Smith: Verstappen’s Malaysia win just the start of his roaring 20s

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Whatever you were you doing the day after your 20th birthday, it’s unlikely to have been as cool as what Max Verstappen was up to.

Try and cast your mind back. You’ve got 30 seconds.

After a season full of frustration and underperformance, F1’s blinding-bright star reminded us once again of his incredible talent with one of the most convincing victories we have seen this year in Malaysia.

While his maiden victory on debut for Red Bull at the age of 18 at last year’s Spanish Grand Prix may have been down to a dose of good fortune, this was the opposite. On Sunday, nobody was in the same league as Verstappen at the front.

It is a daunting sign of things to come from F1’s next big superstar. If this is how he has started his twenties, how will he finish them?

Right, time’s up. What were you doing the day after your 20th birthday? Nursing a hangover? Attending college? Let’s put it in different terms: can you remember which F1 weekend was the first of your twenties?

Mine was not that long ago. I turned 20 one week before the 2015 Spanish Grand Prix, which also happened to be the race where I first really spoke with Verstappen, who was then just 17.

The hubbub around the Dutch youngster had been brewing for some time, with the concerns about his readiness for F1 evaporating within his first two races as he became both the youngest race starter and the youngest points scorer in the sport’s history.

Spain was my first race of the season that year, and after missing Verstappen at testing where everyone wanted to speak with him, I found myself only with a couple of other journalists for his regular media session at Toro Rosso after qualifying.

What struck me from the outset was how mature and confident Verstappen was when talking. He was able to switch between the finer technical details of his car setup to more general color questions easily, seeming more comfortable than many of his peers who find it something of a chore.

Verstappen was even happy to joke around as a leading F1 political writer tried to pin down his nationality – despite racing under the Dutch flag, Verstappen was raised and resides in Belgium – with the most telling of tests: by asking him how he ate his pomme frites. I noted he was sporting a shorter, streamlined haircut, which he said was part of Toro Rosso’s major update package for the start of the European season.

It’s simple, but this encounter was an early glimpse of Verstappen’s personality. He’s a breath of fresh air; a millennial for a sport that is desperately working to try and capture the millennial generation.

To think of where Verstappen may be at the time he turns 30 is quite scary. He is already in a top team and a proven race winner, not needing to spend those awkward few years trying to prove himself as others have tried (and often failed) to do. Red Bull appears to be on the rise, and even if concerns about a future Honda supply prove founded, Ferrari and Mercedes will surely be interested in his services.

The great names of F1’s recent era will soon start to disappear. Kimi Raikkonen will likely be the first, followed by Fernando Alonso. Lewis Hamilton will go after that, before finally Sebastian Vettel. Afterwards, Daniel Ricciardo will likely be the oldest driver at the front of the field, maybe followed by Valtteri Bottas.

Thereafter, we are firmly into the youngsters of today: the Esteban Ocons, the Stoffel Vandoornes. And, of course, Max – and you can be sure he is going threading right the way through all of these eras.

Naturally it all depends on the car and the experience of title fights in F1 (Verstappen still lacks the latter), but it does not seem to be a question of if he is world champion; instead when and how many times over.

Lewis Hamilton recently broke Michael Schumacher’s pole position all-time record and appears to stand the best chance of even getting close to his tally of 91 wins. He has always been racing for a top team and never had a winless season, but only debuted at 22. Verstappen has two years to get further ahead of the game.

If we’re looking for a driver to depose Schumacher as statistically being F1’s greatest of all time, it is hard to find a better candidate right now than Verstappen. The same is true for a driver to really represent the future of F1.

Verstappen will not be alone, though. There was a nice media session in Malaysia where Ferrari youngster Charles Leclerc was asked who he thought the ‘big three’ drivers in F1 would be in 10 years’ time. He said he hoped himself, currently 19, McLaren junior Lando Norris, 17, and of course Verstappen.

All three are very switched on and very relatable for young people today. They are all very active on social media, but very courteous and engaging in person. They know the importance of being personable. And of course, they are all extremely talented.

Sustained success through a long career is a rarity in F1. There will be challenges for Verstappen. He will lose titles and race wins; and, let’s not forget, he is still growing up and learning about the world in general. His race-craft is ever-evolving and still has a way to go, and he is not blameless for all of the on-track clashes this season. But he is showing all of the right signs to make the next decade of his life truly extraordinary.

Quite where F1 will be in 2027 is impossible to predict. But perhaps the biggest certainty is that Verstappen will still be around with his army of orange-clad Dutch fans in tow. One imagines they will have plenty to celebrate in the coming years.

Tom Blomqvist keeps eye on IndyCar during impressive rise: ‘ I would love to give it a go’


DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – In between two of his latest superstar-driver-in-waiting performances, Tom Blomqvist walked through the Daytona International Speedway garage in anonymity.

“Nobody knows who the (expletive) I am,” he said to a team member with a laugh (and without a trace of being miffed), evincing the cheeky humor of someone born in England, raised in New Zealand and also of Swedish descent.

The lack of recognition in the garage might have been because he was clad in a relatively nondescript shirt, hat and sunglasses instead of a colorful firesuit covered by sponsor logos. But he also was on the way to a Friday race eve media availability where his entrance was greeted by only one reporter (after a few minutes).

During a news conference a day earlier, he sat patiently on the dais while his Indy 500-winning teammates and car owner fielded nearly all the questions – even though Blomqvist had turned maybe the most impressive lap of the month to win the Rolex 24 at Daytona pole position in the debut of the Grand Touring Prototype category.

The Meyer Shank Racing driver still might lack the attention commensurate with his already world-class CV (which expanded Sunday with his second consecutive Rolex 24  victory for MSR), but Blomqvist, 29, clearly isn’t bothered by it.

He carries the quiet confidence of knowing his immense talent will ensure results that will make him impossible to ignore.

“To a degree, I guess, it’s definitely ramped up a lot for me,” Blomqvist told NBC Sports. “In America, I’m starting to get a lot more (attention). In the last year, I’ve quite often got a lot of maybe what you’d call the glory moments. It’s been fun. And within the paddock, there’s a lot of respect for me anyway. It’s been good.”

There have been several moments of acclaim since he joined MSR barely a year ago in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. In his first start for the team at last year’s Rolex 24, Blomqvist turned in a Herculean performance to position the No. 60 Acura for the victory (giving way to Helio Castroneves because he was too “cooked” to complete the last 74 minutes).

He was even better this year at Daytona.

He ripped off a monster “one and done” pole-winning lap to beat the clock in qualifying on the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course. During the race, Blomqvist was as dominant in his first stint as his last in the ARX-06 while taking the checkered flag. He set the mark for the fastest time on Lap 6 that no one topped over the final 755 laps.

The 10 fastest laps in the race belonged to Blomqvist, carrying over his speed from the 2022 when he won the Petit Le Mans season finale to clinch the premier prototype championship at Michelin Road Atlanta.

A year earlier at the same track, he had burst onto the radar of car owner Mike Shank, who was intrigued by Blomqvist’s results as a BMW factory driver in the Formula E and DTM series. In 2014, Blomqvist also finished between second in F3, between champion Esteban Ocon (now with Alpine’s F1 team) and Max Verstappen (who has won the past two Formula One championships).

“He did a lot of high-level stuff, and then kind of fell out of favor, or I don’t know what happened, but he was a free agent,” Shank said. “I started looking at his numbers, and I’m like, ‘We should test this guy. So I take him to Road Atlanta in the fall of ’21, and he got in the car and just slayed it.”

Within minutes, he had called co-owner Jim Meyer.

“I’ve got our guy,” Shank said. “This is our guy. There’s no question about it.

Honda Performance Development president David Salters hugs Tom Blomqvist after the Rolex 24 at Daytona pole (Mike Levitt/LAT/IMSA).

“Now what’s happened, though, and I think if you look back at the Rolex here last year (and) what he did, he’s a gold nugget. He reminds me a little bit when (Robert) Wickens came into IndyCar out of DTM (as a rookie in 2018).

“He truly believes he’s the fastest guy out there, and he proved it (at the Rolex 24).”

Said David Salters, president for Honda Performance Development: “We love Tom. He’s the real deal, isn’t he? Immensely talented, super smart, and on it.

The great thing about our teams, the strength in depth is tremendous. But if you look through the sports car racing now, that’s the standard you have to have. Tom, brilliant, Filipe (Albuquerque), brilliant. Ricky (Taylor). You can go through that list. They’re all superstars. Tom is awesome. His lap in qualifying quite frankly was unbelievable.”

Having conquered one of the world’s greatest endurance races twice with Acura, Blomqvist could be ticketed for the world’s biggest race next – the Indy 500 — with HPD’s primary brand.

He tested a Dallara-Honda for MSR last October at Sebring International Raceway, and while he plans to focus solely on IMSA this season, he remains very intrigued by IndyCar.

And with Castroneves, 47, beginning a one-year deal with MSR’s IndyCar team, there could be an obvious opening in 2024.

“Obviously, it’s not in the cards this year,” Blomqvist told NBC Sports the day before the Rolex. “Yeah, I would love to give it a go. To be honest, I think that would be an amazing step for me in my career. I enjoy the sports car stuff so much. It’s been really good to me lately. I really enjoyed the style of racing.

“But I feel like IndyCar would be a step up for me and my career. It would be fantastic if I could get that opportunity. But yeah, I guess I have to keep pushing Mike or something to give me a shot. But obviously for now, the focus is here in the sports car stuff. It’s not really down to me at the end of the day. And I’ve got to do my job and then the people who pay the bills and make the decisions obviously have to decide if that’s something worth pursuing.

“But yeah, I’d love to give it a go, and I definitely would be up for it.”

Tom Blomqvist after winning the Rolex 24 at Daytona pole on the final qualifying lap (Mike Levitt/LAT/IMSA).

A transition from IMSA to IndyCar naturally would be easier than switching teams, but it also would be comfortable because Blomqvist already seems such a good fit at MSR.

It might have seemed an unusual pairing given his European-heavy background, but Blomqvist likes the Midwestern culture that’s been built at MSR. Based just outside Columbus, Ohio, the team’s shop has “no egos, and that just enables each and every one of to reach our potential.

“Obviously, with Honda, we obviously have some great resources, but we’re up against Porsche, BMW and some big heavy hitters in the motorsports world,” he said. “I wouldn’t say we’ve got a huge team compared to them, but we’ve obviously got a very capable team, and I think that’s what has been so impressive and really, really nice to see about the work that’s been done. No stone has been left unturned.”

Blomqvist still is living in Europe and planning to commute for the nine-race GTP schedule (which has a nearly two-month break after the Rolex 24 until the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring). But though he’s “got good friends in America, so I do have places to stay,” he seems open to being based more permanently near MSR in America.

“Let’s see what the future brings, and if that means me spending more time over here,” he said. “It’s a fantastic team. It’s a different environment to what I’m used to. It’s obviously now a hugely successful team, but it is a small team. It does feel like a very small family-operated team, which it is.

“I think Mike’s really just built this thing. It hasn’t happened overnight. Mike’s a great guy and put a lot of trust and faith in me, and I played a relatively good part in some of the success last year. I was able to reward him and give him my all every time I’m on track, and he respects that. But we are still a small team. In the grand scheme of things, we still are a really, really small team.”

Blomqvist said the BMW factory program would have two or three times the staffing of MSR – just on one of its two GTP cars.

“But it’s not the number of people that makes a difference, it’s the quality of people, and obviously Mike and HPD are a fantastic operation to go racing,” Blomqvist said. “We’re racers at heart.

“I’ve been part of some big outfits, and the European way of working is very, very different to how people go about racing in America. I’d say it’s more seat of your pants. A lot of emotion and kind of rides on that competitive spirt, competitive nature and on their personalities. It’s a lot more pure. It feels very pure. You want to win, so we go out and don’t cut corners on trying to win.”

Though it’s aligned with Liberty Media and has big-budget backing and support from Honda Performance Development, MSR also is much less corporate than most GTP teams.

A longtime and respected team owner who has built a sponsor portfolio, Shank also describes his maniacal dedication to success as “messed up,” and he’s known for dropping vulgarities into postrace interview with his blunt and self-deprecating sense of humor.

Meyer Shank Racing co-owner Mike Shank congratulates Tom Blomqvist on the Rolex 24 at Daytona pole position (Mike Levitt/LAT/IMSA).

With a more laid-back but sometimes just as biting demeanor, Blomqvist has become the team’s unquestioned leader behind the wheel

“I definitely feel a lot more immersed,” he said. “Within the team, I was a bit more of an unknown quantity the start of last year. Obviously after last season, the team trusts me a lot. And that gives me a lot of pleasure, pride and confidence. In this sport, confidence is a huge aspect of drivers’ psychology in a way. We’re in extremely high-pressure moments where my job is to perform under the pressure of these organizations and the brand as well.

“It’s just a good, healthy team to be a part of. It’s a high-pressure environment, but the team obviously have put a lot of faith in me, and I’ve been able to deliver for them on occasions.”

Rolex 24 starting lineup
Tom Blomqvist celebrates after winning the pole in the No. 60 Acura ARX-06 (Mike Levitt/LAT/IMSA).