"If you're not in Formula One people forget about you, that's for sure," Jos Verstappen noted as he settled into his seat in the Minardi motorhome on a mild Saturday afternoon after qualifying in Austria. And he knows what he's talking about - the amiable Dutchman's Formula One career was almost destroyed at the start of last year when he was unceremoniously dumped by Arrows in favour of Heinz-Harald Frentzen, despite bringing home the team's only point in 2001 and having a solid contract for the year to come in his back pocket.
Verstappen's reputation as a prickly character is entirely at odds with his actual demeanor, and I was surprised at the laidback attitude and geniality of a man who could so easily have become bitter by the hands he's been dealt over his career. His path in Formula One has been daunting - he entered the sport in 1994 at the age of 22 as teammate to the soon-to-be-World-Champion Michael Schumacher, a difficult enough task for an experienced driver let alone a young rookie hoping to make a name for himself. The two drivers became fast friends, and the friendship endures to this day despite the younger driver being dumped by the team at the end of the year.
Over the ensuing years Verstappen has driven for a succession of low order teams, and a career total of seventeen points (ten of which were earned in his debut year) seems scant reward for eight years of effort. But driving for teams like Simtek, Arrows or Tyrrell doesn't allow a driver too many opportunities to shine. So it was easy to see why he grabbed at the lifeline offered to him by Minardi at the start of this year.
"I wasn't [in F1] last year, because of circumstances that happened, and I had to be in Formula One if I wanted to still have a career in Formula One. And this was a good opportunity," he explained, his pale blue eyes shining with delight as he discussed the start of his latest comeback in the sport that he loves.
It's all that he's got, and he's been trying to make the most of it. Verstappen has a strange reputation - he's portrayed as being aloof and moody, and yet in person he is self-effacing and relaxed, joking throughout the interview and easygoing with any enquiry. He's clearly adapt at handling the media, as you would expect after all his years in the game, and he knows when to talk something up and when to keep his mouth shut and smile. And he smiles a lot, secure in the knowledge that he's got at least one more roll of the dice this year.
The Minardi drive is a dual edged sword, in that he gets to show his abilities in the most popular racing series in the world, albeit in a car that doesn't allow him to impress in any great manner. A Minardi drive can allow a driver to move up the grid, as Jarno Trulli, Giancarlo Fisichella, Fernando Alonso, and Mark Webber can attest, but it seems that the only way to do so is to completely dominate your teammate and hope that the car is good enough to outqualify some of the opposition occasionally. For Verstappen, this isn't happening.
Arguably Verstappen was brought into the team to act as a mentor for Wilson, and the pair seems to be working together well. "Working with Justin is really good," Verstappen verifies. "We don't have any secrets, and the relationship is just really good. We are special to each other, and I think Justin is a very talented driver. He deserves to be in Formula One, that's for sure." The affection for his young English teammate was clear to see in his words and actions, and it's in marked contrast with some of the drivers he's been paired with in the past, which on occasion led to strained relations in the pits at his former teams.
But the problem that both Verstappen and Wilson face is that they seem to be equally matched, and this isn't going to help either of them move up the grid. Verstappen knows it - the first rule of motorsport is beat your teammate, and right now neither driver is coming out on top. It doesn't help that there are always a number of small problems which cut into the already limited track time available to them both. "Yeah, like today" he agreed. "People always watch and they say 'oh he outqualified him today', but I missed half an hour of practice and couldn't set up the car for qualifying. Normally when that happens you don't have any chance to compete with your teammate in qualifying, and so I didn't beat him at all you know. In the smaller teams I think it's hard to compare the drivers."
At heart Verstappen is a racer, and when talk turns to the car his eyes light up and he leans even further across the table to share his thoughts.
DC: How has the engine been?
JV: The engine is fantastic - I think the engine is the best Minardi has had for a long time. On the engine side we're very very happy - I think the relationship between Minardi and Cosworth has been fantastic. The engine has been really good for us.
DC: You started on older tyres at the start of the year - have you gone to the new ones yet?
JV: We don't know - we don't know what we get. I know the compounds we have no one else has, but I don't know why.
DC: So Bridgestone isn't telling you?
JV: No, not really - we don't really get (long pause) we get information, but not as much as we'd like. And it would be nice if we could choose the tyres, but then as well we need to go testing, we need to find what tyres are good for our car, and we haven't done any. So it's a bit hard for us, and a bit hard for Bridgestone to know what we need, and what we don't need.
Which is a bad situation to be in, and it certainly no help to a team fighting against the other teams, who are running on bespoke tyres. I wondered if it was part of the deal the team did with Bridgestone, but Verstappen countered that as he wasn't there when the deal was done he no way of knowing. It's clearly a sore point within the team, and one that isn't being discussing it in public. Whatever the reason the switch to Bridgestone had nothing to do with Verstappen's links to the Japanese giant (he tested tyres for the company for a year prior to their entry to Formula One); Minardi switched from Michelin prior to the driver signing with them.
And yet, none of this seems to be getting to Verstappen - he is probably the most outwardly happy driver on the grid, and a lot of this comes from getting back into Formula One against the odds. His sunny disposition can only help with the tough time he's had on his return. "It's been difficult of course," he notes. "Everyone expected us to be more competitive because we have a more powerful engine for this year. In the wind tunnel they thought we gained downforce as well, and we expected a lot from the tyres. Overall we thought okay we're going a lot quicker.
"But at the end of the day I think the other teams worked a lot harder, and they have a more competitive car. And you can see in the first four or five races the gap between all them (and us) I think is massive. So I think it's very tough." Minardi have never had the resources to push improvements on the car over a season, and the new testing deal limits them even more in this area than previous years. "It depends how much money there is from the sponsors," Verstappen stated. "I think it will be very tough to be honest. I think for every team to improve in the second part of the season is very tough, and I think for Minardi it's double tough." And he laughed at this, probably because he knows there's little he can do to improve the situation - he's doing all he can do in the car, and it's out of his hands.
The talk of sponsorship brought us to one of the main anomalies of Verstappen's career - he has one of the largest fan bases on the grid, but fans don't pay for drives; sponsors do. It's a point not lost on the amiable Dutchman. "They do, yeah" he acknowledged. "I must say the amount of publicity we've got this year is unbelievable. We work very close with the television station in Holland, and we try to create a good atmosphere and a positive story - if you're always negative, sponsors don't want to associate with you - so we try to build it up. At the end of the day it's good for everybody - it's good for the TV, it's good for the sponsors, and it's good for yourself - and that's how we want to attract sponsors for next year, to have a bigger budget and to maybe get another drive."
DC: Okay, I have two questions about sponsorship - one maybe good, the maybe not so good.
JV: You can ask anything you want (laughs).
DC: There's a rumour that two of the current sponsors haven't paid Minardi yet.
JV: Yeah, but it has nothing to do with my sponsors - my sponsors have paid, but how the situation with some of them is … very political.
DC: There was talk that perhaps Trust might put in some more money to cover the shortfall.
JV: That's true - they are discussing the possibilities. (Four days after the race in Austria Trust announced that they had agreed to become the team's principal sponsor for an unspecified increase in sponsorship, replacing Gazprom on the car).
DC: The other thing I heard is that there are potentially another two sponsors coming to Minardi - do you know anything about this?
JV: I must say we are working on something - the response in Holland has been really good, and people want to be part of it, and who knows what might happen.
Verstappen will celebrate his hundredth Grand Prix start in July at the French Grand Prix, which is surprising given that he's never been in a car that was able to place higher on the grid than sixth (achieved once, at Spa in 1994). Despite his age, this achievement makes him one of the senior drivers on the grid, although his results have been in a steady decline since his debut with Benetton. This isn't too surprising considering his rides, but it's not likely to improve his standing with the team bosses further up the grid. "Well I'm only 31 years old," Verstappen notes, "and I think as long as you're interested in driving those cars and you want to do anything for it I think you can easily drive until you're 36, 37 years. So we have plenty of time, as long as we have a good season. Because you don't lose your talent, but you need a good car."
The problem is that it hasn't been a great season for him so far this year, and given his car that's unlikely to turn around. "Yes, it's a bit disappointing at the end of the day," he noted resignedly. "But hopefully we can get enough sponsors together and can do something for next year, because I don't want to quit Formula One - I really like to drive those cars." Staying at Minardi is probably Verstappen's only way of remaining in Formula One, bar replacing an injured driver further up the grid, and it's what he and his manager are focusing on already. "We don't know - if they have a good budget, and if they do a lot of wind tunnel work, and if they have this engine or even a better one I think it's definitely our chance. And we're also looking somewhere else as well."
This last comment is given with a resigned sigh - it's the kind of comment a driver has to make, but looking in his eyes it's clear that the focus is on staying with Minardi; he's doing what he loves to do, and things could be worse. It's clear that the team is happy with him, and he is getting to play the senior driver after a year out showed him the alternative is not driving at all, so he's is making the most of his opportunity while it's here.
There are two categories of Formula One drivers - after retirement from Grand Prix racing they either retire entirely from motorsport (such as Damon Hill or Mika Hakkinen) or they keep racing as long as they can, wherever they can (like Jean Alesi). I suspected that Verstappen would probably fall into the latter category, and he agreed with me. "It depends what age you have of course," Verstappen noted, "and it depends on what you want to do of course. But I see myself … I must say I like DTM as a series, but it depends - if I don't get a drive next year then for sure I will drive somewhere else, but not in the States."
"I don't like the oval tracks," he continued, "I think if they were racing on proper circuits where you've got to brake and accelerate, I think that's racing, but at the oval tracks I don't see the point. I mean it's very popular in the States, and there's a lot of overtaking and close racing with high speed, but it's more show. And I don't like the show - I like the racing." So that rules the IRL out, but CART has positioned itself more as the American road racing championship. "Maybe, but there's still racing on ovals, and you can't step out just for the ovals."
"And I think as well I want to stay in Europe" he concluded, and it's not hard to see that his family life is at the heart of this decision - he is married now and has two young children, and a move across the ocean would cause more upheaval in his life than it would have a few years ago. But for now I let him go off to speak to some more Dutch reporters, smiling as he goes, and I can't help but think that Verstappen is as happy as he can be - he's still driving in Formula One, doing what he loves best, and no one could begrudge the genial Dutchman that small joy.