The Rise of Max Verstappen
Ask any F1 fan who is the most exciting driver on the grid, and they are bound to reply with “Max Verstappen”. It’s been a year since the Dutch wunderkind was moved up into the Red Bull team after last year’s Russian Grand Prix. But how did Verstappen’s meteoric rise come about?
It all starts with his father, Jos Verstappen, who raced in Formula One for eight years with various teams. Although Jos never won a race and only scored a handful of points across an up-and-down career, he was known as a fast driver and took two career podiums; third at Hungary and Belgium during his debut year in 1994. With his career points haul of 17, which would translate to 115 points in the current system, Jos is the second most successful Dutch driver in F1 history. The first? His son, Max.
At an early age, it was clear that motor racing was in Max’s blood. Max started karting when he was four years old, and it was here that his exciting style was crafted. Under Jos’ tutelage, Max was encouraged to overtake opponents in unexpected places, forging his impressive race-craft. After winning several Dutch and international karting championships, Max finally graduated to car racing in 2014, quickly moving from the Florida Winter series into Formula Three.
Max finished his first season in third, with 10 wins from 33 races for the Red Bull-sponsored Vans Amersfoort Racing team. Max joined Red Bull’s Young Driver programme during the season. Less than a week later, Max was announced as part of Toro Rosso’s line-up alongside Carlos Sainz Jr. for the 2015 F1 season, despite being only 17 and bypassing GP2, F1’s traditional feeder series, altogether. In preparation for such a huge leap, Max drove the 2014 Toro Rosso during free practice at 2014’s Japanese Grand Prix.
At 2015’s season-opener in Melbourne, Max became the youngest driver ever to start a Grand Prix at 17 years and 166 days. That record may never be eclipsed, as the FIA introduced a minimum age of 18 for F1’s new super license system shortly after Max had been announced as a Toro Rosso driver. Although his debut race was cut short due to engine failure, Max had been running in the points for much of the race.
At the next race in Malaysia, Max became F1’s youngest ever points scorer at 17 years and 180 days thanks to a sixth place finish. Although he retired in China and Bahrain due to reliability issues, he impressed the paddock. However, at Monaco, Verstappen had a huge crash with Lotus’ Romain Grosjean, earning criticism from veteran drivers.
Across his first full season in Formula One, Max scored 49 points and finished 12th in the Drivers Championship, three places ahead of team-mate Carlos Sainz. Max’s best results were two fourth place finishes in Hungary and the USA, and he had quickly built a reputation as a fast and daring but potentially dangerous driver who was not afraid to challenge F1’s established veterans both on and off the track.
For his second season, Max would again partner Sainz at Toro Rosso. In Australia, Max qualified fifth but finished 10th after a collision with Sainz, then finished sixth in Bahrain. However, after the Russian Grand Prix, Red Bull announced that Max would swap places with Daniil Kvyat. Still not yet 19, Max already found himself with a drive at a top three team.
Even in just one race, Max outperformed expectations at Red Bull. Now partnering Daniel Ricciardo, the Spanish Grand Prix came up for grabs after the two leading Mercedes of Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton collided on the first lap. Ricciardo led for much of the race, but pitted late on a three stop strategy while Max continued on a two stop race. While Ricciardo would ultimately finish fourth, Max claimed his maiden victory in Barcelona, becoming F1’s youngest ever race winner and deposing four time world champion Sebastian Vettel; another former Red Bull prodigy.
Although Max struggled with two crashes at the following race at Monaco, he would record six top five finishes and four podiums in his first eight races for Red Bull. Another chance for victory between the two Red Bulls came in Malaysia after Lewis Hamilton retired from the race lead. However, Ricciardo prevailed after a fantastic wheel-to-wheel battle between the two.
Despite his impressive results, Max continued to draw criticism from other drivers due to his aggressive style, particularly when defending a position. This came to a head at the Belgian Grand Prix, when Max had several altercations with the two Ferrari’s of Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen. After the race, Max was called in for a discussion with venerable Race Director Charlie Whiting, who urged him to tone down his aggression. Shortly afterwards the “Verstappen Rule” was introduced; preventing drivers from moving more than once when defending a position under braking.
But even compared to his win in Spain, Max’s magnum opus wouldn’t come until the penultimate round in Brazil. In incredibly wet and chaotic conditions, Max produced a wet-weather masterclass, drawing comparisons to the great Michael Schumacher. He pulled off an incredible save after aqua-planing on the main straight, and also somehow avoided Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari sliding into the barriers ahead of him.
After pitting late for full wet tyres, Max was in 15th place with 16 laps remaining. He then pulled off a series of incredible overtakes in the awful conditions to finish third, finding grip where other drivers could not. Max finished the year with 204 points, taking fifth in the Drivers Championship ahead of former world champion Raikkonen and only eight points behind Vettel.
Although Red Bull have struggled with 2017’s new regulations, Max took third in mixed conditions in China despite qualifying 16th after engine issues. Several incredibly opportunistic overtakes on the opening lap saw him gain several places. Max’s podium in China remains Red Bull’s only rostrum appearance so far this season.
So what’s next for Max? The short-term hope is that Red Bull can rapidly develop the RB13 to allow him and Ricciardo to challenge Mercedes and Ferrari for race wins. But the long-term hopes are even higher, as we could see Max dominate Formula One for the next decade…