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Verstappen’s ‘a different calibre’ - exclusive Q&A with Red Bull’s Helmut Marko

08 Sep 2016

Are Max Verstappen’s critics justified? Who will partner Carlos Sainz at Toro Rosso next year? Can Sebastian Vettel return Ferrari to winning ways? And will Red Bull Racing be able to challenge Mercedes for the 2017 title? Red Bull motorsport consultant Helmut Marko may not have all the answers, but you can be sure he has an opinion…

Q: Helmut, your young superstar Max Verstappen has received quite a bit of criticism lately. What is justified, and what is not?

Helmut Marko: Nothing is justified. Max is a different calibre. He has the traits of a future world champion and he is just doing what is necessary to get there. It obviously surprises some that this also involves overtaking and defending. If there had been something gravely wrong the stewards would have penalised him. It is a bit like when Michael Schumacher came in. I remember a race in Hockenheim when there was nearly a fistfight between him and Ayrton Senna - Senna the top dog at this time and Schumacher the new hopeful…

Q: Have the other drivers become ‘lambs’ - and Max is the only ‘wolf’ on the grid?

HM: Ha! But probably we are lacking strong personalities lately. On top, there are drivers doing their last season so they are complaining about Max, about safety, about anything. With Max here is someone who is really young with a strong idea of what he wants - and he is not shy of trying to get it, of trying to be successful. And the reaction of the fans plays to his advantage: I would say he is probably now the most popular driver on the grid - worldwide.

Q: Bernie Ecclestone said recently that F1 racing could do with a dozen of Max’s kind…

HM: So let’s look for more! But I remember all too well that when we brought him in we got criticised from all sides.

Q: At just 18, he is still very much in the process of growing up. What are you doing to keep his raw qualities, to make sure not too many sharp edges get smoothed away? Right now he is very attractive to the 15- to 25-year-old age group - a demographic that is traditionally pretty hard to reach…

HM: We are Red Bull! We tell him to freely speak his opinion. And yes, it’s all about Max.

Q: Everybody seems to believe that Max is a future champion. When will he be ready - and when will Red Bull Racing be ready?

HM: We think that we are ready next year. We’ve always done well when there is a regulation change that doesn’t only focus on the engine. And the work on our engine is developing in the right direction, so in 2017 we should be within around 15 horsepower [of Mercedes] - and this we can compensate for. So our aim is to challenge Mercedes next season.

Q: You always envisioned P2 in the standings for Red Bull this season - and that’s where you currently sit. Will that still be the case after Abu Dhabi?

HM: I am pretty confident. It will be an interesting battle between us and Ferrari. Of course our intention is to win that battle.

Q: Coming to Toro Rosso, you have retained Carlos Sainz for 2017 - a very early signing by Red Bull standards. What about his team mate for next season? Who is still in the picture - and who is not?

HM: When we changed the drivers [between Red Bull Racing and Toro Rosso earlier this season] we wanted to give Kvyat a chance to recover - to get his head sorted out and to get his previous form back. We are watching him very carefully and hope that he can deliver.

Q: Are you satisfied with his performance since Barcelona?

HM: He is not there where he has been - but he is like a magnet: if something goes wrong it goes with him! Tyre trouble, technical troubles - whatever happens, it goes with him!

Q: What about Pierre Gasly?

HM: He is one of our youngsters doing well in GP2.

Q: But should he win the GP2 championship, isn’t there an unwritten rule that he automatically moves up to F1?

HM: We don’t have rules.

Q: Your former star driver Sebastian Vettel is coming under pressure - along with the whole team - at Ferrari. His honeymoon period seems to be over. You’ve known him for so long: is he truly a ‘Ferrari man’?

HM: I can’t say much. What I can say is that he is a fantastic driver and for sure he will do anything to make Ferrari win again.

Q: Some say he appears a little disillusioned at times. The red of Ferrari is tempting, but you also have to be able to ride the ‘Prancing Horse’…

HM: Seb was unlucky this year. He could have won races is what I guess. He will make his way.

Q: Looking forward, anyone’s success will depend largely on who gets the 2017 car right. What is the state of affairs at Red Bull Racing?

HM: We are on schedule. The numbers that the engineers are finding look very good - of course the track will give the final answer. But as our clear objective is to beat Mercedes, next year the numbers better be good!

Q: Toro Rosso will also have Renault engines again next season. How much synergy will there be with Red Bull Racing?

HM: We try to have as much as possible - first of all for cost reasons and then for performance reasons. Whatever the regulations permit we will do - probably not to the full extent next year as Toro Rosso cannot work as quickly as Red Bull Racing, but I expect that this will change over a period of two years.