At 18 years, 228 days old Max Verstappen obliterated F1's record books at last year's Spanish Grand Prix -- becoming the sport's youngest-ever winner.
Verstappen's tender age made the achievement remarkable, but so did the circumstances leading up to his victory. Promoted from Toro Rosso to Red Bull in the days before the Barcelona race, Verstappen's win completed a story that would have seemed outlandish at a Hollywood movie pitch.
One year on, as the paddock readies itself for this year's Spanish Grand Prix, ESPN caught up with Max Verstappen, his father Jos and Dutch commentator Olav Mol to discuss the two weeks which led to a teenager standing on the top step of Barcelona's podium.
Red Bull makes the switch
After clashing with Sebastian Vettel in China, Daniil Kvyat was under the spotlight again following his home race in Russia. At the first sequence of corners the Red Bull driver had again tangled with Vettel, who he replaced at Red Bull in 2015, sending both men out of the race and prompting a furious radio tirade from the four-time world champion.
The presence of Verstappen had always hung over Kvyat's place at the team, with questions about being replaced by the teenager starting as early as pre-season the year before. Verstappen, who says he knew he was going up to Red Bull for the 2017 season regardless, did not expect to make the jump so early.
When asked if he left Sochi knowing he would be a Red Bull driver, Verstappen tells ESPN: "Not me, but my manager and my dad did. The next day they called me and said 'Max, I think you need to get ready to move teams', and I was like 'what are you on about, that's next year?' But they said 'No, it's going to happen for the next race'."
In hindsight, the body language of Max's father Jos and manager Raymond Vermeulen after the race suggested they knew of the imminent promotion. Journalists who attended remember the Dutchman leaning against the wall of the Red Bull motorhome after the race as the media waited -- in vain, as it turned out -- to talk to Christian Horner or Kvyat about his first-lap collision, with a big smile on his face.
Jos denies he had been given an advanced warning of Marko's plans, though he admits Kvyat's crash and the fallout from it left him with a strong idea of what Red Bull's next move would be.
"No, we didn't know," Jos told ESPN. "But we knew we had to go and see Helmut after we landed on Monday. But I had the feeling straight away that they were talking about putting Max in. So we all went to the office and even that day we came to the agreement, of course we wanted to come here but we couldn't talk with anyone about it. It was good, Max was happy about it of course."
Whether Jos and Vermeulen knew or not, the younger Verstappen was certainly not buying it. Even when the three of them were invited to lunch with Marko in Austria, two days after the Russian Grand Prix, Verstappen had his doubts about where he would be competing at the next race.
"I couldn't believe it, I wanted to hear it from the man himself, Helmut Marko," Verstappen explains. "He called us to come to office on Tuesday. Still couldn't believe it, didn't believe it, but dad and my manager had said it will happen. So OK, let's go.
"At lunch we were talking about the season and what happened ... he said he was not happy with what happened in Sochi. But still nothing about next race, and I was like 'what are they on about, why are we here for lunch?'
"At the end of the lunch [Helmut] told me we needed to go to England the next day... I asked him what he meant and he said 'You're driving for Red Bull next race, you have to get your suit and in the simulator...' I was like 'Oh f... OK great!' That's what I wanted to achieve [and it happened] in a short time.'"
As news of the promotion broke in the media, Verstappen was en route to Red Bull's Milton Keynes factory for a seat fitting and work in the factory to ready himself for life with a new car. But the teenager was unfazed by the media storm swirling around his move.
"For sure, you think about it and usually you'd never see it [a driver switch] happening in-season. But I was there to prepare myself really well so I couldn't really focus [on the media] a lot. And I didn't want to because I was happy with where I'd got to and I was just ready to race."
Arrival in Spain
The news was the big talking point heading to Barcelona. It gave sports desks a refreshing new F1 angle -- the opening four races had confirmed fears of another season of Mercedes domination and a third consecutive title fight between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg. Verstappen's promotion was such a big talking point that he, former teammate Carlos Sainz and the now-relegated Kvyat were front and centre for the FIA's Thursday press conference, in front of a row including none other than Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton.
When reminded of that line-up, Verstappen chuckles and says: "Yeah, they did that on purpose."
Asked if he found the press conference awkward, he shrugs and says: "No, not for me on my side. I was happy with where I landed. Of course you feel for the other driver but at the end of the day you are here to do your own job and try and be as successful as you can be yourself. It can be a hard world."
Though he and Kvyat didn't have much chance to talk during that whirlwind week in Barcelona, Verstappen took a moment to clarify that his relationship with the Russian driver remains strong as both men understand the cut-throat nature of Formula One and the Red Bull programme which elevated them to it.
"Not too much during that week, to be honest, it was a bit hectic. Even after that we met up in Monaco, we did stuff together. He understands I'm not there to get him out of the team, I'm here in the sport to improve myself and deliver the best possible result, if that made him move out of the team it's very unfortunate but that's how racing is, it's how Formula One is."
Though the media couldn't get enough of a story which had achieved the rare feat of breaking F1 into general sports news, Verstappen, on the surface, seemed the least affected or daunted by the prospect of racing for a new team. When asked about it during the weekend, he tended to respond with a shrug and a statement downplaying the move.
For Jos, his son's calm demeanour in the days after was no surprise, given the mentality he has always displayed in and out of the cockpit.
When asked if his son had always been unfazed by outside interest or scrutiny, Jos replied: "Yes, always! Sometimes I thought he was too easy going, you know, but it's his advantage. It doesn't matter what people write about him, he doesn't care, and I think it's good to have that. Max adapts very quick to change. He's just very relaxed and open, it's like it doesn't hit him."
Getting up to speed
Unflappable character or not, Verstappen appeared to have a big task ahead of him alongside new teammate Daniel Ricciardo. The Australian has carved out a reputation as one of the quickest and most consistent drivers on the grid since stepping up to Red Bull in 2014, a season which saw him out-perform Vettel. In fact, Ricciardo has set the benchmark for Red Bull drivers in the post-Vettel era.
Jos knew all about how to deal with pressure -- he came into F1 billed as a future world champion in 1994, but struggled at Benetton alongside Michael Schumacher, who was in the process of winning the first of his seven titles. But the man once dubbed 'Jos the Boss' never lived up to that expectation and retired with just two podium finishes to show for an F1 career spanning 106 races.
With that experience in mind, Verstappen Senior told his son not to try and do too much too early with his new opportunity.
"That's when [the pressure] starts; you're in a big team, it's different," Jos said. "He arrived in Barcelona having never driven the car, he was used to a different steering wheel with switches, so he'd done a lot of simulator work and talking to the engineers and things like that, but they'd prepared him very, very, very well.
"But driving the actual car, I told him many, many, many times, 'Max, easy, easy, easy'... especially on Friday, when you don't know the limit, it's not worth it [to push too hard]. Even if you are 15th or whatever. But immediately he felt at one with the car, he said 'It's so easy, everything fits well', so then you have the confidence to push."
Verstappen showed his confidence in qualifying, where he finished best-of-the-rest behind Mercedes (and ahead of Ricciardo) in both Q1 and Q2. As would become the case time and time again later in 2017, Ricciardo had to raise his game in the top-ten shootout. In the end he did, finishing 0.4s clear of Verstappen to take third place from his teenage teammate. Crucially, Verstappen had kept himself ahead of the Ferraris, putting Red Bull higher on the grid than the Italian team for the first time in 2016 -- a sign of things to come in the battle for second position.
Though he would have to wait until the British Grand Prix to out-qualify Ricciardo, Verstappen feels his performance in Spain was the lift the team had needed.
"If you jump in the car on Friday for the first ever time... I think everything went pretty well, I was pushing Daniel really hard in qualifying. He stepped up in Q3 but he had to step up really hard to make it happen, and I think that moved the team forward because from that race onwards we just started beating Ferrari but at the races before they hadn't even been close.
"Definitely when I stepped in it pushed the team forward and then Daniel and me kept pushing each other forward, which helped a lot."
Mercedes collide - Game on
The complexion of the Spanish Grand Prix weekend changed barely 20 seconds into the race. What had looked like being an easy one-two for Mercedes changed in an instant as Rosberg, who had got the jump on polesitter Hamilton into Turn 1, entered an incorrect engine mode two corners later, slowing his car at a crucial moment. Hamilton, with a small but not insignificant speed advantage coming out of Turn 3, moved to the right, only for Rosberg to move across to defend the lead.
Hamilton was forced onto the grass, where he lost control of the car, before rejoining the track and spinning into Rosberg. Both Mercedes cars ended in the gravel -- race over. The media centre let out a roar of excitement -- suddenly, somehow, F1 had a race on its hands, with Ricciardo leading Verstappen and the Ferraris of Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen.
Verstappen had only just reclaimed his position from Vettel, with a ballsy move around the outside of Turn 3, as the chaos unfolded in front of him. Even as he passed the two beached Mercedes cars, Verstappen did not dwell on his chances of victory.
"I was in fourth at that time, I'd just passed Seb around the outside. Then I saw Lewis going into the grass, saw him spinning, and thought 'OK, that's maybe one car [out]'. But then I saw him clashing into his teammate and thought 'OK, that's two cars, now we can fight for a podium!' I still wasn't even thinking about a victory."
At that stage, the race looked like Ricciardo's to lose with track position and Verstappen as rear-gunner to neutralise the threat of Vettel. Though the Verstappen in the cockpit was still refusing to dwell on victory, the Verstappen watching on from the Red Bull garage thought his son had a good chance, especially as he knew his son's good tyre management that weekend had opened up the possibility of making fewer pitstops than his teammate.
"I knew the strategy and I knew they were going to try [a two-stop with Verstappen]," Jos says. "Also, [Daniel] had more tyre wear, so they had to [switch him to two-stop for Ricciardo]. I was thinking the last 20 laps, but you never know how the tyres, suddenly they could drop off like crazy. I was hoping he could keep it alive and he did."
Strategy did indeed become key -- Verstappen and Raikkonen's two-stop strategy enough to propel them into the lead of the race, while Ricciardo and Vettel faded despite having the benefit of new tyres at the end of the race. To win, Verstappen had to see off pressure from Raikkonen and execute a 32-lap stint on medium tyres -- two variables he managed with the aplomb of an F1 veteran.
"As a driver I've experienced a lot of tense moments, not only in Formula One. It's the same in go-karting, you have to be on it and make no mistakes in those races when the pressure is a lot from the guy behind. So that was alright, it's a big race and a lot of people are watching so you don't want to make a mistake in the last three laps and lose a victory. So yeah, [the end] was quite intense, but I knew what to do."
"Max Verstappen, you are a race winner! Fantastic, what a debut!"
That was Red Bull team boss Christian Horner's message of congratulation after Verstappen crossed the line. It was a message the Englishman has made famous in his time on the pit wall -- giving similar to Mark Webber and Daniel Ricciardo on their maiden victories, and updating it to "Sebastian Vettel you are world champion!" at the end of the 2010 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix for Red Bull's first drivers' championship.
Verstappen admits hearing that same message, with his own name at the start, remains one of his endearing memories of his first win.
"That radio message was quite famous, even when Sebastian was driving, just the way he says it. Then you're in the car [hearing it] like 'Wow'... In 2013, 2014, you are watching Formula One on the TV thinking you wanted to be in that position, and one and a half years later you've achieved it. So it all came pretty early in my career.
"Then also when I jumped out of the car, I was very happy and saw the whole team. But on the podium, hearing the national anthem, because it was the first victory for a Dutch driver as well, which was very special."
Once he pulled into parc ferme, Verstappen was greeted with a hug by Helmut Marko having justified -- at the first attempt -- the Austrian's decision to promote him to a Red Bull drive. For father Jos, the emotions poured out after a tense afternoon of racing.
Recalling his emotions, Jos says: "It was very high! I was crying, emotional, and I had a blocked nose from the stress, I think, I don't know. I still get [goosebumps], you know... you couldn't write a script like that for a movie, I couldn't believe it. That was pay-off of all the work we have done together so I was really, really happy."
For Max, the victory belonged to his father as much as it did to him, given his role in the journey to the top step of the Barcelona podium.
"It's something we both worked very hard for since I was young. We travelled a lot for go-karting and tried to achieve the most out of it, then you're standing there on the top of the podium, winning in Formula One."
Both Verstappens have no doubt the win was crucial in ending questions about Marko's decision to elevate Max early, paving the way for a campaign littered with more impressive drives in 2016.
"Oh yeah, it was the best thing you could wish for after such a promotion where some people are happy and some people are not sure," Max says. "If you win the race it's just like boom, done. They've got nothing to say.
"I think I'm always quite a calm person, but that of course helped a lot. You're in a team and you win your first race, and you're like, that's it now, I can just focus on having a good season and not making too many mistakes."
Jos thinks everyone at Red Bull benefited from the early promotion and the instant victory. "It was perfect for Max, for Helmut, too, because he got a lot of negative stuff in the press. Helmut did the best job he ever did. We put the team in a higher position, Daniel worked harder, everything together... It was the best move he did I think."