‘Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes isn’t that horrific’


Deep in the bowels of the LoanDepot Park, home of the Miami Marlins baseball team, Max Verstappen is laughing at his own ineptitude. Formula 1’s reigning world champion has just thrown the ceremonial first pitch, alongside Red Bull team-mate Sergio Perez, ahead of Wednesday’s Miami Marlins vs Arizona Diamondbacks MLB game. To say his effort stung the mitt of the catcher would be rather overstating the power of Verstappen’s arm. Even standing a few yards in front of the mound, and with the catcher well in front of the home plate, the ball struggles to reach its intended target.

Verstappen takes the inevitable ribbing backstage gamely. Sports, by his own admission, are not really his thing. Red Bull staff say the 24-year-old jokes sometimes that he will grow fat once he retires as he doesn’t much enjoy athletic pursuits. Even golf, which his fellow drivers have taken up in their droves recently – particularly McLaren’s young Briton Lando Norris, who has become mildly obsessed – fails to get his juices flowing. Verstappen shrugs. “Yeah, Lando has just moved out to Monaco and already he’s been out to the course with Alex [Albon] and Charles [Leclerc],” he says. “They keep telling me I have to try it. But it’s not my thing.” What is his thing? “I like my sim [simulator] racing. It’s a bit easier for me. It comes a bit more naturally.”

That really is Verstappen in a nutshell. The son of ex-F1 driver Jos Verstappen and Sophie Kumpen, a former champion go-karter who raced against the likes of Jenson Button and Giancarlo Fisichella back in the day, the young Verstappen was in his race overalls almost before he was out of his babygrows.

At a Q&A with guests of Red Bull partners Citrix earlier in the day, Verstappen explained how he had started karting at the age of three-and-a-half. It was noticeable how much more comfortable he was talking about cars and grip levels than about Miami or the local cuisine.

Red Bull team principal Christian Horner describes Verstappen as a dream to manage precisely because he doesn’t get caught up in any extraneous stuff. “Lewis [Hamilton] continually drops his subtle little digs or provocations,” Horner told Telegraph Sport last autumn. “But I think the great thing about Max is he doesn’t give a f—. He is who he is. He drives a car fast. And then he wants to go home and play on his PlayStation. It’s as simple as that.”

Not always. Verstappen may be straightforward out of the cockpit, to the point of being almost impassive. But the 24-year-old has a fiery temper, too, one which matches his aggressive driving style. And despite what Horner says, he is not averse to dropping the odd “subtle little dig” himself.

Take, for instance, his teasing of Hamilton when news broke that the seven-time world champion was joining one of the consortiums bidding for Chelsea a couple of weeks ago. “I thought he was an Arsenal fan?”

Or his spikiness on the subject of Netflix, the streaming giant whose Drive to Survive series he now refuses to get involved in due to what he sees as their manipulation of the narrative.

Verstappen is definitely not afraid to stick the boot in. He just prefers not to if he can help it. Sometimes he cannot. Asked about lapping Hamilton in Imola two weeks ago, Verstappen begins by saying he took no pleasure in passing his erstwhile adversary. “To be honest, it wasn’t something I was enjoying at the time,” he says. “I was just focused on my race, on getting through the traffic as cleanly as possible and winning. I mean, it wasn’t like I was ‘Oh, I’m lapping Lewis, what an amazing feeling.’ I had great battles with Lewis last year. Now he’s in a car which is not so great.” But eventually he cracks. “Having said that, of course, George [Russell] does finish fourth in that car. So it [the W13] is not all horrific right?”

Race winner Max Verstappen of the Netherlands and Oracle Red Bull Racing celebrates on the podium during the F1 Grand Prix of Emilia Romagna at Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari on April 24, 2022 in Imola, Italy.  - GETTY IMAGES

Race winner Max Verstappen of the Netherlands and Oracle Red Bull Racing celebrates on the podium during the F1 Grand Prix of Emilia Romagna at Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari on April 24, 2022 in Imola, Italy. – GETTY IMAGES

He gives an almost imperceptible smile. I remind him of comments he made in Bahrain at the beginning of the season, when he accused Mercedes of ‘sandbagging’, of hiding their true form? He laughs. “I think there are lots of sandbags somewhere in their car,” he replies.

He is warming to his theme now. How, I ask, does one explain the difference of nine places between Hamilton and Russell at the last race in Imola? Was it simply a case of Hamilton starting on the dirty side of the grid, and then being caught behind slower cars, unable to pass due to being stuck in a ‘DRS train’? Or was he off the pace of his young team-mate? Again, Verstappen is not willing to give his rival a complete Get Out of Jail Free card. “George probably had a good start and a good clean first lap, and that helps,” he says. “But I’d say [Hamilton’s] car had quite a bit more pace than the midfield traffic.

“But yeah, it was hard to pass. I mean also when there was only one dry line and when you don’t have, let’s say, a top speed advantage anymore. It makes it a lot harder to judge how far Lewis was off George. But clearly the whole weekend George was doing really well.”

George Russell of Great Britain and Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes walk in the Paddock during Day One of F1 Testing at Bahrain International Circuit on March 10, 2022 in Bahrain, Bahrain.  - GETTY IMAGES

George Russell of Great Britain and Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes walk in the Paddock during Day One of F1 Testing at Bahrain International Circuit on March 10, 2022 in Bahrain, Bahrain. – GETTY IMAGES

There is no doubt Verstappen is enjoying the shifting dynamic within the Mercedes garage, even if he is not prepared to go full Helmut Marko on his rival.

Red Bull’s motorsport advisor, the man who brought Verstappen through the team’s driver academy, never wastes an opportunity to rub salt in Mercedes wounds. Marko suggested after the last race in Imola that Hamilton was probably wishing now that he had retired after Abu Dhabi last year.

Verstappen looks uncomfortable when asked about those remarks. “I’m not thinking about these things. I’m just focused on my own performance. On what I can do to make the car faster.”

And what can he do? After his perfect weekend in Imola – pole, sprint race victory, grand prix victory and fastest lap – it certainly feels as if the Dutchman’s title defense is gathering pace. Verstappen heads into this weekend just 27 points behind Ferrari’s Leclerc. And that despite two DNFs in the first four races of the season. “I’ve spent time on the simulator,” he says. “It’s all we can do really. It’s always a bit of a question mark at new tracks with the grip levels and the stops. We’ll only really know once we get out there.”

Verstappen cannot wait. He likes Miami, he says. He is excited to be here. He came on holiday with his girlfriend Kelly Piquet last winter after winning his title. They stayed in South Beach and had a nice time. But you always get the sense with him that he just wants to be in the cockpit, whether for real or in his sim at home. Motorsport is what floats his boat. Not golf, not football, and certainly not baseball.

The Marlins were ultimately beaten 8-7 by the Diamondbacks in a thriller on Wednesday, despite Arizona’s loss of their fabulously-named pitcher Madison Bumgarner, who was ejected midway dates through for swearing at the first base umpire. They didn’t radio for Verstappen to come in as relief, which was just as well as the Dutchman had long since left the building. To recce the track.



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