Halfway through the 2015 Formula One season, debutant Max Verstappen was not even legally allowed to drive on the street. He got his super licence a year earlier than most, following a prodigious start to racing.
One could argue that the recent 18-year-old was to the manor born (or is it to the Toro Rosso?)
The son of Dutch ex-F1 driver Jos Verstappen, Max has a long association with motorsport, and it’s not just through his famous father.
Sophie Kumpen, the 18-year-old’s mother, is herself a rally racer, and quite a decorated one at that. Kumpen beat future Formula One drivers Jarno Trulli and Giorgio Pantano at the 1995 Trofeo Margutti, one of Italy’s biggest karting championships.
The Belgian was also the national karting champion in her country, and even participated in the Japanese Karting Grand Prix – placing second overall.
Much has been said about her former husband Jos Verstappen, not all of it complimentary. Although he was known as ‘Jos the Boss’ and had a commandeering driving style, it was perhaps bad decisions and less-than-stellar cars that meant Verstappen never acheived the success he could have, and he ended his Formula One career with only two podiums.
He also had some less-than-savoury nicknames, among them “Jos Grindbak” or Jos the Gravelpit, referring to his tendency to end up there fairly often.
Jos appears, however, to have turned over a new leaf since he began managing his son's career. Verstappen senior may not have had his own successes, but it appears he is determined that his talented son does.
The pair have built a workshop at the home Jos and Max share in Bree, Belgium, with Jos saying in a BBC documentary that simulating and living the races would be “the only way for Max to compete with the factory teams.”
Verstappen junior took part in his first karting race at the age of 7, in 2004.
With an extensive warehouse packed to the rafters with every motor vehicle imaginable, Jos was asked by the BBC what vehicle he desired that he did not possess. “A winning Formula One car,” he responded.
Could Verstappen senior be looking to foist his dreams on his son? Unlikely; while his parents’ talent no doubt influenced the young driver, he has displayed all through the year a natural ability few drivers on the track have shown.
Finishing third in the Formula 3 Championship behind Esteban Ocon and Tom Blomqvist in 2014, Verstappen received offers from Mercedes’ driver development programme and the Red Bull Junior team; accepting the latter, a week later he was informed he would in fact be racing on their team.
It appears this will not be the case for any future prodigies such as Verstappen should they exist, however - the FIA has since banned the jump from Formula 3 to Formula One.
Verstappen needn’t worry, however – he’s had high praise from very high quarters, and been compared to absolutely the best in the game.
The next Schumacher, says Eddie Jordan – and his overtaking could certainly get him there
His aggressive driving and innate overtaking ability have led the likes of Eddie Jordan to proclaim him the ‘new Schumacher, new Senna perhaps’. Although it may be presumptuous and an immense pressure on the shoulders of someone who has just turned 18, the comments are not entirely remiss.
Verstappen's overtakes, in particular, have been the highlight of the season – one of his best coming against 2-time world champion Fernando Alonso, another driver who has displayed his innate racing ability time and again – despite what can only be described as a runt of a car.
At the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka, 18-year-old Verstappen took the inside line on Fernando Alonso, twice his age, successfully; the Spaniard remained unable to score any points as Verstappen took 9th place. In the end, the newest flying Dutchman scored 10 points finishes in the year – five times as many as Alonso.
He'd shown promise earlier in the year, too, catching the much-more experienced Romain Grosjean in Monaco, although that ended with a crash.
At the United States Grand Prix, towards the end of the calendar, Verstappen would overtake a faltering Sebastian Vettel. Although he would not eventually be able to keep his lead over the German, Verstappen had his year’s highest finish of 4th, almost making the podium in his debut season.
In all, Verstappen has overtaken seven world championships this year between Alonso, Vettel and Button.
Although he did not have a high finish at Suzuka, the venue served to showcase the young driver’s overtaking as he caught out Sauber’s Felipe Nasr and Alonso’s teammate and 2009 World Champion Jenson Button in quick succession.
Arguably his most amazing overtake in his debut season, and one of the best in recent years, has been getting Felipe Nasr at the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps.
Spa is known for being the fastest track on the circuit, and its varying heights also mean it is treacherous. At its highest-speed, most dangerous corner – one of the most in Formula One, in fact, Verstappen took a late charge.
Blanchimont is known for playing host to, and being the cause of several accidents in Formula One history. Despite this, however, the fearless teen charged against Nasr, and in a display of both tenacity and bravery, he held on despite mounting the kerb as he managed to overtake the Sauber driver.
He’d finish that race in 8th.
Each of his competitors has spoken of Verstappen’s skill. At the Race of Champions in London this year, 4-time champion and a young prodigy himself, Sebastian Vettel said the Dutch youngster was “fast and aggressive, sometimes almost too aggressive.”
But Formula One fans will have heard those words before, about a certain driver who would go on to win seven drivers’ championships. Ruthless. Aggressive. Merciless. All words that were used to describe Michael Schumacher over the early part of his career, and even after he won his first few.
It’s the sort of aggression Vettel has himself shown, much like he did going wheel-to-wheel with Fernando Alonso at Silverstone in 2014 as he edged him out to take the lead.
Similar descriptors have been used for Lewis Hamilton, who recently took his third championship, although several have refuted this arguing that Hamilton has had a superior car.
This argument has been made about nearly every champion in recent Formula One history, however, and although Mercedes have in fact dominated proceedings with their car, Hamilton outclassed his teammate, Nico Rosberg, for most of the year, before Rosberg took a late charge against the Briton to win the last 3 races on the trot.
Feisty and how
Verstappen may let his driving do the talking most of the time, but he’s no shrinking violet off the track either. Following the Toro Rosso driver’s big crash into the barriers at the Monaco Grand Prix after making contact with Grosjean, Verstappen was part of the drivers’ conference at the Canadian Grand Prix – where Williams’ Felipe Massa took an open dig at the youngster for the collision.
Speaking of ‘inexperienced drivers’ on the track, taking issue with the fact that Verstappen, despite “being wrong..(he) was not penalised”. Calling for the FIA to take “stricter action” against the driver, Verstappen responded almost instantly as he asked the questioning reporter to “look back at last year’s race.”
At the 2014 Canadian Grand Prix, Massa, on the final lap, had attempted to pass Force India’s Sergio Perez, eventually making contact with the rear of the Force India, and sending both drivers into the barriers at high speed, in a crash nearly identical to Verstappen’s.
At this year’s Singapore Grand Prix, Verstappen did two surprising things – first, he began the race a lap down after his car stalled in the pits; then, he managed to successfully unlap himself and post quick lap times in the process.
It was during the final lap that Verstappen showed his tenacity – instructed by the crew to let his teammate, Carlos Sainz, Jr. pass him, a pacey Verstappen refused outright, eventually finishing the race in 8th.
Reprimanded later by Eddie Jordan, the teen was nevertheless adamant that he had taken the right decision; a decision Toro Rosso boss Franz Tost later acknowledged had been the right one.
Although father Jos is known for his fiery nature, and has even been in trouble with the law for it, Verstappen junior is by all accounts a gentle, mild-mannered young man; until, of course, it comes to racing.
With the end of the 2015 racing season comes the news that Toro Rosso will be powered by Ferrari engines in 2016, and that both Verstappen and his teammate Carlos Sainz will retain their seats.
Meanwhile, Ferrari team principal Maurizio Arrivabene has said Ferrari will “look to have more competitive engines” in 2016; with homologation now seriously scrutinized, the young rookies will have the same engines as the Scuderia.
Verstappen ended the year with three awards from the FIA – Rookie of the Year, Personality of the Year and Action of the Year, for that overtake at Spa.
2016 looks to be a brilliant year for the youngster, who has long been the subject of talk relating to a Ferrari seat. Indeed, with Verstappen confirmed to be staying on with Toro Rosso until the end of 2016 and Kimi Raikkonen with Ferrari through that time period as well, it would not be remiss to discuss the possibility of the Dutchman replacing the Iceman.
For now, next year promises to be a strong one in terms of racing, especially with some old-school aggressive racing back on track; perhaps the other drivers will find theirs in the process.
Expectations are high of the 18-year-old, and he will need to keep his head on his shoulders as he progresses through his racing career building on his talent. It is a good thing, then, that he has a father who has been through the world of Formula One and will be able to guide him through it without losing his way as so many have before him.