I meet him in Barcelona a few days before the Spanish Grand Prix, the scene of his first race win, a year ago in his debut for Red Bull Racing. He is considered with his words, all of them interesting, none of them the drab, generic soundbites you might expect from a slick young driver at the start of his career. There is hint of neither shyness nor arrogance, just calm confidence and self-belief.
“Driving a car fast” is what motivates Verstappen, not a desire to go and break Sebastian Vettel’s record as the youngest-ever world champion, at 23, also in a Red Bull. “That’s what I like, all the time I jump in a car,” he says. That’s why I love doing it. So long as I can win races and eventually try and win championships, it doesn’t matter at what age. I’m not really targeting that record.”
Verstappen started karting aged four and competing more seriously aged eight. He was instantly successful. His father, ex-F1 driver Jos Verstappen, is well known; his mother, Sophie Kumpen, less so, although she was a double Belgian karting champion, a contemporary of Jenson Button and Jarno Trulli, both of whom she used to beat.
Verstappen junior says his dad was a much greater influence than his mum on his young racing career. “He did everything for me: he was my mechanic, my engine tuner, he was setting up all my go-karts.” So do genetics play a part in his talent? “For sure it helps having parents in racing, but you also need to use it and work hard off-track as well to make it all happen.”
He can’t pinpoint exactly when he knew he could make it all happen. “You grow into it a little bit. I don’t think you can say, ‘Now I have the talent to make it.’ You need a bit of luck as well. So over the years you become better and better.
“Up until I was 12 I raced national [karting] races: out of 75 I think I won 73. You see there is some talent, but how good you don’t know because then you go race internationals. Again, there it was going really well, but that was go-karting and you still need to make the step to cars.”
He didn’t drive a racing car until October 2013, but within 10 months, still aged just 16 and without a driving licence, he was confirmed as a Toro Rosso F1 driver for 2015. His only season of racing outside F1 was in the European F3 championship, where he won 10 races.
Verstappen senior also helped teach his son how to spot that gap that others simply don’t see. “It’s something very natural. I have been practicing that since I was very young, with my dad and my friends. We created mini races on a go-kart track – just five laps. Once you start first, then you start last, then you start in the middle. You start overtaking on spots where it was very hard, and sometimes you pulled them off, sometimes it failed. I think that’s where I got my experience from.”