HALL OF FAME
In 2021 24-year-old Max Verstappen became the 34th Formula 1 World Champion, taking the title from seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton amid controversy on the last lap of the last race. Driving on the limit – sometimes over it – their intense rivalry became a personal feud that pushed them far beyond the rest of the field. The enthralling battle between the ultra-confident Dutch youngster and the most successful driver in the sport’s history captured the imagination of a worldwide audience as never before.
Max Emilian Verstappen was born 30 September, 1997 in Hasselt, Belgium, and has a younger sister, Victoria. His Belgian mother, Sophie Kumpen, was a successful kart racer and his Dutch father, Jos Verstappen, a former F1 driver. After his parents separated Max lived in Holland with his father, who masterminded the boy racer’s fast-moving career.
As a two-year-old toddler Max first flogged a mini quad bike around the family garden, then drove a rented go-kart as a four-year-old. Four years later he began competing, progressing quickly through various karting categories and winning titles in several European countries.
Now recognised as a force to be reckoned with in the motorsport world, he distinguished himself in test drives with prominent single-seater teams. In August 2014, having rejected an offer from Mercedes to join their driver development programme, he was recruited to join the Red Bull Junior Team, a move deemed to be the quicker way into their F1 goal by the Verstappens - father and son.
Jos ‘The Boss’ Verstappen, was the driving force behind every move Max made. The Boss was a F1 driver from 1994 to 2003. Competing in 107 Grands Prix with seven different teams he scored 17 points and two podiums. There were also numerous accidents but there was no denying he was a hard-trying, hard-nosed competitor who had a fierce temper in and out of the car. Jos was a tough taskmaster, constantly pushing his boy to improve. An old school thinker, his lessons were not data-driven but learn-by-driving. Before long, obviously a chip off the old block, Max Verstappen became his own man.
In 2015 he made his F1 debut with Red Bull’s junior team Scuderia Toro Rosso. He drove hard, though not flawlessly and was censured several times for dangerous driving. At the FIA prize giving ceremony he was awarded trophies for both Rookie Of The Year and Personality Of The Year.
In May of 2016 he was promoted to the Red Bull Racing squad. Still a teenager, he won his debut race with the team (in Spain) and finished fifth overall in the standings. Red Bull team boss Christian Horner: ”Max has proven to be an outstanding young talent.”
Yet there were more collisions and near misses that worried some of his peers, such as Kimi Raikkonen: “He is going to cause a huge accident sooner or later”. Charlie Whiting, F1 race director, warned the boy-wonder to tone down his aggressive driving.
In 2017 he won in Malaysia the day after his 20th birthday (by overtaking Lewis Hamilton) and won again in Mexico. Despite several accidental retirements including three first-lap collisions, he finished sixth in the championship. His 2018 season featured worrying flashpoints: episodes of wheel-banging clashes and collisions, pushing rivals off the track and other misdemeanours. Race authorities issued time penalties and drops in grid positions. His team bosses told him he was too impatient and must stop making mistakes. Yet he won two races and finished fourth overall in the standings.
In 2019 Red Bull switched from Renault to superior Honda power units. With three race wins and nine podiums the team’s burgeoning star placed third in the championship. In 2020 he was third again. By now the former child prodigy had taken the sport by storm, a ferociously fast, relentlessly aggressive, uncompromising racer. Bold and brash whether forcefully attacking or defending, he relished wheel-to-wheel battles, outbraving opponents with breathtakingly late braking. Team boss Christian Horner: “Max drives in a manner that ignites passion.” Red Bull Motorsport Advisor Helmut Marko: “He has unbelievable speed. Max has all the ingredients to become an absolute champion.”
In 2021, a hectic 22-race season crammed into nine months by Covid-19 complications, 36-year-old Lewis Hamilton and 24-year-old Max Verstappen were streets ahead of everyone else. Their cars, the Mercedes W12 and the Red Bull Racing-Honda RB16B, were the class of the field. The two title protagonists dominated, with Hamilton pursuing a record eighth championship and Verstappen intent on winning his first. Often they started on the front row. Fourteen times the duelling duo finished together in the top two positions. Their closely-fought personal battles became increasingly heated.
At Silverstone’s ultrafast Copse corner an overtaking attempt by Hamilton sent Verstappen flying into the barriers. Shaken but uninjured, the 51g hit was the biggest crash of his career. Hamilton was given a 10-second penalty but went on to win, delighting the British fans. While Verstappen was in hospital being checked over, Mercedes were boisterously celebrating the victory, something the Verstappens considered disrespectful.
At Monza four races later they entered the first chicane side by side. They crashed terminally with Verstappen’s car parked precariously on top of the Mercedes. Neither driver was hurt, though there were wheel marks on Hamilton’s helmet. They kept trading victories. Verstappen won his home race at Zandvoort, sending his passionate ‘Orange Army’ of Dutch fans into frenzied rapture.
Contact between the two frontrunners continued. In Saudi Arabia Verstappen was assessed a time penalty for a ‘brake test’ incident that led to the Mercedes clipping the back of the Red Bull car. Hamilton’s victory in this penultimate race placed him exactly equal in points with Verstappen.
The title bout showdown at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix ended with controversy. Hamilton’s race-long lead was interrupted with five of the scheduled 58 laps remaining by a backmarker’s crash that brought out a Safety Car to slow the field while debris was cleaned up. Hamilton, on old tyres, stayed out to protect his lead, Verstappen pitted for fresh tyres and rejoined in second place. Standard procedure in Safety Car situations is to allow all lapped cars to un-lap themselves before a restart. Instead, race control under director Michael Masi chose to instruct just the five cars between Hamilton and Verstappen to un-lap themselves, thus setting the stage for a final lap under full racing conditions. Verstappen’s fresher rubber enabled him to easily overtake Hamilton and cross the finish line first to take the title.
A jubilant Max Verstappen was sportingly congratulated by a shellshocked Lewis Hamilton, who shook hands with him and told him he deserved to be champion – an opinion borne out by Verstappen’s 10 victories to Hamilton’s eight, and his new season record of 18 podiums, one more than Hamilton.
For a while, though, Max Verstappen’s first drivers’ title appeared to hang in the balance. While tears of joy were shed throughout the Red Bull Racing team, their outraged opponents were left seething at what they saw as a ‘contrived’ race outcome produced by the unconventional Safety Car procedure. But Mercedes’ official protests of the result were dismissed by race stewards, and when the team ultimately abandoned any plans to appeal, the Netherlands had their first F1 champion.
At the end-of-season FIA awards ceremony – where Hamilton and Mercedes team boss were notable by their absence – Max Verstappen was accompanied by his proud Dad. Also in their entourage was the new champion’s girlfriend Kelly Piquet, daughter of three-time world champion Nelson Piquet. In his acceptance speech Max Verstappen summed up his accomplishment succinctly.
“Becoming world champion is my life goal achieved. Everything that comes next is a bonus. Of course I am going to keep pushing and I’m going to be here for a few more years yet.
“While it’s nice to be called world champion I think more about the long journey and all the hours I spent working with my Dad to be here. It’s been a long and tough season and I feel amazing to have finally achieved my goal. I hope I can do this more times.
“It’s been an incredible battle with Lewis, one of the greatest drivers ever in Formula 1. We really pushed each other. At the end of the day we can look each other in the eyes and respect each other which is really important.”
Text - Gerald Donaldson