The fleet-footed Dutchman has seen off the likes of Kimi Raikkonen, Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton this season, throwing down the gauntlet in his own unique way
“What, Me Worry?” it seemed a pertinent question to ask in the build-up to Max Verstappen’s Formula One debut. The lightness of the tone suggests the 20-year-old is a racing driver almost beyond calculation.
The way that Verstappen fielded questions during his pre-season testing is enough to make anyone think: this kid knows how to wing it. He and his Red Bull team are at the forefront of something new, yet his mere presence is as much a revelation as Ferrari’s scarlet challenger.
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When Verstappen last hit the Formula One grid the world gasped in wonder as he raced wheel-to-wheel, head-to-head with Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen. Many were beginning to write him off in the moments leading up to his entry at the last race in Abu Dhabi last year and pointed to his minimal experience. They assumed from a lack of experience that Verstappen would lack nerve under pressure.
He has proved them all wrong – and that is the first thing you notice about him. The man with the megawatt smile is not the charming, engaging interviewee he seems at face value. His demeanour and mannerisms suggest it could all be calculated. Which, of course, it is. When asked about his preparations for the season ahead, he warms up with: “Everything’s pretty normal actually,” and he does not look like he is trying to tone down his dangerous persona for the sake of people.
This behaviour seems, perhaps, rather anomalous for a 20-year-old but the story of Verstappen is not surprising. So what happens when he is actually racing? For a while it became a running joke that he appeared to have the second-best car in the field. After the first race of this season he started from pole position with a superior kerb distance, a faster rear wing and more aerodynamic downforce.
That left him challenging Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel for the lead, with both settling down to a series of intense duels in Australia, and yet he still won. It was reminiscent of Ayrton Senna at the same track in 1988 and Kimi Raikkonen in 2007 – and somewhat reminiscent of Lewis Hamilton at the same circuit two years ago. Just as Hamilton was in pursuit of Raikkonen then, when Verstappen appeared to be in the ascendancy he was not lacking confidence.
Off track, the story of Verstappen is even more interesting. He has maintained his composure and had to work at keeping discipline throughout his ascent to the paddock. Red Bull insist their boy can drive faster than the fastest man in the room and that is true. They would rather have him in their car than any other – which is why they threw him in there and made him their new man to establish it on their home ground.
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Verstappen is the template of what a Formula One driver is supposed to be – a wild guy with a strong swagger, unimpressed by his circumstances. Ask him what he is looking forward to about this season and he drops the Marmite comment of course. “I don’t know,” he says. “I’m not really a fan of saying what I’m looking forward to because I can never tell myself what I’m looking forward to.”
Over the course of this season he will have to find answers to all sorts of questions, chiefly with Ferrari and his team-mate Daniel Ricciardo, whose name is ringing far more bells. Ferrari are clearly trying to turn Verstappen into a pushover, not unlike team-mate Sebastian Vettel in 2016. And yet Verstappen will find there is no answer to his best trick – the wheel-to-wheel racing.
It is a story both of his ascendancy and of his rise to prominence in F1. He has shown the world what he is capable of and he knows his place. You may be familiar with the term What, Me Worry?