Image: Wikimedia Commons / Morio
Image: Wikimedia Commons / Morio

Max Verstappen: the career of a champion

“Max Verstappen you are the world champion, the world champion.” Those ten words from Red Bull Team Principal Christian Horner to Max Verstappen took years of work, experience-gathering and patience to reach. After five seasons at Red Bull, seven in F1 and still somehow only 24, both men finally achieved their goal of making this generational talent a champion.

Verstappen’s Formula 1 debut came in Japan in 2014 where he smashed the record for youngest driver to take part in a F1 Grand Prix weekend. At just 17 years and three days, before he even had his road driving license, he took part in one of the practice sessions, beating the record by two years. Such was his ability, Red Bull’s junior team, then called Toro Rosso, gave him a seat for the 2015 season, starting his first race at just 17 years and 166 days. Rules were subsequently brought to raise the age limit to 18, meaning this record is unlikely to ever be broken.

After being promoted to the senior Red Bull team after shining in 2015 including a fourth place finish in Hungary, in a sign of what was to come, he stunned the entire paddock by winning on debut for the team in Spain in 2016. Without doubt he was helped by the Mercedes taking each other out on the first lap, but he held his nerve with the two Ferrari’s behind chasing him to win. He was 18 and a Grand Prix winner.

Joining the grid so early was perhaps Verstappen’s greatest advantage and trump card. He could develop without the frustration of not being at the front or fighting for a championship, because he always had, and still has, time on his side. For example, Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc is 24 with four seasons under his belt, Mercedes-bound George Russell is 23 after three seasons, Lando Norris is 22 with also three seasons experience. As mentioned, Verstappen is 24 with seven seasons behind him. Seven seasons into his career, Lewis Hamilton was approaching 30. Verstappen’s experience and ability at his age is arguably unparalleled and gave him the skill required when the ultimate chance came in 2021.

At 24, with 20 career wins and a F1 championship in the bag… the sky is the limit for Verstappen

After his debut win, Verstappen grew in prominence and talent, readying himself for a tilt at the title. In 2017, 2018 and 2019 the car underneath him never had the might to fight for much more than podiums and the occasional and rare race win. Yet, he took advantage often when opportunities came with wins in Mexico in 2017 and 2018, and Austria in 2018 and 2019, as well as wins in Malaysia, Germany and Brazil. Around this time, he received heat for being too aggressive and crashing too often, but quickly he managed to lose that aspect of his driving and became extremely reliable.

The soundtrack to the F1 2020 season may well have been ‘thank god for Max Verstappen’. This was uttered by the commentators at most races. Mercedes were miles ahead again of everybody after acing their car yet again, and the only who could even get close was Verstappen. Wins at Silverstone and the UAE came against a Mercedes car at times a second a lap faster in the season.

Finally, after so many years of languishing in the fight for the last spot in podium and being best of the rest behind Mercedes, Verstappen had his chance in 2021 when Red Bull made huge leaps in their car and Mercedes went backwards. He was simply brilliant and almost faultless with 10 wins over the season including in his home race and at the crown jewel, Monaco. Every race he finished, bar one, he was first or second. Despite his tyre blowing in Baku while he was leading, being crashed off at Silverstone at nearly 200mph and being swiped at the start in Hungary, he still won the title. Without a safety car at the end of the last race in Abu Dhabi he would have lost the title, but in classic Verstappen fashion, when the chance came in, he took it.

At 24, with 20 career wins and a F1 championship in the bag, with more experience at his age than probably any driver in motorsport history before, the sky is the limit for Verstappen. He could claim many more titles, go to which team he likes and continue racing for however long he wants. His talent is extraordinary, and so long as he gets in the right car at the right time, he could break so many more records.

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