LONDON (Reuters) - After taking Formula One by storm last year, and becoming the youngest ever driver and points scorer, Max Verstappen is staying calm as he accelerates into the next phase of his career.
The 18-year-old Dutch sensation has gone from rookie racer, too young to drive himself on public roads, to becoming one of the hottest properties in the sport and talked about as a future world champion.
There has been plenty of paddock speculation about where the Toro Rosso driver could end up, with talk of Ferrari and champions Mercedes as well as the obvious step up to sister team Red Bull.
Verstappen, who passed his regular driving test on his 18th birthday last September but still prefers to be driven to and from the track, appears quite unfazed.
“I know what contract I have. I am very positive also for next year,” he told Reuters ahead of the Australian season-opener in Australia on March 20.
“I am very happy with Red Bull, I know what the perspective is for next year and the years after,” he added. “Happy to be at Toro Rosso for the moment and to learn more. Then we’ll see next year where we are.”
Verstappen was snapped up by Red Bull at the age of 16, making his F1 race debut at the age of 17 and 166 days and then scoring points in his second race in Malaysia when he finished seventh after qualifying sixth.
So precocious was he, and so alarmed were some within the sport, that the governing FIA changed the rules to prevent anyone else under 18 from acquiring a superlicence.
The same International Automobile Federation then presented Verstappen with awards for Rookie of the Year, Personality of the Year and Action of the Year at their end-of-season gala prize-giving.
Verstappen, whose best result last year was fourth, made clear that his immediate loyalty was to Red Bull for taking a leap of faith in him.
Asked whether he could see himself staying “in the family”, he replied: “Yes, first of all I think it’s something you have to be loyal to someone and I think especially to Red Bull.
“They gave the chance to let me drive in Formula One at such a young age already, they have been a great help and support. So for me at the moment there is no reason to change. So far I am very happy.”
“I’m definitely looking forward to this year, to do a good job, but also to next year. I’m still very young. I don’t think I need to rush now.”
Toro Rosso have switched from Renault’s V6 turbo hybrid to 2015-specification Ferrari engines that cannot be developed further.
The Ferrari was some way ahead of Renault at the end of last season, which should mean Toro Rosso are at least competitive in the early races of 2016 — and maybe ahead of Red Bull with their Tag Heuer-badged Renault engine.
“For us it (the first half of the season) is the most important, because we have the 2015 engine so we can’t develop the engine as the people can with the 2016 engine,” said Verstappen.
Last year the son of former racer Jos was the center of attention in testing, a youngster who some suspected might be out of his depth but who swiftly showed how much at home he was in a paddock he first entered as a toddler.
It feels very different now.
“Last year I was sitting here and you knew you were in Formula One but you didn’t really know how to go into test days,” he recalled.
“Now you know what is coming. And you are a bit more relaxed about it, you settle in a bit more.
“You know the team, everyone in it. You know the people you are close to and working with, you already have this relationship from last year.
“I don’t really feel the pressure to do better or be at the same level,” he said.
“I just go in it and we’ll see what happens. Every race you just try to do your best. That’s what I did last year and I will do it again this year.”
Editing by Ed Osmond