When 16-year-old Dutch racer Max Verstappen arrives in Formula One next season, he will be unable to drive on the Netherlands' public roads without adult supervision. Currently, he’s too young to even take a driving test.
And yet he’ll be lining up alongside veterans such as Fernando Alonso, 33, and Lewis Hamilton, 29, aboard an 800-hp open-wheel missile that sprints from 0-100 mph, then back to 0 again, in less than 5 seconds.
Verstappen, who turns 17 next month and will compete in the 2015 F1 season for the Red Bull-sponsored Toro Rosso team, will break the record for the youngest ever Formula One driver by almost two years – a title held by former Red Bull protégé Jaime Alguersuari, when he raced in 2009 at just 19 years, 125 days.
Red Bull regularly signs young drivers and offers them a chance to showcase their skills in its junior team. Sebastian Vettel was still 19 (just) when he competed in his first Grand Prix for BMW, and was quickly signed by the energy drink giant to race for Toro Rosso. Now, the young German, racing for the squad’s main Red Bull Racing outfit, is a four-time F1 champion – and one of the sport's greats (by just 27 years of age). But Vettel remains an anomaly; one of the few, like Alonso, who made it work.
Alguersuari was unceremoniously dumped a few years after his young debut, and Verstappen replaces another Red Bull protégé, Jean-Eric Vergne, who has also been dropped.
Verstappen is, undoubtedly, immensely talented, having won both European and World titles in go-karts, and is currently lying second in the European F3 series after winning eight of 27 races.
With F1’s safety standards improving dramatically since Ayrton Senna’s death in 1994, I’m personally not overly concerned about him endangering himself or others. What bothers me is the potential for wasting an incredible talent by pushing him into running before he’s fully mastered crawling.
Jumping out of go-karts and winning in a high-downforce open wheel Formula 3 race car at your first attempt (at age 16, no less) shouldn't happen. What Verstappen has done is nothing short of amazing, and I’d go as far as to say he’s the most impressive youngster I’ve seen in many years. I believe, even with so few races under his belt, that he has the potential to become a multiple world champion, and linking with Red Bull Racing as a junior driver makes perfect sense.
But why the rush to jump into Formula One?
Why not compete in the Formula Renault 3.5 series next year followed by a season in GP2? Why ignore key steps in a ladder system that was designed to allow drivers to prepare both mentally and physically for the challenges prior to competing in F1?
You can’t blame Verstappen for saying yes (although he did have a deal on the table as a Mercedes junior driver); after all, who says no to an opportunity to compete at the pinnacle of your sport, something Mercedes wasn't willing to offer so early in his career? Red Bull, having seen the potential, should be fostering his ability and allowing him to blossom.
Case in point: Lewis Hamilton – a guy I grew up with as a competitor and friend, and whom I've seen progress as a McLaren junior driver from age 13. McLaren’s rules were simple: You don’t move up until you win the championship. He finished third in his first year racing cars in British Formula Renault, winning multiple races aged just 17. He was ordered to remain in the series for another year, and given strict orders to clinch the title.
After doing that successfully, he was placed in Formula 3, like Verstappen, where he stayed for two years until he dominated, winning 15 of 20 races. Asked earlier in his career about moving to Formula One to become the youngest ever driver, Hamilton said that his goal was “not to be the youngest in F1… (but) to be experienced and then show what I can do.”
After crushing the opposition in GP2 the following season (the step below F1), Hamilton was promoted into an F1 race seat alongside multiple world champion Fernando Alonso at McLaren. There, he almost won the title in his rookie season, missing out on the world championship by just one point. The following year, in 2008, he won the F1 title – establishing himself as one of this era's greats.
Hamilton was offered every opportunity to succeed by McLaren, both in terms of financing his career and having access to its multi-million-dollar F1 simulator and the team's vast resources. Red Bull should be doing the same thing with Verstappen, developing him to a level where he can arrive on the F1 scene (when he's ready and proved himself over multiple years) and take the fight to world’s best.
And maybe at 17 he will. He does seem to be a special talent, but F1 is a political, high-pressure game and Red Bull rarely shows patience. His new Toro Rosso teammate, Daniil Kvyat, made his debut this season at just 19 years, 324 days – and has since become the youngest driver to ever score a world championship point with a ninth-place finish at the season opener. But Red Bull is looking for nothing less than the next Vettel – and they may already have found it in the four-time champ's new teammate, Daniel Ricciardo.
For Verstappen, 2015 will be a crucial year – trying to prove himself among the sport's best at just 17 years of age, and with only one year of racing cars under his belt: “I’m a relaxed guy,” he told the BBC. “I will handle it.”
Perhaps the youngster’s biggest challenge next year will be finding the time to pass his driving test.
Photo: Red Bull Racing
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