his tender years.
This comes as no surprise to his father, Jos, who raced in F1 between 1994 and 2003. “You need to have confidence in yourself, if you don’t it is better you stay at home,” he said before Saturday’s qualifying. “All the very good drivers have confidence, even when they were young, and why shouldn’t you? I look at Max’s career in karts and F3 and he should have confidence in himself.”
Verstappen is still not old enough to legally drive a road car in his native Netherlands and with only one full campaign in F3 for Van Amesrfoort Racing (the team that now boasts Michael’s son, Mick Schumacher) made his debut this season for Toro Rosso. With a he promptly became the youngest driver to score world championship points and his late-braking up the inside into corners has been both ballsy and breathtaking, but it was at Monaco that some of F1’s real lessons began.
Having never driven the circuit before, Verstappen made quite the debut: second fastest in first practice, just over a 10th of a second behind Lewis Hamilton, he went on to prove himself undaunted by the unforgiving circuit and was on a charge when he hit the back of Romain Grosjean’s Lotus and . It was his first big accident in F1, from which he thankfully walked away, but the fallout has followed him to Canada. Felipe Massa had criticised him in the immediate aftermath and did so again in Montreal on Thursday. Sitting just feet away from Verstappen in the FIA press conference Massa, whose baby face and smile belies the gimlet-eyed steel he always brings to this subject matter, reiterated his position unequivocally, saying: “I think he needs to be penalised because what he did was wrong”.
Yet Verstappen remained entirely unfazed. “Well, everybody can have their opinion,” he said, before adding: “I’m focusing on Canada right now. Maybe you should review the race from last year and see what happened there.” That was a nod to Massa’s high-speed accident when he tried to go up the inside of Sergio Pérez, on the last lap. Here, then, was a young man unafraid to parry and strike over an incident for which he was subsequently judged responsible and given a five-place grid penalty.
Verstappen’s father, understandably, has no problems with this. “It’s good that Max says what he thinks,” he said. “It’s a learning process, he has to stand up for himself and that is what he is doing. Why should Massa give an opinion on what happened in the race? He would do better to look to himself and make sure he is in F1 next year.”
Verstappen had in fact gone further and raised hackles when he suggested Grosjean had brake-tested him. Jenson Button, once the young pretender himself, responded. “The thing is you’ve got to be very careful with what you say in the press,” he said. “To point the finger at someone and say that they brake-tested you, that’s serious. I don’t think that happens in motor sport these days.”
Grosjean, in turn, insists the data shows he had in fact braked later than usual on that lap and the driver expressed his disappointment that Verstappen had not apologised. But the latter remained entirely at ease with the situation. “It will not change me as a racing driver,” he said. “I will keep fighting and, especially when you want to fight for points, I will still go for it.”
Verstappen admits he was unperturbed by the incident. Asked what, given the chance, he would do differently, he said: “Not much ... I was attacking, I wanted those points.”
The concern that has been expressed with such self-assurance is that it could prove dangerous and also a barrier to him gaining as much as he might through experience. A theory to which Jos gives little credence. “Max is very good at learning; when I speak to the engineers they are impressed by his ability to adapt, to learn new things,” he said.
Verstappen has had a tough week so far in the F1 school of hard knocks, not least with a 10-place grid penalty here for an engine change that means he will start second from last and take a 10-second hold at his first stop. But there is still, insisted Jos, much more to come.
“He is better than me, a more complete driver. He has the right amount of aggression, he is intelligent and smooth,” he said. “I know how good he is. I spotted it when he was nine or 10. You could see he had something special and we will all see that in the future.”