Since 2014, Formula One, the supposed pinnacle of motorsport, has been suffering from dwindling audiences and interest. With the introduction of the current turbo-hybrid era engines, F1 has been utterly dominated by only one outfit, the Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 Team.
With one time rookie sensation Lewis Hamilton bringing in his sole World Driver’s Championship win in McLaren to the German squad, the team has been able to amass six more WDC titles for Lewis and one for former driver Nico Rosberg. As a constructor, Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 has swept the team titles since 2014. Such is the dominance of the German brand whose home base in Brackley, England has brought the best of racing skill, strategy, and technical ingenuity to the limelight with its record-setting performance.
Despite its commendable showing in the last seven seasons, Mercedes-AMG Petronas has gifted the sport with a drought of inter-team duels and excitement. The sheer dominance of the Mercs on and off the track meant that if there was any dueling going on, it would be between its two drivers. Such has been the dilemma of the sport where technical excellence, as much as driver talent, is needed to win championships. And the competition has fallen short in these two key aspects, until a certain Max Verstappen entered the picture in 2015.
The son of former Formula one star, Jos Verstappen, Max grew up in an era when the dominating force was Michael Schumacher and Ferrari. Born on Sept. 30, 1997, Max grew up in a world where his father was at his racing prime. But more than that, he has a mother who herself was a karting ace, Sophie Kumpen. So you can imagine how family dinners went during Max’s formative years.
With a racing history that started in karting in 2003, Max would make a big name for himself in the entry-level sport. He won his first go kart championship in 2005 and then would win all 21 races in the Belgium Karting Championship Mini Category the year after to again become champion. He would again repeat the 100 percent race winning feat in 2007 at the Belgian Rotax Challenge Mini Max Category to become champion. He also entered the Dutch Rotax Mini Max championship that year, and you guessed it, he became the champion.
In 2008, he added 3 more karting championships, winning all but 3 races he entered in that year. And in 2009, an additional 3 more karting championships were under his belt by year’s end.
By the time he was 12, he would take part in seven international karting championships. He took two titles that year, and came in 2nd in two more. In 2013, now 15 years of age, Max ran his last season in karting and won six out of the eight events he participated in. One year later, he would contest two junior formula events, even bagging a 6-race winning streak in the FIA European Formula 3 championship.
Max’s early success in karting, and his impressive debut in single seaters that year, would finally land him on the radar of F1 teams like Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz and Lotus. The young Dutchman was eventually confirmed to join Red Bull Racing’s junior program in August of 2014. Just six days later he was also confirmed for a move to Red Bull Racing’s sister team in F1, Scuderia Toro Rosso the following year. At then 17 years and 166 days, Verstappen would become the youngest driver to compete in Formula One. This despite not even having a driver’s license.
Despite raising eyebrows in the sport by entering at such a young age, Verstappen’s meteoric rise through the ranks of motorsport was all due to merit. And his talent on the track would prove it. After a learning year in Toro Rosso, even finishing as high as 4th in the Hungarian Grand Prix in 2015, Max would start his second season in F1 with a big surprise a few races into the season.
“Oh by the way, next week you’re driving for Red Bull, so get ready.” This was how Max spontaneously received the news over lunch with Dr. Helmut Marko, Red Bull Racing advisor and head of Red Bull’s Driver Development Program. A seat swap between Red Bull’s Daniil Kvyat and Max was done by the team at the fifth round of the championship letting Max finally get a taste of top of the line machinery. And he didn’t disappoint as he would win his first Formula One race that weekend in the 2016 Spanish Grand Prix making him the youngest winner the sport has seen.
His talent was not his only weapon coming into the sport. Max Verstappen’s formative years in karting has honed him into a complete, race winning package many other racing drivers could only dream of becoming. But what makes Max such a racing sensation?
In a CarNext.com interview hosted by ex-F1 driver David Coulthard, Max mentioned one key asset great drivers should have. “To be honest, if you are really good, you can adapt to any car,” shares Max. “When I started in 2015, to the car we have now, it is quite different. Also the way you were driving it is quite different. So you adjust yourself to it, hopefully.”
The driver who can adjust and tweak his driving style to any car more quickly will surely have an advantage over the driver who has to set up his car to suit his style. This only shows the raw talent inherent in Max as he could maximize the performance of the car at any given time.
Having youth on his side, Max has the propensity to explore the limits of his car without fear and hesitancy. His racecraft during offense and defense shows he does not become wary of other drivers, no matter their stature in the sport. It is this aggression that has given him the upper hand during a race, even when his car was not up to pace.
His commitment to his overtaking maneuvers is solid. There is just no second-guessing in what he does on the track. Though whether he makes the overtaking move stick or not, is another story. At the start of round 2 at Imola this year, Max would take the lead after putting his elbows out on 7-time champion Lewis Hamilton coming into turns 1 and 2. It is this kind of aggression, now tempered after seven years in the sport and aided by a car that is performing at its peak, that is resulting in victories this year and the championship lead so far.
Max is mentally prepared for his time in Formula One and it shows in the interviews he does. While he can be accused of being cocky, often giving answers as if he had done no wrong during the race, it is this resounding belief in one’s own actions that ultimately defines a championship-winning driver. Whether it is moving across while braking, late braking and bumping wheels, getting into other drivers’ heads and forcing them into rants and errors, Max will do anything to get ahead.
Michael Schumacher comes to mind when recalling a driver who thought they were on the right even though the evidence showed they were at fault. And in the case of Max, it is what it is. And after the deed is done, he moves on mentally to the next race as if nothing wrong happened.
At 23 years of age, Max Verstappen has finally become the catalyst of change in Formula One. The last time a rookie had this much impact on the sport was when a certain Lewis Hamilton electrified the 2007 season opener in Melbourne and finished third in his maiden Formula One race. Ironic how it is now Hamilton and Mercedes’ dominance that has made F1 a snooze fest. But with the resurgence of Red Bull Racing this year resulting in Max Verstappen’s cleaner and smoother drives, we now have a title fight in our hands.
With 15 wins and 50 career podiums on hand, Max has shown he is ready to win this year’s title. The exciting races we have seen so far this 2021 is an indication that if teams sort their cars right, real talent will shine through. Now, the championship is Max’s and Red Bull’s to lose.
Motoring and motorsports are two of Mikko’s greatest passions. Combining more than twenty years of professional automotive photography and videography experience with years of touring car racing competition, and a deep understanding of the car industry, from both the manufacturers’ and consumers’ points of view, have given him a unique and insightful perspective in the motoring beat.