The making of Max Verstappen

12:06 PM ET

As he watched his dad’s van pull back on to the Autostrada without him, Max Verstappen was struggling to digest what had happened. In all of his 11 years and 11 months on this earth, he’d never seen his dad as angry as he was at the go-kart track a couple of hours earlier. And he’d certainly never been left alone at a gas station in the south of Italy. This seemed pretty serious.

There was only one option left: call mum.

As he sat waiting for his mum, who was in a separate car a little further back on the same road, Max was still working the mistake over in his head. It was a silly mistake. A costly mistake. One of those weird moments in motorsport where a number of seemingly unrelated factors lead to a split-second decision that ultimately ruins a whole weekend’s work.

The weekend had looked so promising, too. The event was the KZ2 World Championship final at Sarno — a track near Naples, under the shadow of Mount Vesuvius — and Max was making the step up to shifter karts (go-karts with a gearbox) for the first time. His father, Jos, a former F1 driver and now Max’s full-time kart mechanic, always made sure his son had the best equipment when he moved up a class, and once again Max immediately looked very competitive against older, more experienced competition. But then there was the mistake.

But, you see, it wasn’t all Max’s fault… For starters, a burnt-out clutch in one of the early heats had left him tenth in the pre-final. Then the hot Neapolitan sun had caused his rear tyres to overheat and blister as he made up those ten places to take pole position for the final.

That meant that when they decided to swap the tyres on the rims for the final, it was always going to take a few laps for the grip to return. And that’s why, when Max held the lead from pole position at the start of the final, he had been coaxing the kart into a slide through the corners — sacrificing some lap time to build up rubber on the outside of the tyre and extract maximum grip on the following lap.

Of course, that was the real reason Daniel Bray, a much older kid from New Zealand, had got past Max. Max had been by far the fastest driver in the KZ2 class all weekend, almost to the point where it simply wouldn’t have been right for anyone else to take the title from him.

So when Bray steamed past at the end of the long straight into Sarno’s sweeping second corner, Max simply had to take his first opportunity to re-pass his rival and correct the order. Even now, over 12 years later and having won a Formula One world drivers’ title, he still remembers his reasoning for throwing his kart up the inside of Bray at Sarno’s Turn 8, which is not a natural passing point.

“I was like, ‘You know what, because I’m so quick, I’m just going to pass him and drive off into the distance’,” says Max now, aged 24. “But when I went for the move, it was a bit of optimistic and we touched, and I retired.

“So the world championship was gone just like that, which to this day would have been the easiest race of my life.”

As the kart spun through the dusty infield and came to a stop, Max threw his hands up in the air. The hot sun was beating down on his black overalls as he lifted himself out the kart, his body language expressing his utter disbelief.

Unable to rejoin the race, he walked back to the pit lane. When he arrived, his father Jos was nowhere to be seen. He must have returned to the paddock, thought Max. And so he trudged off in the direction of the hundred-or-so tent-like awnings in which the karts were prepared before each race.

Back in the paddock, Jos was already packing the awning into the Verstappens’ van. Max can still recall Jos’s exact response when he asked his father to help bring the kart back from the track.

“You can pick up the go-kart, I don’t care,” Jos said. “I’m not helping you.”

Max, with tears starting to well in his eyes, turned to two of his best friends Stan and Jorrit Pex, who had been there since day one of his kart career and knew the Verstappens well. They recovered the kart from the side of the track and brought it back to the van just as Jos had cleared away the awning.

“Of course I was in tears,” Max remembers, “because I knew that I had thrown it away and I knew my dad was upset with me and not wanting to do anything or help me anymore.

“So when I came back, my dad was already stripping down the tent. And I’ve never seen my dad like that. He literally grabbed the go-kart and just threw it into the van.

“I remember I didn’t want to go back to Holland with my dad, but I wasn’t allowed to go with my friends all the way from the south of Italy.”

With karts still buzzing around the track as the KZ world championships continued without them, the Verstappens started their 1,100-mile journey home. Max wanted to explain what had happened, open a dialogue with his father about the mistake, but Jos wasn’t interested.

“Of course, when we sat in the van, I wanted to talk to my dad about the incident”, Verstappen says. “My dad said, ‘Stop talking, I don’t want to hear anything, just sit in the back, I don’t want to hear anything about it’.

“But of course, I kept on trying to have a conversation until at one point he pulled off at a fuel station and said: ‘Get out. Get out and I do not want to hear you anymore’.

“So he kicked me out and he drove off … and this is in the south of Italy.”

Jos has since explained that it was never his intention to just leave Max at the fuel station. He said he knew Max’s mother was a few minutes behind on the road and that he had always planned to turn around and return. Jos’ justification for leaving his son was that he was worried everything was coming so easily to Max in his karting career that he wouldn’t learn from his mistakes.

Max takes up the story: “Luckily, my mum was there as well, so I called my mum and she was behind us on the motorway, so like five minutes later, she arrived.

“We were about to drive off and then my dad returned with the van and was like: ‘Get in, but I do not want to hear a word’. Because my dad was with his at-the-time girlfriend, for sure she talked to him and said ‘you cannot do that’.

“The whole trip home, which was 17 hours or something, we didn’t talk. And then when we got home, I think he didn’t talk to me for a full week. So I just went to school and did my things, but all the time when I would get back home, normally I would go to the workshop, but for one week I wasn’t there and he was not talking to me.

“He was not doing anything racing wise, like not at the workshop, so yeah, for me it felt like a big reality check and punishment. And I realised I really f—– up.

“But I think that was good for me. Because the year after I think I was a lot better at judging my overtakes and the way I was approaching a race knowing that it’s not about this one lap, there are more laps to pass. If you’re really quicker, you will get by.

“It was a hard lesson. But I think it was a good one at the end.”

Speaking on a Red Bull podcast in 2020, Jos gave a similar reasoning for his actions on the trip back from Italy.

“We drove back home, I didn’t say a word to him,” Jos told the podcast Talking Bull. “And the whole week after I didn’t speak to him.

“Then we were sitting together, I explained to him how I felt. The whole week he didn’t feel comfortable with the whole situation, but I wanted him to understand that he had to think.

“The season afterwards we won everything. We won two European Championships, the World Championship, we won every race. He was so focused, the way he was racing, you could see he was thinking. And I think because of what happened at that race, it made him a better driver.”

Twelve years on, Jos’ style of parenting would probably be categorised as problematic at best. From a purely results-driven perspective, Max’s subsequent success grants Jos a degree of vindication, but it’s also telling that the gas station story remains Max’s go-to when asked about a low point in his junior career and that he remembers so much of that weekend so clearly.

However, there is a wider context to a father-son relationship like the one Max and Jos shared and still share. Only they know what that period of their relationship was like. It was only the two of them who drove for days on end from one side of Europe to the other for kart races, spent countless hours in the workshop testing new carburettors and exhausts to find performance and stayed on at tracks in the driving rain so that Max could experience the very worst conditions — even when he was so cold he could barely feel his fingers.

And of course, only Max knows what it felt like to be left at the side of the road by his father at 11 years old.

“Everyone is different, right?” he says without emotion when asked about the incident. “Some people might not cope with that just because of their character. But I think the way I grew up, it made me more able to deal with that.

“And of course, when you explain it now for some people it sometimes sounds a bit shocking, but I didn’t know anything else. Right? I didn’t know any better.

“So for me, yeah, it was tough. And sometimes, of course, you know, it felt quite harsh. But at the end now when I look back at it, I’m very happy that I grew up like that.

“Because whatever happens now, it doesn’t disturb me because it’s nothing — not even close to what I experienced when I was a kid.”

IN 2021, MAX VERSTAPPEN’S character faced the biggest test of his career. All those years of hard work and meticulous preparation came down to one evening of racing in Abu Dhabi as he entered the final round of the Formula One season level on points at the top of the world championship standings with seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton.

Verstappen had suffered more than his fair share of bad luck throughout 2021 and going into the final race the momentum was with Hamilton, who had won all three of the previous rounds and reduced Verstappen’s championship lead from 19 points to zero. Verstappen took pole position for the final race of the season, but lost the lead at the start and quickly saw the title disappear up the road as Hamilton exercised his Mercedes’ pace advantage over Verstappen’s Red Bull.

The championship seemed lost by the midpoint of the race, but sat in the cockpit of his Red Bull, Verstappen was finding peace with the situation.

“Of course I was not happy with it, but I’m 24 years old, we’d had our first shot at the title, we had quite a bit of bad luck throughout the season, where we lost a lot of points, but I was thinking if it comes to the last race of the season and we lose out, you know it’s not nice, but what can you do about it?

“We’d really tried everything as a team to fight for it, and I think we did a good job. So for me, it was all about saying, ‘You know what, I’m not just going to let my head hang, I’m just going to push and I’m not going to give him a bigger gap at the front. I’m just going to try to do the best lap times I can, and if I lose, I lose. It is what it is. It’s not the end of the world at the end of the day, at least not for me’.

“But then, of course, well the safety car happened and new motivation came along because I saw that opportunity to fight for the title again. And, you know, the rest is history.”

The safety car period was caused by Nicholas Latifi spinning his Williams five laps from the end of the race. The controversy surrounding the way in which the safety car period ended has been told at length, but when the Aston Martin safety car peeled into the pits with one lap remaining it offered Verstappen an unexpected shot at victory.

Having pitted for fresh tyres when the safety car first came out, Verstappen held a huge performance advantage over Hamilton. He was the fastest driver on track and had just one rival between him and the championship, much like he’d had in the KZ2 final at Sarno 11 years earlier.

But just as he prepared for the final lap he felt cramp in his right leg. The pain was suddenly unbearable, and in the confines of an F1 cockpit there was nowhere to stretch it out without pressing down on the throttle.

“It was terrible,” he says. “I’d only had it once before, where I lost the win actually, it was against Daniel [Ricciardo, Verstappen’s Red Bull teammate at the time], in Malaysia [2016], when I was fighting with him around the outside of the corner and then I backed out because I had a cramp. That’s why he got me back.

“So I said, from that day onwards, if I ever, ever get a cramp again, I don’t care even what happens afterwards with my leg, I am not lifting — it’s not going to happen!

“But it’s difficult to put into words how much pain it can cause a cramp like that. Luckily, you have a bit of adrenaline in your body, but normally when you get a cramp you’re immediately trying to go like that [motions stretching his leg], right? But you can’t do that in an F1 car because there’s a pedal, so you cannot stretch your leg.”

After just five corners of the final lap, Verstappen had put the cramp out of his mind and thrown his car up the inside of Hamilton’s. He came from so far back and went so deep that it almost looked like Hamilton would cut him off and the two would collide, but ultimately Verstappen took the inside line, secured the position and went on to win the title.

“It was, of course, the most beautiful lap of my life, but it was also the worst lap of my life in terms of pain in a racing car with the cramps. If you look at the last sector [of the final lap], in the data, the way my throttle input was, it was just terrible. Like it was just like that [up and down], because I couldn’t control my leg. But yeah, luckily, it worked out.”

All those days on the kart track — the tears and the joy of a junior career unlike any other — had finally paid off. It would take some poetic licence to link Verstappen’s crowning achievement in Abu Dhabi with the experience after his KZ2 final in Italy, but there’s no doubt the lows along the way contributed to the mental strength he needed when it mattered.

There are still some that refuse to recognise Verstappen’s title victory because of the way it finished and the way in which the safety car period ended. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, Verstappen doesn’t care what other people think.

“For me, there’s no real wish that it would have ended differently,” he says. “I think everyone already should appreciate that the title went down to the last race only because of the bad luck we had earlier in the season. Otherwise, I think it would have been decided way earlier.

“Of course, yeah, it was decided in a dramatic way. But to me, that doesn’t take anything away from winning a championship because I think as a team we really, really deserved that.”

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