Jos Verstappen: 'Watching Max is just as exciting as racing myself'
Published on 26 December 2023 by FORMULE 1 Magazine
While his son Max is dominating Formula 1 and secured his third world title after a record-breaking season, Jos Verstappen feels like a rookie again behind the wheel of a rally car. And no, he’s not tired of his life, he emphasizes. “I’m no loony tune.” An interview.
The passion for rally sport started around two years ago, when Jos was asked for a demo: a bit of drifting in an old BMW on a race day in the city of Weeze, Germany. “I said: ‘Give me a proper rally car, that sounds like a lot more fun.’ So I did that for a full day, and I guess I can say that from that moment on I was hooked.”
Since that moment, Jos (aged 51) has driven more than ten rallies. His first victory in his Skoda Fabia RS was in the beginning of May 2023, at the Monteberg Rally in Belgium. Jos calls rally driving a hobby, but he still has to perform. Some things just never change.
Please explain, what made that you got hooked?
“Racing itself, of course. And everything is new, that triggered me most. You have to learn everything all over again, and do things completely differently than what you were used to. You have to communicate with your navigator, take notes. You race on surfaces that you’ve never raced on, and all these kind of things make it fun and challenging.”
“Of course I could have just gotten into a GT3-car and race against all those young guys. But that would be a difficult story. In all honesty, you usually don’t get faster the older you get. With rallying everything is slightly different. Other aspects are important, like how much risk you want to take, how good your notes are, that kind of stuff. You can still make a difference.”
Let’s look at a few aspects of rally driving. You’re in the car together with a navigator, somebody you have to trust blindly. That can be difficult for somebody who has been alone in a car for all of his life.
“That’s right. But it is what it is. Without a navigator you’ll fail for sure, so you have to make the best of it. A good navigator is crucial. You have to understand the notes very well, especially the ones about the degradation of the corners, because that will affect the speed. In the beginning it’ll be difficult to go full throttle and listen to the person next to you at the same time. I wasn’t used to that, I used to do everything by feeling. But now the collaboration with the navigator is effortless.”
“Now, I have more than ten races of experience under my belt. It’s still not much, but I notice: the more you do it, the easier it gets. You have to be well attuned with one another. That was a learning experience for me. I’ve had three navigators, but with Renaud (Jamoul, his current navigator) it clicked instantly, also outside of the car. That is really important. You spend so much time together, and you have to communicate well. One word should be enough to understand each other. You don’t want to sit next to somebody who annoys you. That’s distracting and you can’t afford that. Besides, I do this for fun, so it has to be fun in the car as well.”
What makes Renaud a good navigator, for you specifically?
“He did WRC (World Rally Championship), he just has a lot of experience which you can tell from everything. The way we prepare, the notes we take. Everything is done professionally, which you notice when you have someone in the car.”
“It’s still for fun. Our team is called Verstappen.com Racing, we get the support of Red Bull and we work together with Wevers Sport, who take care of the maintenance of the car. We have a nice team, and nothing is a must. I mean, we decide ourselves where we drive. That’s the fun part, I think. I want to do it well, and as good as possible, but above all it has to be fun and not cause frustration. I invest a lot of time in it. If it’s not fun, it’s a waste of time.”
Where could you still improve as rally driver?
“The experience in the stages, and the surfaces. Racing on gravel with slicks is something I had never done until recently and still need to improve at. Those real rally guys cut everywhere, gradually leaving more and more rubbish on track. If you pass for a second time, you need to take that into account. And tyre choice is also very important here.”
“In the end, it’s all about the experience. In Formula 1 you always drive on the same circuits, and at some point you become familiar with them. Earlier this year I drove a rally in a place where I had already driven the year before. That made it a lot easier, as you recognize parts from the previous time. Experience, that’s something I’m still lacking.”
A good control over the car is also very important. You’ve always managed that.
“That’s right. You really need insight and good vehicle control. Otherwise, a navigator won’t get in the car with you. He also wants to survive, and be able to tell the story. So do I of course. It has to be safe for the both of us. I’m not tired of life.”
But there certainly are risks involved. I would say that the risks with rally driving are greater than with Formula 1.
“Oh, what are risks? You also have them when you’re cycling through Amsterdam. The more rallies you drive, the better and faster you get, and you just do things the way you do them. And sometimes, that’s on the limit. But I’m no loony tune who drives blindly past everything. It has to feel right, and you drive blindly on your notes. So yes, there are risks. But they are calculated risks.”
“Have fun. They understand me. Didn’t they urge me to be careful? No, I’ve never heard that. Maybe they just want to get rid of me, haha. But in all seriousness, they know how much time I put into it, and how much I love doing it. They want me to be careful, but also that I do things I like.”
Have you never been afraid, not even in the beginning?
“No! If you’re afraid, you should start playing checkers. Nice sport, checkers, but without any dangers.”
Has your wife Sandy ever sat next to you for a ride?
“No, she hasn’t, but Victoria (his oldest daughter) has. I did go full throttle then. She enjoyed it, but had some sweaty palms when she got out of the car.”
Could you explain how the preparation of a rally goes?
“The notes are very important, but you can only start taking those on Friday. So on Friday we’ll ride the course together, and at night once again. We record it on video as well, to analyse afterwards. And you try to get the videos of somebody else. The more you watch the videos, the better you know what’s about to come. In fact, it’s just doing your homework. Do others share their videos? No, not everyone, but some do. There’s a sense of collegiality amongst us. And Renaud has some videos from previous years, that also helps.”
“On a circuit you have to manage tyres and strategy, especially in Formula 1. Rallying is just going as fast as possible from point A to point B, and do that between ten and fifteen times a day. That’s the challenge, the adrenaline rush. And what I also like, is the whole atmosphere. It’s very relaxed. Every two stages you regroup, and meet everyone to talk about what you’ve experienced. It’s very friendly in that way.”
What appeals to you least? Let me guess, driving in the dark?
“Maybe a little, because I see less. You have a lot of light on your car, and if you see a traffic sign in the evening, it reflects the lights a lot. You automatically drive a bit slower, and try to follow others. But here again, you just have to do it more often. The more you do it, the better you get at it. With this as well.”
“But honestly, everything in rally driving appeals to me, except for the note taking. It’s quite monotonous, and also tiring if you take notes all day. But it’s part of the sport, and driving without notes is not possible.”
A lot of it is still relatively new to you. Is that what triggers you?
“That’s right, suddenly I’m like a rookie again.”
And what about the ambitions of this rookie?
“It has to be fun. We handle it professionally, and the rest is fine with me. It doesn’t really matter if I finish first or third, as long as we have fun.”
But you’ve already won a rally. And knowing the Verstappen genes, you’ll want to win more often.
“Of course. Every rally I try to do the best I can and go as fast as possible. I’ll always do that. But if I don’t win, I’ll accept that.”
“I think that in a year or two I can really compete for the big prizes, at Belgian level. If you look at world level, I’m coming short, and I don’t mind that. I like watching the WRC, but I don’t have the ambition to go in that direction. Last year, I drove a WRC-rally, in Ypres. It keeps you busy for a whole week, and I noticed that I’ve been away from home for too long. I’m fine with the way things are right now.”
Finally, a question of conscience: to what extent did you miss the adrenaline, because for years you’ve been off the track, next to Max.
“Believe me, I felt that adrenaline with Max too. But he’s reached a phase where I no longer have to do anything, and it’s time I start doing fun things for myself. And I really like doing this, because I do need that adrenaline. You can’t compare the feeling of racing in a car yourself and the feeling of watching a race. It’s very different. Not more exciting, because watching Max is just as exciting as racing myself.”
“And I’d rather have Max win, than myself. But it would of course be best if the two go together: Max wins in a Formula 1 car, and I win in a rally car. That’s our goal every time.”