Written by Tiannah Pedler, Edited by Simran Kanthi
Photo by Dan Istitene - Formula 1
At just 25 years old (following a recent birthday), Max Verstappen is already a two-time Formula 1 World Champion. The Dutchman seems utterly unstoppable right now, and arguably, it is not just Red Bull's dominant car cruising him to victory.
Verstappen entered Formula 1 as the sport's youngest-ever competitor, aged just 17. And since then, he has been making headlines with an aggressive wheel-to-wheel driving style and a temper that can flare even off the track.
But what guided him to this point? His story so far has undoubtedly been an exciting one, and there’s no telling how bright his future will be.
The early years
Son of F1 racer Jos Verstappen and Belgian Kart Champion Sophie Kumpen, motor racing has been in Max Verstappen’s blood since birth. He scored his first victories in karting at the age of seven, with an unbeaten streak that spanned three seasons. Already, Verstappen’s future was shaping up to be a dazzling one.
In 2008, at 11 years old, he began to ascend the ladder. First was international karting, in which he swept up the WSK World Series KF3 and the Euro title. The next year, he retained his title.
While Verstappen's natural karting abilities were undeniable, his parents also pushed him. Famously, in the KZ2 World Championship final at Sarno, Italy, a 14-year-old Max Verstappen collided with Daniel Bray after starting on pole. He had to retire from the race, prompting his father to abandon him at a gas station in a fit of anger instead of driving his son home.
In the years since, Verstappen has told interviewers at ESPN that the incident was “good for [him]” because it forced him to be more careful in his following races. “It was a hard lesson. But I think it was a good one at the end.”
Though many have been quick to criticise Jos Verstappen's parenting style, Max himself has admitted that it shaped the man he is today. Harsh criticism throughout his childhood perhaps explains the young Verstappen's desperation to win at all costs, expounding both his driving style and highly defensive nature in the car.
Whatever the moral implications of that day in Italy were, it almost certainly fuelled Verstappen's fire and crafted the exceptional driving style that would help him all those years later.
Climbing the ladder
In 2013, Verstappen clambered into a racing car for the first time at the Pembrey Circuit, Wales. He completed 160 laps in a Barazi-Epsilon FR2.0-10 Formula Renault car. Still a teenager, he performed testing for several Formula Renault teams that year, proving his talents by beating out series regulars in terms of his speed.
Then, in 2014, Verstappen debuted in the Florida Winter Series, a non-championship event. At the second race, he won at the Palm Beach International Raceway, before winning a second race that series at the Homestead-Miami Speedway, beating Nicholas Latifi by 0.004 seconds.
His exceptional racing earned him a promotion to the FIA European Formula 3 Championship, competing for Van Amersfoort Racing. He was just 16 at the time, but Verstappen scored a record streak of six victories, with ten wins in total. Overall, he came third.
Toro Rosso take a chance
Verstappen's leap to F1 came shortly after. He skipped the next rung in the ladder, fast-tracking GP2 (now renamed Formula 2), to compete in the big leagues. He replaced Jean-Éric Vergne in the first practice session for Toro Rosso at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix, held at the Suzuka circuit. At just seventeen years and three days, Verstappen was officially the youngest driver to ever compete in an F1 race weekend.
Following his shine at Suzuka, Verstappen found a seat with Scuderia Toro Rosso for the 2015 season. He was the youngest-ever competitor in F1 by almost two years. With Carlos Sainz as his teammate, Verstappen went on to excel in his first season, sweeping up a swathe of dedicated fans almost immediately.
In his first race at Australia’s Albert Park Circuit, he ran within the points until he was forced to retire from the race. However, at the second race in Malaysia, Verstappen crossed the line in seventh place, cementing his place as the youngest points scorer in F1, aged just seventeen years and 180 days.
It was during his inaugural season at Toro Rosso when Verstappen started to make a reputation for himself. Felipe Massa branded him “dangerous” following a high-speed collision with Romain Grosjean at the 2015 Monaco Grand Prix.
His best finish of the season was a fourth-place points-scoring position in Hungary; he also finished fourth at the United States Grand Prix. His outstanding talents awarded him the Rookie of the Year, Personality of the Year, and Action of the Year for an overtake on Felipe Nasr in Belgium. Already, he was raking up awards left, right, and centre.
Amassing 49 points, Verstappen finished twelfth in the drivers’ standings.
He began another season with Toro Rosso in 2016, again alongside Carlos Sainz. It was fast becoming clear that Verstappen had gotten to grips with an F1 car, and he could no longer be stopped on his way to the top.
Photo by Mark Thompson
Red Bull give him wings
In 2016, after the Russian Grand Prix, Red Bull announced they would replace Daniil Kvyat with Max Verstappen from Spain onwards, demoting Kvyat to Toro Rosso. Suddenly, Verstappen found himself in a competitive car.
Martin Brundle backed the move, describing Verstappen as “showing all the hallmarks of a Senna, of a Schumacher.” In other words, he exhibited all the signs of a future world champion, a potential legend of the sport.
In the Spanish Grand Prix, Verstappen showed Red Bull Racing’s decision to be correct, qualifying fourth behind his new teammate Daniel Ricciardo. During the opening laps of the race, Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, both driving for Mercedes, crashed out of the race, promoting Verstappen to second place.
When Red Bull pitted Ricciardo three times as opposed to Verstappen’s two, the Dutchman suddenly found himself leading a Formula 1 race. He successfully defended against Ferrari's Kimi Räikkönen, taking his first F1 victory at 18 years and 228 days old.
Verstappen’s successful streak continued, though he was warned on several occasions about dangerous driving. In fact, his defensive tactics and aggressiveness led the FIA to ban moving under braking.
That season, he bested his previous year with a fifth-place finish in the World Championship standings, surpassing 200 points.
Max Verstappen: World Champion
Verstappen continued competing for Red Bull in the following years. He had mixed degrees of luck and success, with a flurry of retirements in 2017 and a string of fourth-place championship finishes. In 2019, he climbed to third place in the drivers’ standings, earning 278 points.
By the end of 2020, Max Verstappen had made a solid name for himself in F1. Spectators and pundits knew he would be world champion one day, it was simply a question of when.
It came for him in 2021. Once again, mixed luck had arrived for Verstappen that season. At one point leading the championship by 19 points, his comfortable position was snatched away when Lewis Hamilton won the three races leading up to the final in Abu Dhabi. Suddenly, the two drivers were level.
Verstappen took pole, and yet Hamilton’s overtake in the early stages meant that his championship dreams were fading before his very eyes. The infamous safety car lit a fire in his belly, and with five laps to go, he saw an opportunity to fight for the final time.
In Max’s words: “And, you know, the rest is history.”
It was undoubtedly Verstappen’s fighting spirit and determination that saw him cross the finish line in first place. Although an asterisk looms over the driver’s first championship win due to controversy surrounding Race Control’s decisions, it cannot be denied that Verstappen’s sheer talent and attitude got him to the point where he was in contention at the final race.
Photo by Gongora/NurPhoto
Two world championships later
If the 2021 season was controversial, Verstappen has proven himself in 2022. He practically ran away with the season, heading into the Japanese Grand Prix with an enormous lead over Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc.
He actually started the season at a disadvantage, with two retirements in three Grands Prix. However, once again, the fight never left him, and he proved his worth by climbing up to the front of the pack.
A lot of factors contributed to Verstappen’s easy win, not least the repeated incompetence of Ferrari, Mercedes’ poor car design, and the triumphant successes of the entire Red Bull team. However, Verstappen has fairly solidified his talent in F1 and will go down in history as a two-time world champion… at the very least.
An exciting career
This season for Verstappen ended where it all began. He took the win at Suzuka, the circuit where he first drove an F1 car and took part in an F1 weekend; it’s a storybook ending. But the story is far from over, and there are probably pages and pages left for the young Dutchman.
After all, this season he overtook F1 great Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel to become the driver with the most races won in a single season, with 14 wins. It's unlikely that the record breaking will end here, with two more races remaining.
Looking back, he has had an impressive career already. 160 races, 76 podiums, 19 poles, and 34 wins later, Verstappen is already becoming a legend in the sport. What could come next for the record-breaker? Only time will tell, but it looks like his story is bound to be a long one.