At the moment when the greatest triumph of his career could no longer be taken away from him, Max Verstappen closed his eyes and enjoyed it. After hours of worrying, hoping, shaking and clamoring, it was clear: Verstappen is the first Dutch world champion in Formula 1 history.

Earlier, Mercedes had lodged a protest against the outcome of the controversial final race of the 2021 season in Abu Dhabi, but it was dismissed. On December 12, at 11:02 p.m., team boss Christian Horner then brought the news: “It’s done. You’re the Formula 1 world champion,” he said to his driver. What followed was a long and heartfelt hug.

These scenes could be repeated in Japan this Sunday. If Verstappen – he starts from pole position in front of Ferrari drivers Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz in the race (7.00 a.m. CEST) – scores eight points more than World Championship pursuer Leclerc, he would be world champion. The fact that this is possible four races before the season finale in Abu Dhabi is not only thanks to the superior Red Bull car, but also to the change that it has undergone since its Formula 1 debut in 2016.

At the beginning of his career in the premier class of motorsport, the Dutchman was seen as a rowdy on the track. Among the other drivers, he was controversial for his risky maneuvers and sometimes over-aggressive driving style. Too often he couldn’t finish races and crashed out of the Grand Prix. The nickname “Mad Max” came about.

That has now changed. Although Verstappen does not shy away from a duel today, the exceptional driver has become more experienced and patient. When Verstappen had to start from the back at the Spa race in August due to an engine penalty, he skilfully avoided collisions in the crowded field and was able to fight his way up to first place and victory. The race was an example of his learning process as a driver who now knows his limits better. Much of his transformation has to do with winning his first world title.

If you talk to people from your team and environment, the tenor is always the same. It is said that this great, almost existential pressure was relieved by the achievement of his lifelong dream. Verstappen says so himself. “I will always want to win. It’s in my nature. But this desperate will to win is gone,” said the 25-year-old before the season in an interview with WELT am SONNTAG. To add directly: “But that doesn’t make me any less motivated. I’m just as hungry for the season as I used to be. Maybe even hungrier because now I’m not the hunter but the hunted. That’s a good feeling.”

Ambition runs in the Verstappen family. Jos took his son under his wing early on. He knows what it takes to get into Formula 1 and survive there. From 1994 to 2003 he himself drove – with interruptions – in the premier class and was, among other things, a teammate of Michael Schumacher at Benetton. So that Max can also make the leap, Verstappen senior had his son go through a tough school.

Almost every weekend the family went to Italy for kart races. While other children were allowed to stay dry in the rain, Verstappen had to keep going. Today he is one of the best drivers in the wet. When Max was young, mistakes or bad results could sometimes make the father so angry that he abandoned his son at a rest stop on the way back. Little Max then had to ask someone to call his mother to pick him up.

It was the Red Bull driver himself who chose to enter motorsport, not his father. At the age of four he wished for a kart for the first time. His parents wanted to wait until his sixth birthday. Because Verstappen junior didn’t stop pushing, he was able to get his way and did his first laps at the age of four and a half. At the age of only 17, Verstappen became a regular driver for the then Red Bull junior team Torro Rosso, now called Alpha Tauri. Engine manufacturer Renault made a company car available to the young Verstappen, which the then minor was not allowed to drive – the Renault Clio RS stood unused on his doorstep, while Verstappen raced over the asphalt on the racetrack at a speed of 300 km/h.

Verstappen was rewarded with a new contract at the beginning of the year for his exceptional skills and the world title. With a base salary of around 45 million euros, Verstappen is now the best-paid driver in Formula 1 alongside Lewis Hamilton. Week after week, he shows why Red Bull gave him such a contract until 2028. The Dutchman just doesn’t make any mistakes. In the paddock, instead of “Mad Max”, he is now more and more frequently referred to as “robot” – half jokingly, half appreciatively.

Verstappen is a full professional – and a thoroughbred racing driver. In Formula 1, it’s not the glamor that counts for him, but the competition. He finds things like media appointments annoying. He cancels many. He even had his father accept the trophy for Sportsman of the Year in the Netherlands. Instead, he prefers to pursue one of his favorite pastimes: SimRacing, virtual car racing.

When Verstappen is not behind the wheel, he enjoys life with girlfriend Kelly, daughter of three-time world champion Nelson Piquet, as well as with friends and family. Then motorsport moves into the background. The pictures of how he commanded the audience at a New Year’s Eve party in Miami with a microphone on the DJ desk to “have a damn good night” went around the world. After his first title win, Verstappen put on several kilograms. “When I came home in early January and looked in the mirror, I was like, ‘Okay, it’s about time you started exercising again. I had three or four kilograms more on my ribs and small rolls of fat on my waist,” revealed the Red Bull driver.

Nothing of that can be seen anymore. Verstappen dominates the season. In addition to his extraordinary driving experience – team boss Horner describes him as a “talent of the century” – this is mainly due to the “RB18”, as this year’s Red Bull racing car is officially called. After initial problems with reliability, his team now has the most complete car.

The fact that Verstappen is 106 points ahead of teammate Sergio Perez before the Japanese Grand Prix is ​​not just because he is more talented. The Austrian team tailored the car to its flagship. In Milton Keynes, the headquarters of the racing team, they do everything to ensure that their driver can get Christian Horner’s world champion hug again this year.