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Japanese Grand Prix: Max Verstappen talks taking on Lewis Hamilton and getting under Charles Leclerc’s skin

Max Verstappen

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen is fourth in the 2019 drivers’ championship on 212 points
Japanese Grand Prix
Venue: Suzuka Dates: 11-12 October (practice and qualifying), 13 October (race)
Coverage: Commentary from each session, qualifying and the race on Radio 5 Live/5 Live Sports Extra or online; live text commentary online and via the BBC Sport app

Max Verstappen pauses. He’s just been asked what makes him – arguably the most exciting prospect for the next decade of Formula 1 – stand out as a racing driver.

“Er, that’s a tricky one,” the Dutchman says. But he’s not saying he doesn’t know – he’s saying he’s concerned about how he’s going to come across. Worried particularly because he believes, with a conviction as deep as it’s possible to have, that he’s the best, but he doesn’t want to say it in quite so many words.

“I don’t want to sound arrogant or disrespectful to others,” Verstappen says. “I’m very determined to win and I would not give up. If I have to go over I’ll go over; if I have to go under, I’ll go under. In that kind of way.”

That’s how it looks out on the track sometimes, too. When Verstappen comes alive, when he’s hunting down a win, he’s like an irresistible force of nature.

His Red Bull seems to generate its own force field, and races surrender to him – as in Austria this year, when he closed in remorselessly on Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari and then shoved him out of the way to claim the victory with two laps to go.

Verstappen, talking in an exclusive interview with BBC Sport at the Japanese Grand Prix, warms to his theme.

He’s not saying he’ll go beyond what’s acceptable, he says – although he’s been accused of just that in the past. But that resolution that drives him on, the singularity with which he sees things – call it resolve, call it stubbornness, call it whatever – simply won’t let him leave any last effort untapped.

“Like overtaking,” he says. “If I have to touch, I’ll touch. It’s not like it always needs to be in the cleanest way.

“Let’s say it like this: after my career, if I would have won five championships but I’m maybe not the most liked person, for me that doesn’t matter, because at the end of the day it’s all about winning.

“And that maybe sounds arrogant, but I don’t want to sound like that. I would do anything – or everything – to win. If it’s a little bit – not dirty, but in a hard way – I will do it. I am not here to be the most liked person.”

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The difference between hard and dirty

Max Verstappen

Verstappen, 22, has won seven races in his Formula 1 career

Verstappen has been like this all his career. From the moment he burst on to the scene as a 17-year-old with just one year’s car racing experience behind him, it has always been clear he’s special, that he was going places. And from the outset he has upset the established order.

Most obviously, there was the way he raced, creating a new way of defending that for many of the established drivers was beyond the pale.

For a while, Verstappen’s signature defensive tactic was to change his line under braking – a complete no-no in F1 because of the dangers it can create of two cars colliding, even interlocking wheels, and one being launched into the air.

The experienced drivers objected, and in 2016, a rule was created for him to stop this happening.

That particular row has settled down in more recent times, as Verstappen, now very much established as one of the absolute elite drivers in the sport, has calmed things down a bit. And he says he has a very clear view of the difference between hard racing and dirty driving, of the limits of morality and ethics out on track.

To explain, he refers to two of Michael Schumacher’s most infamous incidents, when he deliberately drove into rivals at the climax of the 1994 and 1997 championships.

“Dirty is like deliberately… I would refer to Schumacher turning into Damon [Hill] and [Jacques] Villeneuve. Those two were crossing the line. But a hard fight, having a bit of a touch, but of course out-braking, being on the edge [is OK]. Not: ‘The other car is overtaking me, I’ll just turn in and we both crash.’ That’s a different mentality.”

Taking on Hamilton

Max Verstappen

Verstappen has won two races this season – in Austria and in Germany

Verstappen’s maturing race craft has been seen to impressive effect on two particular occasions this season, while racing against two of his biggest rivals, Lewis Hamilton and Leclerc.

This is Verstappen’s fifth year in F1, but it took until the Hungarian Grand Prix at the beginning of August for he and Hamilton to have a full-on battle on track.

What lessons did Verstappen take from his battle with Hamilton?

“It was fine,” he says. “Initially we were on the same tyres so we had a bit of fighting going on but at the end I was on tyres that were dying, actually dropping off, and he was on fresh tyres. For me, that was not really a fight. I prefer to have when it is a bit more equal.

“Lewis is a good racer. We respect each other a lot. We gave each other enough room to fight with, so that’s all good for me.”

At one point, Hamilton had tried an audacious move on Verstappen around the outside of the 150mph Turn Four. It did not come off, but it felt from the outside as if Hamilton was laying down a marker for the young pretender, saying, ‘I’m not like the others, I do things differently’.

If it was, Verstappen seems not to have got the message.

“I don’t care who I’m fighting against,” he says, “as long as it is for a victory. Every driver can try to do that but it doesn’t change anything about my approach. I just do the best I can do. It means of course driving itself but also defending, attacking. I know what I have to do. I know what I can do. And for me another driver is not an influence in my decision-making.”

Earlier this year, Verstappen raised some eyebrows with a magazine interview in which he seemed to suggest Hamilton was not that special, that a number of other drivers could have done the same had they had his equipment. But Verstappen says that if that was the impression people took, he was misinterpreted.

“I didn’t say it like that,” he says. “I said that over the years many more drivers, if Lewis would have not been in that car, would have won the championship. That’s what I wanted to say.

“As a driver it is good to have the belief you can do that. There are a few drivers in the paddock who could do that.

“I don’t say they would have won all five. But still, realistically, when you’re totally honest, the only competition he’s had has been his team-mate and they have not been particularly strong. That’s all I wanted to say.

“That doesn’t take anything away from Lewis. He still needs to win the championships, and he has done. But it could have been made a bit harder for him.”

And he would like to have done that?

“Of course.”

‘We had a bit of wheel banging’

The other defining fight of Verstappen’s season was against Leclerc in the first third of the British Grand Prix, when the two staged a battle – Leclerc in defence, Verstappen in attack – that drew comparisons with some of the greatest races in F1 history.

The race was two weeks after Verstappen had stolen victory from the Monegasque in Austria with a move Leclerc believed was unfair, and the Dutchman believes that was a major contributor to the Ferrari man’s driving that day.

“Silverstone was a bit frustrating because I was stuck,” he says. “We were a lot faster than Ferrari. After Austria I think he was still a bit upset.”

Verstappen thinks Leclerc saw it as payback?

“For sure,” he says. “He was racing very hard. I am fine with racing hard. But you could see in the way he was defending there was still a bit of anger from losing that victory in Austria – and that’s fine. That’s a normal reaction.

“But that’s why it was also from my side frustrating because I didn’t want to risk it too much. At the time, I was still thinking about maximising points. [I was thinking:] ‘We are going to get there. Upgrades are coming. At one point, we are going to fight Mercedes.’

“So I was not going to go: ‘Now I have to go, I have to out-brake him and there is a possibility we touch.’

“From my side, when I was behind him, it looked like he didn’t care if we would have crashed at that time. My mentality was a bit different.

“But it’s good. We had a bit of wheel banging. I am all for that. It’s exciting. Of course, keep it in a controlled way. If you go 300km/h and you touch, it can be very dangerous. It was in that way enjoyable.”

And then he says something that shows he’s way more analytical and thoughtful than many would have you believe. He refers back to the penalty that cost Leclerc’s team-mate Sebastian Vettel victory in Canada and the three hours it took to decide not to penalise Verstappen in the same way, and the period of self-flagellation F1 was going through in the early summer about the quality of the racing on show.

“I think F1 needed it at the time,” Verstappen says, “because it was all after the penalty from Seb and stuff like that and the long wait with my decision in Austria. That was a very good race to have.”

Does it feel good to have got under Leclerc’s skin like that?

“Honestly, I think it’s a natural reaction,” Verstappen says. “I think anyone would have done that, especially when you have been like in Austria leading the whole race up until two laps to go and then lose it.

“But also Charles is better than the average driver as well. He has a talent and he is very good, so naturally he will have that reaction. So he is a winner and a fighter so you’ll get that.”

Satisfaction of a job well done

Leclerc has been the star of the second half of the season, with two wins in the last four races, and four consecutive pole positions. And Hamilton is on the verge of tying up a sixth world title, to move one shy of Schumacher’s all-time record.

For many, though, Verstappen has been the driver of the year, for the consistent excellence of his performances and dragging more from his Red Bull than it at times seemed able to give.

Does he agree?

“Well, it doesn’t matter if I agree,” he says. “Everybody has their own opinion. I just have to look at myself and if I was happy with myself I can say to myself I am happy about it.”

And is he happy?

“Yes, but also basically last year after the first six races I have been on a good level as well. For me, it is just a continuation of what I was doing last year.”

There was a time mid-summer, when Verstappen was on a run of podium finishes that included his two victories and his near-miss in Hungary, when it looked as if he might emerge as an unlikely title contender to Hamilton.

In the end, Red Bull have faded, and frustrations have occasionally surfaced in Verstappen. But ask him how he feels about the season in general and he says: “Good, actually. I learned quite a lot over the years and that definitely helped me to be very consistent.

“We had some really good results. We really maximised it and sometimes done more than maximised the result, and then of course we had a few tougher times.

“The biggest stand-out was Singapore where we really thought we would have a good chance but we were struggling quite a bit.

“But these things can happen. It’s racing at the end of the day. Sometimes you think you are best prepared as possible and then it doesn’t work out and sometimes you think we’re not that sure how this weekend is going to play out, you don’t think you’re that strong, and then you win the race.”

Does he understand why Red Bull’s year has tailed off?

“I guess [we’ve] just not had… well, we had of course [car] updates but maybe they haven’t brought enough to really step it up. And then of course Ferrari really improved.

“They’re just super-fast on the straights and you could build a magical car and you are still not going to overcome that deficit. It is massive. So that also makes it very hard to beat them.

“Still, me only being three points behind Charles [in the championship] shows that the season so far is all about maximising the potential and sometimes even do better than that and try not to make too many mistakes.

“But of course that is not what I’m here for. I want to win more races and I want to of course fight for the championship. This year that didn’t happen but it was also not something we could expect because of the transition to Honda [engines].

“But I think so far that partnership has been going really well. We haven’t had any race retirements. Of course we all want to have more power – everybody wants that. But we are working very hard on that and we have to look into how we can improve the car.”

Looking to the future

Alexander Albon and Max Verstappen

Red Bull drivers Alexander Albon (left) and Max Verstappen are hoping for a good race in Japan, home of their engine suppliers Honda

Verstappen says he has “a lot of confidence in” Red Bull and Honda, going into only their second season together next year, to establish themselves as title contenders in the future.

But he has a big decision to make at the end of next year, when he is out of contract, and so are Hamilton and Vettel, and openings may very well come up for Verstappen at Mercedes and Ferrari – the only two teams who have been capable of winning a title in the last three years.

Winning the championship, Verstappen says, is “what you’re here for, so I would try everything I can to win it. But of course you also need luck. You need to be in the right car at the right time”.

Where is his head as he thinks about his future beyond 2020?

“To be honest, at the moment, it is very much with Red Bull,” he says. “There is still a season we have to do and a lot of things can change. Even from one race to the next, a lot of things can change.

“But I think after next year a lot of drivers are out of contract, which is normal because the new rules are coming in, and even for teams there is a question mark what they are going to do. So for me that’s the same – first I want to see what’s happening over here for the future with Honda also and at the moment I am not really thinking about anything because there is nothing sure for anyone.”

So he’s not set his sights on any particular team?

“Exactly. But of course I would like to stay here and win the championship with Red Bull.”

Japanese Grand Prix coverage details (all times BST)
DateSessionTimeRadio coverageOnline text commentary
Chequered Flag podcast: Japanese Grand Prix review – download here once the race has finished
Wednesday, 9 OctoberPreview21:30-22:00 – Listen hereBBC Radio 5 Live
Friday, 11 OctoberFirst practice01:55-03:35BBC Radio 5 Live Sports ExtraFrom 01:30
Second practice05:55-07:35BBC Radio 5 Live Sports ExtraFrom 05:30
Saturday, 12 OctoberFinal practice03:55-05:05BBC Radio 5 Live Sports ExtraFrom 03:30
Qualifying06:55-08:05BBC Radio 5 Live Sports ExtraFrom 06:00
Sunday, 13 OctoberRace06:00-08:00BBC Radio 5 LiveFrom 05:00

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