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While still a kid, Max Verstappen dreamed of being a Formula One champion. His wish was fulfilled at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, where he ended Lewis Hamilton’s long-standing dominance with a dramatic victory in the final lap
Ayrton Senna, Jim Clark and Emerson Fittipaldi, multiple Formula One champions and legends, have one thing in their careers in common: all three made their F1 world championships debut at the age of 24. Max Verstappen is well on the way to joining this elite company; at 24, he had already had 141 Formula One races, 20 wins and one championship.
Like a gifted student skipping years at school, Max skipped motorsport categories and disciplines. At the age of 17 years and 166 days he became Formula One’s youngest driver, debuting in the 2015 Australian Grand Prix.
Some, of course, said I was too young. I didn’t even have a driving license at the time, Max recalls. – It was interesting when I went to take the test during the season. Everyone knew I was in Formula One, but the driving instructor – he was very strict. Which was good, but I was a bit concerned, so I had caps and T-shirts ready in case someone needed to be bribed, but he didn’t take it.
The track to Formula One was a fast one. Barely five, Max started driving go-karts, and he was only seven when he showed-up at the start of an official race and, racing against opponents who were nine or ten, immediately recorded a victory. What followed laid the path for the world champion of today. Father Jos Verstappen, a former Formula One driver whose career spanned most of the 1990s, realised very quickly that his son had something more than what he himself had. After all, he had been in a team with Michael Schumacher and witnessed firsthand how one becomes a champion. But Max didn’t inherit the racing DNA just from his father. His mother, Sophie Kumpen, also had a successful karting career, which saw her winning the prestigious Andrea Margutti Trophy in 1995.
– I grew up with octane in my veins. I’d been surrounded by racing cars since I was very young, but my parents never made me drive. That was exclusively my own decision.
In the decade that followed, father and son went from one race to another, stringing together victory after victory. In a van with a go-kart, tools and spare parts, they would travel up to 100,000 kilometres a year, success following them on their journey. Until 2013. By then, Max had won over twenty titles in various karting championships and the time came to join a more serious company. Max completed the Winter Series, organised by the Ferrari Driving Academy in Florida in 2014, with two wins and a third place overall. In the same year, he participated in the Formula 3 European Championship with the Van Amersfoort racing team, finishing in the third place overall with ten wins, including the Masters of Formula 3 final race at Zandvoort.
Back in the days of the go-kart competitions, he caught the attention of Mercedes scouts, but Red Bull had a more concrete offer. The Austrian team could guarantee the talented Belgian-born Dutchman a programme that led directly to a place on the F1 starting grid and, as early as 2014, Max gained his first experience in free practice in Japan, the USA and Brazil in the Toro Rosso car. If you’re good enough, then you’re old enough was a mantra repeatedly said by Red Bull when announcing Max in the line-up that would be defending the colours of the Toro Rosso team in 2015.