Abu Dhabi F1: Max Verstappen, a young man fast-tracked to superstardom and in a hurry to catch Lewis Hamilton
The Red Bull driver projects buccaneering spirit of a past racing era into the new social media age
Max Verstappen jokingly describes himself as “Verstappen 2.0”.
The F1 sensation has been cast as the manifestation of his father Jos’ dream to right the wrongs after his own talent was squandered while Benetton cashed in on the riches of teammate Michael Schumacher in 1994.
But it’s not a picture the 22-year-old Red Bull racer, who is among the favourites to win this weekend’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, buys into.
“If your dad starts to push you, for five or six years it’d be OK, but in the end you wouldn’t enjoy it anymore,” said Max. “Luckily it wasn’t like that. It came completely from me.”
In fact he had to resort to bursting into tears at age four-and-a-half to get his father to relent on his intention to wait for his first kart until he was six.
Sister Victoria, with her new clothing range called 'Unleash The Beast', lends insight to life inside a racing dynasty.
“The way we were brought up to race is to be aggressive and on the edge, while staying focused. The goal is always to win, no other outcome matters,” she said.
Any time spent with the baby-faced Dutch wonder boy makes it plain he is mature beyond his years but wears the cloak of fame and the mantle as the sport’s future very lightly.
Closer scrutiny has, to some extent, been at the heart of Lewis Hamilton’s tortured relations with the media.
Sebastian Vettel, like Kimi Raikkonen, simply shuns his wider responsibilities to his fans but Verstappen is a true child of his time; fostering one of the biggest fan clubs in F1 already (colours bright orange, naturally) while still managing to project the buccaneering spirit of a past racing era into the new social media age.
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And little wonder. F1 racer was the role he was born to play, almost literally: the Verstappen dynasty stretches back two generations: as well as grandfather Paul, there is father, Jos, uncle Anthony, mother Sophie and sister Victoria. All racers of merit.
Indeed it would have been more surprising had he not become one. But who could have known he would be quite this good. Especially as he took the risky shortcut to fame.
After a decorated decade in karting - and in a convention more appropriate to his father’s era - he was hoiked straight from the junior Formula 3 category in to F1.
While peers such as Hamilton had spent six years or more labouring through the junior ranks, opportunity came knocking so quickly for Verstappen it took just 47 races over 12 months and 11 days to reach F1.
“If I could compare him to one driver it would be Ayrton Senna,” said Red Bull chief Helmut Marko. “He was one-and-a-half seconds faster than his rivals in the wet. It was clear he was something very special."
Verstappen walked away from Varennes in France as KZ1 karting champion on September 22, 2013 and arrived in F1 for Friday's first practice at Suzuka, Japan on October 3, 2014. “F1 was always the dream but I didn’t expect it to happen this fast,” admitted a stunned Verstappen at the time.
Mercedes and Red Bull both came knocking but the Milton Keynes operation were the only ones willing to roll the dice on a two-year deal demanded by Verstappen senior to maximise his chances of making it stick.
His own career never recovered from an accident strewn first season.
But it was a neat piece of family symbiosis that Max’s journey began in the same place his father’s had ended – Minardi, now rebranded Toro Rosso.
While the debate raged about his age, just 17 when he signed his first contract, many predicted disaster, but team boss Christian Horner insisted: “If he’s fast enough he’s old enough.”
From the outset it was clear it had been no gamble at all; Verstappen was happy going toe-to-toe on the track or in the media, firing back casually at veterans such as Raikkonen and Felipe Massa, who branded the teenager a danger.
The sport and its fans were instantly in love: at the annual FIA prize-giving in 2015 - his first full season - Verstappen had not won a race but was awarded three trophies: Rookie of the Year, Personality, and Action of the Year for best overtaking move.
He was also a marketing dream, cast from the same racing gold as F1’s best-loved heroes like Hamilton and Senna, allied to the boyish good looks and charm of Giles Villeneuve, not to mention his speed.
When the Dutchman was promoted to the Red Bull senior squad in his second season the impact was immediate, becoming the sport’s youngest ever winner in Spain.
Four years on he heads to Yas Marina Circuit with eight wins, two pole positions and 30 podiums under his belt from 101 Grands Prix. Not yet 23, his place among the elite is firmly established.
And there was another hallmark drive at the last round in Brazil, overtaking the newly-crowned six-time world champion Hamilton around the outside and inside of the same corner on his way to victory.
While many regard Verstappen as Hamilton’s equal, the Dutchman’s hunt for his first title has been overshadowed by the might of Mercedes.
Next year Verstappen must decide whether to stick with Red Bull and the emerging Honda challenge or leap onto the driver merry-go-round at Brackley and Maranello. It could be the decision that defines his career.
His father insists, though, championships are the only thing on the agenda.
“There is no family quest to put the record straight. Max is not racing for me, he is doing it for himself,” he said.
“I am far prouder of anything he does than I ever have been about what I’ve done. And I really believe he will be champion one day.”
He’s not the only one.
Updated: November 27, 2019 04:38 PM