As with most records, there comes a certain plateau point, especially when it comes to being the ‘youngest’ to record various achievements.
The record for youngest world champion has gradually decreased in the last 15 years, having previously been long-held by Emerson Fittipaldi, who was 25 years and 303 days old when he won his first title in 1972. Fernando Alonso (2005) and Lewis Hamilton (2008) each held the record for a few years, only for Sebastian Vettel to further lower the bar to 23 years and 134 days, where it now stands.
Max Verstappen now cannot break that record, and it will stand as one of the few ‘youngest’ accolades he did not claim. He is the youngest race starter, youngest points scorer, youngest podium finisher, youngest race leader and the youngest driver to ever appear on a grand prix weekend.
But the most notable of his ‘youngest’ records is, of course, his status as F1’s youngest ever race winner, something he achieved on this day in 2016.
A Red Bull winning a race is hardly a huge surprise, but the circumstances surrounding Verstappen’s victory were nothing short of extraordinary. It came on debut for the team following his surprise promotion just four races into the 2016 campaign, acting as the starting point for a relationship that looks set to define Verstappen’s F1 career.
Verstappen had already attracted an enormous amount of attention through his debut season with Toro Rosso, becoming F1’s youngest-ever driver at just 17. While there were concerns over his readiness, even prompting the FIA to change its super licence rules to ensure drivers were at least 18 years old, the Dutchman did an impressive job through his rookie campaign.
Max Verstappen, Toro Rosso
Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images
The hype surrounding Verstappen showed few signs of abating heading into 2016, leading to pressure being placed on Daniil Kvyat. The Russian said publicly he felt relaxed about his future despite the fire appearing to be lit under him, but Red Bull advisor Helmut Marko already had an eye on getting Verstappen into the senior team sooner rather than later.
If Red Bull needed an excuse to make the switch, then Kvyat gave it one in the early part of the season. While he scored a podium in China after his ‘torpedo’ moment with Vettel at the start, Kvyat fell apart two weeks later in Russia. Two collisions with Vettel on the opening lap left Kvyat facing the ire of the Ferrari driver, and made up the minds of Red Bull’s management: it was time to give Verstappen a shot.
Red Bull confirmed the switch four days after the race in Russia, placing Verstappen alongside Daniel Ricciardo from the Spanish Grand Prix. Much as his appointment at Toro Rosso had surprised the F1 community, there was some uncertainty over Verstappen’s readiness to fight at the front at just 18 years old.
Verstappen was quick to adjust to the Red Bull RB12 car, lapping within two-tenths of a second of Ricciardo in both FP1 and FP2. Verstappen finished fourth in final practice, one place ahead of Ricciardo, but was over four-tenths of a second off in qualifying. It was still good enough for fourth on the grid ahead of Kimi Raikkonen and Vettel in the Ferraris behind.
“I didn’t expect to adapt to the car so quickly,” Verstappen conceded after qualifying. “I didn’t expect to be on the second row, so it’s a positive feeling. We are close to a podium and hopefully we can keep our positions in tomorrow’s race.”
Verstappen made a decent start, tucking into the slipstream from teammate Ricciardo on the run to Turn 1, only for this to allow Vettel to nip through into fourth place. Verstappen hit back with a bold move around the outside of the long Turn 3 right-hander to reclaim the position – and then came the incident that changed the race.
The dominant Mercedes cars of Hamilton and Nico Rosberg collided on the short run to Turn 4, sending both cars into the gravel and out of the race. The safety car was quickly called, leaving the Red Bulls first and second, Ricciardo leading from Verstappen.
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1 W07 Hybrid and Nico Rosberg, Mercedes AMG F1 W07 Hybrid in the gravel after colliding
Photo by: Motorsport Images
It would be the first test for Verstappen in a battle to win a race since his Formula 3 days – but surely, on his first start for Red Bull, he wouldn’t be able to hold a candle to Ricciardo. The pair had the added benefit of Carlos Sainz – Verstappen’s teammate just two weeks earlier – sitting in third, acting as a buffer to the Ferraris behind.
Ricciardo was able to lead the field away cleanly for the restart, but had Verstappen for close company throughout the opening stint, failing to build any kind of significant lead. Vettel had lost five seconds to Ricciardo by the time he had passed Sainz, with Raikkonen sitting a further four seconds behind.
Ricciardo and Verstappen pitted within a lap of each other to retain Red Bull’s 1-2, but the Ferraris managed to make inroads on fresh rubber. By the end of the second stint, Vettel was just two seconds off race leader Ricciardo, while Verstappen was staying cool within DRS range of his teammate, albeit never close enough to make a move.
It was the strategy call at the second round of pit stops that would ultimately hand Verstappen the race win. Red Bull called Ricciardo in from the lead on lap 28, fitting him with a set of Soft compound tyres. Ferrari covered Ricciardo off with Vettel, going for the same strategy one lap later. This left Verstappen leading a grand prix for the very first time with Raikkonen hovering a couple of seconds behind.
But the soft tyres failed to give either Ricciardo or Vettel the performance they had hoped. Now committed to a three-stop strategy, Ferrari put Vettel out of his misery early, making a final stop for Mediums after just eight laps on Softs. Red Bull did the same with Ricciardo after 15 laps, but it had cost both drivers track position – and cycled Ricciardo behind Vettel.
By now, Verstappen and Raikkonen had both made their second and final visit to the pits, taking a set of Mediums that would see them to the end. While Vettel and Ricciardo were set to catch quickly on fresher tyres, Verstappen had track position and was giving Raikkonen little opportunity to get close.
Raikkonen was regularly crossing the line within a second of Verstappen at the front, but even with DRS, wasn’t able to line up an overtake. Verstappen didn’t miss a beat at the front, soaking up all the pressure being applied by a driver twice his age and with close to 300 races worth of experience.
Vettel and Ricciardo couldn’t get close enough to bother the lead pair again, instead battling each other for the final podium position. Vettel was left aggrieved by a dive-bomb move by Ricciardo late on, but the Australian couldn’t get the position, and ultimately had to pit on the penultimate lap when his tyre failed.
Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB12 TAG Heuer, Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari SF16-H
Photo by: Andrew Hone / Motorsport Images
Raikkonen made one final charge to catch Verstappen and end his own win drought, but it wasn’t enough. The gap at the line was 0.616 seconds – and at 18 years and 227 days, become the youngest winner in F1 history.
“It’s amazing, I couldn’t believe I was leading,” Verstappen said after the race. “It’s a very big surprise, I didn’t expect that. I can’t believe it.
“I was targeting a podium, but to win straight away is an amazing feeling. In the last laps I got a bit of cramp – I was getting very excited, I couldn’t believe it.
“I was looking at the pitboard, saw my name with 10 laps to go, then started to watch the board. I was thinking: ‘Don’t look at it, focus on the tyres and bring it home’. It’s a great feeling. I absolutely didn’t expect this.”
It was an immediate justification for Red Bull’s seemingly ruthless decision to demote Kvyat. Four years on, and the switch is now looked back on as one of the best calls Red Bull has made in the post-Vettel era.
“To come in and qualify on the second row and win your first grand prix, it can only get worse!” Red Bull team principal Christian Horner joked after the race. “I suspect he’ll get stronger as he gets more experienced, more familiar with the car and his confidence will grow.
“The biggest aspect of his performance has been his calmness. He has a lot of capacity when he is driving the car. We were all getting tense with five laps to go because the tyres were at the end of their life.
“There was no agitation in his voice, no panic, no tension. It was a young man who was completely in control of what he is doing. That’s what he has done since the moment he has stepped in the car.”
Such coolness has been a hallmark of Verstappen’s success since that initial breakthrough, taking a further seven wins to date – but that first one looks to remain enshrined in F1 history.
For unless a front-running team finds an outstanding young driver and can afford them a seat at the earliest opportunity – just after their 18th birthday – then Verstappen’s win record is unlikely to ever be beaten.
Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing, 1st Position, celebrates with his team
Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images