Max Verstappen: The prodigy who realised his destiny by becoming world champion

A dramatic last-gasp safety car gave Verstappen the chance to realise his potential.

Mark Mann-Bryans
Sunday 12 December 2021 14:48
Verstappen was not even old enough to drive on the road when he made his F1 debut (David Davies/PA)
Verstappen was not even old enough to drive on the road when he made his F1 debut (David Davies/PA)

Rarely can you claim someone is destined to achieve a certain accolade – but as Max Verstappen passed Lewis Hamilton at the death in Abu Dhabi to become the new Formula One world champion, it felt like he did so with a degree of inevitability.

The son of an F1 driver – albeit a fairly average one in former Tyrrell, Arrows and Minardi racer Jos – Verstappen had his first world championship point before he held a licence to even drive on the road.

In fact, the list of accomplishments Verstappen ticked off ahead of becoming the first-ever Dutch F1 world champion showed his career path was always going to be paved with gold.

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen fought out a thrilling title battle with Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton (Tim Goode/PA Images).

They provide an impressive CV – youngest driver to start a race, score points, win a race, stand on the podium, lead a lap and set a fastest lap.

The youthful exuberance and sometimes cocky persona may still show from time to time, but Verstappen is older and more experienced than Lewis Hamilton was when he won his maiden title in 2008.

Hamilton, who went toe-to-toe with Verstappen’s Red Bull in the best F1 title fight of a generation, was in just his second F1 season when he sealed his first crown – while Verstappen had to wait seven years.

Like his father, Verstappen races with a Dutch licence despite being born and raised in Belgium and chose to be recognised solely as a Dutchman when he was old enough to make the decision.

Born in Hasselt, he was karting by the age of four and when he finally entered his first championship he won all 21 races to win the title with ease.

Max Verstappen in 2015 pre-season testing for Toro Rosso at the Circuito de Jerez in Jerez, Spain.

With his father racing in F1, there is no rags to riches tale for Verstappen but the hard work on the track continued as he progressed through the disciplines, taking victories along the way.

It was in F3 where he really started to catch the eye – winning six races in a row to finish third in the 2014 championship at the age of 16.

During that year he also spent time as the reserve driver for Toro Rosso – now AlphaTauri – and was promoted to a race seat for 2015.

Fourth-placed finishes in Hungary and the United States saw him finish with 49 points, 31 more than team-mate Carlos Sainz.

With just four races of the 2016 season gone, Verstappen was switched out from Toro Rosso to drive for their big brother – Red Bull Racing – and it did not take long for the new man to show just what he could do with the right car beneath his feet.

Max Verstappen pictured at the Circuit de Monaco, Monaco, after being promoted to drive for Red Bull in 2016.

While the duelling Mercedes pair of Hamilton and Nico Rosberg crashed into one another at the Spanish Grand Prix, Verstappen made the most of a differing strategy to keep Kimi Raikkonen behind him and win on his Red Bull debut – collecting a host of the aforementioned accolades in the process. He had truly arrived.

Six more podiums followed by the end of the 2016 season, where Rosberg pipped Hamilton to the title – the last man to stop the Briton until Verstappen himself five years later.

The next four seasons would be dominated by Hamilton and Mercedes, Verstappen often the best of the rest as he finished fourth, third and third again in the championship – picking up seven wins in the process.

Then came 2021. All the talk pre-season was that Red Bull had finally designed a car worthy of challenging the status quo – and in Verstappen they certainly had a driver ready to harness its full potential.

Verstappen was the man to challenge Mercedes’ dominance (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili, Pool)

Any doubts over the legitimacy of a sustained title challenge were extinguished as Verstappen finished in the top two at the opening five grands prix – winning at Imola and Monaco to lead the championship.

But this title was anything but plain sailing. A terrifying high-speed tyre blow-out in Azerbaijan, a trip to hospital after a collision with Hamilton at Silverstone and a shunt in the rain of Budapest were just three of the setbacks Verstappen would overcome.

Victories at Spa, albeit a shortened race with half-points awarded, and his home race at Zandvoort put Verstappen back in control – even after he and Hamilton crashed out following a sensational coming together at Monza.

Top-two consistency would again prove to be the key, finishing second in Russia, Turkey, Brazil and Qatar either side of wins in Texas and Mexico City.

Hamilton kept his own hopes alive by taking the wins in Brazil and Qatar, and seemed to have the win in the bag before a dramatic last-gasp safety car gave Verstappen the chance to realise his potential.

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