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.

NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E and Ian James set to race ahead of electric motorsports’ curve

James McLaren Formula E
NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team
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As Formula E enters their ninth season and McLaren Racing is set to compete in last year’s championship winning car, Ian James is passionate about pushing electric motorsports forward at a critical stage as race technology begins surpassing that of the street cars.

Midseason, McLaren acquired the assets of the Mercedes-EQ team as they were already on their way to winning a second consecutive championship. With those assets in place and coming off a successful debut in the Extreme E series, James is set to usher in a new era in electric car racing.

Last week’s announcement that Jake Hughes will join Rene Rast behind the wheel of the NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team was the last piece of the puzzle.

McLaren’s electric portfolio is building with the Formula E team coming one year after they entered the Extreme E rally series in 2022 with Tanner Foust and Emma Gilmour. There were a lot of lessons to learn in that series with growing pains during the first three of five rounds. Rounds 4 and 5 were a completely different matter with the team crossing the finish line first in Chile before being assessed a time penalty.

In the final round in Uruguay, they scored an elusive podium.

“McLaren kicked off the season in Extreme E at the beginning of this year, so our first [electric] race took place Neom, actually out in Saudi,” NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team Principal James told NBC Sports. “At the time, we were in very early discussions about opportunities with the Formula E team. I actually went out there to meet with Zak [Brown, CEO McLaren Racing] and that was my first taste of Extreme E.

“Since the transition, I joined them in Chile in Atacama Desert, and then Uruguay last weekend. [The second-place finish was] a lovely way to round out the season. The fact that they got that podium. It was very well deserved. It’s a great team and a great series actually. It’s just so very different from anything else. The team’s done a great job in getting set up, and it’s nice now to, we’re trying to use that momentum that we’ve got from Uruguay to get us into next season when it kicks off next year, which will be great. I think we’re mid-March is looking like the first race, so a little bit of time to get things prepped for that.”

 

James McLaren Formula E
The NEOM Mclaren Racing Formula E Team was created through the acquisition of last year’s championship team from Mercedes-EQ. – NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team

Synergies exist between the single seater and rally series. Lessons learned about battery power and sustainability in the electric SUV carry over so long as one is mindful of keeping focus on the individual needs and nuances of each series.

Especially now that electric racing technology has caught up, and is ready to surpass, the existing technology that has gone into building street cars.

When internal combustion engines gained the upper hand soon after automobiles were invented, racing paced alongside. The pressure of competition pushed the development of their commercial equivalents. The same has not necessarily been true of electric cars. Street cars were not designed to undergo the same stress as racecars – and that vulnerability showed up on the racetrack.

“Formula E has come along a long way,” James said. “I think one of the most notable developments is in the battery technology. In Gen 1, you had the drivers jumping from one car to another car midrace because the battery technology and capacity simply wasn’t where it needed to be to do the full distance. That obviously changed in Gen 2 and we saw a power increase as well to the 250 kilowatts.

“Now going to Gen 3, we have 350 kilowatts in a smaller battery. But that means that we’re relying on the regeneration of energy and for that reason, we’ve got also the opportunity to regenerate on the front axle as well as the rear axle now. So, there’s all sorts of things that are developing in the right direction.

“In terms of throttle response, actually, we’re now in a situation with electric racing and the motors that it’s instantaneous. And one of the advantages of electric over combustion engine is that the torque is instantaneous as well, so that gives you a lot more room to play with.”

No matter the power source, racing has always been about resource management. Drivers and teams select tire strategies they believe produce the fastest elapsed time and fuel conservation comes into play.

On one hand, electric racing is the same, but there is a critical difference. With the battery as both the power source and an integral part of the engine, there are multiple reasons to manage it.

In electric racing, the brain of the car is the software – and that is where James sees the greatest room for advancement.

“As we are working with our drivers and engineers – and start to look at functionality to improve our efficiency and our performance, that’s something we’ll continue to push because that development is open throughout the season,” James said. “That’s going to be our focus going forward and provides enough of a challenge for us to get our teeth into.

“What’s going to be fascinating is as Formula E continues, is to really look at which areas of development on the car are going to be the most relevant and ensuring that we can focus on those together with the manufacturers so we continue and use the series as a platform for technical development that can then feed back into the road car side of things as well.

“At the end of the day, that’s what motorsports always been, a very powerful tool for, and I see Formula E as no exception.”

James McLaren Formula E
Jake Hughes and Rene Rast were chosen for their ability to drive fast and execute the necessary strategy for energy management. – NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team

Selecting Rast and Hughes as McLaren’s Formula E drivers was not simply because they know how to drive fast. James believes both drivers have the mental aptitude to execute energy management strategies throughout the race and squeeze maximum performance.

“As with many other motorsports, you’ve got a certain amount of energy that you’re able to deploy during the race and the management of that energy is absolutely crucial,” James said. “What we’re seeing typically in electric motorsports now is the hardware side of things. The efficiencies that we’re seeing in the powertrain as a whole, they’re getting up to the sort of 96%, 97%, 98% efficiency, so the gains that you get through that further and further become more marginal.”

With much more room for improvement, software is a different matter. To make the best decisions, the drivers need data, and that is where James believes McLaren Formula E will make their greatest impact.

“And then you really switch that focus to the software and that’s where you’re going to see the most the most improvement and the most gains,” James continued. “It’s then using that software to ensure that you’re deploying the energy in the most efficient manner during race, and thereby giving the driver the most performance. And that’s something which is incredibly complicated, but I find it a fascinating area to work in.

“The benefit of being involved in racing is you can really push the envelope in a way that you can’t do on road cars. And I think that that’s where that value comes in. It means that you accelerate the development a lot quicker. We will get ahead of the curve – and we are getting ahead of the curve now – and that will mean that the electric motorsports remain part of the overall development process.

“The key to that is also making sure that the racing’s exciting and fun for the fans. If we can, we can tick both of those boxes, then it’s got a very bright future ahead of it.”