‘Too young’ to race winner - the story of Max Verstappen

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From ‘too young’ to the youngest ever Grand Prix winner - the story of Max Verstappen is something of a fairy tale.

At 18 years and 277 days, the Dutchman became the youngest ever Grand Prix winner on Sunday as he took the chequered flag in Spain, defying every doubter who questioned the head on his shoulders.

Verstappen, son of former F1 racer Jos, was just 16 when Toro Rosso announced he’d be making his F1 debut in 2015, after just a season in open-wheel racing under his belt.

Despite undeniable signs of talent, top names from around the sport, including world champions Damon Hill and Mika Hakkinen, doubted whether Verstappen was mature enough for sport.

But after three appearances in free practice at the end of 2014, he was thrust into the spotlight in 2015. Far from crumpling under the pressure, Verstappen scored points in just his second outing at the Malaysian Grand Prix, when he finished seventh.

He scored points in another nine races in his debut campaign, including two fourth places on his way to 12th in the overall standings. But he made his name with some spectacular overtaking manoeuvres and his bold racing style. His move on Sauber’s Felipe Nasr around the outside of Blanchimont - one of the sport’s most demanding corners - was voted as best of the season.

Verstappen was retained by Toro Rosso for the 2016 season, but big hitters Ferrari and Mercedes - both of whom were sniffing around the teenager before he signed for the Red Bull Junior Driver programme - were hovering with intent to snap him up for 2017.

But just four days after the fourth race of the 2016 season, Red Bull announced they’d be ditching Daniil Kvyat in favour of Verstappen - cue more questions over Verstappen’s maturity and readiness to be mixing it at the front of the pack rather than in the midfield.

His introduction to the world as a Red Bull racer was in Thursday’s press conference as he faced the world’s media who felt usurped Kvyat was dealt a harsh card in favour of a driver deemed ‘the favourite son’ by Red Bull bosses.

Verstappen though coped just as well as he coped with all the critics who questioned his youth 12 months earlier - with frank answers, avoiding any potential banana skins along the way.

Those doubters though were made to eat their words after the first free practice session in Barcelona, as he finished just a tenth of a second behind experienced team-mate Daniel Ricciardo.

As the weekend wore on, he continued to climb the timesheets to start fourth on the grid for Sunday’s race.

While greatly aided by Mercedes duo Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton’s collision on the first lap, Verstappen patiently followed inherited leader Ricciardo, while holding off the Ferrari threat from Sebastian Vettel.

Ricciardo was switched, mid-race, to a three-stop strategy, and Verstappen took over at the front, with Kimi Raikkonen now Ferrari’s biggest threat. But despite being within a second for most of the final 12 laps, Verstappen didn’t fluster under-pressure from the 2007 world champion. In fact, he remained far enough ahead to nullify the Finn’s DRS advantage down the main straight.

When the chequered flag dropped after 66 laps of racing, Verstappen not only became the youngest ever driver to win a race - eclipsing Vettel’s record by nearly three years - and the ninth different winner of the Spanish Grand Prix in as many years, he also defied all the doubters, all the naysayers and all of those questioned whether he was too young for the sport.

The only question now will be how many more records can this teenager break?

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