Formula One: Max Verstappen follows destiny to become world champion

Red Bull's Max Verstappen celebrates winning the race and the world championship with the Netherlands flag on the podium on Dec 12, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

PARIS (AFP, REUTERS) - From the moment that Max Verstappen joined the Red Bull junior team in 2014, there was an inevitability that he would one day become Formula One world champion.

That it came in the shape of a sensational last-lap sprint in Abu Dhabi on Sunday (Dec 12) which toppled seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton from his throne, will make it even sweeter to the 24-year-old, the first Dutchman to wear the crown.

Already he holds F1 records as youngest driver, points scorer and race winner (at 18) and is the first non-Mercedes driver to take the title since German Sebastian Vettel with Red Bull in 2013.

He has grabbed the title by the throat this season and given Hamilton his first real, down-to-the-wire rival from outside his own team.

"My goal when I was little was to be a Formula One driver," said Verstappen after the finish in Abu Dhabi. "You dream of podiums and victories. But when they tell you that you are world champion, it's incredible. All the things come back to your mind, all of the years travelling for that goal."

The 36-year-old Hamilton has been a sensational champion with Mercedes but Verstappen's victory suggests the arrival of a new world order. His pace and talent have long been evident but it is his calmness under pressure and willingness to go toe to toe with a genuine F1 great, even when things got hairy, that has marked out this season's rise to the top.

At Silverstone, Verstappen ended up in the crash barriers; at Monza he crash-landed his Red Bull on top of the Mercedes. In Saudi Arabia, Hamilton crunched into the back of the Red Bull after Verstappen braked to let him pass.

The Briton saw the threat coming years ago.

"There's always someone waiting to take my position. I've got that Max just sitting there waiting to take it," he said in 2017 after securing his fourth title.

While the two rivals have been locked in a duel for the ages, one that will go down as one of the sport's greatest, they are poles apart.

Where Hamilton is involved in fashion, music and using his platform as champion and F1's sole black driver to push for racial equality and diversity, Verstappen has fewer distractions.

"Favourite hobby? That's a tricky one. Asides from F1, I do a lot of sim (virtual) racing. I guess that's a hobby," Verstappen said at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix. "But in a way also not because I take it very seriously."

The incidents on the track have led to a war of words off it. The Dutchman labelled the seven-time world champion a "stupid idiot" while Hamilton accused the young pretender of being "over the limit" in Jeddah.

In Abu Dhabi, Verstappen produced one of the most unlikely wins imaginable with a last-lap dash that confounded the experienced Hamilton.

Not once, though, did the challenger take a step back or wilt under the pressure.

"He seems to deal with the pressure better than other people," said two-time world champion Fernando Alonso earlier in the season. "Everyone is different, but it seems that for him it is not a big deal."

Racing pedigree

Verstappen has motor racing in his blood, a born racer who has been around the sport since he was a baby and was on wheels almost as soon as he could walk. He is used to the spotlight, the pressure and, with already 20 years on the track, is experienced beyond his years as a racing driver.

According to his father Jos Verstappen, who raced in over a hundred Grands Prix between 1994 and 2003, Max first clambered into a go-kart when he was four years old.

"He was keen, watching all my races, he knew what was going on. He was brought up with racing," Jos told the official F1 podcast Beyond the Grid in 2019. "I never had to tell him racing lines, he knew."

In Abu Dhabi, the two shared what Max called a "special" moment. His dad was in no doubt about his son's achievement.

"I am very proud of him," said Jos, who took two podiums for Benetton in 1994 as a teammate to Michael Schumacher, but who retired without coming close to the success he felt his talent deserved and that his son has delivered. "Max was the driver this year and he deserved it."

His father was not the only influence on his early racing career; his mother is Belgian ex-kart driver champion Sophie Kumpen, who raced against future F1 world champion Jenson Button. Her uncle competed in motocross and rally and her cousin Anthony Kumpen raced Nascar in the United States.

Given Verstappen's lineage, there was only ever one destination.

Titles followed and the teenage Verstappen made the step up to Formula Three, winning 10 races in his debut season when he finished third in the championship which was won by Esteban Ocon, a year his senior and now with the F1 Alpine team.

Verstappen would almost certainly have gone on to win the Formula Three title but after one season, he made the step up to the biggest stage.

After taking part in practice at the 2014 Japanese GP, he made his F1 debut for Toro Rosso at the Australian GP in 2015.

'Exciting driver'

Aged just 17 years and 166 days, he was the youngest ever driver in the sport - and still had not passed his regular driving test.

"For me it was never about age," said Jos. "It was so natural what he was doing. It was impressive. Max is an exciting driver. He's much better than me."

That first season saw him take his first points and get involved in his first scrap. A shunt on Romain Grosjean in Monaco saw Verstappen labelled "dangerous" by Williams driver Felipe Massa but he went on to land the FIA's Rookie of the Year title.

In May 2016, he was promoted to the Red Bull team, replacing Daniil Kvyat, and the results were impressive and immediate. In his first race in Spain, he qualified fourth and then held off Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen to become the youngest ever race winner, aged 18, in F1.

Vestappen notched six top-five finishes, including four podiums, in his first eight races.

After two seasons as runner-up, he had a better car which at times has enabled him to eviscerate the Mercedes.

"You just knew Max was not going to give it up," said Red Bull principal Christian Horner on Sunday.

"He had come so far this year and then to see him close it out, become world champion - an amazing feeling."

Earlier, he had hailed Verstappen's single-mindedness, saying: "Max drives like Tyson Fury fights. He's got that same heart.

"You just know he's going to give it everything and if you knock him down, he's going to get back up. He's got that burning desire, that all-out commitment."

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