In Good Conscience

Young Max, wise beyond his years, ready for long road

If you haven't been blown away by the wonder of youth this week, then I'm guessing that either you are under 16, or past the stage of being surprised by anything in the world of sport.

Few of us have any idea what goes on inside the car or the helmet of 300kmh Formula One drivers. But the measure of Max Verstappen's eerie maturity came through when he stepped out of his Red Bull and sailed through media interview after interview.

He's 18, with the mind of a 30-year-old.

I bumped into one of F1's most experienced news hounds after the Barcelona Grand Prix. "I feel like a grandfather," said the journalist. "We really grilled Max. He was unfazed by everything, as if he'd been preparing for this his whole life."

In a way, he has. Max, son of Jos and Sophie Verstappen, drivers in Formula One and in karts, has raced since he was four years old.

When he stepped up to the big beasts of F1 a year ago, before he was old enough to drive on the Netherlands' roads, we didn't know whether to fear for him or for the senior citizens of the grid.

Days after winning in Barcelona, he was back in the car, posting fastest practice laps with a brand new engine, and adjusting to his new car so that by Monaco next weekend he might be more comfortable in the seat and more familiar with the Red Bull.

Older, and wiser.

Seniors like, oh, Daniil Kvyat and Daniel Ricciardo, the Red Bull drivers at the start of 2016. The Russian, Kvyat, was dropped to Red Bull's junior team, Toro Rosso, to give up his seat to Verstappen.

The Aussie, Ricciardo, started last Sunday as Red Bull's No. 1, and ended it with a shredded tyre trying to chase the Dutch teen.

Kvyat is 22, Ricciardo is 26. The driver who finished second at the chequered flag, Kimi Raikkonen, is twice Verstappen's age and had raced against his dad.

To repeat, they dice at 300kmh. They make decisions in the blink of an eye to keep on the road (unlike the Mercedes drivers Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton who wiped one another out on Lap 1).

And young Verstappen had "old" Kimi in his wing mirrors for the last part of the race. The Dutchman won in part because he had track position, in larger part because he managed to take care of the tyres better than Raikkonen was able to do with the Ferrari.

"The last laps, I was getting very excited," Verstappen said. "I was looking up at the big board and saw my name. Then I said, 'Don't look at the board any more, just focus on the tyres and bring it home.'"

Just like that.

Separate the emotion from the job in hand. Switch off thrall of his first-ever Formula One win (in his first week with Red Bull), manage the car, the corners, the tyres, the efforts of the wily Raikkonen who, in his time, had been world champion.

Eerie, indeed.

Max, as he is known in the Netherlands (like Cruyff there is no need for both names), had been summoned to Graz in Austria by a telephone call two days after the Russian Grand Prix, where he finished 19th in the Toro Rosso.

The caller was Helmut Marko, the 73-year-old former driver who is head of driver development at Red Bull. What was it about?

Marko didn't say. He just asked the Verstappens, father and son, to fly from Monaco to Austria for lunch. The younger Verstappen guessed it. "Did he say anything about a seat fitting?" he asked his father.

It was more than a fitting. The first time Verstappen Jr was strapped into the Red Bull came with a contract to immediately replace Kvyat.

In fact, Kvyat best summed up the ruthless spin of the Red Bull decisiveness. "There was no real explanation," said the Russian. "I think if the bosses want something to happen, they just make it happen. Simple as that."

Only 22 and dumped to the B team. Eighteen and given not only the prime spot at Red Bull, but the preference over race tactics as well. Verstappen was to pit twice in Barcelona, Ricciardo three times.

"Hey, if they've got this fast kid alongside me, that's the challenge," said Ricciardo.

Asked if the promotion was cut-throat, the Australian with the widest smile in F1 replied: "That's the way it's been in the past."

So we looked for signs of a teenager in Verstappen. Were there tears after winning his first race for the brand?

"Not tears, to be honest with you," Max answered. "But I was cheering so much on the in lap that I got a bit of cramp. It doesn't change a lot because I was always doing my best. You have to, even if it's a better car."

There has, however, been a change in Verstappen's life. His father, and mentor in this scarily rapid rise to fame, fortune and accelerated glory, decided once the contract was written that he will now take a back seat.

There isn't one, of course, in an F1 car. But Jos had always been there for his son, now he would step back and let Christian Horner and the team at Red Bull pour their knowledge, expertise, and ferocious competitive drive, into the youngest winner ever in F1.

Ever? Most likely Max will always be that.

Last year, the International Automobile Federation declared that from here on, with the race towards adolescence in the deadly sport of F1, anyone below the age of 18 will not be licensed.

So it is unlikely (but not impossible) that anyone will beat his record for precocity. Max Verstappen, at 18 years and 223 days, has gained an opportunist maiden Grand Prix win in part because the Mercedes rivals took themselves out through hot-blooded aggression, and in part maybe it was written in the stars.

Days after winning in Barcelona, he was back in the car, posting fastest practice laps with a brand new engine, and adjusting to his new car so that by Monaco next weekend he might be more comfortable in the seat and more familiar with the Red Bull.

Older, and wiser.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 21, 2016, with the headline 'Young Max, wise beyond his years, ready for long road'. Print Edition | Subscribe