There is an aura of calm around Max Verstappen that, intriguingly, completely belies the intensity of his Formula One world championship title fight with Lewis Hamilton. It is this composed ability to deal with pressure, to recover from setbacks and find peak performance time after time, that has put him within striking distance of his first title, one which he could claim at Sunday’s debut Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.
Yet alongside this maturity, this mental fortitude, there is also a boyish, eager thrill at simply being in the fight and it has been an infectious joy. A combination that he also clearly takes pleasure in as he summed up his attitude earlier this year.
“I knew if I had a car capable of fighting for the title I would be up there and that is showing,” he says. “It’s a natural thing. I know what I have to do to be quick on a track. I don’t need to overthink or stress out about a lot of things to be quick.”
Still only 24, Verstappen is now in his seventh season in F1. A feat in itself, somewhat hard to comprehend, achieved because he became the sport’s youngest driver at 17, in 2015. He has since amassed a huge amount of experience while still young and that too has been vital in his title challenge.
Two races remain this season and having delivered a series of commanding and compelling victories, Verstappen leads Hamilton by eight points. He can take the title this weekend if he wins and takes the fastest lap and Hamilton finishes sixth or lower, if he wins without the fastest lap and Hamilton finishes seventh or lower, or if he outscores Hamilton by 18 points.
With so little to choose between the two protagonists, the most likely result is their fight will go to wire at the final round next weekend in Abu Dhabi and Verstappen plays down any such thoughts of claiming the title in Jeddah, instead focusing on the here and now.
“You have to perform and do well every weekend,” he says. “I always try to win the race, but the most important thing is that we are still on top after Abu Dhabi.”
This is an approach that has served him well through a season that has been a rollercoaster ride between the two drivers, with the lead changing hands five times but during which Verstappen has maintained admirable equilibrium. Speaking to him in July before the Austrian GP, his focus was clear and it was a world away from the overenthusiastic, and sometimes dangerous attitude that had earned him the “Mad Max” moniker early in his career.
“You cannot have retirements or make mistakes where you lose a lot of points, it can kill a championship,” he said. “I know that. Lewis has been like this for a long time, he has been very consistent and that is how you win championships.”
Hamilton in turn has acknowledged that beating Verstappen this year would be his greatest championship victory. The world champion had opened strongly taking an early lead with three wins in four races but Verstappen hit back and left Austria at the start of July with his third win in a row and his fourth in five races. He had taken a 32-point lead over Hamilton and his Red Bull car appeared to have an edge on every type of track. Yet there was a long way to go.
At the next round in Silverstone Hamilton collided with him, causing Verstappen to crash out and for which Hamilton was penalised. Then in Hungary Verstappen was not at fault when he took damage after being hit in a first-corner incident. As they went into the mid-season break, Hamilton had retaken the lead by eight points. A lesser challenger might have crumbled.
Adrian Newey, Red Bull’s car designer and chief technical officer, recognised however that Verstappen had the right mentality. “He has the same steely grit that any world champion needs to dig in and keep going in the face of adversity,” he said. “If things go wrong he can put that behind him and look forward to the next one. He’s matured into a great racer.”
He showed this clearly when coming back to take four wins and two second places in the next seven races. The blip in that run was of course Monza where he was found at fault when, uncompromising in trying to pass Hamilton, he crashed into him. It was the Verstappen who still insists he will go for a gap and is unafraid to put his elbows out to do it. Hamilton’s refusal to give way was a significant statement in that the Dutchman would have to think hard when going up against the world champion in future.
Once more Verstappen reset, once more he delivered, the incident consigned to history although with the lesson learned, and the points kept coming. His relentless effectiveness at scoring even when Hamilton has been on top has been crucial. In the six races since Monza in early September, he has not finished lower than second, including in Russia where he started at the back after a grid penalty.
Seven second places across the season have helped put him in this position but he knows that if Hamilton wins these last two grand prix, second will not be enough.
The stakes are high then, the tension ramping up across every session but in Jeddah a clearly relaxed Verstappen was ready to go racing with an ease that has taken him this far and may yet help him finish the job.
Hamilton had the edge when the drivers took to the street circuit for the first time this weekend in practice. He was five-hundredths up on Verstappen in FP1, with the Briton’s Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas in third.
Hamilton and Bottas then completed a strong Mercedes one-two in second practice, run in race conditions under the lights at Jeddah. Verstappen was fourth, two-tenths down after a session that ended slightly early after Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc had a high-speed shunt into the wall at turn 22 but emerged unharmed.