Max Verstappen newsmaker opinion
Max Verstappen Image Credit: Ador Bustamante/Gulf News

At the age of 24, Max Verstappen is still one of the younger drivers on the F1 circuit. However, he is also vastly experienced as he has just completed his seventh season in the sport. And now he has been crowned world champion.

He won his the F1 Drivers’ Championship for the first time as he edged out Lewis Hamilton in a dramatic final lap at Yas Marina Circuit in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Sunday.

A somewhat controversial end to a feisty season — that was full of accusations of reckless driving by both Verstappen’s Red Bull team and Hamilton’s Mercedes bosses — cannot take away from what the Dutchman has achieved at such a young age, with Mercedes’ confirmation that they will not appeal the manner of Verstappen’s win in Abu Dhabi erasing any lingering doubts over the legitimacy of his coronation.

Hamilton looked to have a record eighth title in the bag as he dominated at Yas on Sunday after taking the lead from Verstappen on the opening lap. However, his sizeable lead was eradicated after Nicholas Latifi crashed with five laps to go and the safety car deployed. Race stewards called the safety car in for the final lap and Verstappen, on fresher tyres, powered past Hamilton to take the chequered flag and the title.

This was just the latest chapter in an already extensive tale of a surprisingly soft-spoken driver, who prefers to do his aggressive talking on the track. Dutch/Belgian Verstappen comes from a family steeped in driving history. His father Jos is a Dutch former Formula One driver, his Belgian mother, Sophie Kumpen, competed in karting and his cousin, Anthony Kumpen, competed in endurance racing and is a two-time NASCAR Whelen Euro Series champion.

Now Max has taken the legacy to new heights.

When he made his bow at the 2015 Australian Grand Prix, he became the youngest ever F1 driver at 17 years and 166 days — racing at up to 300kph before he even had a driver’s licence.

Born in Hasselt, Belgium, it was clear from an early age he was destined to follow in his father Jos’ footsteps into the world of motorsport. He took up karting at the age of four in Belgium and by 2007 he was the Dutch and Belgian Minimax champion. He also claimed the Belgian Cadet championship.

In 2009, Verstappen added to his haul with the Flemish Minimax championship and the Belgian KF5 championship — and bigger players in the world of racing were beginning to take notice.

In 2010, Verstappen seamlessly moved into international karting and narrowly missed out on the KF3 World Cup to future Red Bull teammate Alexander Albon before claiming the WSK Euro Series and WSK World Series

Max Verstappen
Max Verstappen of Red Bull Racing celebrate after winning the Formula One Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix at the Yas Marina Circuit on December 12, 2021. Image Credit: Virendra Saklani/Gulf News

By the time he was 15, Verstappen had pretty much won everything in karting and got his first taste of a Formula car in 2013, driving 160 laps in a Formula Renault car, and went on to test for several teams. In December 2013, Verstappen — still only 15 — stunned the driving world by outpacing Formula Renault regulars such as Steijn Schothorst and Matt Parry. He then repeated the feat in Valencia, outclassing seasoned pros like Tatiana Calderón and Eddie Cheever.

Next up, in 2014, was his competitive Formula debut in the Florida Winter Series, and he did not miss a step, rapidly racking up pole positioned and victories against more experienced drivers, before claiming 10 victories and third place in his maiden Formula 3 season for Van Amersfoort Racing.

This is when Red Bull came knocking and quickly signed Verstappen up to their Junior Team, beating Mercedes to his signature — that could have been a fascinating journey had he made a different decision.

And so Verstappen’s F1 journey began, first of all lighting up the track for Red Bull’s sister team Torro Rosso, regularly finishing in the points and twice narrowly missing out on a podium spot.

Midway through the 2016 season, he was moved up to Red Bull to replace the underperforming Daniil Kvyat — and was the talk of F1 as he won his debut race with the team at the Spanish Grand Prix.

If there is such a thing as a sticky spell in Verstappen’s career it would have to be 2017 — where technical issues and some rash driving decisions resulted in seven retirements. However he finished the season strongly with wins in Malaysia and Mexico,

Each season has seen a steady progress, with more wins, podiums and points year on year — with the exception of the Covid-19 shortened 2020 season — and it will be fascinating to see which of the batch of our next-generation drivers can keep up with the flying Dutchman.

Verstappen has a no-holds-barred approach to racing and it sometimes gets him in trouble. However, that wheel-to-wheel style has paid dividends and now he has his hands on the coveted Drivers’ Championship trophy — with plenty more fireworks and glory to come.

His feisty relationship with Lewis Hamilton this season, has taken the headlines as much as the actual racing, but Verstappen knows he won his title on the track, not in the paddock or stewards’ office.

“I do feel like the world champion,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what anyone tries to do. We won it on track, when there was a green light and we passed them on the track. And they will never be able to take that away from me anyway.”

Hamilton was actually one of the first to offer congratulations on Sunday, knowing he was beaten on the night and over nine months of racing. The next question is just how many titles Verstappen can go on to win and — over the years to come — can he challenge Hamilton’s reign as the greatest modern day racer.