Widely regarded as a world champion in waiting, Max Verstappen could well have been the youngest title-holder in history if it hadn’t been for Mercedes’ overwhelming dominance in recent years.
The Dutchman stood out from his very first season in 2015, when he was just 17. He progressed to Red Bull in the middle of 2016 and won his first race with the team, then kept pace with the outstanding Daniel Ricciardo.
With little sign of his early raw and controversial on-track manoeuvres, he now leads Red Bull into 2021 as arguably the most exciting talent of his generation, who now looks to have a chance to fight for the title.
It would be the fulfilment of a joint project with his father, Jos Verstappen whose early career was similar to that of Max. Both were blisteringly quick in karts and both stayed in junior car racing ranks for as short a time as possible. But while his father ultimately did not live up to the hype, the younger Verstappen is forging his legend in F1.
World Karting Champion and a season of Formula 3
The junior Verstappen’s karting career culminated in an exceptional 2013 season – the works CRG driver winning European titles in the KF and KZ classes. He then crowned those achievements by winning the KZ World Championship at Varennes-sur-Allier in France. Those he beat that day included former Toro Rosso F1 driver Jaime Alguersuari. Barely 16 years old, Verstappen tested both Formula Renault 2.0 and Formula 3 cars during the winter before deciding on the latter for his car racing debut.
Driving a Van Amersfoort Racing Dallara F314-Volkswagen in the 2014 European F3 Championship, he scored his first victory during its second weekend at Hockenheim. He then won all three races at successive weekends at Spa-Francorchamps and the Norisring as he chased fellow rookie Esteban Ocon for the title. Further victories in the Zandvoort Masters and at the Nürburgring had F1 taking note. Eventually runner-up behind the Frenchman, Verstappen joined Red Bull’s junior driver programme in August and was confirmed as a 2015 Scuderia Toro Rosso race driver just weeks later.
The youngest Formula 1 driver in history
The 17-year-old replaced Alguersuari as the youngest driver to start a GP when he made his debut in Australia at the start of 2015. It is a record that is likely to stand the test of time for the FIA had already decided that from 2016, drivers must be at least 18 before racing in F1. There were the inevitable errors of youth, most notably at Monaco, but Verstappen’s talent was plain for all to see. A fearless over taker, he qualified sixth and scored points in his second race (Malaysia) before finishing fourth in Hungary and the United States. Verstappen was named as the FIA’s Rookie of the Year after finishing 12th in the final standings.
Grand Prix winner for Red Bull Racing
He began 2016 with Toro Rosso and scored points in the first three races of the year. Such was his form that Verstappen was promoted to Red Bull Racing for the Spanish GP and he responded by nursing his tyres to the finish to become the youngest F1 winner in history. There were days when he overstepped the mark – must notably his defensive tactics at Spa and Suzuka – that earned the nickname “Mad Max” among his peers. But there were other races when he was simply sensational, especially in the wet. He finished second on four occasions and his exhilarating charge to third in Brazil drew comparisons with the likes of Ayrton Senna.
As forceful as ever, Verstappen maintained his impressive speed into 2017. However, repeated retirements included being the unwitting victim when the Ferraris collided at the start in Singapore and restricted the increasingly frustrated Dutchman to sixth overall. That said, he passed a cautious Lewis Hamilton to win in Malaysia and then dominated the Mexican GP. Verstappen out-qualified Daniel Ricciardo 13-7 as he reinforced his reputation with Red Bull.
Red Bull team leader
His place as Red Bull’s lead driver was confirmed during 2018, to the point that Ricciardo decided to leave at the end of the year. Verstappen responded to a difficult start to the year that included losing potential race wins in China and Monaco, by scoring his fourth GP victory in Austria on Red Bull’s home circuit. A second win followed in Mexico but he was knocked out of the lead in Brazil when Force India’s Esteban Ocon tried to un-lap himself. Verstappen scored 11 podium finishes as he claimed fourth in the World Championship.
Red Bull switched to Honda engines for the 2019 season and Verstappen delivered the new partnership’s first podium finish at the opening round in Australia. Initially slower than the new Mercedes and Ferrari, the Red Bull RB15-Honda grew more competitive as new upgrades became available. Consistency was added to his blistering pace and Verstappen finished in the top five at every race before the summer break. That run included another victory at the Red Bull Ring (Honda’s first since its comeback) and at Hockenheim.
He qualified on pole position for the first time in his F1 career at the Hungaroring but was beaten into second when Hamilton made an extra pitstop. A penalty in Mexico cost him pole and another possible victory, but he converted his second pole position at Interlagos into his third victory thanks to passing Hamilton twice on the track. Having overshadowed his team-mates all year, Verstappen beat both Ferrari drivers to finish third overall after another impressive campaign.
After criticism earlier in his career of an over-exuberance in wheel-to-wheel combat, the Dutchman put together his most mature performances in 2020 in his relatively young career. Verstappen failed to finish on the podium when making it to the chequered flag on just one occassion, missing out in Turkey after an error trying to pass Sergio Perez in the tricky wet conditions. He capped off an ultimately disappointing season unable to challenge for the title with an impressive victory in Abu Dhabi. Red Bull beat Mercedes on pure pace, but it remains to be seen if the team can challenge for a championship in 2021.