The Red Bull driver had been cool, seemingly bulletproof throughout the season. He brushed off the low moments and never appeared overly obsessed with viewing the world championship as some monumental life achievement.
“It’s not really going to change my life,” he had said back in October. To him, it was always simple: he and Red Bull do their best, and if that wasn’t enough to win the title, they could still sleep easy at night.
That mindset would have been put to its sternest test as the laps ticked down in Abu Dhabi – prior to Nicholas Latifi’s crash and the subsequent safety car – when it became clear Verstappen’s fresh tyres weren’t going to be enough to catch Hamilton at the front.
Sergio Perez’s mighty defence had brought Verstappen back into contention, and the decision to pit under the Virtual Safety Car offered another chance to fight back. But the pace of the Mercedes was simply too much.
The late twist, the “miracle” that Christian Horner said Red Bull needed with 10 laps to go, will have only added to the jumbled-up rush of emotions Verstappen felt after crossing the line and getting out of his car, before a teary embrace with his father, Jos, who had been there right the way through his career.
But once the dust had settled, the podium ceremony had been completed, and the enormity of the achievement began to sink in, Verstappen was back to his cool, usual self as the post-race protests and saga began to unfold.
Speaking in the post-race champion’s press conference, Verstappen admitted he was “slowly” coming to terms with what he had done, and spoke of how the journey he had been on through motorsport “flashes through your head” upon achieving what he called “the ultimate goal”.
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, 2nd position, congratulates Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing, 1st position, in Parc Ferme
Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images
Yet he retained the view that his life would not change upon winning the title. “I’m of course very happy that I won the championship,” Verstappen said. “That’s the final achievement that I wanted in Formula 1. So everything else that comes now is a bonus.”
Verstappen’s position appeared to stand in contrast to that of Hamilton, the man who had sat in the same champion’s press conference for each of the previous four years, becoming seemingly only more aware of the scale of his achievements and legacy as they grew with each title he won.
Perhaps Verstappen’s opinion will change if – or, most likely, when – he adds more championships to his haul. They won’t simply be a “bonus”, but instead proof of his standing among the legends of F1 and a growth of his legacy. He already has so many of the records relating to age, and has time on his side to take aim at many of the records that belong to Hamilton.
But there is also a certain power that comes with the mindset that Verstappen used for last year’s championship that should put him in good stead for the future.
Back in 2014, when working for a TV broadcaster, a colleague of mine put a very simple question to championship contenders Hamilton and Nico Rosberg: what would winning the championship mean to you?
Rosberg’s answer was short. “It would be quite cool, wouldn’t it?” he replied. “It’s a childhood dream, so it would be awesome.” A total of 16 words.
Hamilton, meanwhile, gave a heartfelt answer that was more than 10 times longer in which he spoke of how he never felt he enjoyed his first title in 2008 as he should have, and that it was the “single most special thing” that should not be taken for granted. At the time, it seemed like a sign that Hamilton simply wanted it 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 comes down to the difference in approach. Rosberg, like Verstappen, always seemed quite matter of fact about these things, even in the final knockings of the 2016 season when he kept preaching a “one race at a time” mantra. Privately, of course, he was formulating plans to hang up his helmet upon reaching the career summit of becoming F1 world champion. He reached his peak, and saw no need to keep climbing.
Verstappen’s claim the title wouldn’t change his life may have been odd to hear at times, particularly from a driver going for their first championship. But it served as an important mental approach to handle the highs and lows of elite sporting competition. It’s a similar stance to that of his former Red Bull team-mate, Daniel Ricciardo.
“If you put all your eggs into one basket, and it doesn’t work out, the thought of what might happen in a way it could be scary,” Ricciardo said in an interview including Autosport towards the end of last season.
“Like if I put all my life’s work into becoming a world champion and I don’t become a world champion, am I going to be depressed the rest of my life? I don’t know, it’s a bit of a risky thing to do. In this sport, when there’s so many other variables in it, nothing’s guaranteed. It’s just not that black and white.”
Ricciardo cited a story about UFC fighter Rashad Evans as an example of that mindset in action when you do achieve that goal.
“He worked all his life to become champion, and he became a champion,” Ricciardo said. “And I think the next week he went back to the gym, and his team-mates were like, ‘how does it feel?’ And he said: ‘I feel no different.’
“In a way, it’s quite 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 it up to to be something, and then it’s not, I think that could also be quite dejecting.
Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren
Photo by: Erik Junius
“So I tried to just like level it out a little bit. If I do become champion, awesome, but if I don’t, life still goes on.
“You just want to be mature with the approach of it. Lewis has seven of them. Does he feel different to before he had any? I don’t know. I’m not saying I have that answer. It could just be quite scary to invest everything in it, because there’s a lot more to life.”
Verstappen has rightly been enjoying his life since the title win in Abu Dhabi, spending the holiday season in Brazil with his girlfriend and making the most of the winter before preparations for his title defence begin in anger in the coming weeks.
Once the #1 goes on his car for the very first time in testing and his title defence begins, Verstappen will find himself in fresh territory.
Yet if last year is anything to go by when he first engaged in a title fight, and if his mental approach remains strong and unchanged, he’ll be able to take whatever highs or lows he faces in his stride.
As Ricciardo said, nothing is guaranteed in F1. So the fact that Verstappen does have a championship under his belt will surely make things a little lighter; a reassurance that he has reached the summit, that “final achievement” he had worked towards.
The title may not change Verstappen, but as more wins and championships come his way, his thoughts on the importance of leaving a legacy may come into his mindset, building on an already-solid foundation.
Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing
Photo by: Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool