Verstappen’s Big Chance

Scuderia Toro Rosso announced this week that Max Verstappen will race for the Italian Formula One team next season. When he makes his debut, the Dutch teenager will become the youngest person to ever compete in Formula One.

The debate in the Formula One paddock is whether the soon-to-be 17 year old is too young to race in motor sport’s premier class. The issue people have is not just his age, but also his experience. Verstappen has only been racing cars for four months, for Van Amersfoort Racing’s Formula 3 team.

However, in those four months he has won eight races and currently sits second in the championship, meaning he qualifies for a Super License. Just like for driving on public roads, you need a license to drive an F1 car. Good results in certain racing series is required to apply for a Super License.

The situation has been compared to when Kimi Räikkönen made his debut in 2001 at the age of 21. Younger men had raced before him, but he just had a short spell in Formula Renault to his name. The Finnish driver later became a world champion and was one of the highest paid athletes in the world in 2009.

While the Räikkönen situation seems similar, times have changed dramatically since 2001. Räikkönen’s move did not involve as many changes as Verstappen’s will. F1 drivers nowadays have to cope with turbo chargers, hybrid systems, braking energy recovery, movable rear wings, and Pirelli tyres. The switch from F3 to F1 will be a massive step compared to Verstappen’s recent step from karts to cars.

A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to drive a full size racing simulator at Base Performance Simulators. I got to test cars from Formula Renault, Formula 3 and GP2. The main difference between Formula Renault and F3 is more downforce, but they still feel similar to drive. However GP2 is different in every way. More downforce, bigger engines, and stickier tyres mean much faster speeds through the corners. But the main change is the brakes. It’s second nature to floor the throttle and work your way up through gears, but remembering that you can brake from 280kph for a 90° right hander just 100m from the corner and turn in at 60kph is what sorts the men from the boys.

My driver trainer for that day was two-time Le Mans Winner Darren Turner. He said there’s a jump from Formula Renault to F3, but the jump to GP2 is about 5 times as big, and F1 is about the same size jump again.

I have no racing experience. I am not saying Verstappen will not be able to handle a Formula One car -not in the slightest. He knows how to race and how to drive fast. My point is that lower categories of racing are there for a reason. By making steps through the categories, drivers learn how to adapt to different situations.

Who knows what F1 cars will be like in five years. When F1 switched to Pirelli tyres, even the experienced drivers struggled with that one change. But the younger drivers adapted quicker -maybe because they had gone through changes more recently.

I don’t think the question should be “is 17 too young for Formula 1?” but rather “is it too early for Verstappen to race in F1?”. I think the answer to that question is yes.

Toro Rosso is the testing grounds for Red Bull Racing. Both of Red Bull’s current drivers came through the Italian outfit. Typically, driver’s are signed for two years, and if they can’t prove their worth, or there’s no seat to fill, they don’t get a seat at Red Bull.

In two years Verstappen will be 19 (currently the record for youngest driver to race in F1). Only two of the current teams have ever signed a 19 year old -Toro Rosso, and Ferrari. Toro Rosso might not want him any more, Ferrari no longer sign young drivers -so who would sign him?

He might have to go to another category of racing, get more results and hope he gets another shot at Formula 1. Few drivers get a second chance, but it can be done -Romain Grosjean did it recently and has returned as a more competitive racer.

It’s an unfortunate situation for the teenager to be in. No young racer in their right mind would turn down a switch to Formula 1. It’s the dream, it may be a once in a lifetime offer.

I’ve watched Verstappen race in Formula 3 this season and he has a lot of talent. Around the streets Pau I saw him make the car slide around corner to get a better line for the chicane. That’s something you would normally see in karting, but he made it work in an F3 car.

Verstappen’s first time driving an F1 car will be before November’s United States GP and I for one am excited to see how he’ll do.

-SC

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