Having recently become the sport’s youngest ever race winner, Max Verstappen’s place in the F1 history books has already been set. Jennie Gow reports on the boy wonder who’s fast-track to the Red Bull senior team has come at a crucial time for a sport which was, at least up until Barcelona, desperately in need of a shake-up.
The Spanish Grand Prix has just finished. There is a feeling of jubilation in the paddock as even the most cynical of journalists – you know, the ones who have been covering the sport for the years and years; the ones who remember the ‘glory days of F1’ like they were yesterday (yes, even those guys) – are pretty impressed with what they have just seen.
At 18 years of age, Max Verstappen has just won his first Grand Prix. It’s his debut in the Red Bull car having been the subject of a mid-season promotion from the junior Toro Rosso team. In doing so, he has just become the youngest person to ever win a Grand Prix. 18 years, 7 months and 5 days – the only question that remains for now is whether we call him a boy or a man.
Whatever he is, he has restored a lot of people’s belief in Formula One; and at just the right time, too.
Stood underneath the podium, it feels special. His boss Christian Horner is stood behind me, surrounded by his family, tears almost in his eyes. This is a special moment for him – a moment when, as a boss, you are allowed to be a little smug in backing not necessarily the underdog, but a guy everyone considered was out of his depth.
Ask yourself: What were you doing at 18? I, for one, was on a gap year, pretending to be ‘finding myself’ by taking menial jobs in French ski resorts and backpacking around Australia. Sure, I had dreams of grandeur in my mind, but it took quite some time for me to find my way – from dreams of working in media to eventually rocking up in an F1 paddock as a presenter.
At 18, Max Verstappen is as cool as a cucumber. Even after what was a seismic event in his young life – and something that will, by all accounts, ensure nothing will ever be the same for him again – he seems to be taking it in his stride.
It’s quite an usual occurrence for the gathered press to clap a driver into the media zone after a race. Indeed, it’s something which only ever happens once in a blue moon. Needless to say, in Barcelona, it happened for Max. And there, in the middle of the paddock, with over a hundred journalists waiting to speak to him, the man (boy) of the hour sat smiling contently but calmly as the press fell over themselves with excitement and adoration. Caught up in the buzz and transfixed at what we had just witnessed, it’s fair to say we were more excited about his victory than he was!
So, what makes Max Verstappen so laid back? What makes him capable of being the youngest race winner ever? What makes him the man people are tipping to one day be a multiple F1 World Champion?
Born Max Emilian Verstappen, on 30 September 1997 – in Hasselt, Belgium – his move into motorsport was almost predetermined. His father, Jos Verstappen, is a former F1 driver. His mother, Sophie Kumpen, was an outstanding kart racer. And his uncle, Anthony Kumpen, competed in Le Mans, as well as in NASCAR in the States. That’s a pretty good racing pedigree, if you ask me.
At just 4 years of age, Max started competing in Kart races and, from there, the stars were set. With the guidance of both his mother and father, it was hard to see how he could fail.
But Max didn’t just do well in karting – he excelled, winning the World Championship in 2013, at the age of just 15.
The next year, Max had his first experience of open-wheeled racing, signing for the European Formula 3 Championship, in which he finished 3rd. In August of 2014, he signed for the Red Bull Junior Team after impressing in testing. They weren’t the only team to show an interest in the young star – Mercedes also battled to get him to sign with them. But with no junior team to parachute Max into, the road to Red Bull was the obvious choice.
I sat down with Max for the very first time at Spa, in 2014, after it as announced he would soon be driving for Toro Rosso, at the tender age of 17. I have to say, he seemed wise beyond his years. At that point, though he didn’t have a license for a road car, his driving credentials were clear and the Verstappen name was set for a big return to F1.
The rest, for now, is history. But the big question – and a question that continues to be posed – surrounds whether or not this is all too much, too soon?
There were many critics ahead of his first race in Australia last year, saying that 17 is just too young to be driving in F1. He finished the season 12th, with his best result a 4th place, set in both Hungary and the US.
As the news started to circulate that Max would be promoted to the Red Bull team to take the place of Russian Daniil Kvyat – in what seemed at the time to be a fairly unconventional mid-season move – many once again said that this was too soon. Certainly, it was a risky move. Thought he has been involved in some high-profile incidents with Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, Daniil had recently been on the podium in China, which is more than many could say for themselves this season. This alone is proof that racing can be a very harsh world. Yet, whilst Daniil went from hero to zero in the space of two weekends, Max’ star was on the ascent.
Did anyone really expect this slightly spotty, charming chap from Belgium to do so well in his first race? OF COURSE WE DIDN’T! It would have been like putting all your money on Leicester City to win the Premier League (you all did that, right?) – an unlikely result that would go against all the odds. And not just the odds, the facts and stats too. Indeed, you have to go back four years go – to 2012 – to find the last result that would realistically be considered something of an upset: Step forward Pastor Maldonado, whose victory at the Spanish Grand Prix was a rare thing in a sport which is so often criticised for its periods of dominance.
So what next for young Max Verstappen? Many are comparing him to the likes of Vettel, Michael Schumacher and even the great Ayrton Senna. Naturally, it’s too early to say that this 18 year old race winner will go on to the be one of the biggest names in Formula One. But, then again, that’s what they said at every step of his career so far and he just keeps proving everyone wrong. Publicly, the ever-charming and humble Max will play down his chances. Privately, this young driver will believe he’s just getting started.