Interview: Max Verstappen on the F1 title battle

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Red Bull driver tells us he is “pretty relaxed” in the escalating battle with rival Lewis Hamilton.

Max Verstappen heads into this weekend’s Russian Grand Prix at Sochi locked in an intense – and increasingly fractious – battle for the championship with seven-time champion Sir Lewis Hamilton.

After 15 races, the Dutchman holds a narrow five point leader over Mercedes-AMG’s reigning champion, and his Red Bull Racing-Honda has, on balance, been the fastest car over the course of the season.

Verstappen has seven race wins so far this year, compared with four for Hamilton, while clashes between the two at Silverstone and Monza have ramped up the tension.

Still only 23, Verstappen is already in his seventh F1 season, but this is the first in which he has had a realistic shot at the championship.

We caught up with him to ask about how he sees the race of the season progressing.

The title battle with you and Lewis Hamilton has been getting pretty intense this season. Are you enjoying having such an intense fight?

“It’s enjoyable. But of course it’s not just about the drivers, it’s about the teams as well. As a driver, you want to be battling for the title, and to be going to races with a chance to win. If you’re in the championship fight, it’s a sign that you’re doing that.”

This is the final year of the current technical regulations. Would it mean more for you, Red Bull and Honda to beat Hamilton and Mercedes-AMG this year before the new 2021 regulations because it would show how you’ve developed the car?

“For me personally, that doesn’t really matter too much. You want to win every single year, right? But of course in the last few years, Mercedes have been very dominant. And I think how we’ve turned things around together with Honda compared to last year is already a great achievement.

“But now that you’re fighting for the championship, you also want to finish it off in the best way possible. It would be great [to win the title] this year, but if it doesn’t work out and we can say we have a good car and we have a chance, then it will feel good as well. I think every time you’re in a fight in general, you know that that makes you feel good already.”

How do you see the rest of the season shaping up? Where do you think you big advantages are? And what do you think the biggest challenges will be?

“At the moment, I don’t really know, because people keep on improving and things keep on changing. Every single weekend is so close: you can have a very good package, but if you don’t have a good set-up, you know it’s not going to show. We always have to make sure that we look into every single detail to be competitive. That makes it a bit unpredictable, because some weekends you nail the set-up better than other times.”

This is the closest you’ve ever been to the world championship. Is there more pressure on you, and how do you deal with it?

“There isn’t any more pressure because I have a good car this year, and most of the time you go into a weekend knowing that you can really fight for a win or at least a podium. So I’m actually pretty relaxed about it, because I know that I will always do the best I can, and then it’s up to the package to determine where you’re gonna end up. I’m actually very relaxed already [for] the whole season.”

How does the Honda power unit compare to the one you used in 2019? Does it drive differently?

“It doesn’t necessarily drive any differently, it just has more power and it’s more reliable. You always try to improve every single aspect of a car, engine and driver, so every year you try to be better. Honda made a step last year, and compared with then have made a step again this year. You need both a good car and a good engine to be able to fight for for a championship.”

What would winning the championship mean to you?

“Well, it has been a goal my whole life since karting. You dream of getting into Formula 1, but you’re there to win, not just to compete. At some point, you hope to be able to fight for the title, and let’s say you get that opportunity and win, it would basically complete the mission. But I know it’s not going to be easy, so we just need to keep being very focused and looking at it race by race and then see where we end up.”

You’ve talked about not feeling the pressure and having fun – so forget everything off track, how fun is just driving an F1 car?

“It depends on the track, but in general F1 cars are just so quick that, especially in qualifying, it’s really really enjoyable. Driving at Zandvoort really was nice, because the track is properly old-school. I’ve driven there in F3 and GT cars, but to be able to push around there in an F1 car, you really see the difference. It’s pretty insane how fast they go. I really enjoy it: it has been my life in general, driving karts or cars. So driving is always the best part about a whole grand-prix weekend.”

What would you like to see from the future F1 powertrains in 2025? 

“It’s difficult to say what’s going to happen by then: there are a lot of question marks about how things are going to evolve. I don’t mind as long as it’s the fastest one out there that will be good.”

James Atwood

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