sporting prodigies

The Young and the Brave: In Conversation With Max Verstappen

Max Verstappen's time as 'the next big thing' in Formula 1 was brief: the Dutchman has already stepped up to a starring role in the sport. We sat down with the 19-year-old to discuss his unique and rapid rise to the top.

by Jim Weeks
Oct 20 2016, 2:52pm

Photo by Patrick J. Barrett

It is often said that age is just a number. If someone is good enough, it follows that they are old enough. In sport, precocious young talents appear on an almost annual basis, shaking up the established order and staking a claim to be the new star.

Of course, the experience that comes alongside this number can be vital. Getting better with age is really about getting better with experience: building on your knowledge, learning from mistakes, and finding out what really works. It takes time – and we're talking years – to become a master at something worthwhile. Being a front-running Formula 1 driver, for instance, is a long-haul process.

In this sense, Max Verstappen's brief journey from child prodigy to the youngest F1 race winner of all time is quite astounding. Verstappen made headlines in May when he won the Spanish Grand Prix at the age of 18 years, 228 days. It was his first outing for the Red Bull Racing team after stepping up from the junior Toro Rosso squad. That was impressive enough. But what made it truly unique was the calmness and precision the Dutch youngster displayed behind the wheel that day. He genuinely looked as though he'd honed his craft over many decades.

Just over a year earlier, he had become the youngest man to start a Formula 1 race. In fact, he was a child by most people's definition: Vertsappen was 17 when he took the start of the 2015 Australian Grand Prix.

But, speaking to Max, you quickly forget that this is a 19-year-old. Actually, it's difficult to place an age on him at all; he merely seems like a fresh-faced but psychologically mature grand prix driver. It is tempting to put his age into perspective by contrasting his life with the clichés associated with regular 19-year-olds: stumbling out of bed at noon, extensive Xbox sessions, and a deep fondness for drinking.

But this is not apples and apples. Everything about him suggests that, in Max's case, 19 really is just a number.

Photo via Red Bull Content Pool

It's well known that Verstappen comes from a racing family. His father Jos started 106 grands prix between 1994 and 2003, scoring two podiums and briefly pairing with Michael Schumacher during the '94 season. The roots of Max's racing family run much deeper than his old man, however. Vertsappen's mum, Sophie Kumpen, won multiple karting titles; his maternal grandfather Paul Kumpen was a rallycross champion, and his uncle Anthony Kumpen is a successful racer across a number of disciplines.

And so Max's earliest memory of the sport is not of watching grand prix racing on a TV screen or pushing toy cars across the floor: "I think I was about three or four years old; I was sitting in my dad's Formula 1 car," he recalls. It was around the same time that he was first dropped into a go-kart, presumably by the same dad whose grand prix car he sat in. "I was four. I couldn't wait to start and I kept my helmet on for the whole day.

READ MORE: Pastor Maldonado, We Hardly Knew Ye

"I grew up in a motorsport environment," he continues. "[My family] were very important for my career, especially my dad because we travelled all the time together. He was my engine tuner, he was my mechanic, so we always did everything together. He's very important in my life."

Though Max has already far exceeded his father's F1 record, Jos remains a significant presence in Max's career. A no-bullshit, imposing figure, the former F1 journeyman has helped to manoeuvre his son into one of the sport's most sought after cars, and continues to offer the kind of honest advice that can only be exchanged between family members.

"He tells me, even when I've done a good race, that there are things to improve," says Max. "Let's say I finish second: some people would say, 'Wow, that was a great race.' But he would say, 'Okay, you did a good job coming second, but there are still some things to improve.'"

Jos Verstappen (right) celebrates on the podium with teammate Michael Schumacher and Damon Hill // PA Images

Having a grand prix racer for a father placed Max in the public eye from a young age and, for those following the sport, it has felt almost inevitable that he would become an F1 driver since he was in his early teens. He's a newcomer, but in a sense Verstappen has been on the scene for a long time: there is a photograph of Max as a toddler meeting Schumacher, another of him as a child karter posing with Jenson Button (he's now competing against the British driver, just as his father did in the early 2000s).

Like most F1 racers, Verstappen cut his teeth in go-karting, winning a host of domestic and international titles. He reckons "80 per cent" of what he learned competing three inches off the ground is transferable to F1. "You build it up and improve all your skills, but the basics you learn in go-karts." Between karts and F1 there was an impossibly short spell in Formula 3 – a single season, in which he won 10 European F3 Championship races – before his arrival in grand prix racing with Red Bull's junior arm, Toro Rosso.

READ MORE: Stewart and Coulthard Discuss the Enduring Magic of Monza

"I think both were big jumps," he says of his rapid career progression, "but for me the biggest one was [moving] to F3, because it's a completely different feeling to a go-kart. To understand that, you need some practice sessions to understand how to drive and how to break and how to make the corners. So it's definitely a bigger step. But still, both are quite big!

"[My approach] is the same," he continues. "It's just a bigger car and faster, but in general you always have the same approach."

Verstappen's arrival in 2015 drew comparisons with Kimi Raikkonen's ascent to F1 more than a decade earlier. The Finn was older – he debuted at 22 – but actually had fewer car races under his belt when he arrived on the scene in 2001 (coincidentally, Kimi was driving a Red Bull-sponsored Sauber). Like Raikkonen, Verstappen was seen by a few observers as too inexperienced. In both cases, it was even suggested that they should be barred from entering F1 so soon; in both cases, that suggestion quickly lost all credibility.

Verstappen celebrates his first win, while F1 elder statesman Raikkonen watches on // PA Images

Given their similarities, it is perhaps apt that Raikkonen and Verstappen have often seemed magnetically drawn together this season. Representing the oldest and youngest drivers on the grid, theirs is a fascinating and at times tense rivalry. When Verstappen stepped into the senior Red Bull team and won in Spain, it was Kimi who he fought off over the final laps. They've since met on track more than once, with Raikkonen criticising Verstappen's robust defensive tactics, particularly after the Belgian Grand Prix.

Asked if he approaches racing world champions like Raikkonen differently from the drivers of his karting and F3 days, Verstappen seems nonplussed: "They are all pretty similar," he shrugs. "Of course they have won world titles and stuff, but as a driver that doesn't really make a difference. They are more experienced, but when you face them it's the same – everyone is the same."

READ MORE: How F1 Quit Smoking and Ruined Its Health

It is this kind of approach – and the hints at a propensity for controversy – that have seen Max compared with drivers like Schumacher and Senna. Both were uncompromising on the track and cared little for reputations when they burst on to the scene. Both won at a prodigious rate, but attracted controversy along the way. It is not hard to imagine Verstappen treading a similar path.

Unsurprisingly, the hype that now surrounds him is intense. As the youngest race winner he is expected to achieve huge things in the sport, while his place at big-hitters Red Bull means he is under constant scrutiny from the media. At 19, he is being placed under considerable pressure in a sport that is famously unforgiving.

"I try not to think too much about it," he says without hesitation. "I focus on what I have to do on track and what comes after, I just let that go."

Photo by Patrick J. Barrett

Whether he's paying attention or not, the hype is undeniable – and justified. Verstappen looked almost frighteningly comfortable from his first session at an F1 weekend, while his win for Red Bull in Spain showed a degree of composure that marks him out as a world champion. It is not hyperbole to suggest that this is where he is headed. The tell-tale signs are there: quick from his first lap, indifferent to reputations, ruthless on-track and almost unnervingly calm off it. There can be few in F1 who do not see Max as a title-winner in waiting. His belief in himself is obvious. "We just have to make it happen," he says, as if talking about a trip to the beach.

If Verstappen does claim the title in the next few years, he could usurp former Red Bull protégé Sebastian Vettel as the youngest champion ever. Not that this plays on his mind: "I never think about that," he says. "The thing for me is to one day become a world champion. I don't need to be the youngest. It would be nice, but it's not something I focus on."

Age, it is often said, is just a number.

@Jim_Weeks