There is an old saying in F1, when weighing up if a driver is too young for a race opportunity: ” If you are good enough you are old enough”.
Up to now that has only been applied to drivers who were 19 years of age, like Sebastian Vettel, Daniil Kvyat and even Fernando Alonso.
But the news that Max Verstappen, who turns 17 next month, is to make his F1 debut next March in Australia is a real moment to pause and consider the wisdom of that saying and of the decision itself.
Leaving aside the complexity of modern F1 cars with their hybrid systems a world apart from an F3 car and the depth of knowledge required to drive them, it is highly questionable whether he has the mental racing database, honed through years of experience, to mix it with the best drivers in the world’s fastest cars. An Alonso or a Hamilton approaching him in a racing situation early next season, will be concerned at how he might react, how he will race.
Alonso is on record saying that some young drivers today have a “GP2 mentality”, driven by the desperation to get results to further their careers and they take risks as a result. It’s make or break and they force the issue.
A 17 year old can drive an F1 car quickly, but racing is a craft and one that takes experience and time. There are no shortcuts.
Vettel, Kvyat even Alonso made rookie errors at the start, that’s to be expected. But they had done more racing than Verstappen. Kvyat for example had raced cars for four years before his F1 break, including F3, where Verstappen is now and GP3. He has a far more developed mental database of racing situations. Kimi Raikkonen is the most obvious comparison; he did only one season of Formula Renault before coming into F1 in 2001, with some debate about whether to give him a Superlicence. He was 20 years old at the time.
Perhaps it is the combination of extreme youth and lack of car racing experience which causes concern here.
The mental challenge is fierce and many of the drivers who came in young have later reflected that they were too young and not really ready. Jaime Alguersuari was 19 when he was parachuted into F1 mid season and he later said that he was too young but had no choice when offered an F1 seat.
Development is the key word. Youngsters with exceptional talent in any sport need to be developed correctly, over a pathway. Verstappen’s promotion at this time is a jagged step on an otherwise correct pathway. It’s one thing for Wayne Rooney to make his Premier League debut at 17, he had 10 other men on the pitch to carry the day if he struggled and the worst that could happen was if he fouled someone or got sent off.
We need to remember that young drivers are still developing in the first five years of their F1 careers, even Vettel was still improving in his mid 20s, as was Alonso. Kvyat won’t be the complete article for another four to five years.
Another unfortunate downside of this move is the impression it creates that F1 must be getting quite easy, if a 16 year old kid can be handed such an opportunity, it must be a doddle. Taken in tandem with recent moves like double points for the last race, sparking skid blocks and other gimmicks, it demeans the integrity of the sport.
F1 is about the best of the best competing for the highest stakes; to maintain and grow its appeal as a sport, driving an F1 car should look difficult and dangerous and not something the average Joe could ever imagine being able to do.
All of this is not to say that Verstappen is destined to fail, far from it; he clearly has the credentials and pedigree to be a top F1 driver, the kind of talent the sport needs and even in this difficult situation he may well succeed. We wish him well.
But it seems wrong to put him and the sport in this position, it looks like forcing the issue, making this bold move itself a talking point to create sensation. It is another example of Red Bull having a different attitude to F1 from other competitors in the way it uses F1 to its own ends.
Let’s remind ourselves of the context: Verstappen’s opportunity has come about because of timing. Red Bull operates a revolving door policy, whereby young drivers are given approximately two years in the Toro Rosso team to prove themselves and then are either promoted to Red Bull Racing, if there is a space, or dumped. The vast majority are dumped, as Jean Eric Vergne has been with this move.
Daniel Ricciardo was fortunate that Mark Webber decided to stop at the end of 2013, creating a vacancy, which only he and Vergne were qualified to fill. The team chose Ricciardo.
The next in line for promotion is Kvyat, who looks very good indeed. He will hope that there is a vacancy in 2016 or 2017, possibly if Vettel decides to take one of the offers which are likely to be around at Ferrari, McLaren Honda or even Mercedes by then.
If Kvyat does get the chance and Ricciardo continues his development and stays put, there will be no space at Red Bull for Verstappen.
The Dutchman must therefore put so much pressure on Kvyat in the couple of seasons to warrant consideration for Red Bull and that means – potentially – driving with a sense of desperation.
I hope not and I hope that he turns out to be another great talent like Vettel and Ricciardo before him from the Red Bull programme.
But it will certainly be a talking point this weekend in Spa and I wouldn’t be surprised if a few of F1’s current leading drivers voice some concerns.
What do you think? Give us your views in the comments section below