Max Verstappen’s road to Formula 1 was not usual. Upcoming season Guanyu Zhou debuts in the premier class of motorsport after completing Formula 4, Formula 3 and Formula 2. Verstappen skipped a few steps before joining the Toro Rosso team in 2015. A year earlier, the Dutchman made the switch from karts to formula racing and the young Verstappen could be found in perhaps the toughest junior class in motorsport.
The Red Bull Racing driver immediately made the switch to the European championship in Formula 3. With that he skipped Formula 4. Given Verstappen’s results in karting, this big step isn’t even that surprising. The then still very young rider was the first to cross the finish line several times. In 2013, his last year in karts, Verstappen won both the European Championship and the World Championship in karting. Before the new world champion decided to participate in Formula 3, the driver could still be found at the Florida Winter Series. There he took two wins, three pole positions and five podiums.
The up-and-down start of Verstappen
Verstappen was not the only rookie in the Formula 3 field in 2014, but he had the least experience. Most drivers already had experience in cars in Formula 4 or Formula Renault. Moreover, there was plenty of talent on the grid that year. Esteban Ocon, Nicholas Latifi and Antonio Giovinazzi, among others, were on the asphalt at the time. Verstappen was picked up by Van Amersfoort Racing, with which the driver was one of the better teams in the class. The start of the current Formula 1 world champion left much to be desired.
For the first race at Silverstone, Verstappen qualified fourth, which is a good performance for a rookie given the context. However, the Limburger was unable to complete the race, as the limitation of the power source of the Van Amersfoort car had been activated from the start. Verstappen tumbled to the last spot in the blink of an eye, before deciding to park his car. In the second race, the then Van Amersfoort driver mainly had to limit the damage and he succeeded. In the third and final race at Silverstone, he started fifth and took the podium for the first time. Verstappen finished second after a typical Verstappen overtake.
The second weekend at the Hockenheimring started really dramatically for the Dutchman. During the first race, Verstappen crashed with Latifi, forcing both drivers to stop the race early. The race that followed, Verstappen was allowed to start from pole position, but the equipment refused to cooperate. On the way to the grid, the engine broke down, forcing him to watch from the sidelines as competitor Ocon took the win. During the last race, Verstappen’s power source did cooperate. The driver had again taken pole position and was able to convert it into a victory.
Lots of sunshine after lots of rain
The Formula 3 circus was in Pau for the third weekend. For the first time, Verstappen had to deal with a street circuit and it seemed to go well for him in the beginning. He achieved his third podium that season, but that’s where it ended for the driver. In the two races that followed, Verstappen struggled to keep his car out of the wall. In the same corner, the rider lost control twice and ended up in the tire stack both backwards and forwards. Ocon had built up a decent lead in the title fight and this was extended after Verstappen had to cancel the first race in Hungary after clutch problems and the two races following the Hungaroring not yielding the desired results. Ocon, on the other hand, managed to win two of the three races in the Eastern European country.
At Spa-Francorchamps and the Norisring (a street circuit in Nürnberg, ed.), Verstappen was unapproachable. In Belgium he did not take pole positions, but he always managed to drive his Van Amersfoort car to first place. Often the gap to the competition was made up within one round. For Verstappen, these three wins in a row were not enough. He also won all three races at the Norisring. He won six races in a row. In addition, the rookie also took pole position for the last two races in the German city. The Dutchman seemed ready to open the title fight again.
Red Bull contract in the pocket, but the title out of your hands
Verstappen continued to perform at Van Amersfoort, but he also saw the competition come and go when he had a lesser day. In Moscow it was again Ocon who won all races of the weekend, while Verstappen was on the podium twice. The steering rod of his car gave out in the second race that weekend. A lap later at the Red Bull Ring, where Verstappen is very successful in Formula 1, things did not go well for him either. He failed to reach the podium and Tom Blomqvist, who was in third place up to that point, was able to knock his competitor off second.
The Red Bull star’s now-vanished smile quickly reappeared on the Red Bull driver’s face as Helmut Marko inquired about his services. In August of 2014 he became part of the Red Bull academy and got a different livery on his Van Amersfoort car. It gave Verstappen some confidence, because during the first race at the Nürburgring he immediately won. In the second race, the car was again hit by bad luck and Verstappen had to stop the race early again. He finished third in the final race.
The last two rounds of the championship were driven at Imola and the Hockenheimring. After the retirements in Austria and Germany, the title was very far away for Verstappen. A miracle, which did come during the Abu Dhabi race in 2021, also failed to materialize. The young driver still managed to win two races (one at Imola and one at the Hockenheimring, ed.), but Ocon secured the title with third place in the last race at Imola. Second place also slipped out of his fingers. Blomqvist was on great form in the final quarter of the season and has only missed the podium twice since the races in Russia. Verstappen, on the other hand, did not finish on the podium in the last two games of the season and had to settle for third place in the championship.
Red Bull’s gamble
At the end of 2014, Verstappen had just blown out seventeen candles, but in 2015 there was already the debut for the youngster in Formula 1. Despite his title win in Formula 3, Ocon had to wait a little longer for his chance. The Frenchman was also a rookie in Formula 3, but his competitor already seemed to be further than he was. By winning the overall championship, Ocon also won the rookie championship. Verstappen finished second in that. The choice of the Austrian team seemed therefore a gamble in view of the performance in F3.
Nevertheless, the year of the Dutchman in Formula 3 was extremely good. First, it is important for a driver to beat his teammates. The rookie made almost no mistakes in that. Both Gustavo Menezes and Jules Szymkowiak never finished above their Dutch teammate in the races in which all three drivers managed to finish. Menezes managed to take pole position twice more, but for the rest of the year he was a lot slower than his teammate together with Szymkowiak. In addition, Verstappen has always been Verstappen. Aggression, daring overtakes and rock hard defending was in it from a young age. More than once it got him into trouble, but often enough it brought him the win.
Moreover, one must not forget that this was Verstappen’s first year in single-seaters. Ten wins (the most of all other drivers, ed.), seven pole positions and sixteen podiums is a fantastic achievement in such a debut season. Marko took a gamble, but knew that the potential was there with Verstappen from the start. The Red Bull advisor fell for the nature of the beast. The traits that Verstappen showed then have never gone away. After winning six races in a row in Belgium and Germany, Verstappen seemed on his way to seize the title, but the Dutchman often had enough bad luck with his car. Verstappen was aggressive, confident and just really fast. Qualities that earned him a world title in Formula 1 seven years later.