Move over ‘Mad Max, ‘Mature Max’ is coming through. Max Verstappen does not see it in such tabloid terms, unsurprisingly, but the 21-year-old Dutch driver is now very much one of the grown-ups as he starts his fifth season in Formula One. The youngest-ever grand prix driver and race winner will line up in Australia next week as Red Bull’s leader on the track now that Australian Daniel Ricciardo has been replaced by Pierre Gasly.
With a handful of youthful rookies coming in, including 19-year-old Briton Lando Norris at McLaren, Verstappen says he no longer feels like one of the young crowd even if his new French team mate is two years older. “I can’t consider myself like that any more because I’ve done four seasons,” he told Reuters during pre-season testing at Barcelona’s Circuit de Catalunya, scene of his first F1 victory in 2016 at the age of 18.
“It’s going to be my fifth season so there are no excuses any more and you have to be mature. “I was never Mad Max. I was just Max who was trying to get the best result for the team.”
Verstappen has already shown considerable maturity, from the moment he signed for Toro Rosso as a 16-year-old, but there have been times when his youthful frustration and impatience have bubbled over. Fast, opinionated and forceful, the fan favourite has also been involved in several high-profile flare-ups.
In Canada last year, tiring of questions about a run of costly errors, he suggested he might headbutt somebody. In Mexico, he was involved in angry post-race shoving with back-marker Esteban Ocon that drew a punishment of two days’ public service. “As a driver I will always be the same guy,” Verstappen said when asked if the time spent watching stewards do their jobs had changed anything.
“I always try to get the best result out of it, I’m not there to just sit second or sit third. I’m a winner and I want to win every single race and I will always go for it. “If you are fighting for the championship sometimes second is enough, for sure. But I’ve never been in that position yet in Formula One, so every opportunity I get to win a race I will always go for it.
“My aim is to be here for 15 years at least. I’ve got another 11, and I’m 32 then,” he said. “Maybe I can drive until I’m 36 or 37. 40. It depends on how long you like it as well. Maybe 42.”
Team boss Christian Horner had no doubt that Verstappen, who won two races last year and should have made it three in Mexico, had moved up a gear. “He’s evolved so much,” he told reporters. “Like any competitive racing driver inevitably when things go wrong there is frustration. But he’s fully bought into the journey that we’re heading on with Honda.
“I think just his maturity is increased, we saw that during the course of last year. He’s just much more rounded through experience. “He’s more worldly, more experienced, he’s just in a better place to be able to deal with the pressures that are placed on him.”
Verstappen was not expecting to be fazed by his new status as the voice of experience within the team. “They will be listening maybe a bit more to me but I’m not too worried about it or thinking about it too much because I feel comfortable in what I’m doing,” he said. I feel comfortable that I am giving the right information.
“So I’m just looking forward to getting started.” Horner also praised Verstappen’s attention to detail, comparing him to predecessor and four-times world champion Sebastian Vettel, but the Dutchman said that was nothing new.
“I think I learnt that already in go-karting, working together with my dad,” he said. “The attention to detail was very important because in go-karting the gaps are even smaller so whatever you can feel or find is going to give you the win.”
Verstappen kept active over the winter by competing in the virtual world, as well as the usual training routines, and he and Norris compete together in online endurance races. He said it kept him busy and focused. “Even if it’s virtual, you’re still working on the setup, you’re still trying to improve yourself, trying to be more consistent with fewer mistakes,” said the Dutchman, who is also a fan of the FIFA soccer game.
“You’re just active all the time, thinking, finding gaps. I like those things.”
Robert Kubica taking nothing for granted on F1 comeback
Robert Kubica will be taking nothing for granted in Australia next week when he makes one of the most astonishing comebacks in Formula One history. The 34-year-old Pole might have done so once, but not since he crashed and partially severed his right forearm in a rally he had entered for fun in northern Italy before the start of the 2011 season.
It has taken eight years, with extensive surgery and considerable physical and mental adjustment, to achieve what many considered an impossible dream and to return to where he always wanted to be.
He knows how quickly dreams can disappear, however.
“We take everything for granted. And then once you don’t have it, you start realising how lucky you were,” Kubica told Reuters during testing in Spain with his struggling Williams team.
“There is nothing for granted in life. That’s how it is.”
Before the accident Kubica lived and breathed Formula One, focusing 100 percent on racing with no time for anything else, but that could not continue.
He said that, at a certain point in his recovery, he realised he had changed.
“I didn’t like any more myself as a character,” he said. “In many situations I didn’t see myself. Then I started thinking why is this? Why is this happening? Why am I different? Why do I think differently?
“If I came back to Formula One it’s because I’m different. If I were to have the same character now as 10 years ago, I would not be here.
“Before I was black or white, yes or no. Nothing in the middle.
“My accident — 15 centimetres right and nothing would have happened; 10 centimetres left and I would not be here. Maybe that’s why you start seeing that it is not black and white, and there can be something in the middle.”
Kubica’s arm is thin and twisted now, but that is not the only change to the man who won the Canadian Grand Prix with now-defunct BMW-Sauber in 2008 and was tipped to go all the way to the top.
“I’ve become more sensitive, more open, which is not necessarily good in F1. But if you are able to control your emotions, I think it can be positive,” he said.
“Many people ask me about Australia, how it will be, and honestly I have no clue. But I am not scared of it,” he added of the March 17 season-opener.
“I hope only that those emotions will give me an additional boost and not negative aspects, and if I can control them they will be only positive things.”
In 2008, Kubica finished fourth overall after briefly leading the championship.
In 2011 he was a Renault driver, but with a move to Ferrari on the cards.
Five-times world champion Lewis Hamilton said last year that Kubica was one of the most talented racers he had ever competed against. Just how competitive he can be remains an open question.
The Pole said he had to be realistic about what he and the team, last overall in 2018 and with a new car that came late to testing and was then the slowest on track, could achieve once the season starts in Melbourne.
“If you ask me if I feel confident, I will say yes, But on the other hand I know I will face situations that I didn’t face for a very long time,” he said.
“If you ask me how the first corner will be, I don’t know. But nobody knows.
“So in the end it doesn’t matter if I am nine years off or three months off racing. Nobody knows how turn one or the first lap will be. I have to concentrate on small steps, on reality and then see how I will react.”
While rivals have been welcoming, and his fans among the most evident with an enormous banner on display in the Barcelona grandstand during testing, Kubica expects no favours.
Others may hail the greatness of his comeback, but not him.
“I don’t care, honestly. I know what it took me to be back. I know for different periods what I was going through. I know how much it cost in energy and how big a challenge it will be,” he said.
“On the other hand I know there will be no discount. It’s not that I will start the race 20 seconds in front of everybody because it’s a great comeback.
“Once I am on the grid and in the car, I’m the same as the others.”