Max Verstappen’s coming of age completed by Formula One championship

Verstappen's coming of age
Julien de Rosa / Getty Images

In 2021, Max Verstappen, 24, became an overnight sensation seven years in the making, who’s coming of age was completed with a Formula One championship.

It was a rollercoaster year in which Verstappen took the points lead three times, lost it twice, and entered the season finale tied with the seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton.

After first taking it following Round 5 in Monaco, Verstappen gave up the points’ lead following an incident between himself and Hamilton at Silverstone coupled with a modest showing the next week in Hungary. He lost the lead a second time one week after he and Hamilton crashed while racing for position at Monza. Verstappen incurred a penalty for the contact and finished second to Hamilton the following week.

Verstappen must have felt he was on the losing end of most of the controversies that will mark the 2021 Formula 1 season.

But with one lap remaining in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Formula One allowed select drivers to pass the pace car so Verstappen could pull up behind Hamilton. Mercedes challenged the decision and then withdrew their challenge on Thursday.

For Verstappen, it seemed like a rare call that went his way.

“I wouldn’t call it a vendetta, but I didn’t agree with certain decisions (from Formula One),” Verstappen said in a zoom call earlier this week. “I wouldn’t change my mind about it.

“It’s quite normal that people have discussions and people don’t always agree with each other, but I still have a really good relationship with the stewards. … Sometimes it looks like they love giving penalties, but sometimes they are tied to the rulebook and they kind of have to give a penalty.

“It is what it is at the end of the day, and I think it’s also good to have discussions with each other about certain kinds of things for the future.”

Verstappen led only one lap in Abu Dhabi, but it was the one that mattered most – the one ended by the checkered flag.

Hamilton dominated Abu Dhabi by leading 51 of 58 laps and held an almost 12-second lead with time running off the clock. Even so, Verstappen described his mental state as positive throughout the race. As the laps wound down, he knew it would take a miracle to win the race and championship.

He also knew that he had to be prepared to take advantage of any opportunity that was presented.

When Nicholas Latifi crashed with five laps remaining, Verstappen had a new lease on life and a fresh set of tires from a late-race pit stop. Mercedes and Hamilton chose to skip the opportunity. On superior tires, Verstappen made the last lap pass to score his 10th win of the season.

“Anything is possible, as you can see,” Verstappen said. “Everyone is beatable as well and what we take forward is we have to keep on pushing. We cannot sit still, of course, and just keep enjoying – we also have to focus on next year. I know how my team works and that’s definitely the case, so in a way I’m already excited for next year, but I also still need a bit of a break just to relax a bit from this season.”

After winning one to three races per season for five years, all the pieces of the puzzle came together in 2021 and Red Bull Racing gave Verstappen his first World Championship in one of the most hotly contested seasons Formula One has ever witnessed.

“When Max first joined the team, he was a teenager, just 17 years of age,” said Christian Horner, team principal of Red Bull Racing. “He’d done two years of car racing – and he jumped in our car and won on the first time he sat in it at the Barcelona Grand Prix. What we’ve witnessed over the last few years is that he’s had this prodigious talent and he’s just developed as a driver, as a young man.

“Finally we’ve been able to give him a car to challenge for this World Championship and he’s been outstanding this year.

“The level of consistency, the amount of laps that he’s led, the pole positions that he’s achieved. The high-pressure moments that he’s stepped up to the plate have been outstanding this year … When you look at the whole season, I know a lot of people are caught up in the actions of the last five laps of Abu Dhabi, but when you look at the 22 races, he’s without a shadow of a doubt an extremely deserving World Champion.”

Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws

More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”