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<p>Max Verstappen currently leads the drivers’ championship</p>

Max Verstappen currently leads the drivers’ championship

(Getty Images)

Simply by asking Max Verstappen what his favourite racetrack is, you get an extraordinary insight into the mind of the sensational talent and budding champion.

The Red Bull driver, currently leading the Drivers’ World Championship for the first time in his career, prefers non-street circuits like Spa as he can push the car closer to the limit.

The son of former-F1 driver Jos Verstappen and karting mother Sophie Kumpen, the 23-year-old has racing coursing through his veins – and the Dutchman admitted it was always his passion while growing up.

“If I was not go-karting, I would be driving other things like quad bikes or motocross bikes whether it was snowing or raining,” Verstappen exclusively told The Independent. “We would always find a different kind of challenge to drive.

“Basically, I was enjoying anything with an engine attached!”

Despite his father racing alongside Michael Schumacher, Verstappen admitted he didn’t model his style on any other driver.

“I never really had [an idol] to be honest. I appreciated everyone’s talent and results but I was never really like ‘wow I want to really try and be like him’. I just wanted to always be myself and follow my own path – that was it.”

His prodigious talent ensured his path was a direct one to stardom, as Verstappen became the youngest F1 competitor at the age of 17 when he appeared for Toro Rosso at the 2015 Australian Grand Prix. He soon became the sport’s youngest points scorer before making the leap to Red Bull ahead of the 2016 Spanish Grand Prix.

No stranger to breaking records, Verstappen became the first driver from the Netherlands to win a Grand Prix in his debut race for Red Bull – and became the youngest winner in F1 history at 18 years and 228 days with a composed performance in Barcelona.

“I think my first win in F1 will always be special to me.

“We were hanging on with the tyres as they were pretty dead after such a long stint. With a few laps to go, you start thinking about [the win] but the pressure was still on from behind. The relief came out of the last corner when you know the race is over, I was super pleased with that.”

He followed that victory with a virtuoso performance at the 2016 Brazilian Grand Prix, climbing from the back of the grid to the podium in torrential rain. Many placed the drive among the greatest in wet weather alongside names like Ayrton Senna and Schumacher.

Verstappen’s innate ability to remain composed is remarkable, as only the faintest of smiles crept across his face when likened to such racing legends.

“I was very happy, but it doesn’t really matter if you get compared to them because you have to just make sure you are the best you can be. I always try to stay focused on what I have to do, but it’s good that people talk in that fashion.

“You should not listen to the positive things or the negative things and just always stay very neutral in what you’re doing – I think that’s the best method.”

His method was certainly tested early in his career. While Verstappen’s potential was clear to see, his fearless overtaking and aggressive approach to defending led to established drivers such as Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel branding the Dutchman as dangerous.

The Red Bull star believes he has matured since his debut season and has cited his rapid rise in motorsport as a reason for his early inexperience.

“I knew what I had to focus on. There will always be criticism or people who simply don’t like you. This is normal – I still have the same now!

“People are not robots; we make mistakes. You have to learn from them. From my first year to now, I improved quite a lot which is natural because I only did one year in car racing before I got to Formula 1.”

Verstappen has cultivated such maturity throughout a career that has seen him go from inexperienced young talent to established veteran at just 23 years of age. The Dutchman believes his relationship with teammates and Red Bull team members have improved as his career has progressed.

“My mindset was always on racing and winning, but you get to build up more of a relationship with people on and off the track. You mature as a racer but also as a person and I think that helps with dealing with all the different situations within the team.”

The next generation of drivers – including Charles Leclerc, Lando Norris and George Russell – are supremely talented, yet Verstappen’s bravado and confidence suggests he is the crown jewel.

The Dutchman won the Monaco Grand Prix to assume top spot in the Drivers’ World Championship standings, and Verstappen is certainly not letting his fast start to 2021 get to his head.

“I was happy after Monaco, but I also know there is still a very long season. We know Mercedes is still very strong, especially on normal tracks – Monaco and Baku this weekend are not normal!

“We have to wait and see how the coming Grands Prix will go because I definitely expect a big fight. I’m very pleased to be on top but I want to be there at the end of the season because that’s what you work for and want to achieve.”

While remaining humble as he talks of the championship battle, Verstappen’s elite confidence shines through when discussing his own work ethic, dedication and how proud he is of the start that Red Bull have made to the 2021 F1 season.

“It’s about the marginal things that you can do better – often it’s not even the driving but how you prepare and what you do in your time off.

“For me, the last few years have felt pretty comfortable so it is all about just putting things together. When you have the chance to perform at the highest level and fight for victories almost every single weekend, you have to step up and deliver.

“It’s very promising. We have had a great start when normally we are on the back foot and then catch up towards the end. It’s what we needed to be able to put the fight to Mercedes and make it more difficult for them – let’s hope we can keep it up.”