Verstappen, the first engineer in Toro Rosso: “So we raised a champion”

Xevi Pujolar followed the new world champion between 2014 and 2016 in the former Toro Rosso: “He noticed details on the track that other riders dreamed of. Sometimes we explained things to him and he didn’t seem to listen to us, in reality he already understood what to do and how to improve them “

Lorenzo Pastuglia


Max Verstappen: story of a predestined. “Sooner or later he would become world champion”, I knew that. The speaker is Xevi Pujolar, 48, the Dutchman’s first track engineer at the time of his F1 debut with Toro Rosso: the 33 arrived in Faenza in 2014, remaining there until the beginning of 2016, before being promoted to Red Bull. (in place of Daniil Kvyat) and to immediately take the victory in Barcelona: the youngest ever in F1, at 18 years and 228 days.

In Abu Dhabi the World Championship was eluding him, then he grabbed it on the last lap. Did Verstappen deserve the title more than Hamilton?

“If we only looked at the Abu Dhabi race up to the entrance to the Safety Car, Lewis was dominating without question. But if we think overall, and therefore the whole season, Max deserved the title. In the first few years he had tough moments in F1, but then he deserved the first place putting all his improvements on the track. He is the right winner of the 2021 World Cup “.

“Because he drove very well, making fewer mistakes: both he as a driver and his team, also behaving great in strategies. Max faced bad luck and various penalties ”.

Hamilton makes the mental component a decisive aspect in his battles on the track, not easy for Max to have held the head duel with Lewis throughout the season.

“I’m not surprised. Since my time with him, Max had an amazing mental level, albeit one that has grown even more in recent years. For me it is his strong point: the ability to overcome himself, resilience, the desire not to give up and to fight to the end, to work hard to become number one. Because Max only wanted one thing: to prove he was the best. He never gave up, developing a talent he already had as a basis “.

In the past he has followed several pilots, including Ralf Schumacher, Mark Webber and Pastor Maldonado. Did you have the best experience with Verstappen?

“Yes, and I say it without doubts. Max had that little something that others didn’t have. I have handled very talented riders, but not with the same ability to motivate or work as him. I am sure that his father Jos and having lived motorsport as a child contributed as factors ”.

Name Jos Verstappen: what kind of relationship did you have with Max and the rest of the team?

“Jos was able to raise a champion. I followed his son after Jean-Éric Vergne, in Toro Rosso from 2012 to 2014, and from day one I immediately thought that Max would become a champion. But if Jos was very aggressive with him in training in the days of karts (he often punched Max on the helmet and once left him on the motorway alone in 2012), in the days of Toro Rosso he was calm. Father Verstappen gave us a lot, but he asked for the same in return: both from him and all of us. She wanted us to do our best with her boyfriend ”.

Was there ever a clash of views between you two?

“Jos and I never talked often and I have an excellent relationship with him. In the end I am also quite similar in character: introverted and demanding, always wanting to reach the limit in every respect. Max knew what he wanted. And if I had been Max, I would have appreciated the same treatment from Jos, because in life I want to achieve more and more ”.

Whether in training on or off the track, has Max always had the same working method?

“Max was schematic, at all times: both from when he was training in the simulator with the other guys at the Academy, up to the tests on the track. He always did the right thing ”.

What do you remember about the first time Max took to the track?

“Seven years ago we did a 148-lap test at the Adria circuit in Italy, in total more than 500 km with the 2012 STR7. Even then it was very strong. I also remember that for most of that day the asphalt was wet, especially in the morning. And for a rookie driver it is never the best to be on a single-seater and a track as treacherous as it was then. But he mastered the car in a frightening way ”.

“Then he got on the track at Suzuka and when I saw the times of the first sector in FP1 (then closed in 1’38” 157, just four tenths from teammate Daniil Kvyat, ed) I said to myself: ‘I like this guy’. A few months earlier, we had taken him to Spa so that he would understand better the dynamics of a team, then after Japan we did all the winter tests before the debut in 2015. In Belgium, the way he studied the details of the track, where he could pass and where not, left us very surprised. He analyzed everything, things that others could not even imagine, even aspects related to other riders on the track. I noticed in him the same way Jos had of preparing for competitions. Things never seen in other pilots. An impressive dedication, which I have not seen in anyone else in my career ”.

“Very young, shy. He spoke little and was rather introverted, his way of expressing himself was shown on the track and not in words. A normal guy who lived to become number one in the category. Off the beaten track he was as quiet as he is today, with few passions in life for which he is interested and follows. We explained to him everything we were going to do over the weekend, he listened and didn’t make many comments, so we were left with the doubt: was he really listening to us or was he making fun of us? In reality he was already taking it into his head, he had already memorized everything. Max understood perfectly what there was to do, then maybe the next day he would come to me, to the other engineers or to the engineers, and try to give a suggestion to be able to perform even better the detail of the previous day, and thus make it faster. his car “.

How do you judge the start of Max’s World Cup in 2015?

“The whole of 2015 and the beginning of 2016 was a crescendo: each race got better and better. The fourth places in Hungary and Austin are unforgettable, as a team we cheered like crazy. But also the race in Malaysia (which made him the youngest F1 driver to score points, at 17 years and 180 days, ed). For our entire team, Max was very rewarding. He motivated us, and even though we had to work hard with him, we had a lot of fun. The people of the box lived the relationship with this boy with great intensity and great satisfaction. Right from the start we thought that he would join Red Bull in a short time, and that sooner or later he would win the World Championship “.

When he followed him, what were Max’s weaknesses?

“Max was sometimes too extreme: he wanted to forge ahead too quickly, and that aspect often led to error. A characteristic that has had to change over time, accepting the fact that before it could not have been the best and that to achieve this result it took time and work. Sometimes, you have to accept certain results ”.

Did he celebrate it in the closed park on Sunday?

“When he won on Sunday, it was a great satisfaction for me. But I let him rejoice with his men, I stayed aside. I just sent a message to Jos expressing my satisfaction, telling him that Max could now enjoy the victory ”.

What is for you the best race that Max has won in 2021?

“It was almost perfect, I don’t think there is a better race than the other. I liked seeing him win at Imola, since he had never won before in Italy ”.

And the one that has the most in his heart?

“Barcelona 2016, when he triumphed in the first race after being promoted to Red Bull. Then I experienced contrasting sensations ”.

“Strange sensations. Initially I was very happy for both him and me, and I thought that all the efforts together had been rewarded in that GP. A year and a half preparation, which culminated two weeks after Max’s last race in Toro Rosso in Sochi. Then, however, I took a little bit: I would have liked to follow him in Red Bull and be with him in Barcelona, ​​or win the World Cup with him. However, it was wonderful to have seen him triumph at my home in Catalonia ”.

Helmut Marko and Christian Horner, the Red Bull bosses, have recommended each other when they entrusted you with Max?

“Marko, in particular. I worked with him in the former Formula 3000, today’s F2, and have known him for many years. The first time he spoke very highly of Verstappen, telling me that he was doing the numbers on karts and that I had to be very careful with him. Soon we did that test in Adria, where he got on a single-seater for the first time. At first I thought that Helmut was exaggerating in wanting to speed up Max’s growth, then after Suzuka I had to agree with him: that boy was really ready ”.

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Verstappen, the first engineer in Toro Rosso: “So we raised a champion”