AUSTIN (AP)–The lineups were set in advance: Red Bull teammates Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez vs. Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Kevin Harvick and Aric Almirola in a pit stop competition at the ExxonMobil headquarters.
When it came time to loosen and then tighten a set of lug nuts, Verstappen reconfirmed his calling was inside a race car.
“I think I realized I am not a good guy for the pit box,” Verstappen said. “It is better if I drive the car.”
Verstappen and Perez, like most of the F1 drivers in the paddock, have been on a whirlwind tour of the country ahead of this weekend’s U.S. Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. The globetrotting series is back in North America for the first time since 2019 because the pandemic canceled stops last year in Austin, Mexico City and Montreal.
Now back in Texas for a ninth time, F1 has a new championship leader in Verstappen who may be somewhat unknown to the American fanbase. The 24-year-old son of former F1 driver Jos Verstappen is at last having a breakout season — he has a career-high seven wins so far — and is pushing Lewis Hamilton more than the seven-time champion has been challenged in quite some time.
Verstappen has a six-point lead over Hamilton with six races remaining in a tense title fight that has tilted back and forth all season.
Hamilton, winner of four consecutive titles, last faced a proper challenge in 2016 when Nico Rosberg won the season finale to win the championship by five points over his Mercedes teammate. Hamilton lost the championship to Kimi Raikkonen by a single point in his 2007 rookie season, then beat Felipe Massa by the same margin the next year to claim his first title.
This season’s push by Verstappen has given F1 one of its most enthralling title races in years. And yet Verstappen is a bit of a mystery in the U.S., in part because he’s chosen not to participate in the popular Netflix “Drive to Survive” docuseries that has captivated American racing fans.
“I understand that it needs to be done to boost the popularity in America,” Verstappen told The Associated Press ahead of Sunday’s race. “But from my side as a driver, I don’t like being part of it.”
Verstappen said when he participated in interviews in earlier seasons of the show, the quotes were later applied to situations he was not discussing and “they would fake a lot of stuff.”
“They faked a few rivalries which they don’t really exist,” he said. “So I decided to not be a part of it and did not give any more interviews after that because then there is nothing you can show. I am not really a dramatic show kind of person, I just want facts and real things to happen.”
So are Verstappen and Hamilton even rivals at all?
“Probably in the Netflix show we will be,” he said. “We one time bumped into each other walking, so probably that will be in there.”
Truth be told, though, Verstappen doesn’t care for the spotlight and has his focus only on what’s turned into a career-best season. Half Belgian and half Dutch, he races under the Dutch flag as his father did, and was groomed for this job his entire life.
His rise under his father’s stern guidance has been well-documented, with “Jos The Boss” pushing his son hard as a young karter and instilling a toughness that he’s used this season battling Hamilton.
“He knew what it took to be a Formula One driver and he always prepared me from a very young age to be ready for it,” Verstappen said. “I think in our family we are very focused on what we do and I grew up like that, but that also takes a bit of the stress away and makes it very straightforward.”
Although he currently lives in Monaco and dates Brazilian model Kelly Piquet, the daughter of three-time F1 champion Nelson Piquet, Verstappen claims to lead a quiet, somewhat private life.
“I’m just a normal guy and I grew up in a small town,” Verstappen said. “All these things, the drama, it’s just not for me. It’s not my world.”
And yet this title fight with Hamilton has been packed with drama. The two have crashed racing each other twice so far this season, and Red Bull boss Christian Horner accused Hamilton of making a “desperate move” on the opening lap at Silverstone that crashed Verstappen out of the race.
Verstappen was sent to the hospital after that crash, where he slammed into a tire barrier at an impact that broke the seat in his Red Bull and caused an estimated $1.8 million worth of damage.
In their dustup at Monza, the two raced wheel-to-wheel, made contact and Verstappen’s car sailed over Hamilton and landed on the Mercedes.
Verstappen said he tries to stay out of back-and-forth between Red Bull and Mercedes because he can only control his own performance.
In Austin, he’ll be racing a circuit where Hamilton has a decided advantage. Hamilton has won five of the eight races held on the permanent road course, while Verstappen in five visits has scored two podiums and only finished ahead of Hamilton once, in 2018 when he edged Hamilton for second.
“I am pretty relaxed to be honest. I know it’s a tight battle but at the end of the day I can’t do more than my best, so I try to prepare the best way possible and enjoy it,” Verstappen said. “The amount of times you are in a championship battle, I don’t know how many times that will be.
“Of course we are in the lead of the championship, six races to go, it is going to be difficult, it is going to be hard, but I always try to do the best I can.”