TREMAYNE: How a teenage Verstappen reigned in Spain and rewrote the record books with Red Bull

Hall of Fame F1 Journalist

David Tremayne

May 15th 2016 was an historic day for Formula 1, Red Bull Racing, Holland and the Verstappen family. In one of the sport’s greatest races Max Verstappen well and truly arrived following victory in a nail-biting race in Spain in which the tension never abated for a moment and he became the only Dutchman and the youngest driver ever to win a Grand Prix.

He had been promoted to the Red Bull team from Toro Rosso that very weekend, displacing the unfortunate Daniil Kvyat, and his form in the three practice sessions (sixth, eighth and fourth) and the three qualifying sessions (third, third and fourth) impressed.

READ MORE > IN NUMBERS: The remarkable records Verstappen and Red Bull broke during the 2023 season

We already knew he was something special, but the moment he got his hands on a really competitive car the youngest driver on the grid left no-one in any doubt that he would be a contender.

Of course, he was helped immeasurably by a spectacular fourth-corner clash that took out Mercedes favourites Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton, after the former had beaten the pole-sitter away but then suffered as his engine – incorrectly in derating mode – slowed him enough to tempt the latter into trying to pass (see the clip below). With no disrespect to Mercedes, their elimination made the race.

Daniel Ricciardo had taken the lead from Max during the melee, with the latter’s former team mate Carlos Sainz cheekily battling Sebastian Vettel for fourth as Kimi Raikkonen recovered from too much wheelspin at the start and settled into fifth.

It took Vettel until the eighth lap to displace Carlos, and Kimi did likewise a lap later when the Toro Rosso pitted. But even after that it became clear that the red cars had a fight on their hands.

MONTMELO, SPAIN - MAY 15:  Max Verstappen of Netherlands and Red Bull Racing speaks on his phone in

Verstappen was the centre of attention all weekend in Barcelona

Ricciardo pitted first, on Lap 11, switching from soft to medium Pirelli tyres, then Verstappen and Raikkonen did likewise a lap later, while Vettel went until Lap 15 but couldn’t prevent the Red Bulls from resuming their positions.

Red Bull and Ferrari then opted for three-stop strategies with Daniel and Sebastian respectively, staying with two-stops with Max and Kimi. And just as Pirelli had predicted, if the two-stoppers executed things well, the three-stoppers would struggle to beat them.

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Daniel stopped again on Lap 28, Seb on Lap 29, both taking softs. But Red Bull were covering Kimi with Max and he didn’t stop until Lap 34 for new mediums, a lap before the Finn did likewise.

From then on, until the chequered flag fell after 66 laps, the 18-year-old would come under the most intense pressure from Iceman Kimi, and for much of that time the gap between them was rarely more than a second. Yet on his debut for the Milton Keynes team the teenager reigned supreme with a measured and superbly controlled drive.

Race highlights - Spain 2016

As the kid held off the veteran lap after lap, I was reminded of Fernando Alonso holding off Michael Schumacher at Imola in 2005. The fact that Max never put a wheel wrong despite the pressure suggested even then that we were watching one of the next greats come of age. That’s always a real buzz.

Vettel had got ahead of Ricciardo in their final planned stops, and they were soon closing down the leaders with their fresher rubber, but then they dropped back after the Aussie had pushed briefly ahead under braking for Turn 1 on Lap 59, only to run wide and have to surrender the position.

WATCH: Fernando Alonso relives his epic 2005 Imola battle with Michael Schumacher

They quickly re-engaged and were still battling when the Australian’s left rear tyre gave up with a lap to go; he was lucky to be able to pit for a replacement and retain fourth place, such was his advantage over Valtteri Bottas’ Williams, which finished comfortably ahead of Sainz, Sergio Perez’s Force India and Felipe Massa’s Williams.

In the end, Max won by 0.616s, and the place went wild.

Infiniti Red Bull's Belgian-Dutch driver Max Verstappen wins at the Circuit de Catalunya on May 15,

Max Verstappen crosses the line to seal a record-breaking victory

“It’s amazing,” he said, looking remarkably fresh and unruffled, if a trifle bemused. “I mean, this race felt like an endurance race to me, especially the last 10 laps. I couldn't believe that I was leading. I could hold on to the tyres and I think we did the best strategy possible. I can’t believe it!”

At 18 days, seven months and 16 days old, he became the youngest-ever Grand Prix winner, but just how much of a surprise was that remarkable success to him?

READ MORE > IN NUMBERS: How Verstappen compares to other F1 greats at this stage of his career

“It’s a very big surprise,” he admitted. “Of course I didn’t expect that. On the first stint on the soft I could keep up quite well after the two Mercedes crashed. But at one point, if you are so close behind the first car you start to destroy your tyres so I lost a bit of ground and we decided to pit and went on to the medium tyre.

“Then the car felt great. From there on I was just managing my speed, my tyres; I was just managing everything. At the end I think we did the best strategy possible. Especially in the last stint I got quite a bit of pressure from Kimi behind, but on this track it’s quite difficult to overtake so for me it was a case of not making mistakes, no front locking, so that’s what I tried to do and it worked.

Max Verstappen, Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel on the podium of the GP Spain of Formula 1,

Max Verstappen: A winner on his very first outing for Red Bull

“This feeling to be first… I was targeting a podium but then to win straight away, it’s an amazing feeling.”

When he pitted on the 34th lap, he knew he would be running to the end on his second set of new medium tyres, and that it would be a huge challenge.

READ MORE > UNDERDOG TALES: When Vettel and Toro Rosso splashed their way to a sensational maiden win at Monza

“To be honest I knew it was going to be very hard but from there on you know you have to set your mind and try to control the tyres, especially the first 10 laps. So I didn’t really push. I knew the Ferrari was a bit faster than us today but I just let him catch up and then you’re just controlling the gap.

“Of course sometimes he got DRS so I was using a bit to stay ahead. It worked well until eight laps from the end.”

That was when he was really smart, beyond his tender years.

Race: Mercedes drivers out on lap one after colliding

“We were also catching some traffic and then it was all about managing the last sector really; not to slide too much and to get a good exit out of the chicane. But I have to tell you, the last 10 laps, it was like driving on ice. Sliding a lot, but like I said, it’s all about managing the last sector and getting that good exit. I think that’s how a lot of races are won here in Barcelona.”

But none, perhaps, in quite as spectacular, historically significant and emotional a manner as this one.

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“Obviously I’m happy for Max but disappointed for myself, but that’s racing,” a glum-sounding Raikkonen said. “I was fast but once I got close I could not follow close enough through the last corners and was losing downforce behind him. I tried and tried but it wasn’t enough today.”

“I think first of all, many congratulations to Max, it’s a great achievement and in the end it’s his day,” Vettel added. “As a sportsman I think we have to respect that, so well done to him and to the team.”

Ferrari's Finnish driver Kimi Raikkonen, Infiniti Red Bull's Belgian-Dutch driver Max Verstappen

Verstappen shared the podium with Sebastian Vettel – whose record he had just smashed

One had to feel for Daniel, who could see just how tough a new team mate he had. “Mixed emotions today, for sure,” was his understandable summary of his day. “Some of it was just bad luck today; I was leading and then went on a three-stop strategy, which meant I had to try and pass three cars on track, which isn’t easy.

“In hindsight, it was the wrong thing to do, but maybe during the race it seemed like the right thing to the team. It really sucks to not even be on the podium and then the puncture at the end just rubs salt in the wound.”

READ MORE > LIGHTS TO FLAG: Daniil Kvyat on his rollercoaster ride with Red Bull, that seat swap, and a new chapter outside F1

But he was a big enough man to acknowledge his new team mate’s success. “It’s a big day for Max with his first race win, so congratulations to him. He got the job done. Everyone questioned the decision during the week but he has proven today that he is a top class driver. It’s not hard for me to see Max on the podium, it’s just hard not to be there myself.”

As for poor old Daniil Kvyat, he salvaged something from a tough weekend with 10th place and the final point for Toro Rosso, and fastest lap.

(L to R Top to Bottom)  McLaren Honda's Spanish driver Fernando Alonso, Mercedes AMG Petronas F1

Daniil Kvyat made way for Max Verstappen at the senior Red Bull team

Asked how he felt about having his youngest-ever winner record taken away, Vettel made an excellent point.

“I think records are there to be broken, and when I achieved that myself I was so excited that I didn’t care if I was 20 or 25, or whatever age. Regarding Max’s age, I don’t think it matters. If you’re quick enough, you belong here.”

The fact is that, despite criticism from the likes of 1997 World Champion Jacques Villeneuve when he first appeared in the F1 paddock in 2014 prior to his debut in 2015, Max had always belonged. And now he had proved it emphatically to even his harshest critics.

Director's Cut: Spain 2016


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