If Max Verstappen becomes Formula One world champion, which he might just succeed in doing on Sunday, he would reign as a king without airs and graces.
That much was clear as he entered the sweltering paddock by the Red Sea on Friday.
Whereas his only rival for the crown, Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton constantly plays a game of cat and mouse with the photographers, trying to outwit them by taking a side entrance here and a detour there, before parading his latest outlandish outfit, Verstappen walks in as if he were about to start up his runabout in the garage of a suburban semi.
Just his physio Brad Scanes is alongside him. Both carry rucksacks. There is no entourage. No security detail. He flashes an acknowledgement to the odd person he knows who catches his eye as he moves in a purposeful manner to the Red Bull motorhome.
The heady facts that confront the Dutchman this weekend do not appear to weigh him down.
He leads Hamilton, the seven-time world champion and most decorated racer in history, by eight points with only this inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix and the Abu Dhabi finale next week remaining.
If Verstappen should score 18 points or more than Hamilton in Sunday’s race on this terrifyingly fast 3.8-mile course he will become, aged 24, the new champion.
But this narrow Jeddah Corniche Circuit, built with incredible alacrity in eight months and still receiving its final touches as practice ended here on Friday night, is meant to favour Mercedes.
Its long straights and flying corners suggest as much, as did practice on Friday with Hamilton fastest in both sessions. Verstappen was second and fourth best.
The circuit comes with a safety warning contained in its close-in walls. It is Monza in Monaco’s clothes.
Now, Verstappen is the last man to be scared. But in this interview with Sportsmail — sitting alongside his team principal Christian Horner — the championship leader admits: ‘It’s quite a dangerous track. There are so many blind corners so if someone is slow around one you wouldn’t know it until you got there.
‘I expect a bit of trouble. There could be some big shunts.
‘I wonder who signs off these kinds of tracks. I mean, great idea. I guess they have $90million reasons why.’ He is alluding to the fee paid to Formula One for the race’s place on the calendar.
A few hours after he uttered his prophecy of mayhem, Charles Leclerc lost control of his Ferrari, at Turn 22, to bring the day’s running to a premature end. The driver was fine; his car was a mess.
I remind Verstappen that a maiden championship victory would place him in a fresh limelight, grant a new status, intensify global fame. Not to mention that it would send his countrymen, especially his huge travelling orange army of vocal supporters, into raptures. Indeed, he is already so feted in Amsterdam that he can’t go out to buy a sandwich.
Verstappen, who lives quietly in Monaco, enjoying time with friends and his girlfriend Kelly Piquet, daughter of triple champion Nelson, says: ‘I am not in Formula One to be famous. I wish I could be anonymous. I wish I could run outside with my pants down.’
‘Not in Saudi Arabia, you can’t,’ Horner chips in.
Verstappen adds: ‘I don’t think of Formula One as a big game or something to make your life glamorous.’
He is a jeans, T-shirt and trainers man. So addressing Hamilton’s fashion-conscious wardrobe, he adds: ‘Everybody has their own style. I am not busy with that kind of thing. For example, I forgot my socks when I came here, so I had to get some.
‘I’m not bothered about looking good on camera. Everyone has a hobby, I guess. My hobby is racing, winning, beating my rivals.’
And what if people write or say something he doesn’t like?
‘I hope they have a good day,’ he says. That is classic Verstappen. Direct. Unvarnished. That directness is one reason why those who work with him, and those who support him, like him. Others may find him too belligerent.
He is also totally dedicated. That goes hand in hand with a natural talent that is the result of the rarefied gene pool from which he is descended. His father, Jos, competed in Formula One during a 107-race career that included a spell as Michael Schumacher’s team-mate at Benetton. His mother, Sophie Kumpen, was an outstanding and garlanded karter in Belgium.
Horner can vouch for Sophie’s talent. As a budding driver himself, he raced against her in 1989 and on Friday, recalling that she had beaten him, demanded a rematch.
But back to this fight between two star drivers and their team principals, Horner and Toto Wolff, of Mercedes, the latter of whom can’t much stand the sight of each other.
At the last race in Qatar, won by Hamilton, Horner was warned by the stewards for criticising a ‘rogue’ marshal for waving a yellow flag that caused Verstappen to be slung five places down the grid. It is rare for one of the sport’s high-rollers to be summoned before the stewards.
Horner was stung by the censure, which seemed over the top given that Wolff appeared to have impugned the stewards more vehemently in Brazil a week earlier. ‘F*** them all,’ said the Austrian in a catch-all explosion after Mercedes were penalised for unknowingly (as the stewards ruled) running an illegal rear wing.
Red Bull expressed doubts over their rivals’ sudden extra pace in Sao Paulo, half-insinuating something illegal might be afoot, and it all turned nasty. Now the noise is being turned down as the title battle reaches its climax.
‘It is my job to make sure things are as straight- forward for Max and everyone else at the team as I can,’ says Horner.
‘It is for the FIA to regulate things. That’s their job. I am trying to subtract any of the extra pressure. Not that I have seen a single change in Max as the season has been drawing to a close. He even came on the radio in Doha and said, “Let’s have some fun”.
‘The attitude he has brought into the championship has been fantastic and that lifts the whole team.’
There are those who suck pressure in and then deal with it. Hamilton is probably one of those. He is hurt by any perceived slight and puts around him trusted advisers. He speaks of Team LH. This is his way of coping.
Verstappen is the opposite. He says: ‘I do the best I can and if the whole package comes together I will win.’
It is a simple answer, only astounding for its certainty of outcome. But is also a truthful one, free of pretence in any direction.
‘Whatever Lewis says doesn’t bother me,’ adds Verstappen. ‘It shouldn’t because I am focused on myself and know that Christian and the whole team are working together, so I don’t need to think about what anyone else says.’
Horner puts it more strongly: ‘Lewis is always saying a few things, trying to seed some doubts, but Max doesn’t give a f***. He never gets drawn into the politics or lets things disturb him. Nobody can be sure what will happen over the next few weeks. But for me Max is dealing with it like a young guy hanging out with his mates.’
But what if, after driving so brilliantly, Verstappen doesn’t succeed in claiming the title this season? ‘Try again next year,’ says the man with a shrug.
It was a very down-to-earth, very Max, answer. But, as you can imagine, it is not a line of questioning the young fighter welcomes at this delicate stage.