The run of DNFs that peppered his 2017 Formula 1 season through Singapore could have left Max Verstappen deflated, but the 20-year-old Dutchman has instead used the agony to fuel his incredible run of form the last four races since.
Verstappen’s meteoric rise in the Formula 1 world occurred over his first two seasons, with his frequent giant-killing acts turned at either 17 or 18 years old with Scuderia Toro Rosso as a rookie in 2015, then Daniil Kvyat’s equally precipitous fall from grace at Red Bull providing the opportunity for him to move up to the senior team five races into 2016.
For the first time in his career, Verstappen faced adversity as he opened this season with the spate of mechanical woes and Renault (badged as TAG Heuer) power unit issues that ground him to a halt. But it didn’t defeat him.
“Until this year, every year in my career in this sport has been on the up, and this year in the beginning was a big struggle,” Verstappen told NBC Sports, speaking from the SEMA automotive show with Red Bull Racing official lubricant partner ExxonMobil.
“A lot of things were out of my hands! That was hard to accept, but at the end of the day it makes you a stronger driver.”
Since the Singapore smash that saw Verstappen collected and sandwiched in-between Ferrari teammates Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen, he’s gone on a tear over the month of October.
Two wins in Malaysia and Mexico opened and closed the month nicely, adding a close second in Japan and his almost-podium in Austin before getting a five-second time penalty that docked him to fourth place. Verstappen has scored 80 of his 148 points this season just in the last four races, and that amount is the most in the field over this period.
Verstappen’s race craft has also improved. Often in the wrong place at the wrong time last year and drawing ire from some of his competitors, he’s been a cleaner package this year and often quicker than teammate Daniel Ricciardo, particularly in qualifying. He holds a 12-6 advantage over his teammate on Saturdays this year.
“Yeah the beginning of the season was a bit difficult for me. But basically from Malaysia onwards we’ve had great results,” he said. “Also, the car really came alive. The performance upgrades I mentioned with the (Mobil) fuel and oil samples, we’ve made a big step forwards. We’re improving and learning for next year. Yeah, I’m trying to finish it off in a positive way for the last few races.
“Yeah in general I haven’t made big mistakes this year. As a driver you also improve and you learn from the difficulties as well in the sport.”
Verstappen’s first full year with Red Bull has come with positive elements as well. He had the offseason to further develop and grow with the Milton Keynes-based team, and he and Ricciardo have pushed each other all year.
“I jumped into a new team last year with Red Bull. I definitely think Daniel and I raised our game to each other and also pushed the team forward, so that was definitely positive,” he said.
“But of course I try to raise my game every single time I’m out and every single year I’m driving in F1. It’s a continuous process at the moment.”
Verstappen heads to Brazil this weekend looking to emulate or perhaps go better than his famous drive in the rain to third place here last year. He said altered weather will help Red Bull’s prospects.
“It’s always a great track to come back to. It’s a lot of fun to drive there. The fans are great; they’re very passionate about Formula 1. There’s a lot of history at that track as well. I’m always happy to go back,” he said.
“Hopefully the weather plays a part again because last year in the wet it was a very strong race for us. Hopefully we can do something similar to that.”
On the whole of course, the future looks promising for Verstappen, having re-upped with Red Bull for a further three years although the team’s engine selection beyond 2018 remains a major question mark.
F1 is his primary focus though with no formal plans to sample any other major races, yet, as Fernando Alonso has done with his 2017 Indianapolis 500 and 2018 Rolex 24 at Daytona races.
“To be honest I’m still so young and I want to succeed in Formula 1. Maybe in the future,” he said of other races. “You never know what is going to happen.
“I think it’s very difficult to comment on (the future). I believe in the team and the whole package together. But it’s a bit difficult to say if it’s the right move. You never really know. I have a good feeling about it.
“Yeah so far my career has been all a bit unexpected and very quick, but I’m very happy with the way it’s going.”