Franz Tost: 'Max was too fast for the car'
Published on 09 January 2024 by FORMULE 1 Magazine
Franz Tost realised immediately after the first test kilometres that Max Verstappen was destined to make a career within the Red Bull family as well as Formula 1. "He had everything under control", according to Verstappen's former team boss on the professionalism of a Dutch teenager, his Singapore 'no' and overcapacity under the helmet.
In the end Franz Tost had Verstappen under his wing for almost a year and a half. The Austrian chief of the Red Bull training team, currently AlphaTauri, but before that Scuderia Toro Rosso, still looks back on that exciting period with visible satisfaction. In his bright, spacious office at the factory in Faenza, the memories of working with Max Verstappen and his father Jos come flooding back automatically. There are quite a few of them too, acknowledges Tost. And only nice ones.
The first one dates to early October 2014: Max Emilian Verstappen is world news. He is 17 years and three days old when he gets behind the wheel of the Toro Rosso STR9 at the first free practice session of the Japanese GP. In front of the pit box, cameras are clicking and rolling continuously, Formula 1 history is being made at Suzuka. Critics - and there are quite a few - wonder aloud whether it is responsible to put such a young driver in a car with almost 1,000 hp on board. Not Tost. He knows Verstappen is an exceptional talent, already more than capable to drive in Formula 1 at age 17.
When did you actually hear the name Max Verstappen for the first time?
A brief silence falls. Then his mobile phone rings, Tost immediately pushes away the caller. Unperturbed: "When Max was still driving karts and was very successful in them. Mama mia, when exactly was that? I think in 2010. The first time I met Max in person was three years later at the Nürburgring: Jos was visiting us during the German Grand Prix. I knew him before, when he drove in Willy Weber's Formula 3 team (former manager of Michael Schumacher, ed). Anyway, we caught up then and stayed in touch a bit afterwards."
A year later, Verstappen was driving Formula 3. Red Bull already had him in its sights and had since picked him up.
"I watched all the Formula 3 races that year on television. Those were always live on Saturday, I can't remember exactly which channel that was on, but not on Sundays: then they were broadcasted at a later time. The most impressive race, at least in my opinion, was Max's in Nürnburg at the Norisring. I remember it well: wet track, it was raining. As you know, a lap at the Norisring is short: it takes less than a minute. Still Max was one or two seconds faster there than the rest. It was incredible, he just flew off in the rain. Very impressive. It immediately reminded me of a race by Michael Schumacher in Formula Ford at the Salzburgring in the 1980s. He won that one in wet conditions and in the process wiped the floor with everyone. It was immediately clear to me that Max is an extraordinary driver: a huge talent with an incredible feel for the car and grip. That's really a big advantage to him."
Helmut Marko said that from that particular race at the Norisring, he knew immediately that Verstappen was ready for a move to Formula 1.
"After those races in Germany (Verstappen won all three that weekend, ed) we called each other. Helmut and I are of course always in touch about such matters, we discuss at length the performances of young drivers. For me, it was clear that I wanted Max in our car, as a driver and not as a test driver. You know, when Max first tested at Friday practice, he was just 17. Many 'experts' said it was far too early. To which I said: but not for Max Verstappen. Because he is not a passenger in the car, as you often see with newcomers, he is driving the car. The way he controlled the car, completely mastered it... Extraordinary. Believe me, if that hadn't been the case, he really wouldn't have been in the car. Then I would have said: go and drive Formula 2 for a year first. But I was one hundred per cent convinced that we could take Max straight from Formula 3 to Formula 1. The speed wasn't a problem for Max at all either, he got used to it straight away. A driver of his level can switch to a faster car without any problem: within 15 laps he has everything under control."
In your opinion, what is Verstappen's main strength?
"His sense of grip and pure speed. And I think that has everything to do with his great training. Jos taught Max everything he needed as a young boy, he did a fantastic job. I don't know if Max would have achieved the same without Jos. He probably would have ended up in Formula 1. But whether he would be as fast and successful as he is now? I doubt it. After all, the learning process is so important for a driver from a very young age. Everything you learn between the ages of seven and twelve is very crucial in this sport. It makes you get used to everything, it comes naturally as it were, and you hardly have to think about it. Jos raised Max to a great level. Of course, success in karts also helped Max reach this level. And he is very passionate, you can see that in sim racing. He sometimes spends hours in the simulator racing against others: you can only do that if you enjoy the sport. It shows he lives for racing."
Okay, so Max Verstappen was going to be it. You all agreed on that. Was it a special project because he was so young?
"No way. Max was very young, that's true. But we didn't do things much differently than with other drivers. He got the same, normal treatment as any other driver who had the capabilities to drive in Formula 1. I mean: you can drive, or you can't. Of course, there was a challenge in it for the engineer and management: they are always specific to a driver. You cannot treat any driver the same, there is no golden rule for that. You must find out what a driver needs, then support and protect him. And that differs per individual. With Max that all went quite smoothly, he is very easy going. Take that press moment in Spa (2014, ed), when he was announced as a driver with us. There was more press than for all the other drivers combined that day. But Max knew how to deal with it, in that too he learned a lot from Jos. I don't remember any unexpected things happening in his first year with us. Max was already pretty complete as a driver, there was almost nothing new or anything else that really surprised him."
Verstappen stepped in at free practice three times in 2014. Did you get confirmation there of what you already knew?
"Max's first test was at the circuit in Adria to get the feel of a Formula 1 car. In Suzuka, he drove at the Japanese GP in the first free practice, and later it happened in São Paulo and Abu Dhabi. I remember exactly what happened in Abu Dhabi in practice: he crashed immediately in one of the first laps there. And I also knew why: Max was simply too fast for the car. In São Paulo, he was also going very fast. At one point, I think in the first corner, he almost lost the car. But how he then caught it and got it back was fantastic. No spin, nothing at all. For me it became clear there once again that he had the level to drive for us the following year."
Tost realised that choosing such a young driver with only one year of experience in single-seaters, Formula 3, was going to cause a stir. Toro Rosso's announcement of Verstappen caused a storm of reactions, positive and negative, as expected. According to Tost, back then it might have been easier for a relatively inexperienced teenager to step in. "Now it would probably be harder, because Formula 1 is different", the Austrian argues. "In 2015, many people said Formula 1 is too slow. Nonsense in my opinion, because of course Formula 1 is never slow. But anyway, the cars were slower and less complicated than today. Now the technical challenge is to get the best out of it with engine management, brakes and tyres."
Verstappen immediately silenced the critics in his debut year. In just the second race, in Malaysia, he scored his first world championship points. In doing so, he rewrote the history books. And not for the last time. With sensational overtaking manoeuvres, the outspoken and confident teenager quickly became a darling of Formula 1 fans worldwide. The Netherlands embraced him, the orange army quickly expanded and pursued the new hero to every corner of the world. In the polder, thanks to Verstappen, Formula 1 became more popular than ever. Especially after his famous 'no' in the Singapore night race.
That incident was a while ago and caused a commotion. Were you upset that Verstappen just ignored that team order?
Tost corrects: "There was no commotion at all. Not with us. We told Max: let Carlos (Sainz, ed) pass. After all, we expected him to immediately close the gap to Max with new tyres. But so that didn't happen. We said: Carlos, if you want to overtake, you must close the gap first. Logically, you can't expect another driver to step on the brakes to let you pass him, when you are two seconds behind. It was indeed a team order, but it only applies if the other driver is close behind and looks at which corner to swap positions. I am sure that if Carlos had been alongside, Max would have let him past. Because Carlos had newer tyres. But as he was so far behind, Max's simple answer was no. I understood that completely."
Meanwhile, Verstappen is one of Formula 1's most successful drivers. That probably won't surprise you.
"No. He is very important to the Red Bull family, he is our fastest driver. When you have a driver like that, someone who is so fast, you have one very important factor for success already in place."
What if he leaves?
"That's a hypothetical question, because he's driving for Red Bull now. And I hope he stays with Red Bull for a long time."
Where do you think Verstappen has room for improvement?
"Through experience you always get better as a driver. Whether it's qualifying or tyre management: you learn every day. How quickly do the tyres warm, do I need a fast or slow outlap: you find out through experience. Max has a feel for the car and tyres. His greatest strength is that driving does not consume all his brain capacity. He is not a passenger but has everything under control. In the race, he knows exactly what others are doing, what their strategy is, how fast they are, how much he is winning and losing. Racing does not gobble up everything. There are very few drivers who have this gift."
Bio Franz Tost
Franz Tost was born on 20 January 1956 in Trins, Austria. His bedroom was full of posters of Jochen Rindt, the first real Austrian superstar in Formula 1. It inspired Tost to take up racing too. But he soon discovered he would never reach the top. From 1979, Tost competed in Formula Ford 1600, Formula Ford 2000 and Formula 3. In 1983, he won his only title (Formula Ford 1600), in between which he completed a degree in sports management at the University of Innsbrück. In 1993, Willi Weber hired him. The German was the representative of Michael and Ralf Schumacher. With the latter, Tost left for the Williams Formula 1 team in 2000. Schumacher joined as a driver, Tost as trackside operations manager of engine supplier BMW. In 2006, Red Bull appointed him team boss of training team Scuderia Toro Rosso (now AlphaTauri), a position he held until 2023.