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The Max Verstappen Story: From Karts To F1 World Champion

f 1 grand prix of abu dhabi 1
© Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

With Max Verstappen claiming the 2021 FIA Formula One World Championship driver’s title following his dramatic win at the Abu Dhabi season finale, we explore how he has developed from a precociously talented young karter to sit at the very pinnacle of the motor-racing world. 

Here is all you need to know:

Born to race

That Verstappen’s father, Jos, was also an F1 driver is well known; his career spanned much of the 1990s and he was a team-mate of Michael Schumacher.

However, Max benefits from a double dose of racing DNA as his mother, Sophie Kumpen, enjoyed a successful karting career of her own, winning the Andrea Margutti Trophy in 1995.

Jos Verstappen
© Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

Speaking on the Beyond the Ordinary podcast, David Coulthard, an F1 contemporary of Verstappen Sr, explains: “The absolute commitment that was carried in his [Jos’s] DNA has been passed on to Max, and I think that what the Verstappen family has done is work very hard to give him the best grounding – through karting, into cars – make great choices and position him now in a very happy place.”

An early start

At the point most of us are making our first wobbly attempts to ride a bike, young Max was getting a taste of motor racing.

As Jos recalls, “He was four-and-a-half when we first put him in. He did it for one day and immediately we bought him a bigger go-kart.”

Was that a nerve-wracking experience for the watching parents? Jos adds, “Not really, because I think he was about two-and-a-half when he was [first] driving on a quad bike, so he had quite a lot of experience with speed, how to steer…”

First race

By those standards, it must have seemed like an interminable wait for his first taste of competitive action.

Max was the grand old age of seven by the time he was lining up on the grid for the first time.

Thankfully, the wait to experience the thrill of victory was not quite as long, as Max went straight out and won that first race.

Jos recalls, “We’d prepared very well. He was racing against other mini juniors, who could be nine or 10 years old, so he was competing against a lot older boys.”

Doing the hard yards

What followed over the next decade or so really laid the foundations for the world champion of today.

Together, father and son devoted themselves to Max’s nascent career, travelling from race to race in their van and racking up victory after victory.

Jos explains, “I think every year we were racing, we were winning championships. You do a lot of races, but what I also really enjoyed was all the things around it.

You know, the two of us together in the van, all the preparation you have to do before… I miss it now, but at that moment I really enjoyed it.

We did about 80-100,00km a year, every year and we did that for 10 years. It was quite intense.”

Making the jump to F3

It’s no exaggeration to say that Max made an immediate impact when he made the switch over to cars.

Former Red Bull Racing teammate Alex Albon reveals, “Max was straight away quick when he joined the championship. He was aggressive back then as well.

We didn’t have any altercations – we would never fight, there was always that mutual respect – but, at the same time, we were definitely rivals.”

max verstappen with his red bull car
Max Verstappen poses for a portrait in Faenza, Italy on January 29th, 2015 // Michael Muller / Red Bull Content Pool

F1 comes calling

With 10 race victories and third place overall in his maiden F3 championship, it wasn’t long before Formula One teams started taking a look at the talented youngster, and in August 2014 Helmut Marko signed Max up to Red Bull Racing’s driver development programme.

– We saw him in action during free practice at that season’s Japanese GP, but it was seven months later, at the season-opening Australian GP in Melbourne, that he first lined up in Toro Rosso colours in earnest. Aged just 17 years old, he was F1’s youngest-ever competitor.

Max recalls, “Some said, of course, that I was too young. At the time, I didn’t even have my driving licence.

They knew of course that I was in Formula One, but the driving instructor, he was very strict, which was good. I had caps, t-shirts ready in case somebody needed to be bribed, but he didn’t take it!”

max verstappen abu dhabi
© Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

From youngest driver to youngest winner

An outstanding first season brought not only plenty of championship points but also awards for rookie of the year, personality of the year and action of the year for his stunning overtake at Belgium’s Spa circuit.

That meant it wasn’t long until Marko was on the phone again, and Max was promoted to drive for Red Bull Racing from the 2016 Spanish GP.

As Coulthard explains, “It was a great opportunity. Helmut and Red Bull have shown an ability to back young talent and give them an opportunity.”

His impact, of course, was immediate and he held off Ferrari’s Kimi Räikkönen in the closing stages to become F1’s youngest race winner at 18 years and 228 days, making headlines around the world.

Max recalls the experience, “I started cramping a little bit with five laps to go because of the excitement and the focus.

It was pretty crazy, I was literally counting the laps at the end, there was a lot of pressure. My dad was getting so excited at the end that his nose started bleeding.”

Fine tuning his style

His debut win at Barcelona was just a taster for what was to come as Max picked up two victories in the 2017 season at Malaysia and Mexico to place sixth overall in the championship.

He needed to show some resolve at the start of the 2018 season following two frustrating retirements in Bahrain and Azerbaijan with his first Austrian victory lifting his spirits en route to another Mexican win and fourth in the championship.

– He upped the ante in 2019 to score three wins with an Austrian repeat, German triumph and Brazilian victory to finally finish the season in the top three overall.

Two victories in the shortened 2020 season saw him place third overall again as he tightened up his driving style and looked to eliminate the occasional hot-headed error that had cost him before.

lewsi hamilton congratulate max verstappen

Eye on the title

After a successful off-season getting his mind and body in shape, Max powered off the grid quickly in 2021 with two wins and three-second places in the first five races before a tyre blowout at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix cost him valuable points.

It was the British Grand Prix, though, that truly elevated the rivalry with Mercedes as Lewis Hamilton’s controversial move put Max into the tyre wall at a dangerous speed.

To Max’s credit, he bounced back with wins in Belgium and his home Dutch Grand Prix before the hotly debated moment in Germany when he clashed with Hamilton again forcing both out.

Since then, Max has managed to stay out of trouble with US and Mexican GP wins sandwiched by four-second places as the title race headed down to the wire in the Middle East.

With his Abu Dhabi GP victory finally seeing him crowned Formula One world champion for the first time, the future is extremely bright for the 24-year-old and a Red Bull team eager to bank more titles next year.

As Coulthard, no stranger to title tussles himself explains, “This is a classic period. When we’ve had these titanic battles in the past, they might come along once a decade or 20 years, but when it happens it’s a wonderful thing to be able to witness two greats go toe-to-toe.”

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