The weekend that convinced Helmut Marko to sign Max Verstappen

Most F1 drivers achieve their place at the forefront of motorsport after many years of competition in junior series, slowly progressing their way through each stage from regional karting to Formula 2. But Max Verstappen took a much shorter path to Formula 1, becoming its youngest competitor in history at just 17 years of age. F1 Feeder Series looks at how he got there and the damp weekend at Germany’s Norisring street circuit that signalled Verstappen’s potential to the world.

By Jace Rademacker

Verstappen began his junior career in regional karting championships like most other professional drivers, competing in series such as the Minimax class of the Dutch and Belgian Rotax Max championships. With the added benefit of having Formula 1 driver Jos Verstappen as his father and mentor, Verstappen quickly graduated to international championships and eventually into his car racing career after he signed with Van Amersfoort for the 2014 FIA European Formula 3 championship.

Graduation to car racing

Verstappen was consistently qualifying and racing in the top five throughout the initial rounds of the European F3 season despite his lack of experience. This consistent pace put him in a race-winning position in just the second weekend of the series at the Hockenheimring after he inherited pole position for race three, but with two retirements already that weekend, one from a crash and another from mechanical issues, it was uncertain whether the 16-year-old would be able to capitalise on his auspicious position.

Verstappen would go on to dismiss any doubts about his ability, however, after he led from start to finish in a dominant fashion and proved that he had the talent to be competing on such a high level. Verstappen would continue his impressive pace throughout the next few races but would gain a reputation for his polarised results, usually either getting a podium or retiring, a testament to the Dutchman’s inexperience.

Esteban Ocon, Max Verstappen and Jake Dennis on the podium at the Imola round of the 2014 European Formula 3 Championship | Credit: Dutch Photo Agency / Red Bull Content Pool

Going into the fifth weekend of the championship at Spa-Francorchamps, Verstappen was fifth in the championship after his mixed results in the 12 races prior. Starting second on the grid of one of his home tracks, Verstappen put on a show and took the lead as cars went three-wide down the Kemmel straight, eventually getting his second win of the season.

That very same day, Verstappen would take another win after a fierce battle with championship leader and current Alpine F1 driver Esteban Ocon. The next day, Verstappen would complete the hat-trick and win all three races of the weekend, becoming the first driver to do so that season. That weekend at Spa-Francorchamps truly announced Verstappen as a championship contender and gave the motorsport world a glimpse of the pace and race craft he had to offer.

Unleashing his pace at the Norisring

The next round held at the Norisring in Germany, a technical street circuit that greatly differed from Spa-Francorchamps. In the first race of the weekend, Verstappen dropped to fifth after a poor start from third on the grid but managed to reclaim his original grid position just before a safety car halted his progress. After the green flag was waved, Verstappen overtook Felix Rosenqvist just one lap after race leader Ocon did the same, promoting the Dutchman to P2.

With more than 30 laps left, Verstappen had loads of time and plenty of pace to plan a move and ensure he took the race lead at the perfect moment, but instead he sent it down the inside two laps later in true Verstappen style. He then led for the rest of the race despite the disturbances of multiple safety cars and the constant presence of Ocon behind, finishing around a second ahead of the French driver.

The next race of the weekend presented another complication for Verstappen, as initially the track was damp with only a narrow dry line in some areas. Starting from pole position, Verstappen had a fantastic start and led early on. Midway through the race, the skies opened and forced all drivers to change onto wet tyres. It was unreasonable to expect too much of the inexperienced Verstappen, who had limited running in wet conditions in single-seaters. Along with the full wet conditions, Verstappen had to contend with more safety cars that constantly reset his progress by bunching up the pack, but he continued to pull away from the field and fought the ever-constant threat of adding yet another retirement to his rather large list.

The Dutchman went on to claim his fifth consecutive win, finishing more than eight seconds ahead of his nearest competitor, a truly dominant drive given the circumstances. Such a performance left a resounding impression on the motorsport community, as can be seen in a Formula 1 interview with Helmut Marko, Red Bull’s head of junior driver management, when Verstappen was announced as a Scuderia Toro Rosso F1 driver in 2014.

“It was a surprise how quickly he adapted to Formula Three. The moment I thought [he was] something really special was at the Norisring. In mixed conditions – it was more wet than dry – he was per lap two seconds and more faster than anyone else.”

For the final race of the weekend, Verstappen started from pole again, and after his recent performances it seemed impossible for anyone to take away his sixth win in a row. After another promising start, Verstappen was consistently faster than Ocon in sceond, and as in the first race, he led until he crossed the finish line to complete his perfect run of six race wins, an unprecedented feat that earned him a seat in F1 at only 16 years old.

The fruits of success

Throughout these six races, Verstappen proved that despite changing weather conditions or fierce on-track battles, he could pull off wins against all odds, something that set him apart in the highly competitive grid. This resilient nature coupled with the prospect of inevitable growth given his lack of experience attracted the interest of several F1 teams. It was reported that Mercedes and Red Bull spoke with Verstappen, but as history would have it, Marko convinced him that Red Bull was his best option. Ahead of the ninth round of the season, Verstappen officially joined the junior team and ran a Red Bull livery reflecting the partnership.

“It goes without saying that I’m very happy and I feel honoured to be part of the Red Bull Junior Team, which has successfully brought and guided many drivers into Formula One”, Verstappen said at the time of the announcement.

Max Verstappen celebrates winning Race 1 at the 2014 European F3 Nürburgring round on 16 August 2014 | Credit: Dutch Photo Agency / Red Bull Content Pool

Only a day after Verstappen completed his first weekend as a Red Bull junior driver, during which he earned his eighth win of the season, it was announced he would replace Jean-Éric Vergne in the Scuderia Toro Rosso F1 team for the 2015 season. This secured Verstappen’s place in the Red Bull family, much to the chagrin of other prospecting teams.

“We are happy to welcome Max into the Toro Rosso family. It’s great to see how the Red Bull Junior Programme continues to find talented young drivers and gives them the opportunity to come into Formula 1. We consider Max to be [one] of the most skilled young drivers of the new generation and we believe he has the necessary maturity and mental strength to take on this challenge successfully”, Toro Rosso team principal Franz Tost said at the time of Verstappen’s announcement.

Although many doubted the racing proficiency of the 17-year-old with no driver’s licence and only one year of car racing to vouch for his abilities, Verstappen was able to excel in F1 with the support of the entire Red Bull company. Verstappen’s F1 career up to date has more than proved his ability to compete against the best drivers at the highest level of motorsport, and he has since earned himself the coveted honour of World Champion.

Header Photo Credit: Dutch Photo Agency / Red Bull Content Pool

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