Fighting talk: Why Max Verstappen's will to win hasn't been hit by Mercedes' dominance
In an exclusive interview with The Official Formula 1 Magazine (out now), Max Verstappen talks about Red Bull's plans to put an end to Mercedes’ and Lewis Hamilton’s domination of the sport. Sign up for a worldwide monthly subscription with a 40% discount by using code Editor40 at checkout at www.thef1magazine.com.
It’s worth being reminded of the stats. This is Max Verstappen’s sixth, yes sixth, season in Formula 1. He has started more than 110 races and has just turned 23 years old. In comparison, Lewis Hamilton was 22 when he made his Formula 1 debut.
At the Nurburgring, Kimi Raikkonen eclipsed Rubens Barrichello as the most experienced driver in the history of Formula 1 with 323 starts across his two decades in the sport. If Verstappen continues on his current trajectory and competes in F1 until he’s Raikkonen’s age (with an average of 20 races a year) he’ll smash the Finn’s record by more than 150 races…
So what, you ask? Longevity isn’t a record Verstappen seeks. It’s wins and titles he’s after. The point though, is that time is on his side and his six-year stint in F1 to date means the young, electric, enthusiastic racer that we’ve loved watching battle through races also has a decent amount of experience to draw on now.
Those wild, risky and immature flashes of on-track contact have been largely banished, replaced by a display of measured inner steel and strategy.
The Max Verstappen of 2020 is a Grand Prix driver with an armoury of attributes, seeking that ultimate goal: the FIA Formula 1 Drivers’ World Championship. The question is what do Red Bull and Verstappen need to do with the speed and experience they have to go that one step further and topple Mercedes from their perch?
“There are quite a few things at the moment,” says Verstappen, speaking frankly into a laptop during our Zoom call. “First of all we are always too slow at the beginning [of the season], so we need to make sure we have a car that hits the ground running and is a lot more competitive.
“How to do that? Clearly we haven’t found it, so we need to change our approach. We need to find a different way of working. In terms of operations, we are good: we have really good pitstops, we’re good at strategy. I don’t think there are a lot of things that go wrong there. Besides that, clearly this year we were lacking in power. There are quite a few things we have to work on to be able to fight them [Mercedes].”
With a continuation of the basic car design from 2019 into 2020, there was hope during testing back in February that Red Bull would be able to mount a challenge to the all-conquering Mercedes.
The Covid-19 pandemic meant we had to wait until July to see if that promise would materialise. Then, just as Verstappen was catching the Mercedes pair at the opening round in Austria, he was struck with a power unit problem and forced to retire.
One week later it was clear Mercedes were again the class of the field. Despite shining at the Silverstone double-header, where the sleek, black Mercs were suffering with tyre wear, Red Bull were firmly put into the ‘best of the rest’ category. Even with a number of races still to run this season, Verstappen doesn’t think he’s in the fight.
“Yeah, I’m in the middle of nowhere in this championship. From my side, I never thought I was in a championship battle. I will finish third [overall] if I don’t keep retiring. In general, that’s the place where we belong. If you are 60 points or 10 behind in third, it doesn’t really matter, you’re slower. We just need to learn why we have these issues because to have three retirements [at the time of our interview] is not good. We just have to try to do better.”
It’s as simple as that. As always he gets straight to the point. Elsewhere in this issue, discussing Verstappen’s character compared to his team mate Alex Albon, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner says frankly: “He’s totally honest. He doesn’t stand for any bulls**t.” That straight-talking, no-nonsense approach has endeared the Dutch driver to many fans around the world who appreciate hearing the facts, rather than a wishy-washy alternative.
Of course, he’s correct. The reality is that Red Bull went too aggressive with the RB16’s design concept, discovered an error in correlation between the wind tunnel figures and its on-track statistics, and have been chasing performance ever since.
The team have identified the problem and are on the case, but the RB16 continues to be a tricky car to control as the rear is prone to bouts of instability. An instinctive Verstappen can handle the nervousness at the back of the car, but as Pierre Gasly found out and Alex Albon is now discovering, such a characteristic doesn’t do much to boost a driver’s confidence.
“We are just trying to get 110 percent out of the car but it’s not capable of following a Mercedes, that’s why sometimes you have those moments where you spin off,” says Verstappen of this year’s machine.
“Yes, there were some things that we were working on to try and improve the stability of the car, as especially in the beginning it was a bit unpredictable, but now it doesn’t feel like it’s super undrivable. It’s a drivable car but I find it hard sometimes to accept that third is the best there is. I always try when I see an opportunity to get a bit more out of it.”
If ever there was an example of that never-give-up attitude, it was at Sochi.
After both qualifying and the race, Verstappen couldn’t hide his pleasure at splitting the Mercedes duo. He knows he hasn’t got the best machinery out there, but that doesn’t stop him challenging for every point he can.
Inevitably, the fact he’s not in what he calls “a championship fight” would lead some to suggest he’s frustrated at the current hegemony of a dominant Mercedes and an in-form Hamilton, but he refutes that.
“No, I’m not frustrated about that,” he says. “I have a lot of respect for what they’ve achieved. I’m not frustrated about Lewis in a Mercedes car. To be honest, 90 percent of the field could win in that car. Nothing against Lewis, he’s a great driver, but the car is so dominant.
“OK, maybe others wouldn’t be as dominant as Lewis is, but you accept the situation you are in and you just try to make the best of it. I’m not frustrated, I’m more focused on what can we do to try and beat them.”
Horner, who masterminded four consecutive title wins for Sebastian Vettel from 2010 to 2013, is also respectful of Mercedes’ achievements and acknowledges that nobody has a “right” to be at the top of any sport.
Speaking the day after our interview with Verstappen, he says: “I think over the winter Mercedes have done a great job and they have made a step forward with their engine. We know they are the benchmark and their chassis is very well-rounded. I think it’s mainly on that side of things that we need to raise the bar. They have set a high target, but nothing is insurmountable.”
The question for Red Bull is whether Mercedes will still be insurmountable in 2021? The fallout from the pandemic means this generation of car will be used again next year as the new regulations are pushed back to 2022. Very little will be allowed to change, so Verstappen seems somewhat pessimistic about being able to mount a challenge next year.
“Personally I don’t think we will because of all the limitations we have at the moment in terms of what you can develop on the car. Maybe some other people in the team will say something different. From my side I’m just realistic, I don’t think we can. So next year will be another tough one. Hopefully we’ll be a bit better but it will still be difficult to beat the Mercedes.”
Rather than disagreeing, Horner chooses to focus realistically on the opportunity that the 2022 season will present compared to next year. “The new regulations are going to give us a bigger chance,” he says.
“Next year is essentially an extension of this season, so we are going flat out to develop our car until the end of the year and what we finish with is largely what we’ll start in Melbourne,” adding “if that’s the first race.”
He continues: “We’re not giving up on anything, we’re pushing flat out, but one also has to be realistic with the margin that Mercedes have at the moment. The biggest reset will be how teams interpret the 2022 regs.”
That reset will present Red Bull with its best opportunity to take the fight to Mercedes. Although they know they will no longer be using works Honda power units then – following the Japanese car maker’s decision to quit the sport – Red Bull still have the technical know-how to take the team to the front of the field.
Max knows the opportunity is coming, but right now it’s about being patient and waiting for his moment to pounce. It’s almost as though he’s circulating on an out lap ready for the flat-out qualifying sprint to begin.
Verstappen’s age means time is on his side and with experience he is growing stronger. It might not be next year, but Mercedes – and the rest of the grid – should be wary of the threat Red Bull could pose in the future.
The Official Formula 1 Magazine is your perfect monthly companion to the world of Formula 1. Buy Issue 8 now or sign up for a worldwide monthly subscription with a 40% discount by using code Editor40 at checkout at www.thef1magazine.com where you can also buy our Italian language edition.