Interviews: Max Verstappen, a master in overtaking

The Formula 1 cars have been adjusted to make more passing actions possible this season. Max Verstappen is a master in overtaking according to the people interviewed:

  • Frits van Amersfoort – Team Owner, Formula 3 team “Van Amersfoort Racing”
  • Rik Vernooij – Race Engineer of Max Verstappen in Formula 3
  • Jan Lammers – Former Formula 1 driver, Le Mans Winner

Flirting with limits
Overtaking is one of the most exciting elements of Formula 1. Talk to former driver Johnny Herbert about it and his eyes start twinkling. Cars that drive at a distance of a few centimeters at a speed of more than 300 kilometers per hour, are provoking a passion for both spectator and driver, he says.

The British driver raced no fewer than 161 Formula 1 races between 1989 and 2001, of which he won three. He raced against the greatest: from racing legend Ayrton Senna to record champion Michael Schumacher. What did these drivers share? “They were always on the edge, risked a little more than anyone else,” says Herbert. According to him, it is the ultimate sign of driving skills. It is difficult.

Max Verstappen showed his unusual talent for overtaking immediately in his first season (2015) when he dared to overtake someone round the outside with 320 km/h in Blanchimont on the circuit of Spa-Francorchamps, one of the fastest turns in Formula 1. That move was later proclaimed action of the year in motor sport, a prize Max has already won three times. “If 99 percent of the drivers think” this is going wrong “, Max thinks” this is going well “. And he is usually right, “says Frits van Amersfoort, who was Team Manager of Max Verstappen in 2014 with his Formula 3 team.

Rik Vernooij was the racing engineer for Max in that year, the technician who worked most intensively with him and also communicated with him during the race. “We had to go see the referees after a race on a regular basis with Max, because he had passed someone on the edge, and we actually always thought we were right,” he says. “He drove in Formula 3 the way he raced in go-karting and in Formula 1 he drives like he drove in F3: on the limit, but rarely past it,” said Vernooij. “In the meantime, that fearlessness has not been dulled by the fact that he spent years in junior classes, where overtaking is rare. It’s a good thing he got through so quickly. For him and Formula 1. ”

Vernooij is referring to the spectacle that Verstappen brought to the racing class. In his first F1 year, he was the pass-king of the season with 49 passing actions. A year later, there were 78 (in 21 races), the highest number for a driver since 1983. On his own, he accounted for around 9 percent of all overtaking.

Over the past two years, passing others was more difficult. The cars became a lot wider in 2017. Wide cars disrupt the airflows more, reducing speed and reducing grip on the asphalt. The air is most disturbed just behind another car. That led to fewer passing actions. The aerodynamics on the cars have been drastically simplified for this season, with the idea of making it easier for them to overtake.

Former driver Johnny Herbert wonders if it will have an effect. Simply because the hundreds of aerodynamics experts employed by the teams have already found ways to cancel out the effect of the new rules. Their goal is to win as boringly as possible. So: try to start in the front and pass as little as possible.

Every now and then the class tries to improve catch-up with a trick. The Drag Reduction System (DRS) was introduced in 2011. This allows the driver to temporarily level the raised part of his rear wing on certain parts of the track if he is driving less than a second from the car in front of him. This reduces air resistance, which results in a speed gain of around 10 km/h.

After the introduction of DRS, the average of passes per race rose from 30 to 60 actions. It also led to criticism. Overtaking had become a button. No longer a talent. The fans saw that too. Despite DRS, the number of Formula 1 viewers between 2011 and 2017 decreased worldwide from 515 million to 352 million viewers.

Johnny Herbert understands those fans. When overtaking, quality is more than quantity, he thinks. “It’s the ultimate showing of skill. The same applies to defending. There should not be too many rules for that. I would rather have drivers show the fans who can best race instead of the referees.”

Multitasking for advanced users
For the unsuspecting Formula 1 viewer, there is little more difficult to understand than a passing action: one car tries to pass the other. And that succeeds or fails. It is anything but simple in the driver’s mind. Steering the car as conveniently as possible along that of the competitor is only a fraction of its duties.

A driver operates by overtaking on the edge of what the human brain can do and what is possible in physics. For a passing action, Verstappen must blindly adjust his engine settings on the steering wheel, which contains more than twenty buttons with all kinds of functions. In the meantime, he must process the information he receives from his team. For example about the tires of the car in front of him.

“The majority of drivers need all the brain capacity just to keep their car on the track,” says team boss Frits van Amersfoort. “Drivers like Max have some capacity left for that one special passing action.”

Race engineer Rik Vernooij remembers the first Formula 3 weekend with Max Verstappen on the circuit of Silverstone like it was yesterday. “We didn’t expect much from him then. It was his debut and passing with Formula 3 cars is extremely difficult. You may have one or two chances during a race, “he says. “Jos (Verstappen’s father) confided to us that it would be okay when he saw that the speed was there. Max then passed someone into a bend where I didn’t expect it at all. ”

Vernooij knew immediately that he was dealing with exceptional talent. More often he has had to explain to drivers who get into a Formula 3 car after the race where it exactly went wrong with that one opportunistic action that ultimately cost six places.

Vernooij has no answer to the question whether catching-up talent is innate or learned: “From an evolutionary point of view, it is difficult to say who is the perfect person to be a racing driver, as is possible with a runner. We have only been driving cars for 150 years. Maybe it will be possible in 200 years, if it turns out that the descendants of Verstappen are also fast in Formula 1 without training, “he says laughing.

There is only limited research in science. For example, an Italian study from 2013 shows that the brains of F1 drivers compared to non-drivers worked more effectively when performing visual-spatial assignments. In 2017, Dutch scientists only saw little difference between professional drivers and amateurs in the simulator when it came to general cognitive and motor skills.

Vernooij thinks it is a combination of factors. “A large proportion of drivers race because they have the financial means to do it. They just don’t like it to leave everything for it. But if you want to learn to juggle five balls, which is actually like passing, you have to. Max has passed others so many times, which eventually made it instinct. ”

Frits van Amersfoort agrees: “You can teach anyone how to drive a car quickly to a certain extent. For the real racing and overtaking you just have to have feeling. You can’t really point to one thing. Keeping a car on the track is braking, accelerating and steering at the right time. To the nearest hundredths of a second.

“Max is primarily a product of his DNA. This was then further developed by Jos (his father). With that characteristic Verstappen mentality. The unbridled urge to always win. You can see that in everything in him. ”

Practice makes perfect
A driver really only learns to pass if he does it a lot, says Formula 1 analyst and former driver Jan Lammers. The game of holding back, threatening and choosing the right moment simply takes time to get to grips with. Lammers notices that he and his son René (10) are traveling to kart tracks throughout Europe. “There is a lot of talent on those circuits. Especially with boys who are very fast on one lap. But when they end up in a group, it sometimes takes five laps before they make a pass. You can see that in Formula 1. ”

Verstappen also had to work hard to develop his passing talent. When he was 10 years old, he regularly went on a karting holiday to Italy with his father Jos and the karting family Pex.

“Then we did about 40 races of five laps every day. Purposely no longer, because in the first five laps the most often happens, “said Verstappen to the American sports magazine ESPN. “Every time we started from a different starting place. My father had a slightly faster go-kart and we had to try to catch up with him or prevent him from catching up with us. After the race we discussed what could be better. I learned a lot from that. These days I hardly think about my actions. It goes without saying.’

According to Lammers, Verstappen is so good at passing, because he never doubts. Like in Brazil, in 2016, where he steamed up from the 16th place to the third place in the rain. “He does it or he doesn’t. And when he does, he trusts it will be okay. The person who sees him in the mirror also knows that. He probably thinks: I will let him go, because otherwise he will follow me down to the toilet. ”

It is something that Frits van Amersfoort already saw in Formula 3 in the minds of Verstappen’s competitors, even though the Dutchman drove only one season in the category. “That is half of the job already done when you are passing. When Messi is at the ball, a defender reacts differently. ”

According to two-time world champion Emerson Fittipaldi, surprise is the most important weapon of the inhaler, he writes in a blog on the McLaren racing team website. “If I was sitting right behind someone, I went to see in which turns my car was better. In order not to show that, I went extra close to him in a corner where I was not going to overtake him anyway. That’s how I led him astray. ”

Jan Lammers explains that the attacking driver can crawl into the head of the other in numerous ways. “It’s just like on the highway. The person in front of him only sees the mirrors. The pursuer sees him full size. You can exploit that. Make sure that he looks into his mirrors a lot, so that he pays less attention to the road and that makes the chance of a mistake bigger.

“But with overtaking and defending, you always want to have possession of the ball. So when I drive in front and I steer to the left and the other steer to the right, I know: I will get passed him. If he does not respond, I become uncertain. That game escalated last year between Verstappen and Ricciardo in Azerbaijan (crash in which both drivers dropped out, ed.). They ignored each other’s sham for too long. Then it goes wrong. ”

Lammers emphasizes that master passers also realize when they must be passed. “For example if the person behind them is faster. Then they can follow the rhythm of the other person to get to the next group. The best know when to fight. ”

Photocredit: Twitter

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