“Age is just a number,” teenage race ace Max Verstappen says with a very serious expression on his face. “I don’t see myself as a 17-year-old.”
At Sunday’s season-opening Australia Grand Prix, the Dutch driver became the youngest-ever racer in the history of Formula One – with a tender 17 years and 166 days on the clock.
After Red Bull junior team Toro Rosso announced his shock signing last summer, ex-drivers and experts had lined up to say he was too young to be thrust into the cauldron of F1, the top tier of world motorsport.
To make matters worse, Verstappen, who owns an F1 super license but is still too young to drive a road car in the Netherlands, crashed a Red Bull show car trying to do a daring doughnut maneuver on a demo run last August.
“Of course it looked really stupid,” Verstappen admitted in an interview with CNN over the winter break.
But Verstappen is no ordinary boy racer and, to prove his point, he delivered a coolly confident debut on Melbourne’s unpredictable Albert Park circuit.
“He drives like someone older – and talks like someone older too,” Sky TV analyst and ex-racer Martin Brundle had enthused from the commentary box.
Verstappen was on course to become F1’s youngest points scorer, running well inside the top-10 cars in Australia, before he had to stop his smoking Toro Rosso on lap 34 because of an engine problem.
“It was a disappointing way to end my first Formula One race,” Verstappen summed up. “It’s a real shame because I was feeling good and the car was working well.”
It may not have been a perfect start for F1’s young gun but it was pretty close and at least he got one job done – proving his doubters wrong.
Self-belief doesn’t appear to be a problem for the 17-year-old Verstappen, who started racing go-karts at the age of four.
The son of F1 racer Jos Verstappen, who partnered Michael Schumacher at Benetton in 1994, and a go-karting supermum Sophie Kumpen, he was a born winner.
“Racing is in our blood,” Verstappen tells CNN. “When I grew up I saw only karts or something with an engine on that was making noise.
“It was obvious that I was going into racing. I won my first ever race. I was seven years old.
“For two years I won everything I competed in. Sometimes I made some mistakes but generally I won everything.
“This was something I wanted since I was four and I still enjoy it as much as the first time I went racing.”
It was this raw talent, a speed in his genes mixed with his own inner determination, which persuaded Red Bull to sign him to their junior team in 2014.
It was remarkably Verstappen’s first season racing single-seater cars, but by the end of the year he had finished third in the European Formula Three series – a breeding ground for past F1 champions including Ayrton Senna, Schumacher, Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton – winning 10 races.
“It’s a high level in F3,” explains Verstappen. “If you can score 10 victories in the end, the most of all [drivers], then you have had a really good season.
“Red Bull said at the Norisring in Germany I had a great race in the wet so all in all I think that made their decision.”
World champions Mercedes were also interested in signing Verstappen, who has already had intimidating comparisons with late three-time champion and Brazilian icon Senna.
“Yeah, we had some conversations,” Verstappen says. “I have to say that Toto [Wolff] and Niki [Lauda] were very friendly and they still are when I see them.
“We had some good chats but that was that really. I’ve been talking to Red Bull since 2010 and in the end they gave me a good offer to drive in F1.”
Verstappen’s path to the top of motorsport might have been paved for him by his parents but the 17-year-old says he was still surprised – although perhaps not as much as the watching world – when Red Bull decided to put him straight into an F1 cockpit.
“Of course, it was a big surprise,” he says. “But I always make big steps and I think from F3 to F1 is a smaller step than karting to F3.”
Being a teenager means that F1’s history-maker still lives at home with his Dad, in the small Belgium town of Bree.
His parents are separated but he says he remains close to his Mum, who is just a 50-minute drive away.
It is his tight family unit that Verstappen credits with his rise through the racing ranks. When asked why he thinks he is just so good, he replies: “Because my Dad prepared me so well from a young age.
“He was focusing on the right stuff, to have fun in the race but to also be concentrated.
“Every day, from when I was four, we were together preparing the go-karts and preparing the engine.
“We did everything together to get here. For sure he was pushing for it. But the first time I drove an F1 car he was really nervous, because in the end it’s still your son driving in an F1 car, going above 300 kph …”
Verstappen Sr. ran from the Toro Rosso garage after seeing his son grind to a halt in a plume of smoke in Australia.
A veteran of more than 100 F1 grand prix Jos Verstappen, who plans to travel to all the races with his son, was known for being a hard-nosed, feisty racer.
But his son describes his style as a blend of both his parents when it comes to inherited race craft.
“I’m more calm. Like my Mum,” Verstappen explains. “When she was in go-karts she beat some up and coming F1 drivers at the time like Jarno Trulli and Giancarlo Fisichella.
“When I need to be aggressive I do have it from my Dad, but I’m more of a mix.”
There is another Verstappen, who could yet complete the racing dynasty – and she is even younger than F1’s record-breaking youngster.
“My little sister Victoria, she’s 15, and has started go-karting as well,” Verstappen reveals with a glow of pride. It’s a topic he is animated about.
“I’m helping her out a little bit if I have the time. I think she has more the character of my Dad. She’s more aggressive when she’s driving, it’s quite funny to see.”
Could we see Victoria Verstappen break ground like her big brother and become the first female racer on the F1 starting grid for more than two decades?
“That’s something that is still very far away,” says Verstappen. “She first has to start with races, she is still practicing.
“First we go to karts and see what’s going to happen. For sure, it’s not easy for a woman to reach F1 but I think one time it needs to change.”
For now, Verstappen is focusing on his own burgeoning career, of which big things are now expected after his promising debut.
“It’s nice to be the youngest driver but it doesn’t make any difference,” Verstappen muses. “It’s my dream to get here and once you are in, you want to do your best.
“This season I will just try to be consistent, not to make mistakes and to be a good help to the team.”
Verstappen says family is very important to him and there is a sense that family ties are what will help the 17-year-old star navigate his way through the fickle fortunes of F1.
“You have to stay yourself and that’s very important,” he says. “You have to be friendly. Just because you’re doing a good job on track doesn’t mean you have to be arrogant to other people.
“You have to have a good life outside of F1. When you feel happy at home you can perform better on track.”
At 17, Verstappen has identified two ingredients for a successful formula on and off the track.
“Maybe a bigger apartment where I can have my own space but still together [with Dad],” he explains.
“To try to become world champion, and from there to win it another time.”
Red Bull and Mercedes glimpsed the serious steel of this mature young man – and after his rookie race there are few doubters left to bet against him going further.