The M Game

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Nancy Heslin   Forbes Monaco

The M Game

Article first published in Forbes Monaco October/November 2021 issue.

Formula one driver Max Verstappen has become a household name in the Netherlands but can his red bull car deliver his need for speed and win him a world championship title?

On october 12, former Red Bull driver Mark Webber asked on the F1 Nation podcast, “Are Red Bull giving Max the car for closing this championship out?”

The retired Australian F1 driver was referring to the Turkish Grand Prix weekend when Red Bull’s superstar Max Verstappen was outpaced on the Saturday by the two Mercedes drivers, Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton, both of whom were driving down the straights 15 to 20 kilometers per hour faster. Verstappen finish 15 seconds behind Bottas to snag second place on race day; Hamilton, who was given a 10-place grid penalty, finished fifth.

Verstappen managed to retake the championship lead by six points with just six races remaining in the 2021 F1 season. But can the world’s second highest-paid driver—who Forbes estimates will have a total 2021 on-track earnings of $42 million— hold on and claim a maiden Formula One world title?

Webber has his doubts. “Max is really hanging in there. I think in terms of performance [in both the] dry and wet, Red Bull know they need to react to the Mercedes’ pace now, with these new engines that Mercedes have put in the back of the car, or some aero, or whatever’s going on.”

In the Istanbul Park paddock, Red Bull Racing Team Principal Christian Horner told Sky Sports F1, “Mercedes have been very quick this weekend. It is phenomenal. And so we’ve got to find a little bit of straight-line speed ourselves. Maybe they were running a different downforce configuration but we’ve got some speed to find.”

Horner admitted that Red Bull had “raised questions” to the FIA about Mercedes’ “phenomenal” speed and the legality of the plenum, the part that distributes air around an engine. “We ask some questions which all teams do. It wasn’t just Red Bull, by the way, it was other manufacturers raising questions as well and they continue to be raised,” he stated.

Michael Schmidt at Auto Motor und Sport said the complaint was over an “intercooler” that could possibly compress air temperature to produce a 20 horsepower gain and how Mercedes “managed to improve its engine this year amid the homologation rules.” The complaint was rejected by F1’s governing body.

The 2015 Australian Grand Prix was the moment when Max Emilian Verstappen became the youngest driver ever to compete in Formula One. He was 199 days shy of his 18th birthday and not legally old enough to have a road driver’s license. That same year the Belgian-Dutch teen moved out of his father’s home to Monaco and was named Personality of the Year by the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, the auto-racing governing body. He would hold on to that distinction for two more consecutive years but by then he had been promoted from Scuderia Toro Rosso to the parent team of Red Bull Racing, as a replacement for Daniil Kvyat.

The now 24-year-old’s popularity in the Netherlands exploded in 2016 when he became the motorsport’s youngest driver to win a race at his debut for Red Bull in Barcelona 2016. “Why so much fanfare?” asked Lawrence Barretto on Formula1.com. “Well Verstappen is the F1 messiah the Netherlands have long craved. Fourteen drivers, including his father Jos, have taken the start lights of a Formula 1 Grand Prix. But not one of them scored a pole position. Nor did they achieve a win.”

He added, “Not only did Verstappen take both of those records, the latter while he was still a teenager, but he has developed into a superstar set to be a fixture at the front of the grid for at least another decade—maybe even two—and in turn should push the Netherlands up on the F1 and sporting map.”

In an interview with Channel 4, Horner, who signed Verstappen to Red Bull in 2016, praised his dedication. “He’s single minded like all top athletes have to be, but he is also a strong team player and has a huge sense of loyalty. That’s what makes him so popular in the team because everyone knows he’ ll give 110%.”

Horner made a thinly-veiled jab at rival and 7-time World Champion Lewis Hamilton, who more than once has been snapped on red carpets or sitting in the front row of fashion shows. “[Max] pair did not speak a word during the 1800-km return journey or the first week back home. Then Jos sat him down. “I wanted him to understand as got great self-confidence and he is just a racer. That’s all he wants to do. You won’t find him at A-Lister parties. If he’s not in a race car, he’s in a simulator. That’s the generation that he is.”

Tension between the Mercedes and Red Bull drivers has been heating up over the years following Verstappen’s consecutive third-place finishes in 2019 and 2020. And then there was the controversial collision with Hamilton at the 2021 Silverstone race that narrowed his advantage to 8 points. On Lap 1, Verstappen suffered a 51G hit on impact after he and Hamilton touched at one of the fastest corners on the British Grand Prix, the Copse, going 180 mph. 

"Of course, people easily say I'm an agressive driver or whatever, wich I don't think I am. I'm a hard driver. But at the end of the day, I know quite well how, I have to position my car.

 

As Verstappen was taken to hospital for routine checks, Horner did not mince his words: “Putting a fellow driver in hospital, writing off the car, and receiving a menial penalty and winning the Grand Prix doesn’t feel like much of a penalty. I think it just felt like a desperate move from Lewis.”

Two weeks later, at a press conference at the 2021 Hungarian Grand Prix, Verstappen finally spoke out about the crash. “Of course, people easily say I’m an aggressive driver or whatever, which I don’t think I am. I think I’m a hard driver, I race hard, but at the end of the day, I think I know quite well how I have to position my car, and I haven’t been involved in accidents where I run into people.

I have zero penalty points as well, so I think that already says quite a bit,” the four-time winner of the FIA Action of the Year award claimed, adding that “you anyway can’t change the outcome. I’m not happy with what happened there. Especially to lose that many points due to someone else, but it’s what it is.”

He confirmed Hamilton “did call me. I don’t need to go into details about that, but we did have a chat” and stated he thought Mercedes’ post-race celebrations were “disrespectful.”

“When one guy’s in the hospital and the other one is waving the flag around like nothing has happened, well, you’ve pushed the guy into the wall with 51G. And not only that but just the whole reaction of the [Mercedes] team, besides that. That’s not how you celebrate a win, especially a win how they got it.

“That’s what I found really disrespectful, and in a way it shows how they really are. It comes out after a pressured situation. But I wouldn’t want to be seen like that ... I would also be upset at myself with a move like that, if it was the other way around. And I would definitely not be celebrating like that.”

F1 Editor Laurence Edmondson best summed up the crash: “Just as Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost are remembered for their collisions at Suzuka in 1989 and 1990 and Michael Schumacher and Damon Hill for their clash in Adelaide in 1994, the 2021 British Grand Prix will be remembered as the day when the gloves came off between Hamilton and Verstappen.”

Still, Verstappen is refusing to add fuel to the fire. He has declined to be filmed in the fourth season of the docu-series Formula 1: Drive to Survive on Netflix that shows drivers behind the scenes at races and will be released in 2022.

Speaking to the Associated Press before the United States Grand Prix in Austin, Texas, late October, Verstappen said, “I understand that it needs to be done to boost the popularity in America. But from my side as a driver, I don’t like being part of it.

“They faked a few rivalries which don’t really exist. So I decided to not be a part of it and did not give any more interviews after that because then there is nothing you can show. I am not really a dramatic show kind of person, I just want facts and real things to happen.

“The problem is they will always position you in a way they want, so whatever you say, they will try to make you look reckless or trying to make you ... whatever fits the story of the series. So I never really liked that. I prefer to just have a one-on-one interview with the person who would like to know me.”

Red Bull teammate Sergio Perez, who was featured heavily last season in the Netflix series, spoke out after Verstappen's comments. “What it has done for Formula One is tremendous. It’s really something I appreciate,” he said. “The way they sell thesportisabitofadrama.Itisashowbutatthe end of the day it is good for the sport and is good for the fans so I am happy with it.”

It is all a battle of the bank. F1 introduced a budget cap this season that limits spending to $145 million per team in 2021 and $135 million by 2023. (In recent years, Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull Racing have spent more than $300 million and up to $400 million). “The regulations have forced them to slash design and research expenditures and eliminate scores of staff positions, but driver salaries remain exempt from the cost-cap calculation and will be one of the few line items that deep-pocketed teams can continue to throw cash at to differentiate themselves,” explained Brett Knight in Forbes The Highest-Paid F1 Drivers 2021.

Photo: Getty Images/Red Bull Content. Prince Albert presents trophy to Verstappen on the Grand Prix de Monaco podium.

Forbes reports Hamilton is pulling in a salary of $55 million this year with an estimated $12 million a year from sponsors (mostly from team sponsors) while Verstappen makes $25 million with only $1 million in endorsements. However, in Year-To- Date Bonuses, Verstappen is ahead with $5 million to Hamilton’s $4 million and is expected to rake in $17 million in bonuses by year end to Hamilton’s projected $7 million.

When Verstappen  arrived on the F1 scene in 2015, Red Bull’s motorsport advisor Helmut Marko commented, “He has unbelievable speed. He is very mature for his age, and he is a hard worker. He has all the ingredients you need to be an absolute champion.”

The son of former F1 Dutch driver Jos Verstappen and Belgian karting mom Sophie Kumpen was born in Hasselt, Belgium, in 1977. (Dad Jos will make his racing return during the Dubai 24h race in January 2022 with 19-year-old Thierry Vermeulen, son of Verstappen’s manager Raymond, and two other drivers in a GP Elite prepared Porsche GT3.)

The older brother to Victoria grew up in the Flemish town of Bree but “felt more Dutch” and chose to compete with a Dutch racing license. And although he would have preferred the number 3 on his car—“Since I was a young kid I raced around with this number”—it was already taken so he went with 33.

He was on a quad bike at age two and half and two years later started driving a go-kart at Ghent in Belgium. “We still have it. It’s hanging in the shop where we sell the merchandise,” dad Jos told Talking Bull in August 2020. “But I remember after a few laps, he did the whole track flat out. And because of the vibration of the kart the carburettor was falling off all the time. We did it for one day, and then immediately bought him a bigger go- kart.”

At 7 he won his first race, which was in Holland against 9- and 10-year-old boys. “We prepared him very well,” Jos said. “He had the experience to steer and speed.”

Verstappen recognizes the exceptional guidance he has received from a young age. “On the mechanical side, I am not a person who likes to work on the engine,” he said in the same Talking Bull podcast, “that’s more my dad, but I think it is important you understand what’s going on. I was always involved but never had that feeling of doing it myself.”

Comparing his technique with that of his famous racing father, who drove for Formula One from 1994 to 2003, Verstappen defined his style as “I can be aggressive but it is controlled. I like to race hard, I have a bit more finesse in my driving style but that’s what we worked on when I was little so I could be better than him.”

Verstappen grew up in the paddock following his dad’s F1 race calendar and while he recognized that school was important, he found it “difficult to keep up to speed” with his education from age 11-12, when he was competing internationally. His memorable childhood consists of driving 10 hours in a van with his family for races around Europe.

Not all memories were of victories and happy times. Once, in 2012, his dad left him at a gas station after a race. “It was the World Championship,” recalled Verstappen, “and it was one of the easiest weekends of my career but I still managed to not to win it ... I crashed.

“My dad had invested so much time already the years before preparing the engines, making sure that once I stepped up to that category everything would be ready to go. I was upset but my dad was really upset and disappointed in me.”

Jos told his son to pick up his go-kart himself after the race. He drove the van in silence while Verstappen tried to talk to him. At one point, Jos had had enough and at a fuel station told Verstappen to “get out.”

“I knew his mom was a few kilometers behind,” dad clarified, but “I really wanted him to feel the pain, it should hurt because he had to think about what he was doing.”

“But you came back,” Verstappen piped in.Still the pair did not speak a word during the 1800-km return journey or the first week back home. Then Jos sat him down. “I wanted him to understand that he has to think.” It was the last race of season but the next one, Verstappen won every race including two European titles and the World Championship. “The experience made him a better driver.”

Under contract until 2023, the Red Bull driver admitted he has never had an F1 racing idol. “I respected everyone but never had a hero. My dad has been a great example. I had a cutout of my dad in my room, but no posters.”

He is in touch every day with his father, whom he said has given him two pieces of advice: “stay with two feet on the ground and be yourself.” That can be a pretty tough to do in the bling- bling billionaire playground of Monaco, especially when you are dating fellow resident Kelly Piquet, the 32-year-old model and daughter of Brazilian racing driver and three-time Formula One World Champion, Nelson. “If you have the right people around you, I don’t think [losing your head] can happen,” Verstappen remarked.

For Jos, “We want to win the World Championship.”

Verstappen, who has already chalked up 17 wins and 54 podiums, sees it differently. “For me it doesn’t matter ... I am looking forward to having that shot. I like winning races. That’s what you do it for at the end of the day.”

Win or lose, the Dutch finally have a national sports hero.

Photo:Getty Images/ Red Bull Content Pool
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Nancy Heslin   Forbes Monaco

Nancy Heslin is an established journalist and lifestyle writer. She has been the Editor-in-Chief of Forbes Monaco magazine (bimonthly in English) , since the magazine's 2nd issue . Launched in November 2018, Forbes Monaco is part of the Forbes family, with its 7 million readers and 71 million monthly website visitors worldwide.