BARCELONA (Reuters) - Move over ‘Mad Max, ‘Mature Max’ is coming through.
Max Verstappen does not see it in such tabloid terms, unsurprisingly, but the 21-year-old Dutch driver is now very much one of the grown-ups as he starts his fifth season in Formula One.
The youngest-ever grand prix driver and race winner will line up in Australia next week as Red Bull’s leader on the track now that Australian Daniel Ricciardo has been replaced by Pierre Gasly.
With a handful of youthful rookies coming in, including 19-year-old Briton Lando Norris at McLaren, Verstappen says he no longer feels like one of the young crowd even if his new French team mate is two years older.
“I can’t consider myself like that any more because I’ve done four seasons,” he told Reuters during pre-season testing at Barcelona’s Circuit de Catalunya, scene of his first F1 victory in 2016 at the age of 18.
“It’s going to be my fifth season so there are no excuses any more and you have to be mature.
“I was never Mad Max. I was just Max who was trying to get the best result for the team.”
Verstappen has already shown considerable maturity, from the moment he signed for Toro Rosso as a 16-year-old, but there have been times when his youthful frustration and impatience have bubbled over.
Fast, opinionated and forceful, the fan favourite has also been involved in several high-profile flare-ups.
In Canada last year, tiring of questions about a run of costly errors, he suggested he might headbutt somebody.
In Mexico, he was involved in angry post-race shoving with back-marker Esteban Ocon that drew a punishment of two days’ public service.
“As a driver I will always be the same guy,” Verstappen said when asked if the time spent watching stewards do their jobs had changed anything.
“I always try to get the best result out of it, I’m not there to just sit second or sit third. I’m a winner and I want to win every single race and I will always go for it.
“If you are fighting for the championship sometimes second is enough, for sure. But I’ve never been in that position yet in Formula One, so every opportunity I get to win a race I will always go for it.
“My aim is to be here for 15 years at least. I’ve got another 11, and I’m 32 then,” he said. “Maybe I can drive until I’m 36 or 37. 40. It depends on how long you like it as well. Maybe 42.”
Team boss Christian Horner had no doubt that Verstappen, who won two races last year and should have made it three in Mexico, had moved up a gear.
“He’s evolved so much,” he told reporters. “Like any competitive racing driver inevitably when things go wrong there is frustration. But he’s fully bought into the journey that we’re heading on with Honda.
“I think just his maturity is increased, we saw that during the course of last year. He’s just much more rounded through experience.
“He’s more worldly, more experienced, he’s just in a better place to be able to deal with the pressures that are placed on him.”
Verstappen was not expecting to be fazed by his new status as the voice of experience within the team.
“They will be listening maybe a bit more to me but I’m not too worried about it or thinking about it too much because I feel comfortable in what I’m doing,” he said. I feel comfortable that I am giving the right information.
“So I’m just looking forward to getting started.”
Horner also praised Verstappen’s attention to detail, comparing him to predecessor and four-times world champion Sebastian Vettel, but the Dutchman said that was nothing new.
“I think I learnt that already in go-karting, working together with my dad,” he said. “The attention to detail was very important because in go-karting the gaps are even smaller so whatever you can feel or find is going to give you the win.”
Verstappen kept active over the winter by competing in the virtual world, as well as the usual training routines, and he and Norris compete together in online endurance races. He said it kept him busy and focused.
“Even if it’s virtual, you’re still working on the setup, you’re still trying to improve yourself, trying to be more consistent with fewer mistakes,” said the Dutchman, who is also a fan of the FIFA soccer game.
“You’re just active all the time, thinking, finding gaps. I like those things.”
Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Clare Fallon