The Red Bull driver had been cool, seemingly bulletproof throughout the season. He brushed off tough times and never seemed too obsessed with seeing the World Championship as a monumental feat.
“It’s not really going to change my life,” he said in October. For him, it was always simple: he and Red Bull were doing their best, and if that wasn’t enough to win the title, they could still sleep easy at night.
This state of mind was reportedly put to the test as the laps rolled out in Abu Dhabi – before Nicholas Latifi’s crash and the safety car that followed – when it became clear that Verstappen’s new tires weren’t going to be enough to catch Hamilton up front.
Sergio Perez’s powerful defense had put Verstappen back in the game, and the decision to go under the Virtual Safety Car offered another chance to strike back. But the pace of the Mercedes was just too strong.
The late twist, the “miracle” that Christian Horner said Red Bull needed with 10 laps to go, only added to the wave of confused emotions felt by Verstappen after crossing the line and exiting. his car, before a tearful embrace. with his father, Jos, who had been there throughout his career.
But once the dust settled, the podium ceremony was over and the enormity of the feat began to crumble, Verstappen had returned to his usual calm as the post-race protests and saga began to unfold. .
Speaking at the post-race champion’s press conference, Verstappen admitted he was “slowly” coming to terms with what he had done, and explained how the journey he made through motorsport “crosses your mind” after achieving what he called “the ultimate goal.”
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, 2nd position, congratulates Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing, 1st position, in Parc Fermé
Photo By: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images
Still, he retained the idea that his life would not change upon winning the title. “I am of course very happy to have won the championship,” said Verstappen. “This is the final achievement that I wanted in Formula 1. So everything else that comes in now is a bonus.”
Verstappen’s position appeared to contrast that of Hamilton, the man who had attended the same champion’s press conference for each of the previous four years, apparently only becoming more aware of the scale of his accomplishments and legacy as he went along. that they grew with each title. he won.
Perhaps Verstappen’s opinion will change if – or, quite possibly, when – he adds more Championships to his booty. They won’t just be a ‘bonus’, but rather proof of his standing among F1 legends and the growth of his legacy. He already has so many age records and has time on his side to aim for many records that belong to Hamilton.
But there is also a certain power that comes with the mindset Verstappen used for last year’s championship which should put him in a good position for the future.
In 2014, while working for a TV station, a colleague of mine asked championship contenders Hamilton and Nico Rosberg a very simple question: What would it mean to you to win the championship?
Rosberg’s response was short. “That would be pretty cool, wouldn’t it?” he has answered. “It’s a childhood dream so that would be great.” A total of 16 words.
Hamilton, meanwhile, gave a heartfelt response that was over 10 times as long in which he explained that he never felt he enjoyed his first title in 2008 as he should have, and that it ‘was “the most special thing” that shouldn’t be taken for granted. At the time, that seemed like a sign that Hamilton just wanted him more than Rosberg. He got it.
Press conference: Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG and Nico Rosberg, Mercedes AMG
Photo By: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images
And yet, in reality, it really boils down to the difference in approach. Rosberg, like Verstappen, has always seemed fairly factual about these things, even during the final strokes of the 2016 season, when he continued to preach a “one run at a time” mantra. Privately, of course, he was making plans to hang up his helmet after reaching the peak of his career becoming F1 world champion. He reached his peak and saw no need to keep climbing.
Verstappen’s claim that the title wouldn’t change his life may have been odd at times, especially from a driver competing in his first championship. But it served as an important mental approach to dealing with the ups and downs of elite athletic competition. It’s a similar position to that of his former Red Bull teammate, Daniel Ricciardo.
“If you put all your eggs in one basket and it doesn’t work, the thought of what could happen in a way that could be scary,” Ricciardo said in an interview including Autosport towards the end of last season .
“Like if I put my whole life working to become world champion and I don’t become world champion, am I going to be depressed the rest of my life? I don’t know, it’s a bit risky To do. In this sport, when there are so many other variables, nothing is guaranteed. It’s just not so black and white. “
Ricciardo cited a story about UFC fighter Rashad Evans as an example of that mindset in action when you achieve that goal.
“He worked his whole life to be a champion, and he became a champion,” said Ricciardo. “And I think the next week he went back to the gym, and his teammates were like, ‘How does that feel? And he said, ‘I don’t feel different.’
“In a way it’s pretty sad, because you want it to be something. But I guess the point was that having the title belt didn’t change him as a person. So if you also work to make it something, and then it doesn’t, I think it could be pretty depressing as well.
Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren
Photo by: Erik Junius
“So I tried to equalize a bit. If I become the champion, great, but if I don’t, life goes on.
“You just want to be mature with the approach to this one. Lewis has seven. Does he feel any different than before he had? I don’t know. I’m not saying I have that answer. It might just be pretty scary to put it all in, because there is so much more to live for. “
Verstappen is rightly enjoying his life since winning the title in Abu Dhabi, spending the holiday season in Brazil with his girlfriend and making the most of the winter before preparations for his title defense start in anger in the coming weeks.
Once the No.1 starts his car for the very first time in practice and his title defense begins, Verstappen will find himself in new territory.
Still, if last year is something that happens when he first engages in a title fight, and if his mental approach remains strong and unchanged, he will be able to overcome any highs or not. the lows he will face in his wake.
As Ricciardo said, nothing is guaranteed in F1. So the fact that Verstappen has a championship under his belt will surely make things a little lighter; an assurance that he had reached the top, that “final realization” towards which he had worked.
The title may not change Verstappen, but as more victories and championships come along, his thoughts on the importance of leaving a legacy may enter his mindset, building on a foundation already solid.
Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing
Photo by: Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool