Max Verstappen does not own the first trophy he won in single seaters. It sits, instead, in the trophy cabinet at Prema Powerteam, signed and dedicated to the boys who worked on his car in the Ferrari Florida Winter Series. A driver error had put him out of the second race of the opening weekend at Sebring, but his crew (of two) had worked tirelessly to repair the damage and get him back onto the grid for the final race later that day. A week later, in the first race at Palm Beach, Verstappen finished second. The 16 year old could think of no other meaningful way to repay his boys’ hard work than to hand over the glass vase, which represented so much for him as he took his first steps out of karts. But the day after handing over his first trophy, he would take his first ever single seater victory.
He stepped off the podium, smiled and said, “This one, I’ll keep.”
I know this because I had the honour of sharing the track with him for both landmarks.
It’s astonishing to think that just six months after his first win in single seaters, Max Verstappen has been confirmed as a Formula 1 driver for the 2015 season. But Max Verstappen is quite an astonishing talent. So astonishing in fact that a few poorly worded questions on my part to a few sources made me believe he’d actually got the jump on Vergne and would be replacing him from this weekend! To me, he’s that good that it actually seemed possible.
Even so, to many a debut for Verstappen even in 2015 seems premature. I’ve long been an advocate of taking time with drivers, putting them through various junior formulae and allowing the best to rise to the surface. Age, I always thought, was an advantage in this game as it came along with experience and having ironed out the creases one should not be wrestling with in the world’s highest perceived echelon of racing.
When Red Bull rushed Jaime Alguersuari into Formula 1 at the age of 19, straight out of World Series, he was unfairly dubbed “the most dangerous man in motor racing,” over his relative inexperience.
When Max Verstappen makes his Formula 1 debut, he will be too young to drive a car in his native Holland without someone over the age of 18 present, and too young to drink champagne outside the podium. Is he thus too young? Is he a danger? Is it too soon?
There is an old adage that if you’re good enough, you’re old enough. And so in 2015, at the age of 17, Max Verstappen will become the youngest Formula 1 driver in the history of our sport. It is a decision which will polarise opinion.
That Verstappen is talented is in no doubt. From those early races in Florida he was getting up the noses of drivers far more experienced and established than himself. The likes of Antonio Fuoco, already part of the Ferrari Driver Academy, had beef with him by the time practice began in Palm Beach. This young hotshot was making immediate waves and putting noses out of joint.
He did it in Florida, and he’s done it all season in Formula 3. The decision to make his full competitive debut at that level was a surprise in itself as the standard route in would normally have been a few rungs further down the ladder. But as is becoming the way with young Verstappen, normal just doesn’t suffice.
At the time of writing this article Max Verstappen sits second in European F3 in his debut season with 8 wins, 13 podiums, 5 pole positions and 5 fastest laps. He won the F3 Masters at Zandvoort. Yes, fellow rookie Esteban Ocon is leading the title chase, but Ocon is part of the Lotus junior programme already. Up until seven days ago, Max Verstappen was a free agent.
Rumour was that Mercedes was interested in securing his services and indeed had made him a very nice offer. Mercedes no doubt would have taken their time with him, nurtured him through the ranks and prepared him for a Formula 1 seat… or DTM if the single seater route hadn’t worked out. It would have taken something massive to convince him not to sign with the manufacturer who is dominating modern Formula 1.
An immediate race seat in Formula 1 seems to have been that deal breaker.
Seven days ago he signed on with Red Bull. At last weekend’s Nurburgring round he romped to a Race 1 win, was leading Race 2 with ease when his engine let go and needed to be changed. He incurred a 10 place grid drop as a result (and will for the next two races), but having started 12th he avoided the melee at Turn 1 and was running 5th by the end of the first lap. He would finish third. It was a frankly brilliant drive and set up the platform from which he has been launched into F1.
Red Bull, however, is not known for its warm, nurturing environment. The tale of Formula 1’s last “youngest ever” is a cautionary one for Verstappen. If he is given as long to grow within the sport as was Alguersuari, he’ll be out of Formula 1 before he’s out of his teens. But Verstappen and Alguersuari are very different personalities.
Max Verstappen isn’t the first driver to have made such a fast ascent to Formula 1 and I doubt he will be the last. His father ascended quickly, too. So quick will Verstappen’s rise be though, that he will even line up for his debut alongside drivers who raced against his father… Fernando Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen and Jenson Button.
Fascinatingly, both Raikkonen and Button had similarly quick climbs to Formula 1. For Raikkonen, it was such a quick climb that he opened his F1 career on a provisional Superlicense. As we know, however, both Raikkonen and Button went on to become champions, but while Raikkonen was nurtured first by Sauber and then by McLaren, Button was ejected from Williams after a year and then went through the school of hard knocks that was Benetton. In today’s Formula 1, one wonders if Button would have survived and given long enough to mature into the driver who won the 2009 world championship. Frankly, it is debateable.
As for Verstappen, jokes will be made about his age. People will say he’s not ready, that the sport needs to take a hard look at itself. What has it become etc? Justifiable questions will be asked of the Red Bull programme and what happens now to the likes of da Costa (already moved to DTM), WSR’s Sainz Jr and Gasly, and GP3’s mega talented Alex Lynn. Questions again will be asked of WSR and GP2. Questions will be asked of what happens to Vergne, but frankly when he was overlooked for Ricciardo at Red Bull, it was obvious he was on borrowed time.
I swore last year that Helmut Marko had made a mistake in promoting Dany Kvyat at such a young age. I have been proven spectacularly wrong and I am happy to admit it. As such, in this case, I am more than happy to stand back and watch with interest.
The arrival of a talent such as Verstappen to the sport at a remarkably tender age is the exception, not the norm. Such an exception should make us all stand back and watch. It should make us take enormous interest in how he fares. It should make us all incredibly excited. For the doom mongers and nay sayers, it won’t of course. It’ll just add to the impending sense of doom and pessimism.
But this news should get our juices flowing in anticipation of the debut of someone who could prove to be exceptional.
I like Max. I love watching him race. I loved trying to keep up with him on track.
And I can’t wait to see how long it takes before the established order in Formula 1 are left as awestruck as I was, staring at his gearbox.