Excerpts from the Time article by Brent Humphreys. Get to know what makes Max Verstappen a winning machine, and what he hates.
This season Verstappen, 26, has turned in one of the most dominating performances in Formula One history, already winning a record 17 Grand Prix races—breaking his own mark of 15 from a year ago—including 10 in a row, another F1 record.
It’s a form he flashed nearly a decade ago, when Verstappen became the youngest ever driver to start, and win, an F1 race. But he struggled to turn in a consistent campaign while Lewis Hamilton, a seven-time world champ, was winning a quartet of consecutive titles. Now Verstappen has more than delivered on his early promise. “Max is a talent that comes once in a generation,” says American racing legend Mario Andretti. “He’s a tiger inside.”
He’s replaced Hamilton as face of Formula One during a transformational time for the sport. F1 has exploded in popularity in recent years: it brought in $2.57 billion in revenue last year, up 44% since 2017. Thanks in large part to the Netflix series Formula 1: Drive to Survive, which premiered in 2019 and gives viewers a look at the glitzy locations, rocket-speed racing, and interpersonal rivalries, growth is particularly strong in the U.S., where it long failed to gain a stronghold.
The U.S. Grand Prix is filled with 20- and 30-something fans who got into F1 because of what racing insiders call “the Netflix effect.”
Next, many of these gearheads will head to Las Vegas for F1’s grandest U.S. stand yet: the inaugural Las Vegas Grand Prix, on Nov. 18, in what promises to be a spectacular nighttime sprint down the Strip. The city is projecting 105,000 spectators for each of the event’s three nights, which include practices, qualifying, and the race itself. According to one analysis from earlier this year, the estimated economic impact—$1.3 billion—will double that of the Super Bowl Las Vegas is hosting in early 2024.
But is Verstappen the ideal ambassador for this new heady era? Unlike Hamilton, a regular at fashion weeks with a host of A-list pals—he’s producing an F1 movie starring Brad Pitt—Verstappen has little appetite for the sports-celebrity machine.
“I have no desire to be able to hang out with famous movie stars,” he says. He’s the most polarizing driver in the sport, with a focus on winning that can come across as cold. And while Verstappen’s loyal fans show up decked out in orange wherever he goes, over the past two seasons he’s won with such relative ease, it’s drained some drama from the races.
In Austin, his supporters couldn’t drown out the boos that greeted him on the podium. F1’s fate may hinge on whether those jeers morph into an appreciation for his singular skills. “As great as Verstappen is,” says Barton Crockett, senior research analyst for Rosenblatt Securities who covers Liberty Media, F1’s U.S.-based parent company, “right now he looks like the biggest risk to the business.”
Once young Max showed an affinity for racing, Jos went all in. He built the engines for Max’s karts, served as mechanic, and drove with his son, for 13 hours at a time, to tracks throughout Europe. If rain drenched a track, most families went home. Jos made Max keep practicing. “From a young age, I saw other kids running around, playing, not really thinking about the future,” says Max. “But my dad, he had a plan. And I had to stick to the plan.”
There were tense moments. “Sometimes he thought I was a bit lazy,” says Max. “I definitely had arguments with my dad about it.” When Max was 14, another driver passed him in a race near Naples. Instead of waiting to take back the lead, he tried a riskier move and crashed himself out of the race. Jos was furious. On the way home, Jos stopped at a gas station. “He wanted to talk, I didn’t want to talk,” says Jos. “So I said, ‘If you don’t shut up, I’ll send you out.’” Jos left Max at the gas station, before turning around to pick him up. He didn’t speak to Max for a week. Jos, who’s had a number of run-ins with the law including a conviction for a 1998 assault, has denied ever abusing Max. He tells TIME he hit him just once—on the helmet, before a race in England. “He needed that,” says Jos, who points out that Max won that one.
Verstappen graduated from karts to cars in 2014, when he joined Formula 3, the third-tier circuit, at 16. Helmut Marko, an influential Red Bull adviser, caught a few of his wins on TV. “He was on another planet,” says Marko, who called Jos. “I said, ‘Jos, forget everything. We do Formula One.’”
Verstappen spent the 2015 season with Scuderia Toro Rosso, then Red Bull’s junior team. At 17, he was the youngest driver ever to line up on the F1 grid, by nearly two years. In 2016, he was promoted to the main team. F1 driver Daniel Ricciardo, then his teammate, still remembers Verstappen’s first practice session. “He didn’t really care about taking a pragmatic approach,” says Ricciardo. “He was like, ‘I’m just gonna go and drive this thing and try to drive the wheels off of it. If I crash, I crash.’”
Verstappen and Hamilton engaged in an epic duel in 2021; the season came down to the last lap in Abu Dhabi where Verstappen overtook Hamilton to win his first title. “Having achieved that world championship, it lifted a lot of pressure off his shoulders,” Horner says.
Liberty has invested some $500 million in the Las Vegas Grand Prix, which will take place the weekend before Thanksgiving. An opening ceremony, headlined by will.i.am, Keith Urban, Journey, and others, will kick off the festivities. Liberty is building a 300,000. paddock facility in the city; passes to the Bellagio Fountain Club, overlooking the race on Las Vegas Boulevard, are going for over $10,000. Rooms at the Cosmopolitan, with a racetrack view, cost nearly $7,000 a night. “One of the goals with Vegas is to raise the bar,” says Liberty president and CEO Greg Maffei. “A night race down the Strip on a Saturday is going to be a whole other level of appeal and attraction and promotion for the United States audience, and the world audience.”