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 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.
“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.”
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 has 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 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.”
Verstappen 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 Grand Prix between 1994 and 2003, Max first clambered into a go-kart when he was four and a half 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. “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. Her uncle competed in motocross and rally and her cousin Anthony Kumpen raced NASCAR in the United States.
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 in 2015.
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 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 princial 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.”