F1: Max Verstappen’s father Jos tells how the title race with Lewis Hamilton became poisonous
He is a wise father,” said Shakespeare, “who knows his own child.” And with that observation in mind, we venture to the Red Bull hospitality area in the sweaty Jeddah paddock for a chat with Jos Verstappen.
The 49-year-old Dutchman took part in 107 Formula 1 races between 1994 and 2003, starting in Benetton, where he experienced the first of Michael Schumacher’s seven world championships up close.
But despite all his motorsport pedigree, Jos is now better known as the father of Max Verstappen. He has also been relegated to the second most successful Grand Prix driver to ever come out of the Netherlands.
Jos Verstappen (right) poses with his son Max after his first F1 win in Spain in 2016
Throughout the year, Max is often cheered by his father Jos on racetracks all over the world
His son’s Formula 1 career, which began in 2015 at the age of 17, could find its greatest fulfillment on Sunday at the inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, where, if the now 24-year-old Max is the in-form Outperform Lewis Hamilton by 18 points, he becomes the new world champion with next week’s race in Abu Dhabi over.
Jos flutters in and out of Max’s race weekends. For example, he may join him for a bite to eat, although he tries not to intrude. But, as we said, he knows exactly the inner workings of his son’s thought process and so can provide insight into the sharpest and fiercest title fight since Hamilton and Fernando Alonso’s mutual self-destruction as McLaren teammates in 2007.
Taking the Verstappen on Lewis?
Jos was a high-quality driver himself, having raced in F1 between 1994 and 2003. Pictured above is his final year in the sport at Minardi with team principal Paul Stoddart
In his first season, he paired up alongside Michael Schumacher at Benetton as they shared a discussion in the garage during the 1994 Belgian Grand Prix with team principal Flavio Briatore.
‘I never speak to Lewis’, says Jos. “He doesn’t have to talk to me. I’m nothing to him. I respect him as a driver, but the rest… nothing.
Max and Lewis only speak on the podium, very little. When I see Max with other drivers, I think they get along very well. But nothing with Lewis. Lewis is in his own world.
“I’ve done F1 — compared to Max I was nowhere — but I talk to some drivers and they’re all very friendly, or just say hello or whatever. We often sit together on the plane, always the same group of drivers and we have a lot of fun.
“But there are ‘some’ drivers who don’t look at you, who look at the ground.”
But wasn’t Schumacher a little distant, just as Hamilton has become? Does detachment, rightly or wrongly, often accompany superstardom?
Jos admits that while he has full respect for Lewis Hamilton as a driver, there is nothing else
Hamilton is dueling Max to be crowned champion in an exciting Formula 1 season
Jos admits Max (left) and Hamilton (second from right) have different ways of doing things as they inspect the track ahead of the inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix
‘Michael and I had good contacts’, says Jos. ‘We also met in person [the Verstappens and Schumachers holidayed together; Max remembers Michael the family man playing with the children]. He changed a bit on the track, but he would still be friendly.
“Lewis does it in his own way, which you can’t say is wrong because he wins a lot. Yes, he’s had teammates, but he’s been in the right environment. He made the right decision to go to Mercedes and has the fastest car for a long time. But he sure is. I respect him as a driver. The rest…
“Max is who he is. Some people like it. Some people don’t. He says what he thinks, but doesn’t get involved in political matters, like what happens in other countries, like Lewis does. Max sees it as a matter of doing sports and leaving it at that. Everyone does it their way and that’s Max’s way.’
Jos, who accompanied his son through his stormy days as a karting star, admits he is nervous as the season reaches its climax and must face the fate of the helpless bystander. Race dads go through terrible stress.
That was this year’s most lively drive to Jos at Silverstone – one of the two major flare-ups on the circuit of the mighty Verstappen-Hamilton battle. The pair collided at speeds of 180 mph and Max was taken to hospital for check-up after the 51G impact.
A controversial collision between Hamilton and Verstappen during the British Grand Prix led to a breakdown in communication between Jos and the Mercedes team
With the crash that left Max in hospital for a short time, Jos was left furious about the way Hamilton and Mercedes celebrated the victory at Silverstone in July.
Jos is still furious about the behavior of Hamilton and Mercedes that day. He and Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff had a good relationship beforehand. That developed when Mercedes actively followed Max since he was a teenager.
Indeed, their interest spurred Red Bull to hasten its Formula 1 debut with their junior team Toro Rosso for fear of losing its services. Wolff and Jos kept in touch. How is their relationship now, I ask?
‘It is no longer there,’ says Jos. ‘I don’t like his attitude. I don’t like the way he behaved, starting at Silverstone. One of the drivers was in hospital and they are on the podium celebrating as if they have won the world championship.
Jos previously had strong ties with team boss Toto Wolff, although he admits they have disappeared
“I didn’t think Toto was like that, but I learned about another Wolff. We had no contact with him, no message or anything. And to think he spoke to us in the new year, I’m not saying he tried to persuade Max at that stage, but let’s just say we had a good relationship before Silverstone.”
Red Bull has decided to put aside their concerns about the legality of the Mercedes car – especially the rear wing – but the friction between the camps remains alive. Verstappen to Mercedes is out of the question, certainly for the foreseeable future.
“Max has a contract until the end of 2023, but I hope we can stay with Red Bull for the rest of his career,” says Jos. “He’s happy in this environment. We have good relations with Christian [Horner, team principal] and Helmut [Marko, motorsport advisor].’
Enough of the present, for a moment. I ask Jos what has shaped the championship leader and what he sees now in the adult racer he first saw as a child, learning the trade on kart tracks while traveling from their base in Maasbracht, half an hour’s drive from Maastricht, where their clever workshop was the center of Max’ young life, learning about motorcycles and racing with his father as a mentor.
Verstappen has a small lead of eight points in the world championship with two races to go
Jos now hopes that Max can stay with his current Red Bull team until the end of his career
“He could feel everything,” says Jos, trying to produce a less gung-ho racing version of himself. “You could also tell from the quality of his driving, how much track he used. How cleverly he picks up and translates every detail – tires, engines, etc. He does that now, but at a much higher level.’
Sometimes it took hard love to polish his gem. There was the time at the end of 2012 after Max’s self-inflicted crash on the second lap in a world championship kart race in Sarno, southern Italy, when Jos decided to give his son the silent treatment.
“I haven’t spoken to him for six or seven days,” he says. “It was a big mistake he made. I was very angry, disappointed and he really had to think about it, not just for an hour or two, but longer. I knew what I was doing. I think it helped and shaped him. It’s not my job to advise him now.
“We talk about everyday life and I’m there when he needs me. But he’s his own man and all I can do is sit and watch and hope he gets some luck.”