Max Verstappen has been quiet since stepping back from the wild drama and surreal shootout of the last lap of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in which he overtook Lewis Hamilton and won his first world championship in December. After the elation, as well as the bitter controversy and angry appeals from Hamilton’s Mercedes team, Verstappen has needed time to recover. But now, on a tranquil afternoon in Milton Keynes, he is ready to slip back into the cockpit.
The new Red Bull car, RB18, will be unveiled on Wednesday afternoon but, first, Verstappen takes a fresh spin around the final lap of the race that brought such a gripping Formula One season to its tumultuous conclusion. The grand prix and the championship had been blown apart by the decision of Michael Masi, the race director, to allow a one-lap lottery between two great drivers who had been fighting for supremacy all season. Until Nicholas Latifi crashed his Williams car with just five of the 58 laps of the race left, it had looked as if Hamilton would deny Verstappen and make history by winning his eighth driver’s title.
Mercedes had been much quicker the whole race and Christian Horner, Red Bull’s team principal, admitted live on television that they needed “a miracle”. It duly arrived in a staggering sequence of events. Latifi crashed and, after much procrastination, Masi made the fateful choice to allow five lapped cars to overtake the safety car so that the wide gap between Hamilton and Verstappen would be replaced by a head-to-head race for the chequered flag.
Hamilton still had the much quicker car but he was on worn tyres – while Verstappen was racing on new rubber. But Hamilton is perhaps the greatest driver in the history of Formula One and the 24-year-old Verstappen was under immense pressure.
“What was going on in my head?” Verstappen asks himself as he returns to those agonising moments. “I was like: ‘I need to overtake him. There’s only one option here. I’m not going to finish second.’”
Verstappen leans forward in an otherwise empty boardroom. “I tried to be really on it with the restart. It was all working well until I crossed the line and started to feel cramp in my leg. It’s one of the most painful things that can happen because you’re going full throttle for a long time. You feel the muscle clenching and becoming like a tennis ball. Of course the adrenaline helps because, if it were to happen when you’re just walking around, you cannot move. It’s impossible. But there was no option; I had to. So I was just keeping it full throttle and I could feel my leg hurting more and more. Luckily, turn five arrived and I went for the [overtaking] move. I had like three seconds off throttle.
“You then have two very long straights and, on the second one where Lewis came back at me, I could feel my foot vibrating. I couldn’t control it because the muscle was having a spasm. My foot on the last sector was like this …”
Verstappen laughs as he shakes his hand in a juddering motion. “If you go back over the data you will not see a very smooth throttle input. I was screaming on the radio [after he had won] but the whole lap my foot was going like that.”
He flaps his hand helplessly again. “It was completely done. One more lap and I couldn’t have finished the race like that. The stress levels were so high in the final lap that probably your body reacts to that. But you cannot give up.”
If he needed a huge slice of good fortune in the form of Masi’s intervention, Verstappen was a worthy champion. He was on pole 10 times, won 10 races and stood on the podium a record 18 times. His racing brilliance was also evident when, despite his cramping, he had the audacity to surprise Hamilton with a daring and early overtaking manoeuvre on turn five of the deciding lap.
“I knew I had more grip so I was like: ‘I’m going to surprise them on that corner.’ Even my dad [Jos Verstappen, the former F1 driver] didn’t expect me to do it there. These kind of things make the difference. But two long straights were coming up.”
Hamilton came at him hard but Verstappen held him off as their wheels nearly touched. It was incredible sporting drama and, once he crossed the line, Verstappen says: “I couldn’t believe it – especially after the whole race when everything looked like it was not happening. Suddenly your emotions swing 100% the other way. So crazy. It’s what we had worked for my whole life. It was always my dream. Once you cross the line you realise you finally have it. I jumped out of the car and all the mechanics and my dad were running towards me.”
Verstappen smiles at his father’s reaction. “I thought he could die because it looked like he was about to have a heart attack. He was so pale, it was incredible. His skin colour was definitely not healthy.”
What did they say to each other? Verstappen blows out his cheeks. “Like: ‘We did it!’”
What does Verstappen recall of his exchange with Hamilton after the race? “I only saw him quickly, when we took our helmets off, and I think it was: ‘Congrats, man.’ I don’t even know the words any more. But it was nice of him, of course, to immediately come over.”
Verstappen’s relationship with Hamilton deteriorated during an acrimonious season. He does not show sympathy for his rival when I suggest that, if he had suffered Hamilton’s fate, Verstappen would have been devastated. “For me it’s difficult to picture myself in that situation, because I’m not a seven-time world champion. If I was already a seven-time world champion it hurts a bit less than when I am fighting for my first, leading all the way, controlling it all the way, and then losing it on the last lap. That would be way more painful than already having seven in the bag.”
He shrugs when I say Hamilton felt terrible hurt as he had come so close to an historic eighth title which would have taken him one ahead of Michael Schumacher. “Yeah, but just look back on the seven you have. I don’t think it’s so bad, is it?”
He and Hamilton have not texted each other since and, Verstappen stresses, “That’s quite normal – we live our own lives and see each other quite a lot already [when racing]”.
Had he felt genuine concern that the title would be taken from him after Mercedes launched their furious appeal? “Not that it could be taken away from me but just it was dragging on. That whole night we were waiting and then the result came out.”
The result of the inquiry into the Abu Dhabi GP will be released before this season’s first race in Bahrain on 20 March. “Yeah, but they can’t do anything,” Verstappen says. Does he feel his victory had been overshadowed by the controversy? “Not at all. I had a very good season and I think I really deserved it. I have been really unlucky as well. People always remember the last race but, if you look at the whole season, the championship should have been decided way earlier.”
As he revisits some of the twists and turns that defined the season, with both teams and drivers accusing each other of chicanery and pushing too hard, Verstappen settles on the British Grand Prix as his lowest moment. He and Hamilton clashed on the first lap when Hamilton tried to force his way down the inside at Copse Corner. Hamilton clipped Verstappen’s rear wheel and the Red Bull spun off the track and smashed into the barriers at 180mph. Horner accused Hamilton of “dirty driving” and he and Red Bull were furious that Mercedes celebrated their victory so loudly while Verstappen was being examined in hospital.
“It was the most painful one of all,” Verstappen says. “It was tough points-wise but literally, it was very painful. My neck, my back, my shoulders. I’m quite tough and I can take quite a hit but it’s not good for your body or your brain to have an impact like that. I got home and for four days I was not watching TV or doing any sim [simulated virtual reality] racing because your brain has to rest.”
Were he and his team even more motivated to win the title after the Mercedes celebrations? “No, I don’t think we work like that. It’s disrespectful what happened there but we looked at what we could have done better. Once we came back from the break as a team we really did a good job because we won races in the second half of the season we shouldn’t have won.”
Verstappen was exhausted after a year of intense and nerve-shredding racing and he admits: “You can’t have that drama every single year, for sure. It’s not good for me, it’s not healthy for anyone in the team, both teams.”
Helmut Marko, an important adviser at Red Bull, suggested last week that Verstappen’s career would be shortened if he had to endure many more brutally competitive seasons. But, looking replenished after his break, Verstappen says life has not changed since he became world champion. “Not for me at least. Once I get home I prefer to do the things I was doing before becoming champion.”
Verstappen is such a ferocious competitor that much of his leisure time is taken up by sim racing. Even against the professional virtual reality competitors, he is one of the best in the world. Last month he just missed making pole for the 24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual by 0.002sec. Verstappen still scorched into the lead on the first lap but he laughs ruefully when describing what happened next.
“I binned the car! But luckily my team’s other car won. Of course I was very disappointed I crashed but it was also a big satisfaction to see how dominant we were.”
Back in real life Verstappen believes F1’s new regulations will mean the cars are slightly slower this season which should encourage even closer racing. But, as he points out: “It depends on what people find within the regulations. Maybe there is a grey area or a loophole.”
There is uncertainty how Hamilton will respond this coming season; but Verstappen believes his own position will be stronger. “That little pressure in the back of your mind, of having to win a world championship or trying to win it, has gone. It’s already happened. I’ve done it. So when it’s tough or you’re having bad luck you probably will deal with it easier than normal.”
Verstappen is 13 years younger than Hamilton and so does he harbour ambitions of winning as many championships as his rival? “Not really. If I never get to a No 7 or No 8, it’s fine. You need a lot of luck to be in such a dominant position for such a long time. I just want to enjoy it and I know that, when I get to the track, I still want to win. ”