|Bahrain Grand Prix on the BBC|
|Dates: 14-16 Apr Venue: Bahrain International Circuit|
|Coverage: Practice, qualifying and race on BBC Radio 5 live sports extra (second practice online only). Live text commentary, leaderboard and imagery on BBC Sport website and app.|
Max Verstappen does not lack for confidence. Just starting his third season in Formula 1, with one win under his belt, the 19-year-old Red Bull driver has no doubts about his ability.
Could he beat Lewis Hamilton in the same car, he is asked towards the end of a BBC Sport interview before the Bahrain Grand Prix?
“Probably I will sound really arrogant, but for sure,” the Dutchman says.
Like all Verstappen’s statements, it is not said in an arrogant fashion. He is not an arrogant man. It is a statement of facts as he sees them, founded on a cast-iron self-belief forged by a lightning rise to the top in which he has already proved to have a rare and spectacular talent.
That ability was on show once again at the Chinese Grand Prix last weekend.
From 16th on the grid to seventh on the first lap in slippery, damp conditions; second by lap 12, having passed Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari and his Red Bull team-mate Daniel Ricciardo in typically improvisational style; passed by Sebastian Vettel’s quicker Ferrari later in the race, but holding on for a podium after fending off heavy pressure from Ricciardo.
For all its wonder, it was the sort of drive that has come to be expected of Verstappen. It was after all just three races previously, in Brazil at the end of last year, that Verstappen produced an even more eye-opening performance, dancing through the rain in Brazil in a manner that brought comparisons with Ayrton Senna.
Where does Verstappen’s talent come from?
Verstappen seems to find grip and pace simply not accessible to most other drivers. How does he do it?
“It’s always a bit difficult to answer to be honest,” Verstappen says. “Just feeling, instinct, knowing where you have to go. You just feel your way into it.”
It’s not just instinct, though. Verstappen started karting at a very young age, and had a pretty decent tutor – his dad, the former F1 driver Jos Verstappen. He also has racing genes from his mother, the former champion karter Sophie Kumpen.
Jos would take little Max out for kart races, limited to five laps at a time because that was when the race was shaped, he said.
“For sure that helped me a lot,” Verstappen says now. “My dad always told me you have to be as quick as you can straight away out of the box.
“Some people say: ‘Feel your way into it, build it up.’ No, my dad would say: ‘Straight away you have to be there.’ And I think that helps to warm up your tyres and brakes to be on it a bit more from lap one.”
There is nature with the nurture, though. Experience alone cannot explain Verstappen’s almost supernatural feel for the limit when braking, the basis for many of his best overtaking moves.
Can Verstappen himself explain it?
“To be honest, I can’t,” he says. “I don’t know. It is just something natural, I guess, to feel your way and control it. I have been practising a lot in the wet and trying not to lock up and stuff but I think it is also a bit natural, when you feel it is starting to lock.”
Verstappen’s performances since he burst onto the F1 scene as a 17-year-old with the Red Bull junior team two years ago have earned him widespread acclaim and a huge fanbase. But while he is clearly an exceptional talent, he says he does not see himself in that way.
“No, I don’t think about things like that,” he says. “You also very quickly get an arrogant thing about you when say things like that and I don’t want to.
“Of course I am doing a good job, but you can always improve and I just leave it up to people outside, around me or whatever, to judge on that. I just want to do the best I can every time.”
Controversy as part of the package
Along with the golden talent, there is a darker side to Verstappen.
His defensive driving tactics angered several more established stars, especially Vettel, last year and there were hard words spoken in a few drivers’ briefings. A rule was even created specifically to try to prevent Verstappen doing what is known as ‘moving under braking’ – although it has been removed again this year to give race stewards more freedom.
Verstappen says he was not bothered by the criticism.
“No, everyone can have their own opinion,” he says. “But it is very clear they [F1’s bosses] wanted the racing back. Overtaking is one thing. That is an art. But defending as well. You should be able to defend your position. That’s what I was doing. I am happy that there is a bit more freedom to it.”
Officials were concerned enough, though, for F1 race director Charlie Whiting to have a word with Verstappen and warn him that he was right on the edge of acceptability.
“They basically said they had never seen it before,” Verstappen says. “It was all a bit new to them. But I never got a penalty for it. So I never really thought I was doing anything wrong. It was definitely on the limit and hard but that’s how racing should be, I think.”
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Echoes of a legend of yesteryear
For all his clearly exceptional ability, the fact remains that Verstappen was out-scored in terms of points and out-qualified more often than not by team-mate Ricciardo last year.
Verstappen says he feels no great need to correct the record this year. But there is a hint of a touched nerve in his answer when he points out that the margins were small, and he suffered a number of reliability problems that Ricciardo did not.
Pressed on the fact he must surely want to beat his team-mate, the only man who has the same equipment and therefore the only one with whom he can be directly compared, he adds: “Well, of course it’s a positive, but it is not always [about] being ahead [at the end of the season]. It is also stand-out results.
“I prefer to win a few races and crash in a few than always be second or third and be ahead in the championship. That is my approach to racing when you are not fighting for the title.”
It is an answer that will remind F1 aficionados of the late Ferrari driver Gilles Villeneuve, who remains a legend for the feats he achieved apparently defying physics, in much the way Verstappen has done.
The rivalry with Ricciardo
On a more mundane level is the question of the relationship between Verstappen and Ricciardo. Two bulls in one field is normally a recipe for disaster in F1 – think Alain Prost and Senna, or Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso – but Verstappen insists the relationship is sustainable.
“For the moment, there are no issues at all,” he says. “As long as you have a lot of respect for each other, then it should work out.”
Verstappen says the relationship with Ricciardo is “actually very good”, but does concede: “Of course on track we try to beat each other. That is very normal. There is always a bit of a distance. That’s the way it should be. You cannot be best buddies every single minute of the day in racing.
“Off track, in the meetings here we work really well together, and on track we try to beat each other. But it is good for the team because we push each other forward as well and that’s pushes the car forward.”
Can Red Bull catch up?
Right now, that’s exactly what Red Bull need. They have started the season in a kind of no-man’s land – not as quick as pace-setters Mercedes and Ferrari but miles ahead of everyone else.
The mixed conditions of China brought them into play close to the front, but that is going to be the exception rather than the norm until the car can be improved.
Red Bull say they are confident chassis improvements along with engine upgrades due over the next few races can bring them closer, but Verstappen is not getting his hopes up.
“I am going to take the approach of just wait and see when the parts come to the car,” he says. “I am a realistic person. I don’t like to be dreaming and hoping half a second here and 0.6secs here.”
At his age, Verstappen has time on his hands. And his long-term ambition is clear. Not just one world title, but “as many as I can get”.
As soon as he has said it, though, the realism is back: “But it is not always in your hands. You need to be in the right team at the right time and hope they keep up as well.
“As long as you try to be the best you can, the fittest you are, that’s also already a great achievement.
“At the end of my career if I didn’t win a championship but I was still very competitive and was always up there and tried to extract the best out of myself, I can be happy with that as well.”
And he does admit that his ambition is to be the main man in F1.
“Of course that’s the target. But it is really involved with how good the car is – I am 100% sure that if I had the same car as Lewis and Seb for sure I would be challenging them really hard.
“You have to believe in yourself. With the results I have had, or in the wet, or even in the dry, some races with a car that is not as good, to be able to be that close or reality fight for it, I am 100% sure if I had the same car, I can do it.”