Breaking records seems to come easily to Formula One wunderkind Max Verstappen. The teenage racing driver rewrote the history books at the age of 17 when he made his debut as the youngest ever Formula One driverat Australia’s 2015 Grand Prix. One year later he broke another record; becoming the youngest driver to win a Formula One World Championship race at the Spanish Grand Prix in Montmeló. With the 2017 racing season now well underway, all eyes are on 19-year old Verstappen, who consistently impresses with his risk-taking driving style and skillful recoveries. We caught up with the Belgian-born sportsman, who competes under the Dutch flag with Red Bull Racing to talk about his unprecedented rise to success.
It seems trivial to ask Verstappen what attracted him to racing. After all, he is the son of Flemish karting champion Sophie Kumpen and Dutch racing driver Jos Verstappen. In fact, Verstappen senior travelled to the Suzuka Japanese Grand Prix to race for Tyrrell just ten days after his son was born and Verstappen junior was spotted at karting circuits before he could walk. “One of my first racing memories was in Malaysia. My dad was racing and I was there, running around in the paddock as well. I think I was like three years old or something,” he smiles.
Born to race
Aged just four, Verstappen received his first kart and only a few years later he was driving his first kart races. In 2005, he became Belgian Champion in the Mini Category of the Belgian Karting Championships. It was around this time that the youngster became serious about following in his father’s footsteps. “I was always like, ‘wow, I’ll try to do the same [as dad]’,”recalls Verstappen. Verstappen continues to look up to his Dutch father, who is always on hand to offer support and mentoring. “It’s great to have an example. He’s still helping me a lot as well. If I have any questions, if I need advice, I can always go to him,” he says.“Of course, he’s very proud of me, as I think any father would be.” Indeed; Verstappen has plenty to be pleased with. After just one season in single-seaters, Red Bull shocked the For-mula One paddock by placing Verstap-pen with Italian Formula One racing teamToro Rosso in 2015. It was the first time someone so young had lined up on a Formula One grid. How did Verstappen cope with such responsibility aged only 17? “Everything has gone really fast in my life.At the end of day, I never really think about my age. For me, it doesn’t really matter,” he explains.
His age may seem insignificant to him, but Verstappen has a place in the Guinness World Records 2017 Edition book thanks to his win at the Spanish Grand Prix in Montmeló last May, where he became the youngest driver to win a Formula One World Championship race – aged just 18 years and 228 days. Commentators were astonished by Verstappen’s composed drive at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya,which was even more impressive given the fact that he had only recently made the switch from Toro Rosso to his current team Red Bull Racing. The Spain win was not only significant in terms of Verstappen’s age; it also represented the first time a driver racing under the Dutch flag had won at a Grand Prix and further contributed to his hero status in the Netherlands, where he was crowned 2016 Sportsman of the Year.“I’m very happy to represent my country,”enthuses Verstappen. “They are very passionate fans.” Having taken fifth place in last month’s Australian Grand Prix, the 2017 Formula One season has got off to a solid start for Verstappen. The season looks set to be an interesting one: following the recent retirement of Germany’s Nico Rosberg, it is the first season since 1994 in which the reigning drivers’ champion is not competing.
So, could 2017 be Verstappen’s year? After all, in the last decade only two other drivers have had a similar impact at such an early stage of their career – Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel. Meanwhile, Red Bull’s motorsport advisor Helmut Markohas been vocal in his praise of Verstappen, and was quoted as calling him “lightyears ahead” of many of his Formula One rivals. Comparisons have even been made to the likes of late Formula One legend Ayrton Senna. So, is Verstappen feeling the pressure? “No, not really,” he admits. “I don’t look too far ahead. I think at the moment it’s too early to talk about that stuff. “I mean, as a driver you know what to do. You just think hard and focus on what you have to do – drive the car fast around the track. “You just have to focus on yourself and try to do the best possible job. And keep your feet on the ground, that’s important,” he concludes. With these final words, Verstappen proves that famous maturity also extends to off the track. Watch this space…
TEXT: ANNA VILLELEGER/PHOTO: DAVID CLERIHEW