Max Verstappen is on the home straight

As the Formula One title race intensifies — and Verstappen inches ahead — Rory FH Smith meets the man beneath the helmet...

The life of a competitive sportsperson is, in reality, a complex one. While the going looks good enough on the surface, behind the glossy facade and seemingly charmed lifestyle lies an extraordinarily high stakes rollercoaster ride of euphoric highs and disastrous lows. Add to that an exceptional level of danger and you’re somewhere close to what Formula One ace Max Verstappen experiences on a weekly basis. Not that he’s remotely bothered, of course. 

For the 23-year-old Dutchman, racing is — quite literally — what he was born to do. His Dutch father, Jos Verstappen, was also a Formula One driver, whose single-seater racing career saw him drive for the likes of Benetton and Jackie Stewart’s eponymous team in the 1990s, eventually retiring from the sport in 2003, just a few years after Max was born.

And, if one highly influential motorsport-obsessed parent wasn’t enough, Verstappen’s Belgian mother, Sophie Kumpen, was also karting champion in her own right in the 1990s. Despite her ambition to progress into F1, Kumpen ended her racing career after marrying Verstappen senior in 1996 and having Max the following year. For the couple’s first born child, there really was no option when it came to a career — although Max argues otherwise. 

“While I grew up, my dad had the go-kart team and, of course, he raced in F1, and my mum raced in go-karting herself until she had me,” he explains, attentive and dressed in full Red Bull Racing team kit, sitting within earshot of his father. “Yeah, I always grew up around it but it doesn’t mean that you have to do it. My parents never pushed me into driving.”

Instead, the young future Formula One star’s decision to follow in his parents’ footsteps was entirely his own. At the tender age of just four years old, he remembers watching in wonder on the fringes of his father’s go-kart track in Genk, in Belgium in 2001.

“It was actually all my decision,” adds Verstappen, sharply. “After going to the go-kart track and seeing a younger kid driving around, I called my dad, who was in Canada for F1 at the time, and I said I wanted to drive.” Jos Verstappen maintains it had always been his plan to wait until Max was six years old before dropping him behind the wheel. But, even at four years old, a young Verstappen was already showing signs of impatience and an uncompromising appetite for competition. Sound familiar?

"I didn't think about my age, to be honest..."

“Initially, he said no. He wanted me to wait two more years, but I did start half a year later, when I was four and a half, in go-karts.”

Despite most racing drivers cutting their teeth in the sport before their tenth birthday, Verstappen was particularly early to the party — a theme that’s recurred throughout his career. Fast forward 14 years and Verstappen found himself sitting behind the wheel of a full-fat Scuderia Toro Rosso F1 car on the start line of the 2015 Australian Grand Prix aged just 17 years and 166 days. To this day, he still holds the record for the youngest driver to compete in a Formula One World Championship race.

“I didn’t think about my age to be honest. I always drove in categories where I was the youngest,” he says nonchalantly. “I was always racing against guys who were two to three years older, or even more. Especially my final year in go-karting. I was 16 and I was racing against people in their late 20s and even 35-year-old guys. They were paid by the factories to stay in go-karting. So, I didn’t feel out of my comfort zone when I started in F1. I was like, well, I’m used to this.”

“Of course, I hadn’t done Formula One level racing before, but karting is kind of like it but in go-karts. I just never really thought about it — I was just very happy to be there and to try and get the best results.” 

The following year, Verstappen graduated to the full-fledged Red Bull Racing outfit run by Christian Horner. It was here that the young Dutchman made his mark on the sport when he went on to win the 2016 Spanish Grand Prix on his debut for the Austrian team. Alongside the silverware, Verstappen claimed another, perhaps more important title after that race, as he became the youngest driver to win a Formula One Grand Prix, aged just 18 years old.

While most late teens were fretting about exams, enjoying their first legal taste of alcohol and attempting to pass their driving test, Verstappen was jostling with the likes of Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button, Felipe Massa and Sebastian Vettel — and winning. 

“I think for my age, at the time, I was very experienced,” he says, casting his mind back to those early glory days. “I felt ready. Of course, looking back at it now, if I had the experience I have now, I would probably do things a little bit differently, but that’s normal. 

“What do you expect when you’re 17? You have to make mistakes; you have to learn. I had only done one year in racing outside of karts — in F3 — so it was a natural learning curve to go through. It’s fine because I started at Toro Rosso, so it wasn’t like I was fighting for the World Championship at the time. It was good to fight in the midfield and really work for it. You learn a lot of things that way.”

From that defining moment, on the podium at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya in Montmeló, Spain, the world had its first taste of a man who had the potential to one day be king. Just when precisely that will happen remains to be seen. To get there, Verstappen must overcome his biggest threat — Lewis Hamilton

"We're not going to have dinner together, but that's fine..."

Since the beginning of the 2021 season, both Verstappen and Hamilton have been at war. For the British Mercedes driver, Verstappen stands in his way of gaining an eighth World Championship title and the label of the most successful racing driver of all time. But for Verstappen, his seven-time World Champion adversary is standing in the way of his debut world title.

The difference in what each driver desires is as clear as the way the ruthless rivalry between them plays out on track. After an incident-filled season so far, the rivalry has reached its climax a couple of times already. Once at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, where Vertsappen was catapulted into the tyre wall after Hamilton’s Mercedes clipped his rear tyre and, more recently, in Italy, when the two drivers stacked on top of each other after neither backed down going into the same corner. 

“It’s good,” he says cooly, referring to the state of relations between him and Hamilton. “I mean, we’re how competitors should be. We’re not exactly going to have dinner together but that’s fine. You have that competitive spirit and we always try to beat each other on track, but also try to respect each other off track as well. So far there have been some tense moments, but overall it’s been all right.”

While that might be an understatement to those on the outside, Verstappen’s measured response stems from the fact that — for the most part — the Dutchman is an imperturbable operator. While his temper can occasionally boil over in the heat of the moment, he’s quick to cool off and maintains a steely repose for all external affairs. Given he’s just turned 24 years old, the Red Bull frontman has an air of ‘Ice Man’ Kimi Räikkönen about him already. And while he’s unafraid to say it how is, he’s a seasoned operator in the art of diplomacy.

Despite his global stardom, which translates to a combined social media following of over 10million people, the Dutchman doesn’t care much about the media circus that surrounds him. “I know what I have to know in F1, within the team, and I’m not really interested in all the other stories around,” he insists. “I don’t want to follow it. I don’t want to see it on my feed. I just focus on having my own time with family and friends when I’m at home. If I am on social media, I don’t want to see a racing car.”

Even when the action cranks up following Silverstone or Monza and a media storm ensues, Verstappen maintains he’s unaffected by the fallout. “It’s not going to influence anything I do on the weekend, on the track, or my performance, so it’s just a waste of time to look at it. I prefer to spend the free time I have with my family or friends.”

"I just go step by step; race by race..."

At times like this, when the young racer isn’t criss crossing his way around the world, he can be found at his home in Fontvieille, Monaco, overlooking the superyachts moored in Cap d’Ail.

“One of the best things about living in Monaco is the quality of life…I think where you choose to live is really important when you’re away a lot.” In between races, Verstappen eases off the throttle — albeit not entirely — and often takes to the water. With a penchant for jet skis, Verstappen can often be found riding off the coast with friends on his Red Bull liveried machine. “Sometimes you just take the boat out and park it up somewhere in a little bay or you take the jet skis out, explore the coast and have a bit of fun.” 

Despite the distractions of living in Monaco, it’s on the hardened asphalt of the racetrack where Verstappen’s unwavering attention remains. Now closer than he’s ever been to that all-important first World Championship title, it’s no exaggeration to say the Dutchman has been waiting his whole life for this opportunity.

“There’s still a long way to go,” he says, refusing to let his mind wander to thoughts of a championship win. “I know I’m in that fight, but it’s more about trying to maximise every single weekend to try and gain more of an advantage. That’s what we’re really focused on at the moment. I’m not much of a dreamer, so I don’t really think about Abu Dhabi [the season finale] too much yet. I just go step by step, and race by race to try and get the most possible points, every time.” 

Now in his second decade of racing, while few 24-year-olds can claim to have such experience in their chosen field, there’s a palpable feeling that the young Dutchman is only just getting started. At 12 years younger than his nemesis, Hamilton, Verstappen leads the way for a new generation of racing drivers.

Should the Dutchman end the season on top, his name will be added to the list of only 33 World Championship winning drivers in the history of Formula One. All that stands in his way is one of the greatest racing drivers that ever lived. 

Want to hear the other side of the rivalry? Read our cover interview with Lewis Hamilton…

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