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.