Presenter about first meeting ‘crazy’ Verstappen: ‘He was a freaking magician’

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Presenter about first meeting 'crazy' Verstappen: 'He was a freaking magician'

Max Verstappen won the world title in karting in 2013, after which he switched to formula cars. Presenter Will Buxton was also present at one of his very first introductions, not as a journalist, but also to take a seat behind the wheel. Buxton experienced an unforgettable weekend, mainly because of the insane talent of sixteen-year-old Verstappen.

As the brand new world champion, Verstappen was first looking for a suitable racing class for 2014, but the choice ultimately fell on Formula 3. First he had the opportunity to participate in a number of races for the first time in the winter. “The head of Communications and Marketing at Ferrari knew that NBC would get the broadcast rights of Formula 1 and came up with a smart move by using me during a winter championship for young drivers,” says the F1TV presenter about his participation in the Florida Winter Series, where Verstappen made his debut in formula cars. I was already 33 years old then,” Buxton laughs about the age difference with the other drivers.

Buxton and Verstappen were equally experienced

Buxton shares his story extensively on the Red Flags Podcast. ‘So I was already 33 and had to compete against those young talents who were emerging. Max came straight from the karts, and he had just turned sixteen.’ Buxton is therefore wittily pointed out that at that time he had as much experience as Verstappen in formula cars. “Max had only tested in the rain at Pembrey (a British circuit, ed.),” Buxton agrees. ‘We were not trained by the Ferrari Academy beforehand. I just rode a few laps beforehand.’

Buxton first dived into the simulator that weekend. ‘I braked a hundred meters too early and didn’t take any speed into the corners. I literally had no idea what I was doing, really no idea. I had never been in a single seater before. In the first training I was seventeen or eighteen seconds too slow,’ Buxton laughs. ‘I thought: shit. In the second training I managed to reduce the difference to nine seconds, and in the third training to seven seconds. Then the suspension broke and I missed qualifying. Otherwise I was allowed to start at the front in the second race because of the reversed grid.’

Verstappen immediately inimitable

It didn’t seem like a good idea to Buxton to start at the front anyway. ‘They asked if I wanted to just start at the back, and I said, yes, let me start at the back. The event was organized by Luca Baldessari, Michael Schumacher’s former race engineer. So he knew what he was talking about. All data was shared, so you could see what the other drivers were doing. Max’s data was therefore placed next to the data of others.’

That led to painful conclusions for a number of drivers. ‘This was the crème de la crème of Formula 3 back then, and then this overgrown bastard came into play, straight from the karts. He was faster than anyone else, and he did all kinds of things with the car. He did things in the corners that no one could imitate him. He pissed off a lot of people, because some of them saw what time it was: this guy is now there, and now my future looks very different. I thought I was the best, but I can’t do what this kid is doing when he has no experience and I do.”

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Verstappen was announced as a Formula 1 driver a few months later, still as a 16-year-old.

Superlatives for Verstappen, Buxton did beat Latifi

Buxton makes it clear that you did not have to be an expert to see the class of the Dutchman. ‘The hype was there immediately. The talent was obvious. All you had to do was look at his onboard images or study his data. He was a freaking magician,” Buxton says in awe. Buxton adds that he was not lost by everyone all weekend. ‘I did beat Nicholas Latifi, in a fair duel, in a wet race! I was still driving on dry weather tyres.’

Latifi eventually also makes it to Formula 1. ‘I remember when he was announced at Williams. I was in a club, and he was in Abu Dhabi in the VIP section. I walked up to him and congratulated him. I said: I’ll say it once now, and I’ll keep my mouth shut about it next season, but don’t forget that I beat you,” Buxton laughs. “He said, yeah, fuck off.” That was amazing. Lance (Stroll, ed.) was my teammate (in the Florida Winter Series, ed.), and that was fun.’

Verstappen turned the sport upside down

“That was ten years ago, because that was in February 2014,” the British presenter continues. ‘It’s been ten years, and look what Max has done in the meantime! He changed the entire sport. It’s really bizarre. And that in just ten years. He was a weirdo, he was sixteen years old at the time. What were you like when you were sixteen? Max was already very comfortable then. He radiated that he was just having fun,” Buxton reflects. ‘It came so easily to him. There was no pressure or expectation. He was just there to learn and have fun. I liked him immediately. He was a nice kid, and he was ridiculously talented, but very, very cool.”

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Verstappen also dropped out in Melbourne with technical problems on his debut.

That contact with Verstappen later did no harm to Buxton. ‘Six months later he came to the paddock at Spa, and no one really knew who he was, and he had just signed for Red Bull. NBC got the first interview because he was quite nervous and didn’t know what to do or who to talk to, and then he saw me. That’s how we got the first interview after he signed with Red Bull.’

Bond with drivers

Buxton knows that it pays off to quickly build a good relationship with drivers. ‘Sometimes you have to be tough. I remember asking Sergio Pérez a tough question. I remember him looking at me like he was thinking, where did this come from? I spoke to him afterwards and said I was sorry, but I had to ask the question. You are also working there, and the drivers realize that. Sometimes you have to ask tough questions and tell the truth. When asked for your opinion, you must be honest. After the first season of Drive to Survive, I was having breakfast with Pérez. He said I was quite strict about how he drove in Singapore. I said, that’s because you were driving terribly. It was a horror.’

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