Monday lunchtime, Heathrow Terminal 5. Standing next to the slowly revolving baggage carousel, a fresh-faced, slightly awkward-looking - just out of his teens - young man is awaiting the arrival of his chattels.
Dressed in bland black trainers, similarly hued skinny jeans and an oversized hoody, this Young Turk ain’t winning any style awards. iPhone in hand, he’s busy swiping the screen in that head-bowed social media style billions of us now ‘enjoy’.
Max Verstappen doesn’t really do flash. He couldn’t look more ‘normal’. Yet put him in a racing car and he’s just about the most special talent to arrive on motor racing’s top step for decades.
Schumacher-esque – Michael of course! – is a term increasingly heard up and down the F1 paddock, such is the impact the Netherlands’ premier sportsman is now making.
I can see it too.
The fresh-faced 16-year-old boy who was, upon his arrival, so ignorantly dismissed by many within the sport is rapidly becoming a man. It’s amazing how quickly young sportsmen living life in the public gaze assume adulthood. Just take a look at Sebastian Vettel. The gawky kid of 2009 became the handsome dude of 2010!
What sets the potentially great apart from the mediocre? What makes Max Verstappen so, so much more special than, say, Carlos Sainz?
I guess it’s the whole package: the look; the mien; the steely character honed to be a racer almost from before he could walk; the utterly uncompromising way he dismisses any questioning of his racecraft; the toys-out-of-the-pram reaction to harsh penalties; the fast straight-out-of-the-box attacking style; and the rapier-like overtaking ability, the like of which we haven’t seen for many a year. Such was Max’s impact on the art of passing and defending, the rules had to be rewritten!
The way the car looks through the turns, the application of throttle, steering and immensely late braking. Metronomic in his blisteringly fast lap time delivery, this boy has the lot. He IS the future of Formula 1.
In so, so many ways – but let’s hope not all – Max is the new MSC.
Racing in an aggressive and forceful style often results in on-track contretemps with some of his more seasoned rivals. No matter, Max takes no prisoners, batting away questions about the legality of some of his racing moves with a dismissive arrogance that’s strangely appealing in its delivery.
Up to speed now and surely making Dan Ricciardo question his team-leading abilities, Verstappen is unquestionably Red Bull’s main man.
Off-track too, Max is sorted. Guided by his F1-experienced father, the young Verstappen has an able and well-qualified navigator at the helm. Learning from his own ill-advised 1990s F1 driving career decisions, Jos pays absolute attention so as to ensure his son maximises the opportunities on offer.
With top-drawer drivers in short supply, Red Bull had better make damned sure their 2019-and-beyond engine supply is top-notch. The bidding war for Max’s signature is already in full swing. Ferrari and Mercedes are enviously eyeing the Dutchman’s abilities with covetous desire.
It’s easy to forget that Max is only 20 years old. Way ahead in racing driver maturity - a relative term! – than so many millions of a similar age, Max has appeared mentally developed beyond his years since first he appeared in the F1 paddock at Spa 2014. It struck me then (my blog is here: http://bit.ly/2zdc766) how entirely capable this 16-year-old boy was dealing with multiple language questions and untold camera lenses. Listening to his interrogator politely before answering calmly and intelligently, Max appeared born to the role…
Fast forward to now and Verstappen is a multiple grand prix winner and 2018 title-chasing challenger. Part of the new breed of F1 racers, Max leads the pack. Publicly respectful of his rivals, although privately dismissive of many, he well knows his place among the potentially great.
Michael Schumacher once opined – in an interview I photographed – that his father had advised him to heed well the arrival on the scene of the next great talent. The one who’d challenge and quickly replace the dominant male. Well, Lewis, Sebastian and Fernando, that man has arrived.
You’d best heed Herr Schumacher’s words well…
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