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The son of a former F1 driver and a world champion go-karter, Max Verstappen was always destined for a life spent behind the wheel. But as he progresses from once-in-a-generation talent to a bona fide great, Sam Cooper looks at what it took to get him there. And it’s not all pretty.
Writer: Sam Cooper - as printed in Pitch Issue No.2
Photography: Red Bull Content Pool
On a September evening in 2012, a 14-year-old Max Verstappen watched on as his father’s car disappeared into the distance. His unfamiliar surroundings - a petrol station in southern Italy – offered few comforts. But it wasn’t comfort he was after. There is only one emotion coursing through the veins of the future world champion and his fast-disappearing father.
And to understand why a father would furiously abandon a child in a foreign country you have to go back to the very start. That start being that Jos Verstappen was himself a successful motorsport driver. And whilst his career would never go on to reach the heights of his son, he did race 106 times in Formula 1, achieving two podium finishes.
He would go on to partner Michael Schumacher for eight races in the 1994 season at Benetton. It was the year the all-time great would win the first of his seven world titles. And by the time Verstappen Snr’s F1 career came to an end in 2003, he had competed in eight seasons of the sport’s premier division, racing for six teams. A career that spanned nine years.
As starts in life go, Max Verstappen is of racing stock. A thoroughbred, even. His mother, Sophie Kumpen, was herself an excellent go-kart driver, with a world title to show for it. She started aged 10, and ended aged 16, finishing ninth in the Formula A World Championship. The following year she bested future F1 driver Giancarlo Fisichella, who would go on to become the teammate of 2009 F1 World Champion, Jenson Button.
So accomplished was Kumpen, she even took on her son’s future boss.“In 1989 I raced against her in the Junior Kart World Championship,” recalls Red Bull Team Principal Christian Horner. “In that race, there were some super-talented drivers; Jan Magnussen, Jarno Trulli, Giancarlo Fisichella, Dario Franchitti. She was top 10 of the world, for sure.”
Despite a promising future ahead of her, Kumpen gave up racing when she met Jos Verstappen. She was Belgian, while Jos had left his native Germany for Monaco. They would move to Kumpen’s home country, and in 1996 married in a private ceremony in Hasselt - the largest city within Limburg in the Flemish region. A year later Max came into the world.
Just under 50km from the border with Holland, and an hour away from Jos’ hometown, the native tongue of city residents is that of the Netherlands. He may feel Dutch and race ‘ in orange’, but his passport has a Belgium stamp.
Verstappen’s sense of ‘nationality’ is said to have derived from his earliest upbringing. His parents separated after the addition of a sister, Victoria, in 1999. Collateral from the break-up saw each parent take custody of a child. Victoria was to stay with her mother while Max went with his father. "It was logical that our children would follow in our footsteps, Kumpen told De Telegraaf in 2015. “Jos always went with Max when he had to train or had a race. So, when we split up it was natural for our son to live with his father.” And it was under the stewardship of his father that Verstappen would take his first steps to become a world champion.
As for most young hopefuls aspiring to be on the F1 grid, the first rung on that particular ladder is karting. For Verstappen, that day could not come soon enough. “He was always very interested in racing, and he wanted to start very early, and I kept saying 'yeah when you are a little bit older’” Jos Verstappen said in 2019. "My plan was to put him on a go-kart track when he was six-years-old, but he was with his mum at a track in Genk and he called me up crying because he saw a younger guy driving on the track. He said to me 'Daddy, I want to do this', so when I got home from the Canadian GP I bought him a go-kart. And that's how he started. He was four-and-a-half.”
From there, the wheels were forever in motion. And while it would be three years before regulations allowed him to race properly, it was not long before word spread about the already-flying Dutchman.
Go-karting is regarded as the great proving ground for those hoping to one day compete at the top level of motorsport. The reality is that if by the time a racer turns 18 – and they haven’t already clocked up thousands of laps around European circuits – then the chances of moving on are slim. It's this that forms the sport’s greatest barrier. Competing is estimated to cost a quarter of a million euros per year. Those that compete often fall into two categories. Rich parents. Or parents with a racing history.
Jos Verstappen holds an unenviable tag in the sport. That of a hard taskmaster. While Max’s passion for driving was no doubt already there, his attitude was very much shaped by the will of his father. Of all those present at an F1 circuit, even now, it is Verstappen’s who is most visible.
And his father’s past is a checkered one. In 2000, he and his own father, Frans, were found guilty of assault for a 1998 incident at a karting track. Both were handed five-year suspended sentences. In 2008 Jos avoided an assault charge by Kumpen and was instead found guilty of threatening Verstappen’s mother in text messages and of violating a previously issued restraining order. This added a further three months to his already suspended sentence. In 2012 – although eventually dropped – he saw arrest on an attempted murder charge when accused of driving his car at an ex-girlfriend.
But for those who know the parents, it is often said that Max takes more after his mother than his father. In 2014, Jos described his son as of ‘gentle character’. His father sees this as a failing. Translating to a lack of perceived focus, and something his father believed he had to snuff out. And in maintaining a close eye on his son’s progress, Verstappen served as a full-time mechanic and engineer during those early karting days. If he felt Max was having it too easy, he would change a part of the car to inconvenience him. And when it began to rain - when other parents would pack up - Max was told to keep going. In races where Verstappen would dominate, his father tried to ramp up the difficulty by telling him not to overtake at certain corners or sections of the track.
In a rare interview with the pair of them together, Jos recalled a particular moment of ‘tough love’. “I remember he was probably eight or nine. On Wednesdays, school was finished at noon. We went to the go-kart track, and in the wintertime, it was freezing. So, I let the van run so he could warm up, and then we did 10 laps. He was cold. I said ‘OK, go warm up’, and then three minutes later [Max was not back] – ‘f*ck, where is he now, come on!’ [and Max would say] ‘I’m still cold’. ‘I don’t care, drive.’ “He couldn’t move his fingers, and I didn’t care. I wanted to test things, because I was building engines, and changing chassis, and I wanted to have a result because I wanted to move forward.” Max interrupted his father, saying that he could barely hold the steering wheel, before Jos continues, “I said ‘ah, shut up’.”
Able to laugh about it now, Verstappen recognises it was his father trying to make him tough. But it was not an isolated incident. During a particular race in his final years in karting, Jos was not happy with the manner his son was driving. In full view of everyone, he waited for him to pull over then whacked the young driver on his helmet, following it with a warning, “If you don’t drive normal, we go home, I’ll pack up everything!”
But the most infamous moment of Verstappen’s young career - and perhaps the biggest sign of how tough the love of his father could really be - happened in 2012 at the CIK-FIA KZ2 World Cup in Sarno, Italy. It was also the sequence of events that led to the petrol station forecourt drive-off.
New Zealander Daniel Bray was himself an accomplished karter, having raced for 28 years. He became the first non-native to win the American Championship and as a result, went on to race in Europe the following year.
“The year he won the karting world championship, he spent 270 days driving a go-kart out of 365. He either made Formula 1, or there was nothing.”
Bray is 10 years Verstappen’s senior and even before he started racing against him, he was already well aware of the talent that was emerging. “I had been watching karting from this side of the world, watching Europe, and knew since he was eight years old that he was a mega superstar,” Bray told Pitch. “I am old enough to remember his dad racing in Formula 1. Schumacher was my idol and Jos was his teammate, so I always knew the Verstappen name and I watched Max come through the junior ranks.
“Everyone knew that he was going to Formula 1, you could just tell. He's probably one of the most talented drivers I've ever seen in a go-kart. There was no shortage of laps - I think he didn't go to school! The year he won the [karting] world championship, he spent 270 days driving a go-kart out of 365. He was just in a go-kart the whole time and he was 15 years old. So, either he had to make Formula 1, or there was nothing.”
Verstappen and Bray would race each other in Italy in 2012, in what was the New Zealander’s first race on the continent. But while word had gotten out about the Dutchman, Bray less so. “No one knew who I was. It was like ‘who is this guy?’ I won all the heat races, and I started the pre-final on pole. Max started eighth. We had a good race and he beat me in the pre-final, so we started the final placed one and two.
“Realistically, it was his race to lose. I was good enough for second or third - that was probably what we were aiming for – and I was the only one fast enough to pass him. And the only person all weekend to do it. So, our game plan was to try to keep him back in the pack. If he passed me, just pass him straight away, and try to keep him behind me.
“So he passed me on the first lap, and I passed him on the second; on the straight. Then he just tried to pass me in a stupid spot. I just didn't see him. It just wasn't a place to pass. He should have just waited three more corners or on the straightaway - that was a 175kmh (108mph) run – and he would have just blown past me. Then I would have had to do it all over again.”
With parallels to Verstappen’s crash with Lewis Hamilton nine years later, Verstappen dived up the inside of a quick corner that belonged to Bray. The New Zealander turned in but as he did, Verstappen’s front left wheel clipped his rear right, and both were sent spinning off the track and onto the grass. The large runoff area meant Bray was able to get back on the circuit while Verstappen was not so fortunate. He flung his arms into the air before leaving his kart deserted on a slip road.
Verstappen agrees with Bray’s ‘stupid move’ assessment, but it was his father who took the incident the hardest. “My dad had already invested so much time preparing the engines, making sure that once I stepped up to that category, everything would be ready to go. I was of course upset, but my dad was really disappointed in me. He broke down the tent, everything, and he threw it in the van. I had to pick up the kart with a friend of mine after the race because my dad said I had to do it myself.
“We sat in the van on our way back home. I wanted to talk to him about what happened, offer my opinion about the incident, but my dad didn’t want to talk to me. I kept trying, and at one point he stopped at a fuel station and he’s like, ‘Get out, I don’t want to talk to you anymore’.”
Jos recalls that it was a full week before he talked to his son again. “We drove about 1,800 kilometres and I didn’t say a word to him. And the whole week after I didn’t speak to him. And then we were sitting together, I explained to him how I felt.” In Jos’ eyes, there was a method to the madness. “I wanted him to understand that he had to think.
“The season afterwards we won everything. We won two European Championships, and the World Championship, we won every race. He was so focused, the way he was racing you could see he was thinking, and that was because of what happened at that race. It made him a better driver.”
After his karting education was complete - a period in which he raced against the likes of Charles Leclerc and Alex Albon - who he shares the F1 grid with today, it was time for the move to single-seaters. He made his debut in the Florida Winter Series, which would last just one season. Verstappen won two of the 12 races, finishing on the podium five times, before moving to Formula 3 in 2014. He joined Dutch team Van Amersfoort Racing, the same team Jos had won the Formula Opel Lotus Benelux Championship with in 1992.
Seven years on, his very first team principal Frits van Amersfoort recalled the young Verstappen. "During that season I said that Max would one day become [Formula 1] World Champion," Van Amersfoort told RacingNews365. "There was no doubt about that.
"Max drove in F3 exactly the way he drives now. He hasn't really changed in the period between then and now. He may have started driving with his head a little more, but he will always push. Max goes to the limit, and he stops only when he's at the finish line."
Verstappen’s one and only season in F3 was certainly eventful. He retired in two of the opening four races, did not start the fifth and then won the sixth. The 16-year-old then DNF’d three times in a row before setting a record six consecutive victories. By now, Verstappen had begun to draw the attention of the big boys.
Ferrari and Mercedes were all interested in signing the young star to junior driver programmes. But it was Red Bull he plumped for. He would join them in September, shortly before he raced around the team’s home-track - the Red Bull Ring in Austria - and would finish the 2014 F3 season in third place, with the title going to another future F1 racer, Esteban Ocon.
Verstappen’s progress was rapid. With just a year of F3 under his belt, he skipped Formula 2 and became a member of Red Bull’s junior team, Toro Rosso, for the 2014 season. His appearance in one of the practice sessions at that year’s Japanese Grand Prix made him the youngest person ever to feature in a Formula 1 weekend, aged 17 years and three days. And it was not the only age-related record the Dutchman would go on to break.
Toro Rosso team boss Franz Tost still heads the team. Following its name change to AlphaTauri, he described Verstappen in 2014 as, “one of the most skilled young drivers of the new generation”. And it was not long before that skill was put to the test. Having spent a season watching on, Verstappen was promoted to a full-time race seat for 2015 when he was just 17-years-old and before he even held a full driver’s license. The move raised plenty of eyebrows but for Tost, who had first noticed Verstappen during a rain-hit karting performance that reminded him of Michael Schumacher, it was clear what a “mega-talent” the team had on their hands. “He did his first training session at Suzuka, one of the most difficult circuits of all, but Max did it all with aplomb,” Tost said in 2022 to F1-Insider. “He never had any problems with the great speed of a Formula 1 car, always had everything under control right from the start.” Verstappen replaced Jean-Eric Vergne in the car, lining up alongside Carlos Sainz for the 2015 Australian Grand Prix. Doing so he became the youngest driver ever to start an F1 race at the age of 17 years and 166 days, a record he still holds today and one he’ll always hold after the FIA raised the minimum driver age to 18.
But unlike every other step-up racing’s ladder, his F1 debut proved to be pitched at the sport’s steepest angle. When qualifying P12, Verstappen made it into the points-scoring positions before his engine gave way on lap 34. The next race in Malaysia saw him earn his first F1 points, another record, before he went on a run of five races without finishing inside the top 10.
It was at the Monaco Grand Prix where F1 viewers witnessed the aggression that had accompanied his career so far and that Bray had experienced three years prior. He was trailing Romain Grosjean and seeking a way to move past the Frenchman. As they exited the long straight going into Turn 1, Grosjean braked but Verstappen did not, and the Toro Rosso careered into the back of the Lotus. Verstappen’s front left wheel was ripped free as the teenager shunted nose-first into the barrier. Williams driver Felipe Massa branded the youngest racer on the grid “dangerous”, which would not be the only time such an accusation was levelled.
But the crash proved a turning point. He finished the next race in Canada in P15, before earning points in all but three of the remaining 11 Grand Prix. For Red Bull and Horner, they had seen enough. Verstappen started only four races in the 2016 season for Toro Rosso before getting the call.
It was to be a 15th-place finish in the Russian Grand Prix that proved to be the final nail in Daniil Kvyat’s metaphoric coffin. It was then that Red Bull decided to go all-in on Verstappen. With just a week’s notice until his first race, he was promoted from Toro Rosso to partner Daniel Ricciardo for the Spanish Grand Prix.
At a time of peak Mercedes dominance, little was expected of Red Bull’s rookie. He impressed from the off. Qualifying on the second row alongside his teammate, and when Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg crashed into each other and out of the Grand Prix on the first lap, it meant that for the first time in 11 races a non-Mercedes car faced the prospect of winning.
Ricciardo was favourite. He was a race winner, and at the top of his game. While former World Champions Kimi Räikkönen and Sebastian Vettel were challenging him for Ferrari. Red Bull knew that the red cars had the pace in the clear air, so opted for a three-stop approach for Ricciardo, while Verstappen would pit just twice in the hope he could slow the Ferrari drivers down for his teammate.
As the race went on, the two drivers that opted for an additional stop (Vettel and Ricciardo) fell away, meaning that all that stood between Verstappen and a maiden win was the veteran Räikkönen. The Finn, known affectionately as the ‘Iceman’, battled and fought, but the 18-year-old proved his equal. With his tyres at the very limit of their life, the Dutchman crossed the line to become the youngest race winner in Formula 1 history.
French newspaper L'Équipe described Verstappen as "already a great" while Sky Sports F1 commentator David Croft said, “he has shown he has everything to be a world champion". Horner remarked that he was not even old enough to drink the winner’s champagne. “Occasionally, odd results happen but this was pure performance”, said the Red Bull boss. “Max hasn't put a wheel wrong all weekend. He has jumped in the car. He’s never done a practice lap in the car before this weekend. To do that, qualify on the second row and win the Grand Prix is unbelievable.”
But the most telling reaction was from his father, a man who had committed his life to achieve this goal, “I knew when he was young, I was working [for him] to arrive in Formula 1. But then - that he is winning a race in his second year - is something unbelievable.”
Verstappen’s ascendency was complete. Over the next few years, he would battle for more podiums and the occasional win during a time of utter dominance for Mercedes. By the start of the 2021 season, he had 10 victories to his name, that year would change everything.
It was the season before sweeping regulations came in, requiring teams to essentially start from scratch. Some constructors went as far as sacrificing their chances to focus on the following year. But for Red Bull, they had a feeling it was their time.
Mercedes had just won their seventh consecutive Constructors’ title. Hamilton had just matched Schumacher’s record of seven Drivers’ Championships. But pre-season testing in Barcelona had everyone in the paddock raising eyebrows.
RB16B, a powerplant designed by the legendary builder, Adrian Newey, was proving itself to be a monster. And one capable of challenging Mercedes. From the first race in Bahrain, it was obvious that something was brewing. Race-wise, Hamilton may have secured the win, but he did so only 0.745 seconds ahead of Verstappen.
The pair then proceeded to trade victories across the next three races until the Monaco Grand Prix where the Red Bull driver opened a lead after his P1 finish and Hamilton’s P7. Verstappen looked on course to extend that advantage in Baku, but his tyre exploded with no warning - Hamilton was given a chance to regain his advantage. As the cars lined up for the second start of the day, Hamilton had unbeknownst to him pushed the ‘magic button’ that alters the car’s brake balance. He locked up and skidded out of points contention.
Verstappen then took control of the title race. A hat-trick of wins gave him a 32-point lead as the F1 circus headed to Silverstone for what would be the lighting of the blue touchpaper for their rivalry. It was the Dutchman who started on pole, but from lights out Hamilton was on him. The two battled hard as the Silverstone crowd - returning for the first time since the COVID pandemic - roared their home favourite on.
Hamilton gained the lead only to concede it shortly after. As TV commentators struggled to keep up with the pace of the race, drivers headed into Copse corner. Hamilton moved for a space that was not there, his front left tyre tagging the rear right of Verstappen’s, the Red Bull driver instantly lost control at one of the quickest corners on the track. His car flew sideways across the gravel trap, hitting the wall at 180mph, subjecting Verstappen to a 51G impact and leaving him audibly in pain over the team radio.
The Red Bull garage was furious. With Verstappen on his way to the hospital, they petitioned race director Michael Masi for the harshest penalty to be awarded to Hamilton. leaving Mercedes to counter that it was simply a racing incident. In the end, Hamilton was adjudged to have been at fault, but the 10-second time penalty was essentially a slap on the wrist. Hamilton would go on to win the race, picking up a Union Jack and raising it aloft during his winners lap while Verstappen was in hospital.
The season’s mood had turned. In the next race, it was Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas that caused a pile-up resulting in Verstappen nursing his wounded car to the finish line and ninth place. This incident allowed Hamilton to regain the Championship lead. Only for Verstappen to regain that advantage following back-to-back wins ahead of the teams heading to Monza.
In front of a passionate Tifosi crowd, the pair would again ‘come together’. Verstappen’s pit stop was slow, meaning when Hamilton exited the pits a lap later, the two would be alongside each other. The battle would not last long though. They went into the first corner side-by-side and Verstappen’s car rode over the sausage kerb and up onto Hamilton’s car, pushing both into the gravel trap and out of the race.
The advantage remained with Verstappen, but the tide turned when Hamilton, fitted with a new engine that team boss Toto Wolff described as a “rocket”, won three races in a row heading into the season finale at Abu Dhabi. Both men were now on level points.
It was a time like no other for Formula 1. Firmly in the public eye, the finale was being billed as the title showdown of all showdowns. A season of 22 races had come down to a 58-lap winner takes all and the world was now watching.
In truth, it was no contest. Despite the heroics of Verstappen’s teammate Sergio Perez to hold up Hamilton, the Mercedes car was just too quick, and with five laps to go the Brit was on course for a record-breaking eighth world title. But then everything changed.
Nicholas Latifi crashed and out came the Safety Car. Red Bull gambled and brought Verstappen in for a new pair of ‘softs’ while Mercedes, unwilling to cede track position, kept Hamilton out on his used ‘mediums’. The most dramatic season in F1’s history looked as if it would end behind the Safety Car. That was until race director Masi took matters into his own hands. He allowed just a portion of the lapped cars to unlap themselves then immediately brought in the Safety Car. Setting up a final-lap showdown for the world title. Hamilton was eaten up by Verstappen on fresher tyres and as Wolff screamed his infamous line, “No, Michael, No! This is so not right.” over the radio, the sport crowned a new world champion.
The exact nature of Verstappen’s maiden championship will always be a controversial one, but how he got there is not. Max Verstappen is a man meant to race. His many years already in the sport make it easy to forget just how young he is and what lies ahead of him. In the 2022 season, he has shown himself to be a more mature driver, cruising to his second World Championship with much less drama than his first.
And away from the track, he is not your stereotypical racing driver. While he does reside in Monaco, it is not the casinos and restaurants he is spotted visiting.
And even in his romantic life, racing features. Since January 2021 he has been in a relationship with Kelly Piquet, daughter of Nelson, himself a three-time World Champion. Her presence at the track constitutes an ever-so-slight lowering of the walls.
In his rare moments of free time away from the track, Verstappen races online in simulator racing events, such is the love of his craft. His partner has a daughter from a former relationship with the man Verstappen replaced at Red Bull, Daniil Kvyat. The Dutch world champion has become a step-father to the three-year-old.
Verstappen’s rise from child prodigy to top of the world may have looked inexorable, but it has been hard. Tough, even. With a taskmaster of a father that would break, not bend, most children, the aggression of Jos was part of his son’s story, but not all of it.
But the 2021 title changed things. He has said his goal was only ever to win the World Championship and now that is achieved, he appears a man living without pressure.
That image of his father driving off into the distance from that Italian petrol station will stay with Verstappen, no doubt, but the rage won’t. Jos might never have been a world champion but without his influence, the same could have been the fate of his son. It was his father who got him his first go-kart, it was his father that drove him to races around the continent, and it was his father who tested him at every opportunity, extracting every drop of talent.
Time passing may mean that Jos no longer plays such a pivotal role in his son’s everyday career, but that’s the same for most young adults. And now that same father and son that could not bear to sit in the same car are embracing after every win. 18 years after his last race, his son’s coronation was the culmination of a life’s work. Sometimes it’s only the end that justifies the journey.
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