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Red Bull in ‘winning mood’ for 2017 - Helmut Marko Q&A

01 Dec 2016

The 2016 season has been one of emotion and drama for Red Bull: Max Verstappen’s unexpected arrival - and debut win, that heart-breaking pit stop for Daniel Ricciardo in Monaco followed by his triumph in Malaysia, and then Verstappen’s much-lauded wet-weather charge in Brazil. In an exclusive chat with their motorsport consultant Helmut Marko, we discuss Max’s rise, his prospective championship battle with Ricciardo, and why both men are set to be firmly in the title fight next year…

Q: Helmut, in Brazil you seemed to have a tear in your eye as you looked at Max on the podium - something we’ve not seen for many years. What did that Brazilian race tell you about Max?

Helmut Marko: That we were right to sign him and put him into Formula One at an age where everybody called us mad. And that he has proved ever since that he is something special.

Q: We have seen glimpses of how special Max is in the past, but was the race in Brazil the absolute proof of that?

HM: Yes, he’s shown on many occasions that he is light years away from your common Formula One driver by winning his first race sitting in a Red Bull. Yes, the two Mercedes drivers took each other out so this win probably fell in our laps, but Brazil showed that he is not only above average but that he will be a great one.

Q: In Mexico you were furious about the penalty that robbed Max of a podium - but the next race he was up there again. Is that a sign that you can’t keep a good man down?

HM: Yes, I was furious. How can you bring a guy to the podium and then tell him he has to go off again. But this weekend was again a ‘record’ for him: in two and a half hours he was third, fourth and fifth!

Q: With Sebastian Vettel you had a four-time world champion. How close is Max to having champion qualities? Is there any area where he still has to improve?

HM: He just needs the right car. But that goes for both our drivers - either can be champion next year - so hopefully we can deliver.

Q: So if you can give him a winning car he can be world champion in 2017 - is that what you are preparing him for?

HM: Yes, but as I just said, that goes for both our drivers. Staying with Max, when I first met him he was 15 - a 15-year-old boy with the maturity of a 26-year-old man and an unbelievable self-confidence. Since then three years have passed and he’s had a sensational learning curve. He doesn’t make mistakes twice - so he is definitely ready for the title fight. There is no need for any more extra preparation: he knows the name of the game!

Q: Max’s driving style has caused a fair bit of controversy, including criticism from some of the five world champions on this season’s grid. Is Max a wake-up call for the driver establishment?

HM: What I see is that he brings a completely new approach to the ‘reigning establishment’! He shows them again how racing should be - how it was in the past. I remember when guys like Senna and Schumacher came, they also had a different approach and were a shock awakening for the establishment of their time. They also were criticised massively. Now we have a young, hungry, sexy young driver, with a devil-may-care attitude about the spoils of former champions - whether they have won once, twice, three times or even four times.

Q: Some said that Max was in a league of his own in Brazil. Can you describe his driving style? Does he remind you of anybody?

HM: I saw a similar drive from Max at the Norisring in F3 some years ago: again in a league of his own - with a line of his own. In F1 I would compare his Brazil ride to Senna at Donington.

Q: So we know that Max is fast, that he’s witty, and that he is not shy when it comes to an on-track scrap. What is his most outstanding trait for you?

HM: Let’s turn it around: ask for weaknesses. No weaknesses aside from the act that he is sometimes not patient enough. He sometimes tries to force situations his way when all he has to do is wait a bit and it will fall into his lap. But this change is already in the making!

Q: With all the hype surrounding Max, Daniel has almost seemed invisible at times - despite the fact that he finished higher - third - in the driver standings. He will also be gunning for the title next year, so which of your two drivers will have the advantage?

HM: No advantage for one of them. They are both very fast drivers - with different approaches. And saying that Daniel is almost invisible: I know from the bonus that he will get this year - our drivers are mainly on a bonus system - that Daniel is anything but invisible! (Laughs) And when Max came to Red Bull Racing Daniel immediately raised his game. Daniel has huge potential - but he also knows that Max is not an easy one. He has to go to the absolute limit to keep up. That pushes the whole team forward.

Q: At the start of the season there were fears that Red Bull Racing would struggle to make the top five - now you’ve finished the year in P2. That sounds a bit like a miracle, but we all know that miracles don’t happen in F1. Can you analyse the facts for us?

HM: The big step forward came from the engine side - and we have been told that we can expect a similar leap forward again for 2017. And that should mean that we are very near to Mercedes power. On the chassis side we always have been good and this year’s chassis is one of our best - and all the data we have from the new car is very positive. With the regulation changes for 2017, nobody can use the experience or the package that they have - and history has shown that we are always good when there is a regulation change. So we are convinced that we will fight for both titles in 2017. And to come back to the question about whether I am surprised that we finished in P2? No. And with Max joining that gave a huge morale boost after that really painful 2015 season. We are absolutely in a winning mood again.

Q: Your best moment of the season?

HM: Ha, hard to say, as it is nice to look back and realize that there have been quite a lot of good moments. If I have to pick: Monte Carlo until the pit stop - and then came the worst moment! Then, for sure, Brazil: we gambled wrong with the tyres and then to see Max move through the field like a hot knife through butter…

Q: Pierre Gasly, another Red Bull protege, won the GP2 Series title last weekend - at the very last race of the season. Would you have thought twice about keeping Daniil Kvyat in the second Toro Rosso had Gasly won the title weeks earlier? Would that have given his career a different spin?

HM: We are not looking back. He has won - and now we have to see what we are going to do with him.