Cool under fire: Why Max Verstappen is thriving in a more competitive F1

When the Red Bull RB20 was unveiled at the team’s Milton Keynes headquarters earlier this year, there were two schools of thought. One was that the radical change in appearance suggested Red Bull had found something that would help it extend its advantage over the field, while the other was that the new concept would carry risk and potentially allow others to close in.

After the opening two races of the season in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, it was the former opinion that seemed to have legs. Verstappen had cruised to two comfortable victories from pole position, winning by over 25 seconds and 18s to the first non-Red Bull car respectively.

Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff had already crowned Verstappen champion by the end of the fourth race weekend in Japan — where he bounced back from the retirement in Australia with another victory — having previously gone further and said the Dutchman could win every race after the season opener.


But Verstappen himself was having none of it. As Red Bull has faced increasing threats at many tracks — beaten by a quicker McLaren in Miami, nearly seeing that repeated in Imola and then pushed down to sixth place by Ferrari, McLaren and Mercedes in Monaco — he has stayed calm. That’s all due to a mindset that was in place back on that launch day at the Red Bull factory.

“I would say last season was pretty incredible what we did as a team, and it will be pretty hard to replicate something like that,” Verstappen told RACER. “I always knew that, so I never went into this season thinking that, ‘Ah, let’s try and do even better than what we did last year,’ because that’s basically impossible.

“So I was always ready for the challenge, and naturally of course with the regulations that we have I think the cars are getting closer to each other, which is good for the sport. We just try to stay on top of things — we really try to improve our car, learn from the weak areas in the car as well — and I’m sure if we can get on top of that then we still have a very strong package.”

Tighter margins, changeable conditions, varying track types…for Verstappen, it’s all part of an enjoyable challenge. Glenn Dunbar/Motorsport Images

Heading into the Canadian Grand Prix, there was a lot of talk about the weaknesses of the RB20 when it comes to curb riding, and how the team was going to be under threat again. That proved true, with George Russell taking pole and Verstappen fending off both McLaren and Mercedes drivers, but ultimately emerging victorious.

Red Bull had still been leading both championships even prior to a big weekend in Montreal due to Ferrari’s failure to score, and given the focus there has been on the team’s form, Verstappen admits it’s strange the way expectations almost lead to criticism of the pace-setters.

“People very quickly get comfortable to a lot of success and then they almost expect you to keep on doing that same thing in a way,” he said. “But then in the back of their minds they don’t want you to do that. I don’t know, it’s a bit weird.

“From my side and the team’s side, we are just very focused on always trying to improve, trying to do better, but naturally the competition gets closer as well. They have strong weekends as well, but that’s fine.”

What was perhaps telling about the race in Canada was the way Verstappen and Red Bull handled a chaotic situation. It’s true that being put under more pressure can lead to a greater chance of mistakes, but at the same time this is a partnership that has grown used to winning for a number of years.

The opportunity to take another victory amid rain showers in Montreal was not a surprising position to be in, whereas the main challengers — Russell and Lando Norris — each have just one win to their names.

Although there have now been multiple times that either McLaren, Ferrari or Mercedes have offered a genuine threat for wins, Verstappen is less concerned about any areas the car needs improving. That’s not to say he doesn’t want to see gains coming from the team’s development program, but his main demand is to execute race weekends as effectively as possible.

“I don’t think there is a specific weakness, it’s just some weekends you know you nail things a bit better than others,” he said. “That is how it goes, and of course when other people are closer you can’t hide anymore behind a weaker weekend or whatever. Last year maybe we had that luxury a little bit more, but that’s not how it’s going now.

“But so far this year I’ve always felt really comfortable with the car — I felt like always in qualifying also I was really getting the most out of it. So from that side I am not really worried or feel like it needs massive improvements. We just need to try and up our game with the performance of the car, try to understand a few things that really caught us out in Monaco, and try to improve that for the future.”

Charles Leclerc’s failure to score at the last race turned a potentially tightening championship battle into a much more comfortable lead for Verstappen, who now has an advantage of 56 points.

A fourth straight world title is very much on the cards, but Verstappen sees the fight going deeper into the season than last year — when he wrapped up the title in Qatar with six grands prix still to run — even if his lead has been built on circuits that started this year that he’s not the biggest fan of.

Ominously, Verstappen says Red Bull is taking nothing for granted despite the run of success it has enjoyed at many of the upcoming venues.

“It’s going to depend on a lot of different things. We have a lot of different kinds of tracks,” he noted. “I always find the beginning of the calendar an interesting few tracks. There are a few more tracks that will come that probably will favor us a little bit, but on the other hand with everyone getting closer you have tighter battles.

“Every single weekend you need to try and really optimize your package. You can’t say, ‘Ah last year we were really strong here, it’ll be all right.’ No, every time that you come back you still need to try and nail the setup of the car; you really need to be on top of things, and of course we always try to do that.

“We expect that from ourselves, but it’s not as easy. Even last year, we had a lot of strong weekends but there was a lot of hard work every single weekend to try and get to that result.”

The greatest this year or of all years? Call it how you like, Verstappen is just enjoying every moment. Clive Rose/Getty Images/ Red Bull Content Pool

Even if wins do become harder to come by, or somehow this year does turn into a true title fight that sees Verstappen dethroned, the 26-year-old is unfazed by such a scenario as long as he’s doing a good job, because outside comparisons and opinions mean little to him.

“I have no desire or need to compare myself to anyone else,” he insisted. “For sure in other disciplines they might be better, but whatever, I’m not interested to compare who is better or even know. It’s the same in F1, like, ‘Who is better?’ ‘Who is the best driver ever?’ I don’t care. I’m just here in the moment. I try to do the best I can, that’s all that is very important to me.

“Of course, in the future I want to do endurance racing because that is something that I am passionate about and then you have to work with teammates to bring the success home. But that constant debate of who is the best or who can do it better, who is the most all-round driver… I just prefer to focus on having a good time with my family and friends when I’m at home, and having a good meal and having a nice drink than having to think about these kind of things.”

Story originally appeared on Racer