Max Power

21st April 2018

He’s a young man with lofty aspirations – and the raw talent to back them up. Meet Max Verstappen, the 20-year-old pretender to F1’s throne

Words by Philip Duncan

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He might only be 20 years old, but racing driver Max Verstappen’s career has already been marked by controversy. When it was announced that he would be racing in Formula 1 back in 2015, he made headlines across the world. How could someone so junior, too young to even obtain a road licence, be allowed to race the world’s fastest automobiles? So aghast were F1’s rule-makers that they subsequently raised the minimum age for a competitor to 18, but the law would be enforced too late to stop Verstappen, and aged just 17 years and 166 days, he became the youngest driver in nearly 70 years of grand prix history to compete in the season-opening race in Melbourne. 

The records would not stop there: the youngest driver to lead a race; the youngest driver to record a fastest lap; the youngest to score points; the youngest to secure a podium; the youngest to start from pole position; and the youngest winner in history, too. It’s hardly surprising, then, that there’s more buzz surrounding Verstappen today than any other young man on the circuit. How he performs this season will define his career – and there are plenty out there who believe he has what it takes to be the next great racing star.

He has a lot of raw talent and he is only getting better with age

“We all know Max is an exceptional driver,” enthused Lewis Hamilton, fresh from sealing a fourth Formula 1 World Championship in Mexico last year. “He has a lot of raw talent and he is only going to get better with age. Red Bull have a World Champion in him, that’s for sure.” Verstappen may have competed in only three seasons, but he is already the obvious heir to Hamilton’s F1 throne. Fast, fearless, aggressive, confident – the sport has not seen the like of him since Hamilton himself first burst onto the scene back in 2007.

Their upbringings, however, could not have been more different. Hamilton, who was raised in a modest Stevenage council flat, would see his father Anthony work around the clock to cobble together enough money to go racing. For Verstappen, motorsport was in the genes. His mother Sophie raced karts; his father Jos was best known for playing understudy to Michael Schumacher at Benetton, and for miraculously surviving a pit-stop inferno at the 1994 German Grand Prix, when his car caught fire. The same couldn’t be said for his career. Jos was a journeyman F1 driver who started more than 100 grands prix, but would never trouble the top step of the podium.

“My father has been very, very important for my career,” Max explains. “He has helped me, he has supported me, and he even stopped racing so he could teach me everything he knows. Without him I would not be in this position.” Verstappen’s early experiences on the track began with kart racing (his father had a team) from the age of four and a half, and he has a confidence that comes from winning consistently from a young age. “I was quite competitive from eight years old,” he said last year. “You could see it in the national races. Out of about 70 races, I won 68, so there wasn’t much competition. I wondered how it would be when I went international, but I was still having good results, so I thought, ‘OK, this doesn’t look too bad.’”

Stopping school at 15, he admits, was a risk: “A lot of people in racing did the same. It didn’t work out and they had to go back to school and study again.” But for him, failure was never an option. “I didn’t want to go back to studying, so that was my motivation to do well.”

I didn’t want to go back to studying, so that was my motivation to do well.

Verstappen has gone on to ruffle the feathers of the established order with his thrill-a-minute driving, and has pushed the letter of the law like no other. So much so that Vettel drove calls for the governing body to clamp down on what he viewed as the Dutchman’s dangerous driving, and the so-called “Verstappen law” – which outlawed drivers from moving under braking – was introduced only to be swiftly abolished.

There have been other controversies, too. Yet nothing has affected his following. An estimated 30,000 Dutch fans crossed the Belgian border last year to cheer on their hero, while the sport’s bosses are cashing in on his popularity by closing in on a deal to take F1 racing back to Holland for the first time in more than three decades. He has also won the journalist-voted FIA Personality of the Year award for the last three years.

“It must be because I’m a great guy,” he says with a smile, never one to hide his light under a bushel. “I’m always straightforward and honest, and that’s very important.”

Verstappen ended the 2017 campaign with a bang – securing two victories from the last six races – while also agreeing an impressive new Red Bull deal earning him in the region of £20 million a year. “I don’t know what challenges will face me this year – if I did I’d go on the stock market straight away,” he says. “But hopefully we can continue where we left off last season – that’s why I signed a new contract with Red Bull.”

Can he take the challenge to Hamilton and add the title of the sport’s youngest World Champion to his record-busting resume? “Last year we had our difficult periods, but I saw how hard the team was working to improve, so it gives me a lot of confidence that we can achieve great things together,” Verstappen ominously replies. “I am positive – so let’s wait and see.”

One thing’s for sure: Hamilton will be watching with intent.

This article is taken from the Goodwood magazine, Spring 2018 issue

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