Exclusive: How Verstappen’s “different mindset” unlocked his title-winning potential

2022 Dutch Grand Prix

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Max Verstappen is the new power in Formula 1. He may be in his eighth season but he is still only 24 years old – until the end of the month, at least.

He is the reigning world champion and, barring some outrageous misfortune, poised to claim a second title long before the curtain falls on the 2022 season.

Since he made his F1 debut seven years ago, and especially since his astonishing debut win for Red Bull in 2016, Verstappen has inspired passionate fans from his homeland and beyond who follow him around the world, turning grandstands and skies bright orange everywhere they go.

This is a special weekend for them and their man. Verstappen is back in his own backyard, the Zandvoort circuit in the Netherlands, returning as champion for the first time. He is keen to repeat his emphatic 2021 win, one of 10 which delivered his long-awaited championship triumph.

On the eve of practice for a race which could see him draw over 100 points clear of his closest rival, and make a second world championship even more of an inevitability, Max Verstappen spoke exclusively to RaceFans about his journey to F1 glory, the family of racers which gave him his start, his goals for the future and the state of the sport he increasingly dominates.

Zandvoort cheered Verstappen all the way home last year
Verstappen arrived at his home race 12 months ago trailing championship leader Lewis Hamilton by three points. To the delight of the home crowd, the Red Bull driver single-handedly saw off a double-pronged attack from Hamilton and his Mercedes team mate Valtteri Bottas to claim the win and reverse Hamilton’s advantage.

That nip-and-tuck title fight continued until the final race of the season in Abu Dhabi. The outcome, tainted by former FIA F1 race director Michael Masi’s violation of the rules, proved bitterly controversial. But it was out of Verstappen’s hands, and he can hardly be expected to act as if there’s an asterisk next to the number one on his car.

Nine months on, 98 points up on his nearest rival, he has already been batting away questions about when he will seal his second title since mid-summer. However he expects a second crown cannot live up to the emotion of his breakthrough success.

“It’s not even necessarily about winning it again,” he says, “I think it’s just that winning your first is always going to be the most emotional one.”

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He draws a comparison with his breakthrough race win six years ago, which made an instant star of the then 18-year-old. Red Bull prompted criticism for cutting Daniil Kvyat loose just four races into the season in order to promote Verstappen. But the critics were silenced when Verstappen capitalised on a lap one crash which wiped out the Mercedes drivers and soaked up lap after lap of pressure from Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen to claim his first win.

First win was “a crazy day I’ll remember forever”
“The first one is still the most emotional one,” Verstappen says, “forget [winning the race in] Abu Dhabi because that was just crazy, because that then also gives you the first title. But that very first win, compared to all the other wins I’ve had, it doesn’t come close.

“Because it is something like you dreamt of for such a long time and then it becomes reality. First you think ‘oh, if I could ever be on a podium, that would be great’. And then of course, my first podium was the first win. So it was a crazy, crazy day, which I will remember forever.”

A word Verstappen regularly utters, appropriately enough, is ‘maximise’. He has total focus on wringing the most from every competitive scenario. That proved essential in last year’s bruising, 22-round fight with Hamilton in which the pair swapped the points lead five times and made contact more than once.

“It was a very tough and hectic season,” he relates. “We had to be, as a team, all the time 100% because we knew that if we wouldn’t be perfect they would beat us, and the other way around. And that made it really, really tough.”

His lead peaked at 32 points approaching mid-season, before Hamilton ground it down and overhauled him. With four races to go Verstappen was back on top again, 19 points to the good, then Hamilton produced a trio of wins which meant they headed into that fateful finale tied at the top.

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“With the gap, opening it up, then losing it again and opening it up and then again it was coming down towards the end of the year it was tough,” Verstappen recalls. “But then we managed it at the end.”

The world champion is in high demand at home
The effort Red Bull poured into that campaign, pushing the development of their previous car as late as any rival, threatened to compromise their 2022 contender at a time when drastically overhauled technical regulations were arriving. In the new budget cap era, could Red Bull produce an all-new championship contender while maintaining its predecessor?

Verstappen admits he “came into this season really unknown because new cars, you never know, did we build a good car?” However he insists he was “very relaxed about it.”

“I said already last year everything that comes next is a bonus anyway. And luckily the team did build a very good car.”

That’s almost an understatement. Of the 14 races so far this year the RB18 has won 10, all bar one of which went to Verstappen. But it’s striking that he hasn’t picked up pole positions at anything like the rate he managed last year: he’s taken just three so far.

That required Verstappen to capitalise on opportunities in races to move forward and take the victories he need. He says he spent the five years between his first win and his first championship honing the skills and developing the maturity needed to do that.

“When I won that first race in 2016, that was amazing,” he recalls. “But then, of course, we had a few tough years where I felt I was ready for it. Of course I still made a few mistakes sometimes here and there.

“That was also because we had a car which was not capable of winning a championship, but sometimes could win a race, and then you would go flat-out for it and then sometimes it didn’t work out.”

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That occasional impatience could be seen at races like Monaco in 2018, where he squandered a clear shot at victory by putting his car in the barriers at the end of final practice. Today the unforced errors are rarer – he spun on his way to victory in Hungary – but he feels he is in “a completely different mindset” now he knows he has “a car capable of winning it.”

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Spa-Francorchamps, 2022
Spa win makes Verstappen’s second title seem assured
Before he became champion “some races where you think ‘I’m a bit on the limit here’, like if I go a little bit, I try to extract a bit more, I might end up in the wall or I go off right,” he explains. “You have to try and balance that a bit more.

“So that’s why I think years after 2016, [when] sometimes we were winning the races, but we were not in that fight, [it] was sometimes a bit – not difficult to accept, but you also have to trust the process we were in to try and become, again, a contender for the championship.”

Followed his dominant victory at Spa last week Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said Verstappen’s title win had allowed him to take another step in competitiveness. Verstappen says his success has changed his outlook on racing and made it easier for him to deal with the inevitable setbacks that arise – even if that might not always seem to be the case in some of his more animated messages to race engineer Gianpiero Lambiase.

“Of course I want to win,” says Verstappen. “Like, I get upset if things don’t go right. But even, let’s say they don’t go right, it’s not as painful as before winning that first championship because that was my goal.”

On the evidence of the season so far, winning the world championship has not only given Verstappen a new attitude to his racing, it’s helped him become an even stronger competitor. One which, with eight races to go, has almost seen off the challenge of a resurgent Ferrari.

Meanwhile Mercedes have been in the doldrums. It remains to be seen if that force will be reawakened, and the ferocious battle we witnessed during 2021 will resume. Remembering what he went through last year, Verstappen seems somewhat ambivalent about that possibility.

“It was very tough,” he says. “It was a very good battle and, like I said before, you always had to be at 100% – not that I’m not 100% now. But it was sometimes a different feeling. But I’m also enjoying a lot this year, that’s for sure.”

RaceFans’ exclusive interview with Max Verstappen will continue tomorrow

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2022 Dutch Grand Prix

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Author information

Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...
Claire Cottingham
Claire has worked in motorsport for much of her career, covering a broad mix of championships including Formula One, Formula E, the BTCC, British...

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22 comments on “Exclusive: How Verstappen’s “different mindset” unlocked his title-winning potential”

  1. Of course, technically, 93 points to his nearest rival, but 98 to his only realistic threat this season, so fair enough reference.

  2. The US GP and Brazil GP are always exciting races to watch from a championship perspective, it’s a real shame that Verstappen would probably wrap up the title before we even get to Texas. Max has just been mega this season. Other than putting a foot wrong in Barcelona, from which he recovered pretty spectacularly, he’s been flawless.

    As an F1 fan, I feel like throwing something at Binotto’s face for not even mounting a championship challenge this year. My only hope is that Mercedes gets its act together for next season, and we can see Russell and Hamilton double team Verstappen every race weekend.

    1. He’s not been flawless, he spun in hungary + made a mistake in quali, just as an example. He’s still been the best driver, but most of that points difference you see has been made by ferrari’s strategies and leclerc’s more costly mistakes: verstappen didn’t lose any points from those 2 mistakes, leclerc lost potentially even 32 in france in case he won and verstappen ended 2nd, and I don’t think I have to go into the strategy mishaps, everyone is aware about them except binotto.

      1. @esploratore1 Max is a remarkably consistent driver under virtually any conditions thrown at him. Has he been flawless? No. But then he wasn’t last year either (or Hamilton for that matter). I guess what’s impressive this year is his level of motivation with no real dips in concentration. He hasn’t needed to be really outstanding – unless you count some of the racing with Leclerc in the first few races – and wasn’t really until Spa, when he seemed to relax into being the unrivalled force in Formula 1 right now. That can change if Ferrari come back at Red Bull or (totally unlikely) Mercedes pose a challenge as the second part of the season unfolds. But even so, I agree with the assessment that Max has now advanced to a more mature level of driving and will be even harder to beat by Leclerc or anyone else. The title is his so he can just focus on perfecting his driving and helping improve the car without any prospect of being caught in the WDC. Maybe Ferrari need to accept the same and focus already on next season, cutting out all their team and driver mistakes on the way in preparation for 2023.

  3. Just imagine ingenious Masi didn’t interfere “to end it on track” in Abu Dhabi, and Hamilton to became champ. Verstappen would be even crazier this year and all these superior performances he showed year to date would have been ended on first or second corner of these particular races.

    We are somehow lucky to see this kind of a dramatic evolution of a racing driver, and this must be taken as a perfect example to all the youngsters out there who thinks “everything is acceptable to win”. Because Max is now showing everyone that if he plays fair, it gets easier and more respectful for him and more entertaining for everyone.

    1. Masi had to interfere (as he did in Bahrain and Spa of course) because of the interference by Mercedes (Silverstone, Hungary) plus worse luck (Baku). Otherwise all things equal, the championship would be about as exciting as this one thanks to Hamilton’s off-form/chokers in Baku, Monaco, and Turkey to name a few races. Max gives it (Jeddah, Brazil) as hard as he gets it.

      1. Bahrain was ok–it was already agreed in pre race discussions that track limits (turn 4) wouldn’t be enforced in regards to setting a lap time and all drivers, to varying degrees, exploited that. And as per usual, no mention of Verstappen taking Hamilton out in Monza. Verstappen should’ve been punished for that terrible Brazil display, and he was lucky to escape disqualification for his brake test in Saudi.

        Equal points at AD. Masi decided the the outcome of the WDC with his terrible manipulation of the sc rule in AD

        1. And ofc no mention about baku from you, or silverstone, we can go all around in circles based on who’s fan of who.

        2. Bahrain was ok

          It wasn’t, because the track limits enforcement changed mid-race.

      2. Masi in AD disregarding the rules was a total cheat, he was big friend of RB race engineer, ofcourse.

  4. As Max would say, there is no different mindset, he has been doing what he has since karting. The only difference is, that the pressure is off.
    He no longer has to win a WDC he doesn’t have to win Zandvoort.
    It is all a nice bonus on life’s work that has been completed.
    It’s zen in its finest form.

  5. ‘His lead peaked at 32 points approaching mid-season, before Hamilton ground it down and overhauled him’.

    Yeah I guess that’s one way to describe what happened in Silverstone and Hungary.

      1. Did you forget about verstappen’s slow pit stop or? Without that he would simply not crash with hamilton because he wouldn’t be in his range.

      2. And it’s a microscopic amount of points swing because of the monza crash, compared to silverstone or hungary.

        1. Silverstone, really, like Max couldnt go 20 cm wider, instead he decided to cut over where Lewis was, go cry a river :) Remember Brazil how long Lewis went to avoid the crash? That differentiates boys from champions. Max is not a champion Masi gifted him with a cheat.

  6. Not gonna lie I thought Chewbacca was interviewing Max

    But on a serious note it’s interesting to see if he really needs to put 100% this year or if this level is enough. It just shows his level. He is winning without his maximum.

    1. @qeki Maybe you need to recalibrate your visual cues system.

      1. @david-br I was just watching the small picture for a few seconds on the main page and was bamboozed.

  7. But then we managed it at the end.

    But they didn’t —not really. They didn’t do it within the confines of the rules. Masi saw to that.

    1. Yes, he should’ve just let all cars unlap themselves the moment that silly “lapped cars may not overtake” appeared, and that would leave no way to argue the championship for merc fans, because verstappen would still have won the race then, there was enough time, instead he waited till the very last moment.

  8. Nice interview. It’s enjoyable reading Max’s comments nowadays, some of the post-adolescent aggression has dissipated and he’s intelligent, thoughtful and honest enough to make interesting assessments about what’s going on with him and around him (always there to be fair, but sometimes lost in other noise).

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