After a six-year reign as the country’s favorite sports star, four-time Olympic speed skating champion Sven Kramer was upstaged by a young and feisty race car driver.
Max Verstappen, the super-fast, straight-talking Formula One prodigy, has upstaged his illustrious counterpart — according to a biennial poll by the Hendrik Beerda Brand Consultancy in cooperation with the University of Amsterdam.
That’s no mean feat in a country obsessed with soccer and speed skating.
“The Dutch see Verstappen as a huge success story, performing at a level that we haven’t seen for a long time,” Hendrik Beerda told CNN.
Since making his F1 debut in 2015 at the age of 17, the supremely talented son of former racer Jos Verstappen has taken the sport — and his country — by storm.
At the age of 18, Verstappen won the Spanish Grand Prix in his first outing for the Red Bull Racing team, becoming not only the sport’s youngest ever race winner but also the first Dutchman to claim an F1 victory.
Verstappen has since taken the checkered flag on four further occasions, including this year’s races in Austria and Mexico.
Although Verstappen’s aggressive racing style has at times led to clashes with other drivers, his never-say-die attitude has earned him the respect of Dutch fans.
“Verstappen is regarded as the big international sports hero, and the admiration for his courage and innovative style is unsurpassed,” said Beerda.
Verstappen is seen as “confident, unique, non-conformist and a bit wild,” he added. “For that reason,” explained Beerda, “you could say he is more admired than loved.”
Dutch Grand Prix?
With “Max mania” sweeping the Netherlands, a country roughly twice the size of New Jersey with a population of 17 million, it is no wonder F1’s owner Liberty Media is considering bringing back the Dutch Grand Prix.
“We are very interested in racing in Holland,” Sean Bratches, the sport’s commercial managing director, told Reuters this week.
The Dutch Grand Prix was staged at Circuit Zandvoort, located in the sand dunes near The Hague, between 1952 and 1985.
In 2016, the race track was bought by Chapman Andretti partners, a group co-founded by Prince Bernhard van Oranje — a race car driving, entrepreneurial cousin of Dutch King Willem-Alexander.
In May, an exhibition event with Verstappen and other Red Bull drivers at Zandvoort attracted more than 110,000 fans.
“We are having productive conversations there and I am cautiously optimistic we can do something to surprise and delight fans in that territory and take advantage of the Max factor,” said Bratches.
‘New sporting hero’
Verstappen’s meteoric rise coincided with the disappointing performance of the Dutch soccer team, which failed to qualify for the 2016 European Championships and this year’s World Cup.
The Dutch team, known as “Oranje,” has historically been a force to be reckoned with on the global stage, winning the 1988 European Championships and reaching the World Cup final on three occasions — most recently in 2010.
Its recent failures have contributed to Verstappen’s popularity.
“There was space for a new sporting hero,” said Beerda.
Son of Jos ‘The Boss’
Born in Hasselt, Belgium, Verstappen has racing blood in his veins.
He is the son of Jos “The Boss” Verstappen, who competed in F1 between 1994 and 2003 for teams including Benetton, Tyrell and Minardi.
Verstappen’s mother, Sophie Kumpen, comes from a wealthy family of Belgian entrepreneurs with a passion for motor racing. Sophie was a top karting racer herself, competing against former F1 drivers Giancarlo Fisichella and Jarno Trulli until she married Jos. Anthony Kumpen, a two-time Euro NASCAR Champion, is one of Max’s uncles.
After their divorce in 2006, the Verstappens decided Sophie would look after their daughter, Victoria, while Max would live with his father on the Dutch-Belgian border so he could help him in his racing career.
In a rare interview with Belgian newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws in 2016, Kumpen described that time as “a very tough period.”
At the age of four, Max was given a kart, and promptly won almost every race he entered.
While Jos guided his son on the European karting circuit, where he became the European and world karting champion in 2012, his mother helped him stay grounded.
Following her divorce, Sophie worked at the Public Centre for Social Welfare in Belgium, and she made a point of sharing her experiences with her superstar son, who is worth $17 million according to Quote Magazine in the Netherlands.
“I see a lot of poverty,” Kumpen told Het Laatste Nieuws. “I see the underbelly of society. I think it is good I can show Max…I want him to know that there is a whole different world out there besides his own. It is good to keep him grounded.”
Although the now 21-year-old Max Verstappen was born and raised in Belgium, and now lives in Monaco, there was never any doubt in his mind he would eventually race under the Dutch flag.
His choice to compete for the Netherlands also made commercial sense.
Verstappen has become so popular, he now has his very own “Max Verstappen Stand” at race venues in Belgium, Austria, Hungary and Germany, where thousands of orange-clad and beer-swigging Dutch fans come to sing and cheer on their countryman.
Last year, more than 60,000 Orange fans traveled to Belgium to see Verstappen race at Spa-Francorchamps.
This season, the first “Max Verstappen Village,” including a campsite, a restaurant and a huge party tent, was built on a piece of farmland in Spielberg, a stone’s throw from the Red Bull Ring where the Austrian GP is held.
It attracted over 4,500 Dutch fan and there are plans for similar villages, not only at Spa for the Belgian Grand Prix but also the British race at Silverstone.
“It’s incredible to see how much orange came out here, and especially when I was in the ‘Max Verstappen Village,'” Motorsport.com quoted Verstappen as saying after he visited the site shortly before winning this year’s race in Austria.
“When I walked onto the stage, it just gave me goosebumps. Really crazy, but a lot of fun.”
Verstappen’s popularity is not only boosting the coffers of race organizers, it is also big business for broadcasters in the Netherlands.
Although global TV ratings for F1 have dropped by more than 40% over the past decade, according to a report in The Independent newspaper in June, Dutch viewers flock to their TV sets every time Verstappen takes to the track.
Last month, some 1.9 million viewers, or about 11% of the country, saw Verstappen repeat his 2017 win at the Grand Prix of Mexico.
Earlier this month, F1 announced it had extended a deal with Dutch broadcaster Ziggo Sport by three years, from 2019.
“Formula One in the Netherlands has a long and rich history and thanks particularly to Max Verstappen it is enjoying another significant growth period,” Ian Holmes, F1’s director of media rights, said in a press release.
“The ‘Orange Army’ descending on Spa and Spielberg has resonated around the world and more and more Dutch fans are engaging with the sport like never before.”