But it’s a reputation – unfair or otherwise – of being involved in far too many crashes that’s starting to resonate. In the first six races last year Verstappen was involved in incidents, most notably a collision with teammate Ricciardo at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix that ruined Red Bull’s weekend. Cruelly, he’s even been nicknamed Max Crashstappen by some ruthless petrol heads.
The chatter inevitably started to bite at the Canadian Grand Prix last June when the Dutch prodigy was quizzed about his record, resulting in him saying he might have to “headbutt” someone.
“Well, you know, I get really tired of all the comments about me that I should change my approach,” Verstappen said in Montreal. “I will never do that, because it’s brought me to where I am right now.”
Verstappen’s eyes lowered and the temperature in the room reportedly dropped when one scribe pushed further about the crashes. “I don’t know,” he said. “Like I said at the beginning of this press conference, I get really tired of all the questions. And I think if I get a few more, I’ll headbutt someone.”
But it’s no surprise that in Formula One risk-taking can either be rewarded or vilified. A fraction of an inch here or a few milliseconds there go a long way to determining success or otherwise.
One thing is clear: Verstappen won’t modify his ways too much. His style is simply inherent. And high risk-taking – read bold overtaking manoeuvres – proves popular with his growing army of fans.
Veteran Dutch F1 journalist Olav Mol, who has witnessed Verstappen’s growth since he was four years old, says his apparent gung-ho style won’t budge too much.
“That’s not going to disappear because that’s in his DNA,” says Mol. “If he sees a gap, he knows what’s he’s going to do and how he’s going to do it.”
Mol points to Verstappen’s capacity to make astute assessments during a race – a capacity that can be attributed to him having “extra disc space” in his head and a trait common to great F1 drivers – as to why he has such immense potential. Mol says during a race Verstappen is often planning the precise details of a bold move one or two laps before he actually chooses to pounce.
“If you look at nine out of 10 of Max’s overtakes, he never is there or thereabouts. He’s [right] there [on his opponent’s tail]. It’s never hesitating,” Mol says.
“I think it’s a good thing and I think the people love it – the way he overtakes. To me it’s more self-confidence than aggressiveness.”
Central to Verstappen’s rapid ascension through motor sport ranks has been the close role of his father, who competed in more than 100 F1 races across a decade from his debut in 1994. But equally influential has been his Belgian-born mother, Sophie Kumpen, who was successful in karting.
Young Verstappen is arguably now Holland’s best athlete. His potential and emergence in the sport coincided with a dip in the performance of the national soccer team after the Oranje surprised by not qualifying for last year’s World Cup in Russia.
The Dutch Army has attached itself to Verstappen, resplendent and omnipresent when they travel to races in Europe.
“It actually appealed to the national pride,” Mol says of the connection between racer and country.
“Of course speed skating is big in Holland, but that’s only winter time.
“We Dutch people we always moan about the weather and money and everything. But basically we’re a rich country and it shows because the people can go to two races in Europe.
“The people following him, the Orange Army in a way, that was just what soccer used to be.”
If you’re not an asshole every now and then, you will never ever become world champion. Sorry for Daniel Ricciardo but he’s too much of a nice guy. He’s not an asshole. Mark Webber wasn’t an asshole. There’s very little world champions who are nice guys.
Commentator Olav Mol
Verstappen can be brutally efficient with words. Seated alongside the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Sebasian Vettel at Thursday’s main media conference, the Dutchman volunteered little when quizzed about his off-season leisure activities.
“Some more exciting things happened. Some less exciting things happened. Should I share them? I don’t think so,” said the 21-year-old succinctly.
But Mol says that curt approach is just Verstappen’s nature, an inherently shy tendency that first revealed itself when the young Dutch boy hid behind his father’s legs when he met the famous commentator as a toddler.
“Max is a man of few words. If you ask him a question where he can say either yes or no, he will,” says Mol. “But it’s not because he doesn’t want to. That’s what his nature is.”
Ricciardo wasn’t exactly sure why his former teammate can be guarded.
“I guess it’s not my place to say, but yeah he didn’t seem to say much today, and I’m not sure why,” said the Australian.
“I don’t know if there was a reason why – if a few journalists pissed him off during the week and he just thought ‘I’m not answering any more questions’.”
Verstappen may be something of a man of mystery but it’s clear – to some observers anyway – that he carries an attribute that could take him a long way: a ruthless streak.
Said Mol: “Why do I feel Max can be a world champion? And why is Lewis Hamilton a world champion? Why was Ayrton Senna a world champion?
“If you’re not an asshole every now and then, you will never ever become world champion. Sorry for Daniel Ricciardo but he’s too much of a nice guy. He’s not an asshole. Mark Webber wasn’t an asshole. There’s very little world champions who are nice guys.”
Scott Spits is a sports reporter for The Age