Max Verstappen caused a sensation when Red Bull launched him into F1 at the age of 17 with just a year’s racing experience under his belt.
While pundits and ex-drivers fumed at Red Bull’s plans to put someone so young in a racing car, the FIA hurriedly rewrote the rulebook to prevent it happening again.
It’s therefore certain that, for the time being at least, no new driver will have a shorter route to F1 than Verstappen, nor claim their first points at a younger age than he did in Malaysia last week.
Verstappen is the latest of F1’s second generation drivers, and was born not long after father Jos made his F1 breakthrough. Ironically, his father was also considered somewhat inexperienced when he made his debut for Benetton in the 1994 Brazilian Grand Prix as a stand-in for JJ Lehto, aged 22 and with just 53 starts to his name.
The older Verstappen continued in F1 driving for largely uncompetitive teams until the early 2000s. By the time he bowed out of F1 following a season with Minardi in 2003. By then Max was already making his mark in kart racing.
Born to race
If any drivers deserves the epithet ‘born to race’, it surely is Max Verstappen. The son of an F1 racing father and karting mother – Sophie-Marie Kumpen, who raced against the likes of Jarno Trulli and Giancarlo Fisichella – Verstappen has other racers in the family tree. Grandfather Robert Kumpen raced endurance karts at international level and great uncle Paul is the founder of Belgian team PK Racing and former driver himself in GT racing.
Small wonder, then, than Max (and sister Victoria) soon got started in karting. Max was just four years old when he entered the popular Minimax championship where he built up a wealth of wheel-to-wheel combat experience over the next four years. By 2006 he was ready to transfer to tougher battlegrounds. He won on his debut in the Belgian Rotax Max Minimax class and repeated the feat in his home country the following season.
Having raced a CRG kart in the his formative years, it was inevitable that a bona fide customer team would snap him up thanks to his impressive results, not just his family name. That happened in 2009 when Team Pex signed him to race in the Flemish Minimax series and Belgian KF5 category, winning both while continuing a dedicated physical conditioning programme.
Moving to international karting in 2010 saw the Dutch youngster signed to the CRG factory team and up against more experienced British-Thai driver Alexander Albon who already had five karting crowns to his credit. At the KF3 World Cup Verstappen added to his already ascending star by pushing into a deserved second place behind Albon, then going on to beat his rival in the WSK Euro Series at the end of the year. Already Verstappen was marking himself out as a talent to be taken seriously irrespective of his father’s F1 background.
The WSK Euro Series fell to his assault again in 2011, before a change of karts to the Intrepid chassis in 2012. Moving to KF2 and KZ2 classes proved a big ask of a teenager under so much scrutiny, but he edged out CRG’s Felice Tiene to win the KF2 Master Series and narrowly claimed victory in the South Garda Winter Cup.
Verstappen’s 2013 campaign, back at the wheel of a CRG kart, proved a landmark season. Both the European KF and KZ titles fell to him and he added karting’s top prize – the KZ1 World Championship, which he won by a margin of three seconds over Charles Leclerc:
He also tasted the karting equivalent of GP2 at the wheel of a KZ2 kart in the SKUSA SuperNationals, classifying 21st in a respectable debut for such a young driver. But it was his unparalleled success at international level which ensured all eyes were on him when he made the switch to racing cars the following year.
The question was, which series to move into first? For a 15-year-old fresh out of karting Formula Renault 2.0 would have been an obvious step. He sampled one at Pembrey in Wales and later got behind the wheel of a car run by the competitive Josef Kaufmann Racing outfit at Jerez:
The team had won the top Formula Renault 2.0 Eurocup championship in 2011 with Robin Frijns and Stoffel Vandoorne – the latter now a McLaren test driver – and before that had fielded the likes of Gerhard Berger, Sebastien Buemi, Nico Hulkenberg and Esteban Gutierrez. In the Jerez test Verstappen compared favourably with the Formula Renault regulars, and he beat several better-known drivers in another outing at Valencia.
This and Verstappen’s run in a Formula Three car at the end of 2013 persuaded him to aim higher than Formula Renault. For 2014 he would race in the FIA’s European Formula Three championship with the same Van Amersfoort team his father had driven for two decades earlier.
Before that, however, Verstappen made his circuit racing debut in the USA. He entered the Florida Winter Series racing small single-seaters against the likes of reigning European F3 champion Raffaele Marciello and Formula Renault 2.0 ALPS champion Antonio Fuoco. The series did not crown a champion, but Verstappen won two of its 12 races. His breakthrough triumph came at the Palm Beach circuit (in car number three):
Celebrations and frustrations in F3
When the European Formula Three field assembled at Silverstone for the first race of the 2014 season, Verstappen was still five months away from his 16th birthday and a full year younger than all bar one of his competitors. But having lined up fourth on the grid at his first attempt a clutch problem thwarted his getaway and led to an early retirement.
Technical problems were a theme of his year. He failed to start race four at the Hockenheimring but later that weekend his sixth start in the championship produced a breakthrough victory. The next two triple-header weekends were largely frustrating affairs, however: he clipped the barriers at Pau and had another clutch problem at the Hungaroring as well as a penalty for exceeding the track limits.
But Verstappen opened the floodgates to victory when the championship reconvened at Spa-Francorchamps. Racing on this ultimate driver’s circuit for the first time, Verstappen produced a stunning clean sweep of victories.
Remarkably he repeated this dominant feat at the Norising – a tight, short street circuit utterly unlike the vast expanses of Spa. With six wins in a row it was no surprise his name was now being linked with F1 teams Red Bull and Mercedes.
Championship rival Esteban Ocon hit back at the Moscow Raceway with a hat-trick of his own while Verstappen visited the podium twice and posted another retirement – this time his alternator packed up. But when Ocon endured a point-less trip to the Red Bull Ring, Verstappen failed to take full advantage after collecting a contentious penalty while battling Fuoco:
“I guess you are not allowed to race any more these days,” Verstappen fumed afterwards on Twitter. “It’s absolutely a joke what they decided!”
The call from Red Bull
However this proved the last time Verstappen’s F3 car ran in its distinctive black and orange colours. Red Bull had seen enough, and before his next race they rocked the F1 world by announcing Verstappen as their next F1 driver at Toro Rosso.
Verstappen’s F3 title chances took a serious blow at the Nurburgring. After winning race one an engine failure put him out of the second while he was leading, and the resulting change in power unit meant three consecutive ten-place grid penalties.
That left Ocon well-placed to wrap up the championship at Imola, which he duly did. But Verstappen, fresh from making his F1 practice debut at Suzuka, stole the show in race two. Relegated from pole to eleventh he climbed through the field to pass Antonio Giovinazzi for second as they crossed the finishing line, the pair separated by 0.019s:
Although Verstappen ended the year with more wins than anyone – ten to Ocon’s nine – Tom Blomqvist pipped him to second in the points standings. He had his last run in an F3 car at the Macau Grand Prix, where a qualifying race crash left him 24th on the grid for the main event, in which he climbed to a strong seventh, setting fastest lap on the way.
Unfortunately for Verstappen, the first thing most people learned about his racing career was that he crashed an F1 car during a demonstration run in the Netherlands shortly after his Red Bull drive was announced.
It seemed to support a view held by some that Red Bull had made their extraordinary offer of an F1 driver to Verstappen in order to keep him from signing for Mercedes, who were not able to provide an immediate promotion to grand prix racing.
Red Bull motorsport director Helmut Marko said their haste was because they considered Verstappen “an exceptional talent that comes along only once in decades”. He went further, comparing the burgeoning talent to Ayrton Senna.
In his first two F1 races Verstappen has proved himself well prepared for the opportunity he has been given. Aged 17, and still unable to hold a driving licence in his home country, Verstappen became the youngest person to start a grand prix in Australia – beating Jaime Alguersuari’s existing record by almost two years.
Engine problems forced his retirement from that race, but next time out in Malaysia he added another record by becoming the youngest driver ever a point. What will come next: youngest race winner? Youngest driver on pole position? Very big things are expected.
Route to F1
- Kimi Raikkonen’s Route to F1
- Hamilton’s Route to F1
- Sergio Perez’s Route to F1
- Max Verstappen’s Route to F1
- Daniel Ricciardo’s Route to F1