The world championship battle between Mercedes and Red Bull could make the 2021 Formula 1 season one of the best we’ve ever seen on track.
But off circuit, both sides have been at pains to downplay their hopes and pass the baton of title favourite to the other side.
Max Verstappen was at it again ahead of the Portuguese Grand Prix weekend, shunning the opportunity for fighting talk.
“I prefer to remain quite silent, no need to hype anything up” :: Max Verstappen
Granted, Formula 1 does not and should not lend itself to the trash-talking nonsense that boxing often descends into, but for the past six weeks Verstappen, Lewis Hamilton and anyone else involved in Red Bull or Mercedes have generally kept a lid on any big declarations.
“It’s been working quite well so far, but this is a very different layout and it doesn’t mean that when you’re competitive at those two tracks [Sakhir and Imola] that you will be perfect here – you still need to have a good set-up around here,” said Verstappen.
“So we’ll just try to do the best we can to get the most out of it. Of course, I do think overall the car is always competitive but it’s all about now just setting it up perfectly to be able to win races.”
While Verstappen does at least concede the Red Bull should always be competitive, what he’s said is only really worth quoting in the context of illustrating the kind of comments we’ve come to expect.
But while it might infuriate some fans who want to see a little more directness, there is method in what some might deem the PR madness.
Often, the fear of setting yourself up for a fall – promising something great and failing to deliver – and the resulting criticism is perceived to be the main motivation for this. Perhaps it is for some of the PR professionals involved, but there’s a far more important dimension, one that Verstappen himself touched on when asked about his desire to take a low-key approach and take things by the proverbial step by step.
“Well, dreaming doesn’t bring you anywhere and I’m pretty realistic all the time and just want to focus on the race ahead,” said Verstappen. “I’m not stupid, I know that you can’t really make a mistake, especially in a championship so far [that’s] just so close.
“And I don’t want to put any unnecessary pressure on anyone within the team. We know what we have to do but there’s no point to keep saying it.
“I just want to focus on this weekend and I prefer to remain quite silent, no need to hype anything up.”
The point about not putting unnecessary pressure on anyone in the team – himself included – is at the heart of this desire to downplay things.
In simple terms, the key to success in any sport once operating at this level is to set aside the objective and focus on the process. Following the process consistently well will lead to the desired outcome: the championship. That’s a well-established methodology – one that sounds so simple yet can crumble to dust when under the most intense pressure.
Winning a world championship should be the outcome that emerges from designing and building the best car and extracting most from it on the majority of weekends. But it’s when pressure, the great intangible and one it’s easy to downplay the impact of, can derail you. Part of the skill of leading a team is to contain that pressure and there’s no shortage of people within F1 teams who are well aware of the media coverage surrounding the sport.
Like Verstappen, everyone in Red Bull knows they have the chance to win the championship and most will recognise that they are favourites, but focusing on that distant and intangible objective is only a distraction at this stage.
Sport is about human performance, and most will perform at their best while isolated from external pressures and focusing on the task immediately in front of them. Repeating the mantra that you aren’t favourite or that it will be difficult is part of retaining that mindset.
To take an everyday example, anyone can relate to the impact time pressure might have on the execution of a task. You might have no problem completing a set task in that timeframe normally, but the knowledge it must be done, that you cannot make a mistake, that there’s no margin, can damage performance.
“When you are in a championship fight, you cannot afford to lose too many points in a weekend where you’re not at your top level” :: Max Verstappen
Now translate that to a critical in-race pitstop, a key set-up decision or an overtaking manoeuvre – with hundreds of millions watching globally. Just because it’s not a matter of life and death doesn’t mean that pressure isn’t a very real force and has an impact on the human brain. When you are dealing with teams that, in terms of skillset, are operating at such a high level, it’s often the psychological side that swings the closest battles.
Verstappen will be trying to contain that pressure not just for everyone working for Red Bull and Honda, but for himself.
While he’s been groomed to be a world championship winning machine almost from the moment he could walk and is unquestionably capable of delivering on that, he will be dealing with that expectation and trying to keep himself on the straight and narrow. Take it race by race, session by session, and the result will look after itself.
He is also right to do so, as there have been occasions when he has over-reached in the past when a big result was possible, suggesting the excitement of the objective compromised the process of executing his job as driver.
Verstappen has also recognised that there is a difference required in his approach. When asked whether he risked losing that edge of speed by taking a low-risk approach, he offered a little insight into that mindset.
“I don’t think you lose speed, it’s just choosing your moments when to shine,” said Verstappen. “You have to understand that if it’s not your day, it’s not your day and you have to settle for a certain result, whereas in the past, of course we had sometimes a car where we could win races but we knew we were not in a championship fights so you might risk a bit more.
“When you are in a championship fight, or at least you know that you have a car which can be competitive more often, your approach does change a little bit because you cannot afford to lose too many points in a weekend where you’re not at your top level.
“That’s why we always have to make sure that even if we don’t have a perfect weekend, we still score a lot of points.”
It’s not about winning every single weekend, it’s about maximising the achievable results. In two decades of covering motorsport professionally, the truth of the saying that you win titles on your bad days has been proved to me at every level from club racing to F1 when things are close. To deliver on that, you need to retain that process-focus and get the best result at a given time, whether it’s first, fourth or ninth.
The other fascinating question that was put to Verstappen was whether it was inevitable that he and Hamilton would clash on track. The question referenced drivers like Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher and Damon Hill whose title-rival collisions are the stuff of legend.
“Let’s try and not do it then, if that’s the case with all the other ones,” said Verstappen, laughing.
What else could he say? While inevitable is a strong word, there are 21 races left and Hamilton and Verstappen have already crossed swords on track in Bahrain and at Imola, so there is a strong likelihood that there will be a moment when things go too far. That tends to happen when an immovable object meets an irresistible force. Both Verstappen and Hamilton are capable of being either.
But Verstappen can’t have that on his mind. Considering the moment by the pair at the start of the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, hurtling towards the Tamburello chicane in wet conditions with uncertain levels of grip and having to pick their braking points.
In that instance, Verstappen treated it like a normal racing situation, picked his spot and made it work for him. He needs to be able to do that in race 22 as well as race two – hence the need to take the pressure off.
There’s a long way to go in this championship but if, as all neutrals hope, it goes down to the wire it will be decided by these key moments. There’s every chance that it will come down to which combination of team and driver keeps their heads and resists the pressure when it’s at its most intense.
As Verstappen put it: “The only thing I can see is that we’re very close, and both of us we need to try and do a perfect job to be able to beat each other.”
Assuming the cars remain relatively closely matched, the winner will likely be whoever drives and makes those split-second decisions as if the stakes are zero when they are actually at their highest. And everything that is or could be impacting Verstappen and Red Bull can also impact Hamilton and Mercedes.