Max Verstappen: ‘I don’t mind who I beat as long as I come out on top’

Max Verstappen cuts every bit the figure of a confident Formula One world champion, as well he might. The Dutchman is as driven as ever, his competitive spirit as robust now as when he was a child.

Sitting in his Red Bull motorhome at the team’s home race, the Austrian Grand Prix, with his first title under his belt, Verstappen carries a relaxed, almost philosophical air. He displays the ominous, calm assurance of a sportsperson at the top of their game.

At 24, Verstappen is both champion and remarkably already a veteran, one for whom it is impossible not to believe more titles are to come. After a fierce fight with Lewis Hamilton last season, Verstappen came out on top to take his first title with a controversial finish at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

Verstappen had fought hard all season, a trait his younger self would have found all too familiar. He made his F1 debut in 2015 aged 17 and is in his eighth F1 season. He smiles when asked to recall when he first felt that imperative to win.

“Very young, I was racing at three or four years old on PlayStation against my dad,” he says. “As I got older I was beating my dad and then he was trying to find ways of cutting the track or crashing me out. I would get really upset because at the time I really hated losing. Now, losing, you can give that a place but at the time I wanted to win. That was always my motivation in anything I did.”

He says he has grown to understand losing, to give it its place in the bigger picture, but the desire to win has remained and many victories have followed. He has six from 10 races this year, enjoys a 34-point lead in the championship over his teammate Sergio Pérez and is in a strong position to secure a second title.

With Hamilton’s Mercedes off the pace, Verstappen has found himself in a new fight, with a resurgent Ferrari in the hands of Charles Leclerc. But Ferrari’s recent mechanical failures have been costly and Leclerc trails him by 43 points.

Hamilton is a seven-time champion and the most successful driver in the sport, and Leclerc has but four wins, yet for Verstappen the opponent plays second fiddle to the outcome. There is no greater satisfaction gained from beating Hamilton over Leclerc, he insists.

“I don’t mind as long as I come out on top,” he says. “That’s the most important feeling. There are a lot of good drivers in F1 and when you are battling them it’s a lot of fun.” Which begs the question why his battle with Hamilton last year seemed to descend from fun into an aggressive and ill-tempered scrap on track. From their clash at Copse at Silverstone which left Verstappen in the wall, to Hamilton refusing to yield to a typical elbows-out move at Monza that ended with Verstappen hitting him and landing on top of Hamilton’s car, the pair were at it hammer and tongs.

Verstappen has known and raced Leclerc since they were 12-year-olds in karting. Leclerc had said their rivalry on track reached the stage where “we hated each other at one point because very often it didn’t end in the best way possible”. Leclerc says the pair have grown up a lot since then and so far the racing has been more civilised than it was with Hamilton. Verstappen suggests that their past has led to an on-track understanding he did not share with the British driver.

“It’s all about margins, how much you respect each other on track,” he says. “I know Charles for a long period of time, I have raced a lot more against him so I guess we understand each other a bit better.” Leclerc may rightly take issue with this, not least since at the 2019 race here at the Red Bull Ring he was forced off track by Verstappen in the final laps as the Dutchman went on to win. The incident was subject to a stewards’ inquiry that took three hours but which, to Leclerc’s disbelief, ruled that Verstappen’s move had been acceptable.

It was for many a defining moment, a demonstration of how determined Verstappen was and how far he would push to take the win. He was similarly aggressive last year but it is one-dimensional to define his driving by these moments alone. He also has a mercurial touch and a calm control when leading that shares a lineage with so many greats. Yet there is also a precision to his approach that should be lauded. He set about making a point of understanding the crucial art of tyre management when opening his career at Toro Rosso in 2015. When he was promoted to Red Bull at the Spanish GP in 2016 it was this knowledge that proved crucial in securing his debut win.

Equally, he is consistent. In 2021 he was in the top two at every race in which he finished undamaged. Indeed, at Hungary he claimed ninth after first-corner damage, taking two more vital points. Similarly at Silverstone last week with floor damage from debris, he somehow manhandled a car over two seconds off the pace and handling like a newly saddled, angry hippo, to seventh place.

These are traits recognised by Red Bull’s team principal, Christian Horner, who believes the title has made him a more formidable opponent. “He’s definitely built on his experience from last year,” says Horner. “You can see that having won that world championship, he’s just driving with even more maturity.”

His aggressive style still causes rancour with many, however, and last season battle lines were firmly drawn between his and Hamilton’s fans. After Abu Dhabi much of their interaction turned toxic. Last year after Silverstone Hamilton was booed at some tracks by Verstappen fans and this year some of Hamilton’s returned the favour at the British GP. In Austria there will be a huge Dutch contingent but Verstappen was dismissive of the extremes of supporters.

“Those people are not really F1 fans,” Verstappen says. “They cannot really enjoy what is actually happening right now, a lot of great drivers actually fighting against each other. But they cannot appreciate that and that’s a bit of a shame. How many times do you get to experience stuff like that? Such an intense rivalry or fights. These people are not lovers of the sport.”

Doubtless he will continue to divide opinion, but the singular determination will remain. Clearly there is no sign of him changing a winning formula. “I always wanted to be myself and drive like myself,” Verstappen says of a career where he has done just that.