Pressure? What pressure? Hamilton and Verstappen shrug off title fight stress – but will one of them crack in Istanbul?
Speak to Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen right now and you wouldn’t know they are locked in the most intense title fights for years. Both were calmness personified in Istanbul Park, as they faced the media ahead of this weekend’s Turkish Grand Prix.
After 15 rounds, where almost 400 points were on offer, there are just two in it. There’s nothing to choose between them. Ask those in the paddock and the majority will tell you Verstappen has the fastest overall package in his Red Bull RB16B. But he’s up against a seven-time world champion driver, in a seven-time world champion team, who have made winning their bread and butter.
Red Bull and Verstappen have been impressively sharp this year, given they haven’t fought for a world championship since 2013. We’ve seen in the past, the pressure can get too much when faced with such an opportunity when you’re not used to it, but not so for Red Bull.
“[The mood] is the same as always – we’re very relaxed, but also very focused,” said Verstappen. “Of course we want to win, the whole team wants to win, so that mentality is definitely there. But it’s nothing you can force or you have to stress about – because we always want to do the best we can anyway. So that is what we’ll try to do this weekend.”
When it was put to him that he was coming across as extremely relaxed for someone locked in his first fight for a Formula 1 title, Verstappen replied: “I always do my best and I know that the team is also doing the best they can and if that’s going to be first at the end of the year – that’s of course an amazing achievement and that’s what we work for, right?
“But, even if we would finish second, I think we’d still have had a great season. And at the end of the day it’s not really going to change my life. I mean, I enjoy what I’m doing and I think that’s also very important. For me, there is not much to worry about really.”
He added: “We are fully committed to try and make this success together. But, you cannot force things. You just have to work well and work hard together, and then we’ll find out at the end of the season where that will put us. Is that first, is that second? We don’t know.”
Everyone has their way of dealing with pressure or stress. Hamilton’s is – and long has been – to get away from the motorsport world and immerse himself in one of his many other interests. Between Russia and Turkey, Hamilton was in Paris for the Balenciaga Fashion Show. He’s then able to switch back into F1-mode and compartmentalise everything else, allowing him to focus 100% on competing. It’s quite the skill.
“I love being able to separate from the sport, the intensity of this whole season, it’s difficult for everyone that’s at the track so to be able to have another outlet, something else that you can focus on, it helps takes the weight off it,” he said. “So when I come back it always feels fresh when I come to a grand prix because it’s not something that I have been thinking about every single day.”
Hamilton has plenty of experience of fighting for titles of course. He did so in his first season in F1 in 2007, won the title the year after and then went through a character-building phase of his career before embarking on the most dominant period F1 has ever seen. The 36-year-old has become a wise head on strong shoulders.
“I generally find it relatively easy [to absorb pressure] as I have these other outlets so I’m able to blow off steam in lots of different ways,” he said. “The most important thing is always to be able to come back to the racing environment fresh, recovered, positive, so I think I’m able to arrive and just love doing my job.
“We take it one race at a time. I spent plenty of time speaking to the team about how we can advance and improve. I’ve been doing this a long time, so I’ve found ways personally, and what works for me won’t work for everyone, but I know what makes me tick, what puts me on course and what can put me off course, and I stick to them.”
He added: “All you can do is prepare the best way you can, all you can do is give it 100% and what’s coming up is coming up. I just don’t worry about those things. I was very fortunate in the past I’ve had lots of ups and downs but had an amazing time, a lot of growth. I don’t worry about ‘what if’, that’s up ahead.
“I try and prepare for now, that means making sure I’ve done the work with the guys back at the factory, Bono and the team, and that ultimately we enjoy it. We’ve got to enjoy it. What an amazing season it’s been so far, it’s been super exciting for fans, massively engaging with Netflix around the world, new people coming in, we finally see two teams neck and neck which is amazing, and of course we want to win, but you’ve got to learn to let that not overtake everything in your life.”
Two drivers, then, at very different stages of their careers – but seemingly dealing with the pressure and expectation in the same way. That in theory should mean we’re in for a tight fight all the way to Abu Dhabi, rather than seeing one driver crack under the pressure.
There are still seven races to go, though, and the intensity will only increase if it stays close. Watching how they react is a fascinating prospect, and the next chapter of which will evolve over the coming days.