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Max Verstappen: From Hasselt to World Championship Glory

Perhaps it came as no surprise that Max Verstappen’s maiden World Championship victory came amidst a realm of controversy that no doubt will be discussed for years and decades to come. The unbelievable scenes of the Abu Dhabi GP’s ending were the set-up for Max Verstappen to clinch victory and subsequently the championship by a margin of eight points over Lewis Hamilton. Whilst no doubt a huge slice of luck at the very end of the season, Max Verstappen is a deserved champion in 2021.

Written by Sasha Macmillen, Edited by Esmée Kopius

Always destined to be a racer, he started karting at age four, and it seemed as if nothing could stop him in his path up the ranks. He was often competing and winning in age categories far beyond him, and the end of his karting career came in 2013, winning the European KF and KZ championships, as well as the World KZ Championship. These were the biggest championships in karting, and he raced against drivers such as George Russell, Charles Leclerc, Lance Stroll, and Callum Illot. 

Whilst his domination of the karting world already put him on the market as hot property, his first year in car racing took that further. His first official championship was the 2014 Florida Winter Series, and he came third in the non-official standings, winning two races. The big championship for Max Verstappen in 2014 though was FIA European Formula 3. Already, to skip into a championship such as F3 immediately was unusual, as most drivers would have tried their hand at F4 or Formula Renault. His debut season in car racing saw 33 F3 races under his belt, scoring 16 podiums and 10 victories. This included a six-race consecutive streak of victories, stretching across Spa-Francorchamps and the Norisring. Verstappen finished 3rd in the championship, with Esteban Ocon the champion. For reference, Verstappen’s two teammates that season at Van Amersfoort Racing, Gustavo Menezes and Jules Szymowiak, finished 11th and 20th in the championship.

During the summer of 2014, F1 teams were all over him, willing to recruit him as part of their young driver programme. Verstappen considered an offer from Mercedes but ultimately opted to join the Red Bull Junior Team. To Helmut Marko, he saw that there was no time to waste, Verstappen was going to be an F1 driver. He was confirmed to be driving for Scuderia Toro Rosso in 2015, and got the opportunity for three run-outs in practice sessions in 2014, in Japan, USA, and Brazil.

Up to 2021, Verstappen’s career had shown all the talent he possessed, yet also served as learning to get to the point where he is now. Whilst managing to do a vast amount of races in 2014, 47 car races before Formula One doesn’t provide you with enough experience. Whilst Max no doubt had the talent for Formula One in 2015, he showed his inexperience on multiple occasions, and so Formula One was his learning platform. For Red Bull, however, this wasn’t a problem. They were happy for Verstappen to use F1 as his learning platform, providing he still brought results, which he most certainly did. Two fourth places finishes in 2015 were part of 49 points he scored, enough for 12th place in the drivers’ championship.

The next years of 2016-2020 progressed for Verstappen with many podiums, a few victories but ultimately Red Bull were unable to ever provide him with the machinery to mount a championship challenge. His promotion to Red Bull at the 2016 Spanish Grand Prix was immediately rewarded with a victory, which was one of Verstappen’s career highlights up to this point. Impressive victories included the 2019 Austrian and Brazilian Grand Prix, the first of which saw a remarkable fightback from an awful start to win the race in the closing laps, and the Brazil race serving as a fantastic precursor to the battles of 2021.

And then we arrive in 2021. After a 2020 season in which Red Bull once again lacked performance, leaving Verstappen with little to do in the majority of races, Red Bull and Honda together made remarkable progress over the winter, although parts of the cars had been frozen in development. It has to be said, that whilst they did make significant strides with their car development, they also hadn’t been affected as badly as Mercedes by the downforce cuts, which were necessary to protect the tyres. The changes meant that a higher-rake car concept was more effective, and Mercedes, who had long been an advocate of low-rake concepts, were forced to adapt and found themselves on the back foot.

This translated into a performance advantage for Red Bull in most races of the first half of 2021, before Mercedes’s Silverstone upgrades gave them a major boost in performance, with the outcome being a performance advantage for Mercedes in most races of the second half. Verstappen himself, as always, maximised his performance, and his ruthless consistency is what in my opinion, won him the championship, if you look at the season as a whole, rather than just Abu Dhabi. Of the 19 races that Verstappen finished, he stood on the podium 18 times, with P9 in Hungary after a long race with major damage resulting from a first-corner pileup meaning that he couldn’t fight for much more. His three DNFs, in Baku, Silverstone and Monza definitely cost him points, whether or not he was at fault.

Looking back, if I had to pick a single race that was crucial in the championship battle being swung in Verstappen’s favour across the season as a whole, I would say the US Grand Prix. Verstappen’s fend off of Lewis Hamilton’s fresher tyres in a race in which the cars were equally matched, served as a crucial point, with Max’s 12 point lead giving them breathing space, which they went on to extend two weeks later. This breathing space allowed Max to not require victory in all of the races, only needing to win 1 of the final 4, with second place in the others. And that he duly did.

Lewis Hamilton in 2021 was no slouch either, with 17 podiums of his own, yet he can’t help but feel that over the course of the season, he and Mercedes did not maximise their points total. The Baku mistake, coupled with damage sustained from overuse of kerbs in Austria, and a strategy mishap in Turkey were all races in which more points were on the table, but weren’t taken. Hamilton showed his typical stellar late-season form, as he and Mercedes got their package into gear, with Red Bull no match for them in the latter stages of the season. Hamilton has pushed Verstappen so hard, and vice versa, that it might even be up for debate that this season is the highest level of driver performance we have ever witnessed. Both have been near-perfect, with little mistakes, and have been excellent and respectful competitors, despite a multitude of heated clashes.

So then, Abu Dhabi. A race that will live long in the memory, for the right and the wrong reasons. A clear failure by the FIA, and more specifically Michael Masi, who I find likely to lose his job. With Jean Todt’s retirement, the new FIA presidential elections will bring in a new regime and ideas, with the new president likely to see the uproar and implement changes to the Race Director role and stewarding as well. Whilst Abu Dhabi may not have been a race Verstappen was deserving to win, it didn’t take away from what was excellent management of a championship campaign and cast away doubts over his inexperience in such situations being a detriment.

The boy from Hasselt, born in 1997, couldn’t help but release 20 years’ worth of emotions on the cool-down lap after winning the world championship. The years of hard work to reach that moment were all relieved when he crossed the line, and as Verstappen stated afterward, he had completed Formula One. Everything that comes after, is just a bonus. The question is: just how big will that bonus be?

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