CChristian Horner leans in, pauses, then smiles as he considers what it’s like to manage the Formula One world champion. It turns out that, as fiercely competitive as he is, Max Verstappen is good company. “He comes to Silverstone for dinner and what impresses me is how good he is with the kids,” says the Dutchman’s Red Bull team principal. “He is totally at ease with children. He is really a good lad.”
This weekend at the Japanese Grand Prix, Verstappen is likely to become a double world champion. He will successfully defend the title he first claimed last year if he wins the race and Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc finishes lower than second. In doing so, after an almost completely dominant season, it will be a statement of authority and a complete vindication of the faith that Horner and Red Bull put in him when they first put him in an F1 car in 2015 when he was just 17 years old.
In the Red Bull motorhome, as the rain at Suzuka hits the roof and stoic fans in the stands, Horner acknowledges how close he has been to Verstappen for nearly the entire youngster’s journey, including recounting how he joined him. at a Spice Girls show. to see Horner’s wife, Geri, perform.
Eight years after Verstappen’s debut and with a world championship already under his belt, what Horner – who has run Red Bull since entering F1 in 2005 – has observed suggests the 25-year-old has handled it all with remarkable equanimity for someone so young. And with such a high profile.
“He hasn’t changed despite all the adulation he’s getting,” explains Horner. “You often see personalities change, they become divas. Max is fundamentally the same guy that showed up six years ago, I don’t think he’ll ever change. He is comfortable with himself. He doesn’t crave flattery, he loves racing. He is fundamentally a runner.”
Horner, who reaffirmed his belief that his team was within F1’s spending limit last season, is no stranger to dealing with a driver at the peak of his powers and achieving extraordinary success. He rode the crest of the wave with Sebastian Vettel, as the German and the team achieved four consecutive drivers’ and constructors’ championships between 2010 and 2013. Verstappen could yet achieve a similar feat.
The team’s investment in Verstappen began when he was signed to Red Bull’s junior team in 2014. Part of the deal that prevented eager attempts by Mercedes to also seal his services was a commitment to drive with Red Bull’s sister team Toro Rosso. , in 2015, making him the youngest driver in F1 history.
By 2016 he had impressed enough to be promoted to Red Bull. It was a remarkable step forward for a driver who had gone from karting to a season in F3 single-seaters, to F1 and then to one of the most competitive teams in the sport.
A typically gutsy pass into the Blanchimont corner at the Belgian GP in 2015 convinced Horner that he was ready to step up. “Spa stood out, when he turned Felipe Nasr on the outside,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘This guy is properly brave, committed and fast.’ You saw him that season, he was a shining star. It immediately became apparent that he had a prodigious talent.”
A win on his debut for Red Bull in Barcelona was a masterclass in working his tires brilliantly – a skill he’s often not recognized for – and fending off a late charge from Kimi Räikkönen in a faster Ferrari was something in which Horner still seems a bit. Amazed. “I had never seen anything like it, what we witnessed that day was something special,” he says.
However, Verstappen was still far from perfect, certainly a long way from the near-flawless performances that have defined this season, where he has 11 wins from 17 races. He was prone to making mistakes when he tried too hard, going too hard and too aggressive, drawing criticism from other drivers. But he was still young and growing up in the spotlight.
After the team’s public exasperation with a crash in Monaco in practice in 2018 costing him a shot at what would likely have been a win, Horner had a word. It was a turning point. The Verstappen who emerged afterward was a different character, a driver ready to challenge for a title the moment Red Bull gave him the car to do so, as he proved after a titanic battle with Lewis Hamilton last year. So how had Horner turned the tide?
“I was open with him,” he says. “I told him: ‘You’re more than fast enough, you don’t have to win every battle in the first corner. Take your time.’ He left, he thought about things and the driver who showed up at the next round in Montreal, well, it was like a metronome.”
That ability to deliver relentlessly has been key this season and Horner repeatedly refers to Verstappen’s maturity, despite his relatively young years. The self-confidence that he enjoyed as a young man has now become the refined judgment of an adult.
The title is undoubtedly his this year and Horner, who is optimistic there will be more, had high praise for this friendly, familiar lad who has returned his team to the top of F1.
“The good thing is that he is open to putting in effort in all areas, he always feels like there is more to have,” he says. “He is clearly the most talented driver I think we’ve ever had in one of our cars.”
Both practice sessions were held in the rain at Suzuka, with intermittent showers throughout the day limiting part of the race. Fernando Alonso was the fastest in the first session. In FP2, George Russell and Hamilton led a Mercedes one-two on a wet track, with Verstappen in third. However, qualifying is expected to be dry on Saturday.