Ten years on: Revisiting Max Verstappen’s shock Japan F1 practice debut

Ten years on: Revisiting Max Verstappen’s shock Japan F1 practice debut

In 2014, a fresh-faced Max Verstappen logged his first mileage on a grand prix weekend in free practice for Formula 1’s Japanese Grand Prix. His FP1 debut with Toro Rosso foreshadowed the special relationship Verstappen would go on to build with Japan.

Not only did the three-time world champion win those titles powered by Japanese brand Honda, but he also won his second drivers’ championship at Suzuka in 2022, amid confusion over the number of points awarded in the rain-affected race.

But the story really started in August 2014, when a timid 16-year-old Verstappen – hands in his pockets, somewhat awkwardly dressed in Austrian attire – was announced on Red Bull’s Servus TV channel as a Toro Rosso driver for 2015.

The bombshell move prompted swift criticism from analysts and competitors up and down the paddock.

“We were declared completely crazy by just about everyone and had all sorts of things thrown at us,” Red Bull advisor Marko told Motorsport.com. “The FIA was even stupid enough to change the whole licensing system so that no one could debut so young again.”

For Marko, however, after the 2014 Formula 3 season and more specifically after the Norisring weekend, it was clear that Verstappen was worth the risk.

The Austrian was one of those who witnessed Verstappen’s exploits at close quarters on a soaked German street circuit and immediately knew he needed to secure the Dutchman’s services at all costs.

“After what I saw at the Norisring, I didn’t think age was relevant at all. Normally I talk to a young driver for 20-30 minutes to get a good idea of his personality and the structure around him. But with Max I spent an hour and a half in Graz. My conclusion from that conversation was: there is a very young body there, but someone who is mentally at least three to five years more mature.”

Max Verstappen, Toro Rosso

Max Verstappen, Toro Rosso

Photo by: Sutton Images

It was also a conclusion drawn by Mercedes’ Toto Wolff. Both brands were angling for Verstappen’s services, but Mercedes was unable to guarantee Verstappen a direct step up to an F1 seat, which Red Bull could thanks to its Toro Rosso junior team.

It made the choice easier for the trinity that Verstappen, father Jos and manager Raymond Vermeulen formed at the time. Pen was put to paper, the presentation planned, while Verstappen’s intensive preparation programme kicked off with private tests at Rockingham and Adria Raceway, when Verstappen was still just 16.

Away from the spotlights, Verstappen was progressing well enough to be thrown into a baptism of fire in front of the entire world. Aged 17 years and three days, Verstappen would be handed a free practice session on 3 October in Japan.

“We very deliberately held that first practice on Suzuka as a kind of ultimate test for Max,” Marko explained.

“That is one of the toughest circuits on the entire calendar for young drivers and gave us a good chance to see how Max would perform in difficult conditions.”

On a weekend tragically overshadowed by the fatal accident of Jules Bianchi, Verstappen handled his outing with aplomb, his Toro Rosso perhaps less so as Verstappen had to finish his session early.

“I remember well that at the end of that session, there were flames coming out of my car so that all went well,” Verstappen jokingly looked back.

Max Verstappen, Scuderia Toro Rosso, Japanese GP practice

Max Verstappen, Scuderia Toro Rosso, Japanese GP practice

“But no, no kidding: it was a good session. It might not have been easy to get a very first F1 appearance straight away at Suzuka, but Red Bull was keen for me to start there.

“I remember very well when I drove out for the first time, I was surprised how much power I suddenly had. It was a shock to my system, everything was much more fierce than I was used to.

“It was quite overwhelming at first, but soon it went well. I didn’t really take any risks either, it was purely about understanding the car. I obviously had no experience yet, so it was mainly about learning how an F1 car would feel.”

Verstappen backed up his Japan performance with another solid FP1 in Brazil, where he caught the eye with a great save after he lost control of the STR09.

The way he dealt with that incident is something Graham Watson, Toro Rosso’s team manager at the time, still remembers vividly.

“Max is not arrogant but, like his father, he is brimming with self-confidence,” Watson reflected.

“I first saw that in Brazil, when he had quite a moment during that practice and almost crashed. Normally a young driver is a bit upset then, but Max was just able to keep the car under control and a lap later drove his fastest time.

“We have to remember that Max was then driving our race car for the weekend. If he crashed badly, we would have really had a problem with the regular drivers, but even at that age, I never thought: ‘Oh my god, he gets back in the car, and it goes hopelessly wrong.’

“It’s hard to put into words exactly what I felt, but from that moment I knew Max was going to be a special one.”

So did Marko, who said at the time: “Max is an exceptional talent that comes along once in a decade.

Max Verstappen, Toro Rosso STR9 Renault

Max Verstappen, Toro Rosso STR9 Renault

“From the age of four he has been driving professionally, so despite his youthful age he already has quite a lot of experience. We are not playing Russian roulette by letting him debut so early.

“We know exactly what we are doing and success will prove us right.”

One decade on it goes without saying that Marko’s predictions became reality, and then some.

Verstappen is listed as the youngest points finisher in F1, the youngest race winner, third on the all-time win list. He has three world titles in the bank, with a fourth surely to follow in 2024.

Looking back on the driver he was as a boy in 2014, Verstappen doesn’t feel like he changed all that much.

“I don’t think I am necessarily very much faster than a few years ago. It would also be very strange to find two to three tenths per lap at this stage of your career,” he said.

“But because you have experienced a lot of things before, you do manage situations better when you get back into them. You know better how to build a race weekend and are more relaxed about many things.

“In the beginning, everything is new, the experience makes you more complete.”

Ten years on from his baptism of fire, Verstappen is an odds-on favourite to grab a third consecutive win at Suzuka, the place where his F1 journey began.

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