At just 16 years old, is Max Verstappen simply too young for F1?

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When news broke of Max Verstappen’s promotion to a full-time seat with Toro Rosso earlier this week, it was met with a great deal of surprise by the Formula 1 community.

Although he was always known to be in the running for some sort of role with Red Bull (which owns Toro Rosso) in the future, few would have predicted that we would already be talking about his full F1 debut in 2015, when he will be just 17 years old.

His birthday is in September, but even at 17, he’ll still be too young to get a road driver’s license in his native Netherlands. Nevertheless, he’ll be piloting a multi-million dollar F1 car next season after just one season in single seaters. Is this really too soon for a driver to be making their debut?

Firstly, let’s talk about Verstappen himself. The son of former F1 driver Jos, the Dutch youngster made his name in go-karts, winning the world karting championship last year. He then moved into single seaters, with the natural option being Formula Renault. However, he instead moved straight into the FIA F3 European Championship, one of the most competitive junior series around.

This year, he has flourished in F3, currently ranking second in the standings behind Ferrari junior Antonio Fuoco. He won six races on the bounce at Spa and at the Norisring, and is certainly one of the breakout drivers in the current field.

Despite his success, many expected him to move into either GP2, GP3 or Formula Renault 3.5 for 2015. It was known that both Mercedes and Red Bull were chasing his services as a junior driver, and the drinks giant won – obviously, the promise of a race seat was going to outweigh any other offer.

Red Bull confirmed earlier this month that it had secured Verstappen’s services, and he raced at the Nurburgring with his car donned in its livery. Few would have predicted that he would have been confirmed just a few days later at Toro Rosso, though. The natural successor to Jean-Eric Vergne appeared to be Carlos Sainz Jr., but like many before him at Red Bull, he will now be asking just where he can go next.

Is Verstappen talented enough? Most definitely. Is he experienced enough? No, but, it is worth noting that Kimi Raikkonen had just one season in Formula Renault under his belt before he made his debut back in 2001 for Sauber. Nowadays, the cars are much easier to drive, and Toro Rosso has confirmed that it will be putting Verstappen through his paces in a Formula Renault 3.5 car and an old F1 car to ensure that he is ready for his debut in Melbourne next March. He will also be taking part in practice for the races in the USA, Brazil and Abu Dhabi later this year.

So is his debut something that concerns the current crop of drivers? Not particularly.

“I think it’s great that teams are still interested in the talent of the driver and not the money,” said Felipe Massa in yesterday’s press conference. “I think that’s really positive, it’s good for the sport in general.

“I think the most important thing is that he has the talent. I hope he can be clever as well to learn everything from Formula 1.”

Massa did also say that “seventeen is a little bit young,” whilst Daniel Ricciardo said it made him feel old – old being 25.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity that he has and it’s something quite special to come to Formula 1,” noted Lotus driver Romain Grosjean. “As everyone says, he has shown great talent early in his career, but he will have a lot of homework to do to learn everything about racing in higher categories.

“It’s good to see fresh blood, but a bit sad for JEV.”

Indeed, Jean-Eric Vergne is the big loser in all of this. At just 24, he is already facing the end of his F1 career, with the seats on the grid for 2015 being very hotly contested. He needs a great run in the final eight races to prove that he is worthy of a place for next season.

“I understand the decision,” the Frenchman said. “I’m not pissed off. I’m a little bit sad obviously because I like the team and believe it is a good one.

“It’s always in difficult moments that you can show your best potential, and that’s what I’m going to do in the next eight races.”

Fighting words from a man who was in the running for a Red Bull drive this time last year. Oh how quickly things can change in this sport…

As for Verstappen himself, he has few concerns about how ready he will be for Formula 1 in 2015, even if the news hasn’t quite sunk in yet.

“It’s absolutely amazing,” he told NBCSN’s Will Buxton in this week’s Paddock Pass. “I still can’t believe it really. First time when I get in the car, that’s when I’ll feel like ‘this is it’.

“I think at the end of the day, age doesn’t make a difference. As long as you can drive a car fast and you’re consistent without mistakes, there’s no issue about age.”

As with any driver, it is impossible to really know how they will perform until they are actually out on track for the first time. However, Verstappen will indeed raise some concerns about the age of F1 drivers. 17 is very young, but he may just well prove us all wrong.

Ever since it entered F1 in 2005 as a team, Red Bull has bucked the trend and revolutionized much of the sport. It can indeed boast the records for the youngest driver (Jaime Alguersuari), youngest point scorer (Daniil Kvyat), youngest race winner and world champion (both Sebastian Vettel). Verstappen could yet top them all, given the sensational start that he has made to his career.

F1 at 17 is a big ask, but it had to happen one day. Max will be out to prove his critics wrong, and this could prove to be a decision that we look back on in years to come with praise, calling it a “masterstroke” – even if it does make us all feel pretty old.

Fernando Alonso ready to tackle ‘the spirit of the Indy 500 adventure’

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With smiles, humor, wit and determination, two-time Formula 1 World Champion Fernando Alonso arrived in the Barber Motorsports Park press conference room and promptly delivered his second win of the season – the first coming when he, McLaren F1 executive director Zak Brown, Honda and Andretti Autosport combined to stun the racing world in announcing earlier this month that Alonso would be racing in the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

Alonso’s odyssey to come over the next month or so since that announcement has a game plan, a travel schedule and plenty of words to describe the experience. He and Brown arrived in Alabama late Saturday, and the two met the rest of the Andretti Autosport team.

On Sunday, Alonso made his maiden appearance on pit road during the warmup session for today’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN) in Ryan Hunter-Reay’s pit for his No. 28 DHL Honda.

The press conference this morning then brought the same spirit of determination Alonso has outlined as his quest for even wanting to run the Indianapolis 500 in the first place, as well as a few jokes along the way.

“It’s true! It’s my first time here, and hopefully not the last. I want to come to see more of Alabama and this circuit,” Alonso led off during the press conference.

“This has been an amazing week to 10 days from the announcement. For any racing driver in the world to compete in this race is the main goal, against the best drivers, in some of the fastest, best cars in the world.

“This is the spirit of the Indy 500 adventure. I need to go through different steps in this learning, I need to do it in a short amount of time. But it’s so exciting. I need to thank McLaren, Honda for this opportunity and all the Andretti Autosport team.”

Alonso promptly outlined the schedule he’s going to be undertaking from here. After watching today’s IndyCar race, he’ll go to Andretti Autosport’s Indianapolis shop for a seat fit in preparation for his maiden test on May 3 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. From the shop, he’ll be off to Russia for next weekend’s Russian Grand Prix (TV times on NBCSN here), and then back to the U.S. after that.

“From now on, it’ll be an interesting next couple weeks. There’s a couple of trips to Europe and U.S.A. back and forth. Next weekend, we will race in Russia for the Formula 1 Grand Prix, then the test, then the Spanish Grand Prix, then come back for the Indianapolis 500. I will try to learn as quick as I can.”

Alonso said he’s been thinking about this opportunity for several years in advance.

“Let’s say four to five years ago, I started thinking about how to grow up as a driver and become more complete,” he said.

“I didn’t think it was possible. But it makes me very happy to have this first attempt.

“Winning is something really big. I take it more like an experience. I’m very open. If the race was tomorrow, I’m not ready to do it because I know nothing about it. But I will go step-by-step to do some simulator laps. I have to be as good as I can on simulator, qualifying and running alone, then traffic when it comes time.”

Brown confirmed the support team around Alonso is as solid as ever. Michael Andretti will call Alonso’s race as strategist with Andretti technical director Eric Bretzman serving as engineer. Today he added that Alonso will have Honda consultant, 2003 Indianapolis 500 champion, two-time CART champion and closed course world speed record holder Gil de Ferran there as a driver coach to aid Alonso’s development.

Alonso brought some jokes when asked about Formula 1 drivers’ respective takes on his running Indianapolis and skipping the Monaco Grand Prix, where Jenson Button will make a one-race cameo to come out of retirement to deputize.

“We don’t talk much. It’s a different world!” Alonso laughed. “The only thing I know is probably what you guys have read, which is what I’ve read too.

“Some of them are happy and curious to see how competitive we can be. Others aren’t happy with anything in life … except their own performance. It’s a different world.”

About his former sparring partner in F1, Juan Pablo Montoya: “I don’t know if he’ll be at the front!” Alonso said to more laughter.

Alonso said he’ll look forward to the simulator time ahead, and told NBCSN IndyCar analyst Paul Tracy that the simulator he is used to in Formula 1 is incredible.

In terms of the best advice he’s received?

“Enjoy,” Alonso reflected.

“It’s something that this race is so unique, so I’m ready to experience these emotions. That race, that day, everything happens so quickly. You tend to forget what you are doing. I’m ready to enjoy everything I’m doing that day.”

Brown, Andretti and Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles, head of INDYCAR’s parent company, also joined Alonso on the dais. Stefan Wilson’s contribution to the effort was once again praised.

The most noteworthy piece of news to come out of this trio was that Miles confirmed he’d be going on a European promotional tour after the Phoenix race (April 29) to spread the word about IndyCar, the Indianapolis 500 and Alonso’s attempt.

“The attention we have seen already is incredible,” Miles said. “I will be In London, Paris, Milan, Barcelona, and we’re going be there while he’s in Indy to tell the IndyCar story.

“I’ve read clippings back from the first race in Indianapolis, and Fernando’s presence will make it even bigger this year.”

Perhaps Brown summed up the announcement best: “This is an outstanding opportunity for the world of motorsports to be able to come to Indianapolis. And I’ve never seen a driver so excited, dedicated and motivated to run in a race.”

More to follow…

Marco Andretti leads a wet Barber warmup

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Mother Nature rolled in overnight and through the early morning at Barber Motorsports Park, dropping a lot of rain on the 2.38-mile road course. Conditions stayed wet during the Verizon IndyCar Series morning warmup, although the rain clouds had moved away by then and the track began drying out.

Marco Andretti led the way after changing to slick tires on his final run, which indicates how quickly the track dried out during the 30-minute session. Marco was the only driver to run slick tires and his quick lap of 1:14.37 was nearly 3.5 seconds quicker than second-place runner Scott Dixon. Alexander Rossi, Spencer Pigot, and Ryan Hunter-Reay completed the top five, while James Hinchcliffe, Mikhail Aleshin, and Zach Veach did not turn laps during the warmup.

Despite the tricky conditions, the session ran relatively cleanly. Helio Castroneves brought out a brief red flag when he went into the gravel trap in turn five, but he suffered no damage and continued on after getting a tow. Ed Jones also had a quick off-course excursion of his own between turns 12, 13, and 14, but he rejoined the track and continued.

Times are below. The Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama rolls off at 3:00 p.m. ET (2:00 local time).

IndyCar Paddock Pass: Barber (VIDEO)

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The NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass is back for NBCSN’s second Verizon IndyCar Series race of the season, the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, NBCSN) from Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala.

NBCSN Indy Lights reporter and Paddock Pass host Anders Krohn checks in with a few interesting folks in this weekend’s episode:

  • With James Hinchcliffe, driver of the No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda who won at Long Beach.
  • With Ed Jones, driver of the No. 19 Dale Coyne Racing Honda, who’s finished in the top-10 in both his first two starts in the series after winning last year’s Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires title.
  • And with Michael Andretti, whose team has made a massive splash with the announcement Fernando Alonso would run a McLaren, Honda and Andretti Autosport car in the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

A quick visit to Barber’s iconic motorcycle museum is also on the docket.

You can see the episode above. A link to Long Beach’s episode is here.


MRTI Barber Notebook: Saturday

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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Jamin Rolls to Indy Lights Win as Chaos Reigns on the Start

Nico Jamin added his name to the list of drivers who have won in all three of the Mazda Road to Indy championships by securing his first career Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires victory. The Frenchman dove inside polesitter Kyle Kaiser for the lead entering turn five on lap 4 and went unchallenged from there. Kaiser held on for second while Neil Alberico completed the podium. His Carlin teammates Matheus Leist and Zachary Claman De Melo completed the top five.

“It was just incredible – when I got to Victory Lane and everyone wanted to talk to me, I didn’t know what to say! I was so emotional,” said an elated Jamin, who joins Sage Karam, Spencer Pigot, Matthew Brabham, and Aaron Telitz as drivers who have won in all three of the MRTI series.

Jamin added that he needed to be on the attack immediately, since it can be difficult to pass at Barber Motorsports Park. “Here, you can start on pole and get away or you have to get it done early, so I was in attack mode right away. I went on push-to-pass, broke late and made the pass stick,” he said of his move on Kaiser.

The race was not without controversy. Kaiser jumped slightly early on the initial start, forcing officials to wave it off. When Kaiser subsequently slowed, outside pole sitter Colton Herta tried to dive inside of Kaiser to avoid him, but clipped the left-rear of Kaiser’s car. “I saw the start was waved off so I slowed up and I felt a little nudge from behind. I feel bad for Colton but these things happen,” Kaiser said of the incident.

Start of Indy Lights Race 1 at Barber Motorsports Park. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

The contact damaged Herta’s front wing and forced him to pit for repairs. He also received a penalty for not adhering to pace car speed and had to restart at the back of the pack. He eventually rebounded to finish tenth.

Further, the incident saw Pato O’Ward get hung up on the back of Santi Urrutia’s car while Aaron Telitz clipped the back of teammate Shelby Blackstock. O’Ward and Telitz suffered a damaged front wings, while Urrutia had a broken rear wing and damaged suspension. O’Ward and Telitz resumed after repairs, finishing eighth and 13th respectively, while Urrutia lost several laps in the pits before rejoining the fight. He eventually pulled off with more suspension problems.

Herta retains the points lead, but now leads Kaiser by 10 points and Aaron Telitz by 13. Race 2 rolls off at 12:45 p.m. ET (11:45 a.m. local time) on Sunday.

Results from Race 1 are below.

Askew Dominates USF2000 Race 2

While chaos hit Indy Lights, the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda saw continued domination from Oliver Askew, who again led every lap on his way to victory in Race 2 to record a weekend sweep of poles and victories in USF2000.

Oliver Askew had the broom out this weekend at Barber Motorsports Park. Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

He led second-place Kaylen Frederick, who also finished second to Askew on Friday, by nearly three seconds, while Parker Thompson was able to beat Rinus Van Kalmthout for the final spot on the podium.

“It’s a dream come true. We had a fantastic car so we had the chance to do well this weekend and I just took it,” Askew said of the weekend.

He also added that his winning streak (he has won three races in a row dating back to St. Petersburg) does not undermine the rest of the USF2000 field, and he pretends he is always qualifying in order to force himself to drive at his maximum. “The main goal is the championship but a win pays the most so this is fantastic. I’m probably the most anxious for qualifying because, as close as the field is, that can be the race right there. Again today, I pretended it was a qualifying session and just put in the laps,” he detailed.

Askew’s win puts him 36 points clear of Frederick and Van Kalmthout, who are currently tied for second in the championship standings. Results from Race 2 can be found below.