Max Verstappen: Wild Prodigy to Championship Contender
Max Verstappen may be Formula 1's newest superstar, but it hasn't always been smooth sailing for the rapid Dutchman.
During the turbo-hybrid era, Formula 1 has noticeably evolved with rule changes influencing driver behaviour on track, as well as the route that young drivers take to get there. Max Verstappen literally rewrote history – and the rulebook – in 2014 when he was signed to Red Bull Racing’s sister team Toro Rosso for the next season aged just 16, competing in his first Grand Prix in Australia not even six months after his 17th birthday. To put that in perspective, Lewis Hamilton was still racing in Formula Renault at that age and was 22 before he raced a Formula 1 car. Verstappen, now just a year older than Hamilton was on his debut, already has 11 victories to his name in what has always been an inferior car to the dominant Mercedes. It’s no wonder, then, that Verstappen will surely be a future world champion and, with his Red Bull RB16B seemingly a much better match for the Mercedes W12 this year, he has a strong chance of claiming his maiden title in 2021.
It wasn’t always smooth sailing for the young Dutchman, though. Many were shocked that someone so young would be employed at the highest level of motorsport, so young in fact he wasn’t eligible to take driving lessons in a road car. Following his promotion, the FIA announced a minimum age limit of 18 for a Formula 1 driver to prevent Max's story becoming a regular occurrence. It's somewhat expected that a young rookie in F1 will have to battle early demons, a lack of experience and knowledge giving them a baptism of fire. Red Bull, though, were adamant that Verstappen had the talent and the ability to hold his own and, more importantly to Max, the promotion to a race seat in the midfield showed that his team trusted him. Mercedes and Ferrari had been sniffing round for some time, so a statement of support like Red Bull gave Verstappen was key for keeping him on board.
He hit the headlines almost immediately, quickly becoming renowned for his uncompromising style to go with impressive speed and intelligence. He dominated his teammate Carlos Sainz Jr, another supremely talented youngster, by 49 points to 18 in his rookie season. It seemed Formula 1’s established drivers were a little sour that someone so young could be so talented. He was branded dangerous by Felipe Massa for a high-speed incident at Monaco, but Verstappen was typically resolute in his response. He hit back and pointed out a similar incident involving Massa a season earlier.
His high-speed crash into Saint Devote corner at Monaco was heavily criticised, with Verstappen being called dangerous by Felipe Massa.
At the works Red Bull team, though, there was another driver causing a stir for the wrong reasons. Daniil Kvyat, who became known as the ‘Torpedo’, was publicly pressured for unsafe and unsporting actions of his own, nor was he turning heads with his results. Red Bull pondered a switch with Verstappen before the 2016 season began but decided to stick with the Russian. Just four races into the season, after another high-profile incident involving Sebastian Vettel at the Russian Grand Prix, Kvyat was dropped to Toro Rosso and Verstappen replaced him for the Spanish Grand Prix weekend. What followed will go down in Formula 1 history as one of the most incredible fairy-tale stories.
Verstappen lined up 4th on the grid in a mighty first qualifying effort, just four-tenths behind new teammate Daniel Ricciardo. It was Ricciardo who was trusted to put pressure on the Mercedes duo ahead in the race, with Max trying to keep the Ferraris at bay behind and support his teammate. In just four corners, though, everything changed. Mercedes teammates and title contenders Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton collided and retired immediately, leaving the two Red Bulls and the chasing Ferraris to battle it out for victory. Kimi Raikkonen and Verstappen opted for the preferable two-stop strategy, while Ricciardo and Sebastian Vettel mixed things up with a three-stop race, a gamble that didn’t pay off. The latter pair dropped way back from the lead as a result, leaving Raikkonen and Verstappen to battle for the win. Verstappen held off the experienced Finn for 30 laps on his final stint to claim victory in his first race with Red Bull. In doing so, he became the youngest race winner in Formula 1 history, displaying wisdom and understanding way beyond his years.
Verstappen won his maiden Grand Prix for Red Bull in Barcelona which, at 18 years and 228 days, made him the youngest winner in the history of Formula 1.
If that wasn’t impressive enough, later that same year in Brazil, he would produce an incredible drive at a sodden Interlagos, making 13 overtakes in just 15 laps to claim 3rd place. His team boss Christian Horner declared it one of the best drives he’d seen in Formula 1, a view shared by journalists and pundits alike. It may not have been a victory, but Verstappen demonstrated supreme levels of confidence, ability and understanding of how to optimise a car’s performance in unfavourable conditions. He’d develop a reputation for incredible wet-weather car control which played its part in future victories, like in Germany 2019 and Imola 2021.
Many expected Verstappen to kick on in 2017 and dominate his teammate Ricciardo, but things didn’t turn out quite as expected. In the first fourteen races, Verstappen was only able to finish seven of them with race-ending collisions in Spain, Austria and Singapore, then mechanical failures in four others. He did win again in Malaysia and Mexico, but Verstappen’s performances since his Spanish Grand Prix victory had been overshadowed by controversial incidents.
At the Belgian Grand Prix he collided with Raikkonen, pushed three cars wide into Les Combes and aggressively blocked Raikkonen on the Kemmel straight. Race director Charlie Whiting warned Verstappen for his driving and banned moving under braking, which became known as the ‘Verstappen rule’. It was obvious the young Dutchman was seriously fast, but a little reckless. Sebastian Vettel later raised questions over Verstappen’s conduct after the Brazilian Grand Prix where he had excelled, suggesting he had forced the Ferrari off track in one of his late overtakes. Race control didn’t share Vettel’s opinion and Verstappen was not punished, but it marked another occasion where his conduct had caused some debate.
2018 started with a continuation of the mistakes and naivety that had plagued Verstappen in spells through his Red Bull tenure. In Australia, he repeatedly made errors including a spin and excursion off track that damaged his car but claimed 6th after retirements for both Haas cars in front. He crashed in qualifying in Bahrain, started 15th and collided with Lewis Hamilton early, the resulting puncture damaging his suspension and ending his race. Verstappen was penalised for causing a collision in China with an impatient lunge on Sebastian Vettel – he recovered to 5th, but championship leader Vettel could only bring his stricken Ferrari home to 8th. Teammate Ricciardo, meanwhile, picked up a stellar victory.
In the 2018 Chinese Grand Prix, Verstappen was penalised for a late lunge on Sebastian Vettel which caused both cars to pirouette.
Tensions had been brewing between the two Red Bull drivers for a little while, Ricciardo branding Max a ‘sore loser’ when the pair collided during a Ricciardo overtake in Hungary 2017. The frustrations finally came to a head in Baku. The two drivers pushed their luck with each other throughout the race and risked a serious crash, which eventually happened and caused a double retirement. Verstappen would bounce back in Spain before a crash in Monaco practice meant he missed the crucial qualifying, starting last at a venue where overtaking is difficult. He recovered to 9th but teammate Ricciardo would take another victory.
The infamous incident at Baku between the two Red Bull cars was undoubtedly a factor in Daniel Ricciardo's divorce with Red Bull, the Australian feeling there was a clear bias towards Verstappen within the team.
After Monaco, Red Bull bosses openly criticised Verstappen’s start to 2018, indicating he was impatient and needed to learn from Ricciardo’s demeanour. His response when asked about his problems in Canada was clear and typically to-the-point, he’d heard enough criticism and might ‘punch’ anyone who continued. To give him his due, Verstappen was almost flawless from Monaco onwards and has seldom made errors in the three years since. Victory in Austria just a few weeks after his Monaco woes meant he reaffirmed his status as Red Bull’s superstar, much to the disappointment of Daniel Ricciardo. Verstappen was given a new bumper multi-year contract while Ricciardo appeared to be neglected – after the incidents between the two and growing frustrations over favouritism of Verstappen, this was the final straw. The Australian announced midway through 2018 that he would be departing for the midfield Renault team the following season.
Ricciardo claimed he was impressed with Renault’s recent improvement and he wanted to be part of that project, but really it seemed he just wanted to feel like a team’s main man again. The departure of Ricciardo changed the picture at Red Bull considerably. At this point, Verstappen was still having on-track altercations like his incident in Brazil with Esteban Ocon that cost him certain victory. He was a slightly irresponsible young driver with a lot of potential and he was suddenly thrust into the limelight as the team leader for 2019, the man everyone would trust with the future of the Red Bull team. A tall order for anyone, but he could not have responded in much better fashion.
In the first half of 2019, his extraordinary pace pushed his new teammate Pierre Gasly to breaking point, the Frenchman imploding under the pressure and returning to AlphaTauri in the summer break. Rookie Alex Albon replaced him just twelve races into his F1 career and, although things initially looked a little more promising, Verstappen still completely outshone the young Thai. He was replaced at the end of 2020 by the experienced Sergio Perez, who departed from Racing Point. In the two full seasons since Ricciardo’s departure, Verstappen secured five victories, three pole positions and countless podiums, while the second Red Bull only reached the podium twice in the hands of Alex Albon, with considerable fortune involved in both instances. Neither of the teammates Max had in that time appeared anywhere near his level, but take nothing away from the quality of Verstappen’s driving in what was a fast, but characteristically difficult car to perfect.
Seemingly overnight, the already impressive Dutchman gained the maturity and sensibility that had once alluded him and transformed into a true champion-elect, a far cry from his early behaviour which left a lot to be desired. He always had the confidence and integrity a racing driver needs, but the moderation and rationality count for just as much. 2021 looks to be Verstappen’s first full-blooded attempt at a title in Formula 1, the only time he’s ever had a car worthy of taking a sustained fight to Mercedes over a full season instead of just a handful of races. He’s proven he can win with an underdog, now he needs to prove he can win with a genuine championship-winning machine. It sounds silly, but that’s an awful lot harder.
Verstappen won 10 Formula 1 races before the 2021 season, each time taking victory in a car that wasn't fast enough to challenge for titles.
Running at the front for an entire season brings a different level of pressure and intensity than only having the pace to challenge every now and then. We’ve seen already in the 2021 season that mistakes are magnified in such a fierce fight, and instances of good or bad luck make a considerable difference too. Verstappen has been caught out a few times by track limits, losing an overtake for the lead in Bahrain that he wasn’t able to repeat and missing out on pole position and fastest lap in Portimao. Minor mistakes that cost him big and, had he gotten away with them, he’d probably lead the championship comfortably.
While Verstappen has suffered a fair amount of misfortune, on the opposite end of the scale his title rival Hamilton has ridden his luck to stay in front. A big mistake at Imola sent him into the gravel for over a minute, dropping to ninth and a lap behind Verstappen in the lead. The red flag that came shortly afterwards following a crash between his teammate and George Russell meant he recovered that lost lap and could use his car advantage to recover to 2nd. Without the stoppage, he’d have probably finished 6th at best.
The 2021 season is likely to be nip-and-tuck from start to finish, with both Mercedes and Red Bull appearing evenly matched in terms of full potential. Red Bull took victory in Imola despite missing out on pole, while Mercedes did the same in Sakhir.
Incidents like these are ones that define battles and are often decisive in who comes out on top. Verstappen must show that he can keep his head against a seven-time world champion when the pressure ramps up on race day. If his mightily impressive growth as a Formula 1 driver is anything to go by, he’ll take this in his stride as well.