Max Emilian Verstappen. The Flying Dutchman. The Unstoppable Force.
A legacy driver some might say, but me? Max now owns the Verstappen name. Jos Verstappen is a distant memory on the grid, compared to his son who drives more like Ayrton Senna than his father. But I wasn’t always a fan…
As a child, I was immersed into the world of Formula 1 through my mother; a huge Senna fan who sat me and my older brother down in front of the TV to watch history unfold. Young, curious eyes revelled in the fast cars going around a high-speed track not dissimilar to the elaborate Scalextric course setup nearby. As time went on, as Senna passed, as new drivers emerged, I lost that wonderment of the sport. It wasn’t until my early 20s that it started to resurface, with the likes of Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso, Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton captivating my interest.
2014 brought someone new to the forefront of my attention. Daniel Ricciardo, the Aussie talent, the Honey Badger. Something about his bravado on-track and his charisma off-track had me watching more regularly. Then of course, in 2015 I saw Max Verstappen for the first time, racing for Scuderia Toro Rosso. I didn’t know much about the teenager, only that he had a fight in him that was worth keeping an eye on.
2016 was the year I was watching every practice, every qualification, every race, every bit of information I could digest. When Verstappen was promoted to Red Bull, trading with Daniil Kyvat after a controversial first-lap incident in Sochi that year, I had the instinct that something magical was about to unfold. The camaraderie between Verstappen and Ricciardo was almost instantaneous and boy, it was infectious. We as fans could see their friendship develop over the year, into the next and the next… but it soon soured.
I was, and still am, a huge Ricciardo fan, so was initially bias toward him over Verstappen. When the two started to come to blows in 2018, fighting intently to be the best Red Bull on the grid, the cracks started to show. Baku was a pained moment for any Red Bull fan, seeing the two collide and inevitably both retire from the race. Then at the Hungaroring, on an exciting first-lap opener, Max shunted into Daniel, forcing him off track, with Daniel communicating to his engineer just what a “sore loser” Max was. Despite Max’s undeniable raw talent and skill, I couldn’t bring myself to support him at the time.
Alas, Daniel Ricciardo left Red Bull to join Renault, a relatively mid-field team. As Red Bull were the main competitor of Mercedes at this point, my attention shifted from being just a Ricciardo fan, to being a Red Bull fan. Now Max was at the helm of the Red Bull garage, it became a true thrill to watch him push the car to the limits every week, to battle Hamilton and Bottas at any given opportunity in 2019. I began to see the talent, the tenacity of ‘Mad Max’, the sensation that had the British media in a frenzy. I began to understand just who Max Verstappen was.
It isn’t doubted by many that Sky Sports F1 are extremely predisposed towards British drivers, as I’m sure Ziggo Sports favourite Max. It also isn’t questioned that Netflix’s Drive to Survive pushed a narrative onto both old and new viewers that paints quite a different picture to what was actually happening. We as fans were told Max was a ‘dangerous’ driver, we were told he was ‘aggressive’ and ‘invites criticism’ because of it, we were told he was ‘cold’ with ‘no personality’ and ‘no likability’. Fans of the sport were fed this narrative, believing it.
I wasn’t listening to them anymore.
I became fascinated by Max, by his driving style, his persistence, his off-track persona that portrayed a young man that enjoyed video games, his friends and family, his cats. He has been criticised once too often for his driving technique and what some would call ‘bullish’ battle methods. The question is, when do we hear the same for ‘dangerous moves’ by other drivers on the grid? It’s not a common theme. Fernando Alonso does receive reproach for his gutsy, ruthless defence, but it is not detrimental to the man himself and can often be praised. Is that because the British media are not concerned that he isn’t in contention for the championship? Or is it because he isn’t Max Verstappen?
The 2021 season was an exciting time for all Formula 1 fans. We were welcomed back trackside after a two-year hiatus of watching the sport entirely through screens, we were finally able to embrace the sport again without worrying about the pandemic. A familiar name appeared on the grid, one every fan of the sport recognises ‘Schumacher’, with young Mick joining Haas. Other new entries included the first Japanese driver since 2014, with Yuki Tsunoda driving for Scuderia Alpha Tauri. There was an anticipation and enthusiasm about 2021, something new and thrilling. Every fan I knew was eager and full of that fresh, nervous energy. Would this be the year for their team, their driver? Would this be the year we saw a non-Mercedes driver win a championship in the turbo-hybrid era?
It was certainly the most dynamic, transfixing and intense season of the sport I had ever watched. There were times I was hiding behind my hands, times I was leaping from my sofa and screaming at what I had just seen, times I had to walk away from a race altogether. It certainly ignited a fiery fervour in me that I hadn’t felt before, especially as a dedicated Verstappen fan. For me, this was his year, it was his time. He was driving with such passion and precision yet kept a command of the track that was inspiring.
The 2021 season was one of the most memorable we as fans have had in years. Finally a contender for Mercedes, for Lewis Hamilton. Someone to break the dominant force that had been presiding over the sport for eight years. No other team had a chance during that period, not even the Prancing Horses of Ferrari, who, at times, had their moments, but were ultimate subdued by the Silver Arrows.
Of course, it all came down to the final race to decide who would be World Champion, after months of highs and lows, months of turmoil and elation. Both Max and Lewis fans had never felt so anxious about a race before… and what a race it was. The enthralling Abu Dhabi decider in December of 2021 divided the world. There was no middle ground initially – either you were overjoyed that The Dutch Lion won his first ever championship after the best season of his career, or you were convinced he had achieved it by foul play that deliberately incumbered Hamilton’s 8th World Driver Championship. The British media, of course, were adamant that Max’s win was a farce, handed to him by the FIA, stewards and Race Director Michael Masi. This is where being a Max fan in the UK started to become unsettling. If you showed support to the now World Champion, you were condemned.
As a fairly silent member of F1 Twitter, it became clear, very quickly, that anyone that agreed with Max keeping the championship, agreed with cheating and agreed with the artifice setup deliberately by certain parties. You agreed that Max Verstappen was gifted the win instead of ever earning it…
I struggled to grasp this concept. Were there some odd calls in that final race? Without a doubt. Were they Max’s fault? Absolutely not. The rest of the 2021 season proved that both Max and Lewis were worthy of the WDC. As it happened, it came down to one last race, one last huzzah in Abu Dhabi, the final stop on the F1 calendar. There could only be one winner.
Other than the online abuse Max fans started to suffer with, the first time I experienced it for myself was at the Lap of Lights at Silverstone on New Year’s Eve 2021. Me and three other Max fans attended, driving around the famous British track whilst listening to the best of 90s pop. We requested in for Super Max! to be played, to celebrate our champion. We were met with a stern snort of disgust and what was obviously a grimace from the presenter as he read out our tweet. Evidently, it was still too soon.
Friends I have known for years questioned my stance on how I could accept Max’s win, how I could possibly agree it was fair. Others told me I was just a fangirl, I knew nothing about the sport, that I was a phony. A few more told me I was stupid; gaslighted my happiness and memories of the 2021 season with their own agenda. Being a Max fan in Britain at the end of 2021… was becoming a burden. Collectively, Max fans were accused of racism, bullying, unspeakable behaviour. While unfortunately, it does occur among the whole fandom of F1 and is still an ongoing issue, the idea that every Max fan was doing this, was wrong.
Last year brought out an ugly side of F1, a hooliganism I hadn’t seen in the sport before. It was Lewis Hamilton fans versus Max Verstappen fans. Both sides made excuses for certain incidents, both sides endured losses that were due to the other team, both were clashing over every insignificant detail and the sport was leaving a bitter taste. That’s not what F1 fans are known for. The hostile whirlwind I and many other fans suddenly found ourselves in wasn’t a thrill, nor was it a moment to embrace. It’s hard to understand why if drivers can be sporting and amicable, then why can’t fans? Everyone was out to defend their driver, their team, themselves.
And it is still happening. The 2022 season may have brought new cars, new regulations, new race directors, but it hasn’t stopped the ongoing feud between Verstappen fans and Hamilton fans. Even supporters from other teams are beginning to chime in on the rivalry, leaning to one side slightly. The biggest surprise I had heard recently was Mercedes fans claiming the sport was becoming boring as Max was winning too often… this, I couldn’t fathom. The sport has entered a new and exciting competitive era, where more than one team shows promise for the World Championship for the first time in eight years. But because it’s Max Verstappen and Red Bull, it’s monotonous and dull.
There is no consideration of Max’s growth from even just two years ago, there’s no recognition of his maturity that has developed as he’s committed himself to not only being a gloriously talented driver but one who is cordial with others and, what is even harder to understand, is people denying that talent ever exists. To say the nearly 25-year-old is incompetent is absurd. I know dislike runs deep in this sport, but there is a point where some just need to admit they don’t like him (not because of his driving skills either) and will attack everything they possibly can about him to make themselves feel a little better.
The 2022 F1 season has shown us Max Verstappen on his best form. We have seen this teenage wonder transform into a world-class driver whose name will not quickly be forgotten. Despite the hatred, despite the controversies, despite the tarnishing of his name by so many, Max Verstappen will continue to thrive, will continue to push boundaries and succeed… he’ll continue to be one of the most talked about drivers for years to come and cement himself as one of the absolute greats of the sport. Though some may drag his name for seasons to come, there are us out there who will do our best to show just how truly brilliant he is. I will do that. I will continue to cheer and wear my Red Bull merch, I will continue to support and publicly voice my admiration for him… I will continue to be a Max Verstappen fan.