Max Verstappen – A Young Superstar Under Pressure

Max Verstappen entered Formula 1 as the youngest full-time F1 driver ever in 2015 in a whirlwind of publicity and hype. Verstappen was fast-tracked into F1 from Formula 3 (F3) after just one season. All eyes were on this young Dutchman as it was recognized that he had immense talent.

A Young Superstar Under Pressure

But was Verstappen being pushed into the cauldron with the big boys too soon? The young driver has shaken up the order in F1 and stood his ground in his first three seasons. But the start of the 2018 season has revealed some chinks in the armor and put him under pressure.

A Star In The Making

Verstappen comes from a racing family. His father Jos Verstappen was a former F1 driver and his mother Sophie was a successful karting driver. Verstappen started karting at the age of six in 2003. By 2013, he had won every title that was on offer in karting including the world championship.

In 2014, Verstappen made his single-seater debut in the Florida World Series and moved onto F3 later in the season. A young star was born as he took the series by storm, winning ten races including a streak of six consecutive race wins. He finished third overall in the series, but had caught the eye of one and all with his sensational driving.

Verstappen was sponsored by Red Bull Racing and was handpicked by Dr Helmut Marko, Head of the Red Bull Driver Development Program. So the young protégé found himself promoted to F1 the very next year, as the youngest driver ever.

Early Hype

Dr Marko described the 17-year old Verstappen as “an exceptional talent that comes along only once in decades”. Marko compared Verstappen to Ayrton Senna, who like Verstappen went straight into F1 from F3. To be regarded as having the potential to be the next Senna was very high praise indeed.

Red Bull Team Principal Christian Horner said “Make no mistake about it, he’s one of the hottest prospects in Formula One” and considered Verstappen the future of the Red Bull team.

Formula 1 Arrival

In 2015, Vertsappen joined Scuderia Toro Rosso, the Red Bull junior F1 team, as a 17-year old. He debuted alongside another promising talent Carlos Sainz Jr, the freshly crowned champion of the Formula Renault 3.5 Series. The stage was set for a battle royale between two talented young drivers.

In the first race, Verstappen took the youngest ever F1 driver record from Jaime Alguersuari. In the second race in Malaysia, the Dutchman took the youngest F1 driver to score points record from Daniil Kvyat with a seventh place finish. Fourth-place at Hungary and USA were his best results that season. Ten point scoring races in 19 races that season saw Verstappen easily outscore his teammate Sainz (49 to 18 points) and finish 12th in the drivers’ championship.

The season was marked with some acrimony between the two sides of the garage of the young stars. Verstappen was involved in some spectacular overtaking moves, as well as mistakes that caused high-speed crashes like the one with Romain Grosjean in Monaco.

Without a doubt he was a young superstar in the making with his raw speed and great car control. The season ended with three FIA titles – Rookie of the Year, Personality of the Year, Best Overtake of the Year.

Red Bull Racing Promotion

By the fifth race of the 2016 season, Verstappen earned a surprise promotion to the senior Red Bull Racing team. The errors and misfortune that plagued Kvyat in the first four races with the senior team led to a switch mid-season, with Kvyat demoted to Toro Rosso. A spectacular debut followed, with Verstappen winning his very first race with Red Bull at the Spanish GP.

As the two Mercedes drivers crashed into each other at the start, the gate was opened for the young Verstappen to earn himself yet another record, youngest F1 race winner of all-time (18 years and 228 days). A dramatic and successful debut with the senior team saw the stage set for the young star.

Run-Ins With Established Stars

With expectations and excitement running high, the season unfolded with Verstappen slicing and dicing with the top drivers. The sometimes brash overtaking moves saw the Dutchman come under criticism. Verstappen was the provocateur-in-chief and he was shaking up the established order.

The Dutchman had repeated run-ins with the two Ferrari drivers, Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen. An optimistic dive inside the two Ferraris at Turn 1 at Spa at the Belgian GP resulted in damage to the three cars. Verstappen’s defensive moves under braking saw the ice-cool Raikkonen losing his temper in Hungary and Belgium. The robust defensive tactics to keep Vettel behind in Mexico led to an epithet-laden outburst of epic proportions from the German on team radio.

The Verstappen Rule

Before the Mexican GP that season, a specific rule was introduced called “the Verstappen Rule” to stop what was deemed as dangerous defending by the young Dutchman. The Verstappen rule prohibited the driver ahead from moving across in the braking zone when defending.

The young man was getting many of his fellow drivers hot under the collar with his driving. The mistakes were pushed to the background by some brilliant overtakes and races during the season.

None more than at the 2016 Brazilian GP where biblical rains saw the race unfold under treacherously wet conditions. It took all of Verstappen’s skills to stay out of the barriers as he spun and dropped to the back of the field. With 15 laps to go on a set of new wet tyres, he charged through the field in a Senna-esque drive to finish third. Verstappen ended the season fifth (204 pts), but behind his teammate Ricciardo who finished third (256 points).

The 2017 Season Ends Well

The season started with the FIA dropping the Verstappen Rule altogether. Verstappen retired from seven out of the first fourteen races due to a mix of reliability issues and collisions caused by him. Max’s luck finally turned in Malaysia as he won the race with a nice drive and pushed eventual champion Lewis Hamilton to second.

Another win in Mexico, after he caused some chaos chopping across Vettel and Hamilton at the start saw him salvage his season. But Verstappen finished behind Ricciardo again. Verstappen ended the season sixth (168 pts) with Ricciardo finishing fifth (200 points).

A hefty new contract extension until 2020 was signed during the season. The contract showed that the team bosses were pinning their hopes on the 20-year old leading their team. A much improved car by the end of the season led to optimism that Red Bull could be on par with the two frontrunners, Mercedes and Ferrari in 2018.

The Troubled New 2018 Season

By the end of the 2017 season, Verstappen seemed to be a mature driver and the hope was that the impetuosity and mistakes were behind him. With a car that could challenge for race wins and maybe even the championship, the season started with a lot of promise.

A potential world champion had the two four-time world champions on the grid, Vettel and Hamilton, looking over their shoulders. But what was going to be a glorious season has seen the young champion hit trouble. After three races, Verstappen because of his own mistakes finds himself under pressure.

Three Error-Prone Races

In the first race in Australia, a bad start saw him fall behind Kevin Magnussen. Impatience in trying to overtake the Dane on a track where it is hard to overtake led to a spin and eventually sixth place.

In the second race in Bahrain an error in qualification saw him start 15th. A good start saw him move up places, but a move to overtake Hamilton saw him banging wheels that led to a puncture which led to a DNF. The incident also enraged Hamilton and led him to label Verstappen with a choice epithet.

In the third race in China, a daring move saw Verstappen get past both Hamilton and Raikkonen on the opening lap. After Red Bull handed both their drivers an advantage with a brilliant strategic move under the Safety car, Verstappen threw away the advantage. First by an impetuous move to overtake Hamilton that saw him run off the track and allowed Ricciardo to overtake both drivers.

As Ricciardo charged to the front with measured overtaking, Verstappen faltered again. His clumsy move on Vettel for third place saw him hit the Ferrari. The ten-second penalty imposed for causing a collision saw Verstappen drop to fifth place. To rub salt into his wounds, teammate Ricciardo pulled off a miracle win and showcased his superb overtaking skills and racecraft.

Apology and Criticism

Verstappen has never taken a step back when criticized by rival drivers and teams. He has spoken his mind and never admitted to his mistakes. Finally after the Chinese GP, he apologized to Vettel for the collision.

The Red Bull team bosses have always shielded their young drivers from criticism. They seem to defend them even when they are in the wrong. But three error-strewn races have seen Verstappen coming under fire. Dr Marko went as far as to say his protégé threw away a race win with his impatience. Even Dad Jos was harsh and said his son “has to think more”.

Team principal Horner had to give a vote of confidence to his young driver under pressure. He said: “He’s a phenomenal talent, he’s smart enough to recognise areas he needs to work on. I’ve got no doubt he’ll address that. His talent is extremely obvious, his bravery and racing instinct is not in doubt. Obviously, in China he was too impatient, and he will learn from that, I’ve got absolutely no doubt.”

Pressure Mounts on Verstappen

It does not take long to go from hero to zero in Formula 1. Verstappen is a phenomenal talent who is already a three-time race winner at age 20. Mistakes in the first three races has created a lot of pressure on the young driver.

The Dutchman has shown that he is not one to wilt under pressure so far in his career. After the last race, Verstappen said he did not believe he was overly aggressive, but it was about wanting things too much. How he handles this pressure and channels his aggression and gets back to winning ways at this pivotal moment in his career will define the rest of his career.

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