‘Zero compromise’ Verstappen isn’t understood by social media critics - MPH


Drivers often have one ruthless mode for competing and another for interacting out of the car, rubbing up against their social media image

Red Bull F1 driver Max Verstappen

Verstappen is different person out of the car to in it, according to those who know him

Grand Prix Photo

It was almost as if Max Verstappen had been awoken from the trance of his season as he dealt with the reaction to what transpired over his radio on the last lap in Brazil. The cowardly moronic elements at the toxic fringes of social media had made death threats to him, his family and to the other participant in this drama, Sergio Perez.

But even the less extreme angry reactions are from a place not understanding the distinction between a competitor and the person in which the competitor resides. There is a bubble in which a competitor seals themselves off from the everyday world, especially in something as solitary and extreme as racing an F1 car.

“The outer world is cut off, silenced and the entire focus is on delivering”

That’s the place where they perform and going in there becomes a routine. The outer world is cut off, silenced and the entire focus is on delivering performance. At Red Bull in particular, but all teams to an extent, the lead driver is made to feel supported by all around him, made to feel like this is his racing family and that everyone is there to be focused on him.

The team reality is that this is a big organisation with hundreds of people working to produce that car and to go racing with it. But that isn’t a feeling any driver wants to take with them into the car. These are intense competitors and the cars are simply the instruments through which they compete.

Occasionally the two worlds collide, as we saw at Alpine in Brazil’s sprint race the day before the Verstappen controversy. Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon’s two bouts of contact on the opening lap which ruined the races of both led to team boss Laurent Rossi to tell them that if they had been any other employees but drivers, prioritising themselves over the team would have resulted in instant dismissal for gross misconduct. But they are drivers, with a rare skill set upon which the team relies. They are employees only in the formal sense, not the visceral. They are hired gun mercenaries grudgingly obliged to be part of a team. That used to be at the very core of the appeal of racing, that rebellion against the mediocrity of the everyday.

But once it’s all over, they are out of the combat zone and have decompressed, they’re not that fierce. They are a pretty damn cool bunch of people on the whole. Recall the contrast between Red Bull era Sebastian Vettel, his refusal to comply to Multi 21 or to apologise for it, the victory ‘number 1’ finger etc, the contrast between that guy and the smiling, funny, caring Vettel underneath? Some of the other drivers referred to it yesterday when asked of their thoughts about his retirement.

F1 drivers go to dinner at Abu Dhabi GP

Drivers join at dinner in Abu Dhabi to commemorate Vettel’s retirement

George Russell via Twitter

“Some of the things he’s done for me; yeah, I’m just very, very appreciative of,” said Daniel Ricciardo. “I think he’s a very caring individual… but I think he’s definitely able to separate that. As a competitor, I think back to 2013, when he won every race in the second half of the season. And it was like a relentless approach, like he just wasn’t satisfied. He just wanted to ultimately destroy the competition. And you could just see, like, the raw competitor in him and that drive to not win, but to destroy if you will, and you had to admire and respect that.”

“One thing I will always remember for the rest of my life,” says Verstappen, “is last year, at Silverstone, I came back from the hospital to get to my motorhome to get all my stuff and he was there, waiting for me when I got out of the car. And he said, ‘Are you OK, Max, how are you doing?’ And that just shows how he is, you know, a super nice, caring person who is not only there for performance, but also means well, you know. I think that’s also really nice to be remembered like that.”

“When I was in Formula 2 I was doing simulator work for Ferrari,” recalls Charles Leclerc. “It’s not easy work to do, because it’s really, really tiring and I thought that Seb probably didn’t even know I was on the simulator. And I received a letter one day, just thanking me for all the hard work. And that meant a lot for me at that time.”

Ferrari drivers and Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc talk at the 2019 Mexican GP

Leclerc has recalled what a positive presence Vettel has been

Grand Prix Photo

Talk to those around Verstappen and they will tell you that for all his assassin character in the car, his dominant personal trait away from racing is as a peacekeeper, who always wants to make things right for those around him.  There isn’t really a ‘side’ to him, no cynical, calculated strategy there, but his racing persona, very much formed and honed by father Jos Verstappen – a man whose ferocity in the car extends to the outside world much more than with Max – is zero compromise and binary. So when asked in Mexico if he’d be prepared to help Perez to a home victory in his chase of second in the championship his answer – probably based on events in Monaco qualifying, which played a crucial part in Perez defeating Verstappen to win the race – was a firm ‘no’ and in his usual straightforward, open way he explained why.

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Hence when, a race later, he was asked to help the same cause with a lap to go, he was surprised to hear the question, as he’d already responded to the same request in Mexico, with reasons. His way of communicating that over the radio wasn’t gracious and he’d probably have made things a lot easier for himself if he’d just either stayed silent or said, ‘Let’s discuss it later’. But he gave his response from the perspective of his in-car self, and that of an indulged provider of performance by a team which specialises in cossetting its number one to maximise that performance.

When the intensity of the cockpit meets the outside world in the era where social media makes the uninformed not realise it’s uninformed and that because it’s seen something believes it understands it, this is the fall-out.