Teenage dream: Max Verstappen finds comfort zone at Toro Rosso – from the F1 Magazine

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Outwardly, Max Verstappen’s activities on September 30 included nothing unusual.

The Dutchman turned 18 that day and, like a lot of men his age, he immediately went to take his driving test, which he passed at the first attempt.

Standard behaviour, it might be said. But Verstappen is no ordinary teenager.

His chance to drive legally among everyday motorists came six months after he made his Formula One debut with Toro Rosso. Before September 30, he competed in 14 grands prix.

It has been a whirlwind year for Verstappen, who holds the record for “youngest driver to compete in F1”.

But he is one of the few who does not make a fuss over what he achieved this year, despite all the attention and pressure that has come from being in the limelight.

When asked when it hit home that he really was going to be racing in F1 at the age of 17, he nonchalantly replies: “It was immediately after I had signed the contract.”

His focus, he says, when the deal was done in September 2014, was ensuring he would be able to give his best effort.

“It was like, ‘OK, well, I need to start preparing to be a F1 driver.’ I didn’t expect it at the beginning of the season, but once I signed the contract I was, ‘OK, now I need to get ready’.”

By “ready”, Verstappen meant improving his fitness levels to be ready for the high-speed exertions of F1. He raced in the FIA European Formula 3 Championship in 2014, winning 10 races on his way to third place in the standings, but he was making a leap in class.

“Physically, especially your training,” he says. “You have worked very hard. I am 17 so I have to work a little harder than the other guys to get up there, in terms of fitness, but so far it hasn’t been a problem, especially in Singapore, which was the ultimate test for that.

“The thing is, I can’t be too big, as you still have to pay attention to your weight. So there is a lot of cardio, and a lot of endurance training.”

It certainly has paid off for Verstappen, who has impressed in his debut year, scoring points in only his second race in Malaysia, finishing fourth in Hungary and coming from a lap down to run eighth in Singapore.

Verstappen always hoped to follow in the footsteps of his father, Jos, who competed in 106 grands prix during his own F1 career, between 1994 and 2003.

He acknowledges the surprise was in how quickly the dream became a reality when he and his father were approached by Helmut Marko, head of driver development for Red Bull, whose owner, Dietrich Mateschitz, also owns Toro Rosso.

“We had already had a lot of talks with Red Bull since 2010, not for F1 at that time, but after my sixth successive win in F3, the next morning Helmut Marko called my dad and said ‘OK, we really need a meeting now as I want your son in F1’, and we were a bit shocked,” Max recalls.

“After that we had a meeting at Hockenheim during the F1 grand prix and he said it again, and he was very serious about it. Then the contract happened and ‘You will be a Formula One driver the year after’.”

The consequence of moving to the world’s fastest competition has been a year travelling the world for the demanding F1 calendar, which takes in 19 races on five continents between March and this weekend.

The job is about much more than driving on Sundays. He deals with sponsors appearances, the media, simulator work in the factory and occasional test sessions, all of which have conspired to keep him away from family and friends for much of the past eight months.

“I am a family person and I enjoy being with my whole family or friends,” he says.

“I also enjoy spending time on the go-kart tracks, like I did before. I jumped from karts to F3; it is just a different world.

“It has a little more family feeling so that is the thing you miss, but on the other hand I always wanted to be a Formula One driver and when I am here I am very happy that I am here.”

His father accompanies him to each race. The sport really does run in the family; Max’s mother, Sophie Kumpen, also was a competitive kart racer.

Verstappen says she gets very nervous watching him race but adds: “She knows, from racing go-karts and tested cars herself, what I am doing and I think that is very positive.”

As well as racing skills, Verstappen believes he has inherited many of his father’s fans, who were known for being some of the most raucous in F1.

He was well supported in the Belgian Grand Prix in August, which doubled as a home race for the teenager, given it is the closest to the Netherlands, which is not on the F1 schedule, at present.

Verstappen finished eighth, but was thrilled to see so many of his country’s orange flags in the spectator sections.

“A lot of the children of the fans of my dad are the fans of me now, so it is quite funnyhow it has worked out,” he says.

“It is nice to see and in Spa I was quite surprised by how many fans there were. I mean, I saw so many Dutch flags, I think it was the most of all the flags over there, so that was very special and I put on a good show.”

Verstappen has gained many fans, and not just his compatriots, through his bold overtaking moves throughout the year. He seems to excite TV audiences with his willingness to take risks to gain places on the track.

The most notable move came in Belgium where he went around Felipe Nasr’s Sauber at Blanchimont, a corner not usually considered conducive for overtaking, especially on the outside, at speeds close to 300kph.

“You can never plan them,” Verstappen says of his approach to overtaking. “It is just a feeling, when you are very close behind, and then instinct.

“When you see the gap, I can’t explain to you how I see it: it is just inside you how you approach it.”

The good news for Abu Dhabi spectators as they prepare to see Verstappen compete at Yas Marina Circuit for the first time this weekend is that he believes he is peaking towards the end of the season.

“I think lately, the past five, six weekends I have been very strong,” he says.

“Before I had very good weekends, but not the whole weekend was perfect. Qualifying was very good or the race was good.

“But now I am starting to put everything together. Practice first, you set up the car for qualifying. Then qualifying goes well, and the race goes very well, and I am pleased with that and I certainly believe there is a lot more to come.”

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