Although Hamilton had built up a commanding lead, a late safety car effectively restarted the race and Verstappen was able to overtake the Brit on newer, faster tires, securing his maiden drivers’ championship.
Despite achieving a lifelong goal and expending huge amounts of emotional energy, Verstappen’s trademark competitive nature seems undiminished and he remains focused simply on winning races.
“It has nothing to do with confidence or because I’m world champion now I finally feel like I belong here or whatever,” Verstappen tells CNN Sport’s Amanda Davies ahead of the Miami Grand Prix. “For me, that doesn’t matter. I’m just back and I want to try and win more.
“I already said that if I would win a championship, my goal in F1 is achieved,” he says. “And anything else that comes after is just a bonus and I will enjoy it.
“But it’s not like I won a championship now, so let’s go party here, let’s go party there and not be motivated and stuff. I think my motivation is even higher now to come back and try to achieve that feeling or try to feel the same thing again.”
A new start
Verstappen’s title defense takes place in an F1 season that is already proving remarkably different to recent editions.
For the first time in eight years, Mercedes are no longer the holders of the drivers’ championship — a position that Verstappen and his team, Red Bull, now occupy — and new regulations implemented at the start of this season forced teams to completely redesign their cars, ending Mercedes’ dominance.
“I think as a driver, every year you learn, and you try to improve. I mean, that’s natural. And especially when there are new cars, you have to adapt anyway. So, in a way, maybe that was nice that we won the title in that car and then we had completely new regulations for the new car.”
Such sweeping changes helped Verstappen reorient himself this season after the dramatic final Grand Prix in Abu Dhabi.
“Of course, after Abu Dhabi, all the emotions came out of the whole year,” he says. “But at the same time, we still had to build a fast car for this year. So you had to enjoy the moment but very quickly, also switch focus again about, well, we have to be there again next year and luckily we did that well.
“We still have a very competitive car on our hands, so I think that naturally also helps with motivation. When you have a good car, you get very motivated.”
“It was a bit unfortunate because, in winter testing, we had nothing,” Verstappen says.
“It was so straightforward, so we were really confident that nothing would happen. But then of course it shows [in] F1 — it’s a mechanical sport — anything can happen, and we had a few surprising issues, but I think we got on top of it.
“It’s such a difficult sport, also with the engine side, and it’s hard. It’s very hard to be with zero reliability issues, but we have shown before that we are really good at it and we just need to stay on top of it from now on.”
‘I just enjoy battling him on the track’
“I’ve known Charles really for a very long time and I just enjoy battling him on the track and have a good race and have fun out there,” he says.
Leclerc and Verstappen first raced against each other as teenagers in junior go-karting races, making for a different type of rivalry than the more acrimonious one between Verstappen and Hamilton that shaped last year’s championship battle.
Although Leclerc has opened up an early season lead, there are still 20 races — with a maximum of 26 points available on each circuit — for Verstappen to make up the difference.
“I think we are making good progress with the car, so it is very close, and it’s all about now who’s going to bring the updates faster, who is going to bring bigger upgrades right,” Verstappen says. “Especially with these new cars, there is so much to learn still. Every race, I think teams are bringing different kind of things.”
It will be the first time the drivers have raced on the track, although they have already completed laps in a simulator.
“If you have a really good balance in the car that will help a lot to learn the track, but of course, if that’s not the case, you’re fighting two things,” Verstappen says. “You’re fighting to learn the track and you’re fighting the car at the same time.
“This can differ; sometimes, you feel like within a few laps you’re really comfortable, but sometimes, it is like in a session you are still finding things like I was a bit under here or I was pushing too hard there.
“I’m excited to be here. It’s going to be really special to drive this track and it’s going to be a tough one with the humidity and the heat. It’s not going to be an easy race for us.”