Why Max Verstappen isn't affected by the fear of failure: Mark Hughes

“Verstappen is a man within the very weave of motor racing”

The stresses and strains of a very tight championship battle inevitably expose the personality traits of those in the hot centre of it all.

The competitive make-up of top-class athletes is a fascinating subject. The raw desire to win obviously features strongly, but in Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen it’s possible to discern also different levels of the fear of failure. The will to win and a fear of failure are, of course, intimately connected, but they are not the same. Both can be assets or liabilities in the particular demands of a high-pressure moment.

Verstappen is a man within the very weave of motor racing. His mother and father were both racers, and his childhood was spent in karting paddocks across Europe. Like a boy born in the circus, he was always going to be a performer within this circus. There was never any question of that. That these circumstances should coincide with a truly remarkable talent just completed the picture. It was nature and nurture combined. With ex-F1 father Jos, tough, down-to-earth, guiding him and negotiating a path through the shark-infested waters of the sport all the way up to F1, Max was able to relax into being what he was born to be.

There were no questions to be answered, just a beautiful life to be lived. It was always about the racing, never the profile or the trappings. A grand prix, he said once, is just like a kart race with more spectators. The experience for him is much the same. He was – is – totally infatuated with the driving, the ways to be quicker.

“A Stevenage council estate wasn’t the most obvious of starts for an F1 career”

When he first came into F1 it was nothing for him to spend a day on the simulator at Red Bull, fly home to his flat in Belgium then go on his personal simulator there, comparing the same tracks on the different simulators! I once asked him what he thought he might do when he stopped racing in F1. He’d buy a race car, he said, and take it to a track and lap it all day, doing sessions trying different set-ups and analysing the data in between…

Hamilton’s route into the sport was more precarious, at least until McLaren picked him up as a 13-year-old. A Stevenage council estate and a family with absolutely no motor racing background wasn’t the most obvious of starts for an F1 career. But he was bitten by the bug, infected by that virus the sport can transmit, the addiction to the thrill of it, the love of dancing a kart on the edge of tyre grip and going wheel-to-wheel.

His father too helped but from a very different position. He believed in his kid’s dream and worked hard to help make it happen and insisted the kid worked just as hard. It was threadbare and on a knife edge until McLaren put him on its books. Those years between the age of eight and 13 were when everyone outside of racing was telling him it was a dumb dream to think this could be his future. There was always the chance, even the likelihood, that it would all stop some day soon. The money to progress wouldn’t be there and that’s where the crazy dream would come to a screeching halt.

They say the early years are the formative ones. Even after more success than anyone has ever achieved in F1 it’s still possible to sense from Hamilton the ghosts of that fear. He seems to see himself in adversity, rather like Nigel Mansell – another racing driver whose rise to the top was an unlikely one from where he first started out – and seems to relish fighting the odds even when they are in his favour. It’s as if he needs this state of mind to do his best stuff.

Even though he’s already won seven world titles, you’d never hear him say what Verstappen did in Turkey: “[The Championship] is what we work for. But even if we would finish second we still have a great season and at the end of the day it’s not really going to change my life.”

Max is on an even keel, he’ll just continue doing his stuff, maximising the car and if that’s a title, it’s a title. Then onto the next race, rain or shine. His dream was never going to be taken away from him and it still isn’t. There’s no fear of failure, just more of the same. That might win him the title, or lose him it.

Hamilton badly wants that eighth world title but is constantly pessimistic about the chances, acutely aware of all the things that could go wrong. That’s his default: that it might go wrong. It’s not really paranoia, because it could quite easily be a very realistic assessment. The concern about power unit reliability at Mercedes, for example, is real – and not just paranoia. The car seems to have acquired an extra edge of performance in the season’s second half but possibly at the expense of durability. There is so much which could go wrong there, just as there is in battles on track, and that will be triggering that fear.

You could see it in the kid gloves way he handled his dices with Yuki Tsunoda and Sergio Pérez in Istanbul, drivers from the opposing camp who could so easily have played a part in making something go wrong for him. That fear might win him the title, or lose him it.

Since he began covering grand prix racing in 2000, Mark Hughes has forged a reputation as the finest Formula 1 analyst of his generation
Follow Mark on Twitter @SportmphMark