CHRISTIAN HORNER has spoken about the time Red Bull Racing first signed Max Verstappen – to stop him joining Mercedes.
The Dutchman has opened up a 32-point lead over Lewis Hamilton and is edging closer to earning his first world title.
Christian Horner pulled off a real coup by signing a young Max VerstappenCredit: AFP
He is still only 23, but was already touted as a world champ in waiting when he made his F1 debut in 2015 at the age of 17.
Back then, he was not even old enough to drive himself to the track or drink the Champagne on the podium, if he achieved one.
Verstappen has since proved he is the real deal. He’s matured, cut out the mistakes and is mighty quick.
No wonder then, Merc have been cursing the time he slipped through their fingers – and have been trying to sign him ever since.
Horner said: “I first became aware of Max after hearing his name through the karting jungle drums and through contacts who I communicated with.
“But it was only when he got into Formula 3 that suddenly his talent really started to stand out.
“It was at Silverstone and his first race, here was a guy who had done no junior racing at all and had jumped straight into Formula 3, which in those days was considered a big step up, and suddenly he is running at the front and winning races.
“He was also doing it in a car that did not belong to a traditional front-running team.
“So it became obvious he was a potential star of the future and it was at that point Red Bull’s advisor, Helmut Marko, really started to pay closer attention to what he was doing.
“It was at Hockenheim in 2014 and I went for dinner with Helmut. He was saying how Niki Lauda was trying to sign Max for Mercedes and he was asking me my thoughts.
The moment he first got in the car to drive in first practice at the Japanese GP, he was sensational.
“Once I knew that, I said, ‘sure, let’s go for it. It is something Mercedes cannot offer him’.
“Niki was pushing hard and it was a bit of Austrian pride between Niki and Helmut who was going to get him!
“The advantage we had was the cockpit we had available at Toro Rosso and taking that risk.
“So we agreed the deal, and the moment he first got in the car later that year to drive in first practice at the Japanese GP at Suzuka, he was sensational.”
Horner has watched his star driver compete alongside Daniel Ricciardo, Carlos Sainz and Daniil Kvyat.
Such was his meteoric rise, he quickly attributed the reputation of a teammate killer, as he blitzed his rivals.
He is now doing the same to Hamilton, who admittedly has been hamstrung in his title defence by his Mercedes car.
Horner has watched Verstappen develop and says his father Jos Verstappen’s tough-love upbringing turned him into a tenacious racer.
He added: “I was first struck by Max’s confidence and his car control, plus his lack of imitation of the car and the other drivers.
“Very quickly you could see from his first race in Melbourne in 2015, he was right there and he had huge confidence and commitment and belief in himself.
“It is very easy to underestimate what he has done and what he has achieved and he has done it in a very grounded way.
“Success has not gone to his head. He still lives in the same way and does not live a flashy lifestyle and he is genuinely a nice young man who is living his dream driving the best cars in the world.
“His father was pretty firm on him and that has helped to shape him into the driver he is today.”
It will be Hamilton who enjoys the home support of a capacity crowd of 140,000 at Silverstone today and tomorrow.
But Red Bull boss Horner says there are driving qualities in his driver that resemble that of another celebrated Brit, Nigel Mansell.
He said: “It has taken 70 years for these records to be achieved by Lewis, and Max has his career in front of him.
“He is very happy in the environment of the team, he trusts the brand and we have faith in him and that’s how it works.
“He doesn’t seem to be shaken in his fight with Lewis. He is a racer and loves going wheel to wheel.
“He is Mansell-like in his bravery and his commitment. You know he is going to give it 110 percent every lap – but without the drama afterwards!
“But in terms of his driving style you know he will give it everything – his size of endowment is similar to Nigel!”