Graham Watson is now a veteran in Formula 1, and worked with father and son Verstappen in Formula 1. In an extensive interview on Verstappen.com, the New Zealander shared his experiences with the Limburg duo, and indicated that it was Max Verstappen’s talent was undeniable from an early age.
Watson, 56 years old, entered the premier class of motorsport in the 1990s, approximately at the same time as Jos Verstappen. Watson worked with Verstappen senior at Benetton, and later also at Honda, where Verstappen would become the first driver of the Formula 1 project. However, the project was canceled after designer Harvey Postlethwaite died of a heart attack during a test. “I still see him in the paddock every now and then,” Watson says about Jos Verstappen. ‘We had a lot to do with each other in 2015, when Max rode for us. Honestly, I can’t remember a bad moment, he was a pleasure to work with. Jos was a real fighter, afraid of nothing. Just like Max, actually.’
Verstappen leaves an indelible impression
For Watson, 2015 was a reunion with the Verstappen family, and that period with Max Verstappen has been remembered well by Watson. ‘In terms of personality they are quite similar, although Max is slightly different. We know he’s aggressive. As a driver, hey, not as a person,” the New Zealander quickly clarifies. ‘Max knows very well what he wants: not to be second. When he started with us as a teenager, he was still a boy, but what he already showed at that age… Phew, very impressive,” says Watson, now team manager of Red Bull Racing’s sister team.
‘In 2015 Max had his first test with the car, in Jerez. I was sitting on the pit wall talking to him and there were photographers everywhere. Then I realized what it must feel like to have cameras pointed at you all the time. I asked Max: you are 17 and all the photographers follow you. This awaits you for the rest of your life in F1. How is that? He looked me straight in the eye and said: that only happens if I’m good enough. That was his answer,” Watson says in awe. ‘Unbelievable, I thought. A 17 year old boy giving such an answer. I don’t know what you were thinking about at that age, but I certainly wasn’t thinking about driving a Formula 1 car. But I noticed Max right away, he was one hundred percent committed.’
Jos puts lessons learned with Max into practice
According to Watson, the coaching role of Verstappen senior certainly helped Max Verstappen. “What I think Max definitely got from his father is that as a driver you have to be sure that you get what you need, because you usually only get one chance.” According to Watson, this is mainly a legacy of the beginning of Jos Verstappen’s Formula 1 career, in 1994 at Benetton. ‘I think Jos felt that Michael Schumacher had better material and was also favoured. I had the impression that Jos had difficulty digesting that, because he was also a very gifted driver. Flavio (Briatore, ed.) had a strong bond with Michael, both sportingly and personally.’
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‘That’s why I think Jos impressed on Max very early on, and we’ve actually seen that in recent years, that destroying his teammate is the first thing he has to do. Because it has to be your team, you have to be the man around whom it revolves. I am convinced that you now also see this with Max: first beat your teammate, then win the title,” said the AlphaTauri man. ‘To this day I don’t think Jos got fair treatment at Benetton. And that has partly ensured that Max understands that aspect of the sport very well: he does not need better equipment, but he does want the same equipment. Talent then does the rest.’
‘I noticed that immediately in Max’s first year with us with Carlos (Sainz, ed.). Knowing them both, I knew Max would be top dog from the moment he got into the car with us,” the New Zealander laughs. ‘He didn’t have to play games or be political, because Max is just incredibly fast. I do everything to help the team move forward and you will follow me, he says matter-of-factly. And ultimately you want to follow him, because success brings success and people want to follow that.’
“We all supported Max in our team because we wanted him to be successful,” says Watson about the Dutchman’s debut year. ‘After all, we already saw how good he was. In my opinion, Max is exceptional, like Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher. These types of guys enter Formula 1 and immediately leave their mark on the sport. And when you have someone like that on your team, how can you not support him with everything you have?’ the 56-year-old wonders.
There is little friction between the dads
Watson then also discusses the tension that there would have been between Verstappen senior and Sainz senior. ‘Jos was very involved with Max in 2015 and also when he quickly went to Red Bull Racing the following year. That sometimes made things a bit difficult internally, but I didn’t have that many problems with it. Again: why wouldn’t you want guys like Max on your team? I think there were people among us who are no longer here, who had a hard time with that. Jos is very direct, it is black or white. He wanted to ensure that Max would not be disadvantaged in any way and always stood up for his son’s interests. Fine, after all he is his 17 year old boy and not an adult man.’
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“On the other hand, Carlos Sainz’s father, a driven and successful rally champion, did the same,” Watson points out. ‘Was there rivalry between the fathers? If it was there, I didn’t see it. They both wanted the best for their son, logically. Carlos is also talented, I see similarities between the two. But I think Max has a little more natural speed. Jos was fast and had no fear, but missed that one little thing that gives you an advantage over your teammate. Not Max.’
Verstappen stands up for himself
A moment from 2015 that Watson remembers is the team order in Singapore, which Verstappen ignored. The Limburger missed the start and started the race more than a lap behind. Thanks to several Safety Cars and a fine example of steering skills, Verstappen fought back to eighth place, ahead of teammate Sainz. In the closing laps, Verstappen chose to ignore a team order. ‘That confirmed what I had already expected. Look, if there’s an opening, he’ll go for it. Everyone knows that now. I respected his refusal in Singapore, because Max proved that he will not just step aside. I’m going to become world champion and you’re going to tell me I have to get out of the way? Forget it. In the end it had no effect, but his ‘no’ said everything about him.’
For the team members of a small team like AlphaTauri, then Toro Rosso, the memory of working with top talents such as Verstappen and Sainz is very nice. ‘Max finished fourth a few times, Carlos sixth. The nice thing is: it all started with us. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fantastic that Max’s Formula 1 career has taken off with us, but if he had started at HRT or Caterham, he would always have ended up with the best team and in the best car, because he has dedication, self-confidence and shows no mercy: everything you need to become world champion.’
‘Max is the best thing that happened to Formula 1’
‘Max is a nice guy, but not on the track. After Max’s first Grand Prix victory in Barcelona, an engineer of ours said that we should be proud of it, because we had contributed a little to it. I said, are you serious? Are you dreaming? Because whether Max had been with us or somewhere else, he would automatically win races. It just came a little earlier than expected.’
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“Max is the best thing that has happened to Formula 1,” says Watson. ‘When Max went from us to Red Bull, I compared it to Michael Schumacher going to Ferrari. He made Formula 1 immensely popular at the time. Just look at the old images of Hockenheim and Spa: full stands with Schumacher flags. I think Max single-handedly saved Formula 1. Because he brings the same intensity and generates interest. People flock to Austria, Spa, basically everywhere for him. I didn’t see that even in Schumacher’s time.’