BUXTON: Born to race, lightning quick, ruthless on track – and now Max Verstappen is a world champion
There’s been an inevitability about this. Long before his incredible 2021. Before even his first win. It pre-dates his debut in Formula 1. And single seaters. Even karts. From the day of his birth, articles were written saying that Max Emilian Verstappen would become Formula 1 world champion.
And now he has.
The man who denied Lewis Hamilton, in a season where he found new depths to his insatiable and undeniable talent and desire, was born to racing stock. While his father’s Formula 1 story is well known, his mother was also a racer in her own right. And a damn quick one.
She was Jenson Button’s team mate in karts in 1995 and he raved about her to Beyond The Grid as a “fantastic”, “awesome” driver who was “so fast”. She raced against the likes of Dario Franchitti, Giancarlo Fisichella, Jarno Trulli, Jan Magnussen… even Christian Horner, the man who would become her son’s team boss 30 years later. Horner rated her as top 10. In the world.
Racing is the only life Max has ever known. While his mother hung up her helmet to support her husband’s F1 career, as his own professional racing journey reached its twilight Jos focused on his son’s prodigious talent. Max was terrorising kart tracks from the age of four, winning title after title with his unabashed and sometimes overtly aggressive style catching the attention of pundits and rivals alike.
It was a school of hard knocks and tough love. Max has never shied away from detailing quite how tough his father could be if he underperformed. The stories are plentiful, and make for some difficult reading. But as someone who had charted his own course through the cut-throat world of motorsport, Jos was attempting to create a thick skin on a child who seemed set to ascend the ranks quicker than his years might ordinarily have allowed a defence mechanism to develop organically.
The certainty of his rise got up people’s noses. Spats with racing rivals were numerous. I witnessed at first hand the disdain with which he was treated in his first open wheel championship when Ferrari launched an entry-level winter series, racing F4 cars in Florida in 2014.
Max was just 16, and in a championship with open data and post session group debriefs, often were the times when his older, more experienced rivals were left shocked and awed by what this kid was doing. They either couldn’t comprehend how he did it or simply couldn’t find the means to replicate it. They knew then, as we know now, that his destiny would outshine them all. And they hated him for it.
He was just a child back then, starting out on what was to be the most incredibly quick rise to the top table of motorsport. The Ferrari juniors all kept their own counsel and stuck to their own clique. Max was an outsider, quiet and seemingly insular. But in conversation he was carefree, silly, playful. He was a lot of fun to be around.
But when that visor came down he was lightning. Channelled, determined, focussed, he was toying with his rivals, hanging off their rear wing as he’d always done to rear bumpers in karts and already deploying what would become known as “the Verstappen defence”, positioning his car in the middle of the track so as to create less ground to cover depending on which way his combatant moved for a pass.
This was his first foray into single seaters. And he was already playing with everyone else on track.
Incredibly, by the end of the year he was running Formula 1 free practice sessions for Toro Rosso, beautifully catching slides and leaving onlookers agog. A year after making his open wheel debut, he was lining up on the grid for his first Grand Prix.
That brash, unashamed style he’d brought from karting was still there. His joy at toying with his rivals was ever present. The beautiful simplicity of the gargantuan gift he’d been granted was clear for everyone to see. Here was someone supremely special. A world champion in waiting.
But he’s had to work at his craft, adapt and change. And that wasn’t always obvious to him. Perhaps because the ascent had been so fast, not simply to Formula 1 but within a season and a few races to one of the very best teams in the sport and the top step of the podium, he built a level of unshakable confidence in his own abilities. If criticism came his way, he would shrug it off, deeming that he had always raced this way and it had got him this far. So why change?
Perhaps a few years of F3 and F2 would have shaken that out of him. But he had to do his learning on the grandest stage of all.
In interviews he’d rarely be expressive or emotional. Perhaps, again, the tutelage of a driver father who raced in an era of nigh on robotic public relations didn’t help that, nor the thick skin that tough love had built. Nor that for Max racing was and is pretty much all he knew. Interests away from the track? Sim racing. There seemed few layers to the boy, few dimensions to explore.
But as he aged so he grew. Year on year, the lessons of the past seemed to sink in. A realisation of self as an individual, of learning and understanding who he was in himself as a man, not just as a driver. A relationship and the family it brought to him. The responsibilities and care he needed to deliver not just to himself now, but to others.
And all the while, a team being formed around him. Taking all he’d learnt from those with more experience and applying it to his own craft. Stepping up to be a team leader, helping to fashion a car perfectly suited to his needs, pulling his garage and crew around him, inspiring and delivering. Week in, week out.
Still ruthless on track, now more mindful on and off it. Mesmerisingly fast, he has enough spare capacity to either joke with his engineers or start to call potential strategies for himself and his team mate while in the midst of the fight. Still pushing the limits of what is acceptable to the absolute limit, still getting up his rivals’ noses. Still unapologetic. And with a car finally underneath him to compete and contend at every track, now handed the gilt-edged opportunity to grasp his perceived birthright.
But he hasn’t had it easy. Yes, the Red Bull has inarguably been the class of the field for much of the season, but Mercedes have fought back valiantly and by the final quarter of the season could claim to have had the upper hand. And at times, with a team mate still adapting to a car suited primarily to Verstappen and a team built around him, it hasn’t so much been Mercedes versus Red Bull as it has been Mercedes versus Max.
He can still carry an air of arrogance. He can still push things too far. Couldn’t we all at 24?
He isn’t the finished article. Not by a long stretch. He’s still learning. Still growing. Still finding his way in the world.
A world which now stands at his feet. Formula 1 world champion. And only, really, at the beginning of the ascent to the greatness he can no doubt achieve. If we imagine the driver Hamilton was at 24, a first world title under his belt too, and we see the man and the racer he has become into his mid 30s, we should marvel at what lies ahead for our newest champion when he finally and truly learns from his faults and fully realises his potential.
The talent that exists within him is indisputable and limitless.
A future world champion no more.
The only question now is how many he’ll achieve.