Max Verstappen on the art of overtaking

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In just two seasons of Formula One racing, Max Verstappen has made quite a mark. He has not only changed perceptions of what is possible in motorsport's premier series, he has also changed perceptions of what is acceptable. While his overtaking manoeuvres have won awards (Verstappen is the only driver to have won the FIA's Action of the Year for three years running), his defensive driving last year prompted the governing body to rewrite the rules of on-track engagement. It's fair to say that no other new driver has had such a big impact on the sport in recent years -- and all this before he has reached his 20th birthday.

So how has a teenager in a 900bhp racing car been able to find the balance between bravery and recklessness, between forethought and instinct and between aggression and precision? ESPN sat down with Verstappen at the end of last year to try to find out.

Starting young

Racing runs in the Verstappen family -- his father, Jos, is a former-F1 driver and his mother, Sophie Kumpen, a champion karter. But to assume his current skillset is purely a result of nature over nurture would unfairly ignore his formative years on the kart tracks of Europe.

At the age of four Verstappen started pestering his father for a go-kart, but Jos insisted that his son should wait until he was six to start racing. For young Max, however, another two years was half a lifetime and he was not prepared to wait. So, like any other four-year-old, when he was told no by one parent he went straight to the other and several weeks later he had successfully persuaded his mother to convince his father to buy him a go-kart.

Fast forward five or six years and things had already started become serious. The Verstappens shared a karting workshop with the Pex family, whose sons Jorrit and Stan were also talented young karters. The Pex brothers were the perfect playmates for the young Verstappen and the trio would race against each other in private test sessions away from the regulated competition of the junior karting series. It was on these occasions that Verstappen was able to hone his race craft, and on occasion he would receive some lessons from a true master of the art.

"I remember we went on a go-kart holiday together for two weeks in Italy and my dad joined as well," Verstappen recalls. "Dad would take a little bit of a faster engine, so he would be two or three tenths faster than us per lap and for the whole day we did 30 or 40 races of five laps.

"Each time you would start in a different position on the grid and then my dad was always the one who was the quickest, so he would always overtake you or he would get a really good start off the line. We got so much racing experience from that.

"We would only ever do five laps, because normally after five laps a race settles in, but in those first five laps you can learn so much. After the five laps we would stop and my dad would talk me through what could be done better and then we would do another race in different positions. So me and my friends learned a lot from that.

"Sometimes I would try to pass my dad, and of course he had a lot of experience, and I went a bit deep and he would take me back on the exit. Another time he would defend and I would try to go around the outside, or he would stop me in the middle of the corner -- I got so much experience from those races.

"Sometimes now I don't even think about it anymore and for me it's just normal that those things happen, and that comes from that experience. I think a lot of my actions at the moment are based from that start, where I started to learn to race properly and race clever."

Some of Verstappen's most memorable moves in F1 have been based on pure instinct -- his pass around the outside of Nico Rosberg in the wet in Brazil last year or his bold move around the outside of Felipe Nasr at Spa-Francorchamps' daunting Blanchimont in 2015 -- but his ability to outfox his rivals and "race clever" is just as impressive. He says the common strand between the two approaches is that he is always trying to find a weakness in his opponent and the key to making the move stick is choosing the best time to exploit it.

"It changes from track-to-track, but when you are behind someone you know after a few laps where they are weaker and stronger around the lap," he explains. "You try to position yourself in the best possible way to attack them at a point they don't expect or at the point that they are just not as strong as you. That's how you try to get past.

"But it's also about trying to get past without losing too much time, so there is a lot of planning. Of course, sometimes you just arrive and you go by, but sometimes it takes a bit more effort."

A case study

One example that took "a bit more effort" was on that memorable, soaking-wet afternoon at Interlagos last year. Although the move on Rosberg quite rightly caught the attention and the imagination of those watching, there was a grittier battle with Sebastian Vettel later in the race that gives an insight into Verstappen's more measured approach to overtaking.

Verstappen was on fresher tyres than Vettel at the time and again tried used his wide line through Turn 3 to find the extra grip that had been so effective against Rosberg. But he wasn't as close to Vettel as he had been to Rosberg and instead of passing on the following straight, he used the extra momentum to try to try to line up a move around the outside of Turn 4. The Red Bull just had its nose ahead of the Ferrari as they reached the braking zone, but Vettel was in no mood to yield and hung the teenager out to dry on the exit.

Rather than explore the grip in the run-off area, Verstappen saw discretion as the better part of valour and filtered back behind Vettel to start planning another attack through the second sector of the lap. Wide lines through Turn 10 (Bico de Plato) and Turn 11 (Mergulho) also offered significantly more grip than Vettel's more conventional approach, and on the approach to Turn 12 (Juncao), Verstappen was able to switch to the inside of the track in order to attack once more. What followed was later described by Vettel as "not correct" as the four-time champion found himself on the receiving end of the treatment he had doled out to Verstappen at Turn 4. But where Verstappen had backed off Vettel kept his foot in, resulting in the Ferrari clattering across the kerbs, losing momentum and, ultimately, losing the position.

"In Brazil it was pretty clear," Verstappen explained in his matter-of-fact tone. "I tried to go around the outside in Turn 4 and I saw that he was going to push me wide, so I backed off and stayed behind. But as soon as I got next to him [into Turn 10] he should have known that I would try to do the same, so if he tries to go around the outside I would try to squeeze him a bit.

"He didn't give up, but at some point I can't do more because I go over the limit of the grip of the rubber and you slide a bit and there isn't any more space. At the exit I actually tried to give him room, because I spun the car a bit to the inside, but by then the damage is done and then it is better for him to back off."

For the record, the stewards agreed with Verstappen and opted not to investigate the incident.

The art of defending

While it can rarely be said that Verstappen looks clumsy in his on-track actions, he has often appeared overly aggressive. His defending from other cars -- specifically his tendency to move under braking -- was twice the subject of heated driver briefings last year and came to a head after he used the trick to stop Lewis Hamilton overtaking him at the Japanese Grand Prix. The majority of his peers believed there had always been an unwritten rule outlawing such behaviour, but it took a clarification from race director Charlie Whiting at the following race in Austin for Verstappen to fall into line.

Under F1's new laissez-faire attitude to wheel-to-wheel racing this year, it is not yet clear whether moving under braking will incur the wrath of the stewards (the Article referred to by Whiting in Austin last year has been removed and replaced with a regulation that says no penalty will be issued unless a driver is "wholly or predominantly to blame for an incident"). But while Verstappen is willing to play by whatever rules are laid out by the FIA, as he proved at the latter rounds of last year, he stands by his actions earlier in the season.

"I was definitely on the limit in my defending, but that's what you want to do because I want to be on the limit all the time -- that's how you keep your position so many times," he explains. "You just have to see what is happening behind you on the laps before, see where they are gaining and where they are trying [a move], and then when they do try to do the move you have to react very quickly to show that you are not going to give up your position or at least you will try to defend. It's a lot about feeling and looking around you.

"If the guy in front is able to move to the inside [to block a mover] under braking, then the car behind can easily go the other side because he is later and still has more time to decelerate. I think all the comments made about not being able to stop and crashing into the car in front ... I think it's all about yourself, and when you see a car moving you are the one that should move to the other side and try to prepare yourself for the exit.

"Once I go to the inside [as the defending car], I'm fixed and can't go back to the outside, and the guy on the outside can have a very good exit out of the corner and then you have another possibility. But it seems some people don't think further than that, and they just think 'I can't do this in one go and then my action is finished'. No, you go to the outside, brake again and try to get him on the exit of the corner."

Getting it wrong

Inevitably, mistakes will happen while running wheel-to-wheel on a race track. In 2015 Verstappen had a huge collision with the barriers after trying to pass Romain Grosjean at Monaco, but his 2016 season was far cleaner than perhaps his reputation gave him credit for. He was, however, on the receiving end of one a misjudged move at the German Grand Prix and it makes for another interesting case study.

On that occasion, Rosberg was the aggressor and went to pass Verstappen on the inside of the Turn 6 hairpin at Hockenheim. As he did so, Verstappen closed the door slightly under braking but still left several cars' width between his Red Bull and the apex. Rosberg was forced to realign slightly but still managed to decelerate enough to take the apex ... then something strange happened.

Rather than take the apex and try to beat Verstappen on acceleration out of the corner, Rosberg shepherded the Red Bull towards the edge of the track. Verstappen was left with no choice but to go over the white line demarcating the track from the run-off while Rosberg crawled along the circuit perimeter before mashing the throttle on the following straight. The move achieved Rosberg's aim of exiting the corner ahead of Verstappen, but the process was hopelessly clumsy and it wasn't long before the stewards investigated the incident and penalised the Mercedes driver.

"Mainly those things happen when you are not sure of what you are doing," Verstappen says of Rosberg's move. "You do an action and then you are next to the person but you don't know how to finish it properly. I think that sometimes happens or they try to be too clever and overreact. You shouldn't overthink it.

"I was like 'where do you want me to go?' You have to turn in at some point, otherwise you are going off the track. You could see quite obviously that he was just driving straight and could easily have turned -- he was not even locking a wheel [under braking]."

Keeping it exciting

There are concerns that this year's new breed of Formula One cars will limit overtaking. The hope is that reformulated tyre compounds and the aforementioned relaxation of the stewarding will encourage drivers to race harder than previous years, but until the racing starts it is hard to know what will happen.

"Racing should be pure like in Moto GP," Verstappen adds. "[We need] real fighting that looks good for the TV as well. Of course, you should try to avoid hitting another car in the back, but a bit of wheel banging, the spectators love it!

"The move with Sebastian and Daniel [Ricciardo] in Mexico they touched, but at the end of the day that's what racing is about. It shouldn't be that because you touch, you get a penalty or because you push them off the track you get a 10 second penalty -- it should be a little bit more free in a safe way.

"I think drivers understand that, because it's not as if you are deliberately going to crash into each other. But a bit of wheel banging and scrubbing, why not? I'm not there to brake test someone or let them fly over the back of me, because then my race is finished as well! As a driver you will always prevent that. Let's say I move under braking and I see the guy behind locking up, I will release the brake and go straight as well because otherwise my race is finished."

Agree with him or not, Verstappen is clear in his views. The good news for fans watching this year is that he looks set to be just as exciting as he's ever been.