16 years, 10 months, and 13 days. That’s how old Max Verstappen was when he signed a contract with Red Bull Racing.
17 years, 5 months and 16 days when he made his debut for Scuderia Toro Rosso at the 2015 Australian Grand Prix.
24 years, 2 months and 13 days when he won his first world championship.
Max’s rise to the top has been meteoric, to say the least. At an age when most kids in the Netherlands are signing their first moped license, Max signed a contract to drive the fastest cars on the planet. At an age when most parents let their children go on their first vacation with friends, Max was on the other side of the world, lining up on the grid for his first Grand Prix. And at an age when most young adults are only just figuring out what to do with the rest of their lives, Max became the first Dutch world champion.
Max’s development over the years contains some great nuggets of insight regarding adolescent brain development. Starting out young has given him the experience he needed to win this championship, and it has provided us the opportunity to watch his brain mature on live television.
At the onset of puberty, around the age of 15, the brain starts rewiring itself. This process lasts until we are about 25 years old. Research shows that the last part of the brain to mature is the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is involved in a number of so-called higher order cognitive functions. These are functions like multitasking, problem solving, complex information processing, and self-regulation. All of these skills are absolutely crucial when driving a Formula 1 car at the limit. Throughout puberty, two things happen that allow for these skills to develop: synaptic pruning, and myelination. Synaptic pruning means the brain eliminates synapses that it doesn’t need. Synapses are structures that allow brain cells to communicate with each other. Eliminating the synapses that are unnecessary helps the brain to process information more efficiently.
Myelination is a process that increases the speed of communication of information throughout our central nervous system, and enhances information processing. In other words: it helps you think faster. In addition to these processes, changes in the levels of two brain chemicals also influence behavior during adolescence. Dopamine and serotonin levels decrease, which leads to more emotional and impulsive decision making. All of these things put together are the reason adolescents sometimes engage in risky behaviors, even when they fully understand that something is dangerous. However, this usually happens in the relative safety of the home environment. Max Verstappen went through this entire process while driving a rocket ship on wheels, with the whole world watching. It has given us some massive highs, as he was willing and able to go for moves others wouldn’t dare try, but also a few deep lows throughout his seven seasons in Formula 1.
For example, in 2015 he got a bit too optimistic and crashed into the back of Romain Grosjean during the Monaco GP, leading to a 5-place grid penalty for the following Canadian Grand Prix. However, 2015 also gave us one of his best overtakes ever in my humble opinion: Felipe Nasr round the outside at Blanchimont during the Spa Grand Prix. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I highly recommend having a look. As Martin Brundle fittingly said in his commentary of that race: “They know no fear, do they? 200-mile-an-hour corner round the outside, on the curb, and keep your foot pinned.” In addition to his incredible natural talent, this is one of those situations in which he was aided by his adolescent brain circuitry, pushing him to go for a move many others wouldn’t risk.
2016 was the year of moving under braking. For those who don’t know, the FIA changed their regulations based on something that was called ‘the Verstappen move’. When fighting for position, Max repeatedly moved under braking, leading to risky situations and a few close encounters of the unpleasant kind with Kimi Raikkonen. When he was criticized by Sebastian Vettel during and after the 2016 Mexican Grand Prix for his behavior, Max proceeded to call Sebastian childish during interviews. This is an example of the difference between something we call ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ cognition. Hot cognition is about thinking and reasoning in emotional, heat-of-the moment situations. Cold cognition pertains to reasoning under less intense, ‘normal’ circumstances. Teenagers show poorer decision making in hot conditions. Put simply, their prehistoric, emotional brain completely overrules their poorly developed prefrontal cortex. This leads to short-sighted decision making, lack of impulse control, and emotional outbursts. In 2016 Max showed some questionable behavior under ‘hot cognitive circumstances’, both on track and in his reactions to incidents. He had incidents with Raikkonen in Hungary and Spa, with Vettel in Mexico, and he crashed (again) in Monaco. This time not once, but twice.
However, his talent, his mindset, and his adolescent prefrontal cortex also led him to become the youngest race winner in the history of the sport after winning the 2016 Spanish Grand Prix (18 years, 7 months, and 16 days young, to be precise). He kept Kimi Raikkonen, an F1 world champion with almost 300 races under his belt, behind for 23 laps during his first race for a new team, and gave us a first glimpse of the greatness that would be Max Verstappen. And if that wasn’t enough, he gave everyone an absolute masterclass in driving in the wet during the 2016 Brazilian Grand Prix, finding grip when others were sliding across the track, and taking risks that others simply weren’t able or willing to take. This is part personality and mindset (with him being impressively stoic under pressure). In addition to his personality however, this is where his adolescence came in handy. Nobody in their right mind would attempt the moves Max was making. But Max wasn’t in his right mind. His mind was going through puberty. And we all loved it.
The 2017 and 2018 seasons saw a more mature Verstappen battling it out on track. There were still incidents, like the crash with then team mate Daniel Ricciardo during the 2017 Baku Grand Prix. He also made an overly optimistic overtake attempt on Hamilton during the 2018 Bahrain Grand Prix leading to a puncture, as well as one on Vettel in China (that he later admitted was overambitious). And, of course, there was the now infamous incident with Esteban Ocon, who crashed into Max while trying to unlap himself. As Sir Lewis Hamilton fittingly told him in the cooldown room before the podium ceremony: “You had more to lose.” But Max, now 20 years old and well on his way towards a fully formed prefrontal cortex, started to show more restraint and self-reflection, and the highlights started to outshine the low points. For example, he overtook car after car after car during the first lap of a wet 2017 Chinese Grand Prix, going from P16 to P7 in one lap.
From 2019 onwards, the now officially adult Max Verstappen (at 21 years of age) was still eager, and still a ‘yield or crash’ type of driver. However, the overwhelming majority of the noteworthy incidents he was involved in were debatable when it comes to assigning blame. This has less to do with brain maturation, and more with personality and mindset on track. Max has always been, and will most likely always be, a ‘do or die’ driver. His now matured brain will always gravitate more towards the rewards than the risks when it comes to decision making on track. It is why he is such a joy to watch. It has led to clean, hard racing in a fight with Charles LeClerc during the 2019 British Grand Prix, and multiple amazing overtakes on Lewis Hamilton in Brazil that year. It is also why he was able to clinch the title in 2021.
His response to his race engineer, Gianpiero Lambiase, who told him to pull back to save his tyres during the 2020 70th Anniversary Grand Prix in Silverstone, perfectly captures the adult Max Verstappen:
“Mate, this is the only chance we’ve got for catching the Mercedes. I’m not going to sit behind like a grandma.”
“I’m being sensible, don’t worry.”
And sensible he was, all the way to the chequered flag, when he won that Grand Prix.
Max is a once-in-a-generation phenomenon, definitely up there with Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso. At only 24 years old, he has at least 10 more years in F1 ahead of him. Now with a fully pruned and myelinated prefrontal cortex, balanced dopamine and serotonin systems, and a truckload of experience under his belt, it will be a joy to watch him fight for championships for years to come.