Formula 1: What makes Max Verstappen a hero to so many

“And with Max, once he’s behind the wheel he never really looks back,” Earl Bamber once said. “He’s an old man with a young body.”

The Dutchman, 18 years old and the youngest ever winner of a grands prix, is, as a young man in a young sport, defined by two words: “What, Me Worry?”

Verstappen has tackled every test in his career so far with a soft-as-Caesar and indomitable quality that, in some minds, has actually undermined his rise to Formula 1 dominance.

Every single one of his earlier races, in GP2 or a junior Grand Prix or a hot-spring testing lap, was more or less the same.

There’s no confusion about his pace. The talent is obvious enough, and the style of racing derivative enough to avoid the burden of “specialist driver” tag.

He is – as Force India team-mate and former McLaren team-mate Sergio Perez put it – a character, his showmanship and aggression entertaining to watch but ultimately inimical to success.

After winning his first race at China in 2016, he landed a second and third at Azerbaijan and Australia respectively – and by the time of Bahrain two months later, third places in both of the opening three rounds had made him the youngest champion in formula one history.

It seemed like he’d jumped from the bins of junior F1 to a championship leader board, but in truth, that had been at least some percentage of his rise since he turned 18.

Max Verstappen’s Formula 1 career Born: 5 January, 1992 (Age 18)

5 January, 1992 (Age 18) Grand Prix debut: 2014 Australian Grand Prix

2014 Australian Grand Prix Championship wins: two

two Races completed: 125 (at Bahrain and Baku)

125 (at Bahrain and Baku) Points: 67 (at Bahrain and Baku)

67 (at Bahrain and Baku) Top five finishes: 4

4 Career wins: two

The old regime had a slogan about pace – just as they did when they brought Lewis Hamilton to the sport: “We look at them but they look at us”.

It was said while Verstappen was setting fastest lap records in GP2, and when he helped give Sebastian Vettel his first world title in 2014 by pushing the Red Bull team-mate close for second place in Malaysia.

An innate feel for the limit of the machinery – Verstappen hates braking on corners – coupled with the freedom to toy with his rivals in a way that could one day get Red Bull’s backside into the same sort of scrap as Ferrari’s Michael Schumacher (who got his own revenge by winning four titles in a row).

Even at the age of 18, he was already provoking plenty of jealousy, at least in the small corners of the sport.

Vettel described him as “cold, competitive and emotional”, Kimi Raikkonen as “very complete in his driving and so clear he should be a world champion”, and Nico Rosberg as “a fighter, humble and reliable, not a newcomer to the sport”.

Those are not people who use unprintable languages but one-line vignettes, easy to imagine being recollected as life goes on, and just some of the vitriol Verstappen has attracted.

He has also achieved plenty, of course. He is only the third Dutchman after Schumacher and Niki Lauda to win a grand prix, and sixth driver to get his maiden title.

The fact is that he is only young, and will soon slip back a bit. He is only 18 and, given the track-records he has already smashed, he can not yet legitimately be called a special talent.

He is far from the flash, brash character Perez described, but Verstappen is actually a mature, mature person – a young man in a not-so-young sport.

The sport needs someone like that in this era of younger and younger talent.

This article was amended on 4 April 2020 to clarify that the men the reference to were Andy van der Frieten, Max Milne, Mika Hakkinen and Max Lipon.

Leave a Comment