In something of a shock move, Toro Rosso announced ahead of the Belgian Grand Prix that it would replace Jean-Eric Vergne with the teenage Formula 3 sensation Max Verstappen, son of the former F1 racer Jos.
The move has been branded a gamble, given that Verstappen is only 16 years old and in his first year of car racing. When he makes his expected debut next season in Australia he will be just 17, smashing the record for the youngest driver to ever start a Formula 1 race by around two years.
Verstappen is still in school, and just a year out of karts, but from 2015 he will be thrust into the spotlight as the latest F1 graduate of Red Bull’s young driver programme.
But is it a case of too much too young for the 16-year-old? While the younger Verstappen is undoubtedly a special talent – even the most cursory of glances at his junior karting record and his eight wins in Formula 3 this season prove that – does he run the risk of a repeat of the very same mistake made by his father?
His father, Jos, was just 22-years-old when he was rushed into Formula 1 – under very different and quit difficult circumstances – in the place of the injured JJ Lehto at Benetton. As luck would have it Verstappen had chanced upon, at least initially, the best car on the grid, but the Dutchman would struggle to make an impact at Benetton, aside from a surprise podium in Hungary, and with Johnny Herbert available at the end of the year, the youngster was shipped out to Simtek.
An impressive performance in Argentina aside the move was a failure, with the team collapsing following a disastrous Monaco Grand Prix.
Stints at Arrows, Tyrrell, Stewart and Minardi all followed, but Jos would never again stand on an F1 podium, ultimately failing to ever achieve the results his junior record suggested he was capable of. The younger Verstappen, who has been backed heavily by his Dad, will be very aware of the above risk.
What of another Red Bull youngster, who notably entered Formula 1 at a young age, only to be discarded two and a half years later?
Jaime Alguersuari was just 19 when he made his F1 debut with the Faenza-based team in Hungary in 2009, in the place of the fired Sebastien Bourdais.
Red Bull, who aside from Sebastian Vettel had at that time yet to produce a true star from its junior programme, considered Alguersuari, the 2008 British Formula 3 champion and Formula Renault 3.5 frontrunner, a highly rated prospect.
Despite some evident promise, and a respectable haul of 26 points scored in 2011, two and a half years after his debut Alguersuari’s Formula 1 career came to an abrupt end, with Toro Rosso dumping the 21-year-old Spaniard along with his then teammate Sebastian Buemi for fresh hopefuls Jean-Eric Vergne and Daniel Ricciardo ahead of the 2012 season. An ultimately fruitless Pirelli test deal aside, Alguersuari has not driven in Formula 1 since.
Verstappen is unquestionably more promising than the Spaniard, but if he wants to avoid the pitfalls of his predecessor, he should take note. Toro Rosso and the parent Red Bull driver programme are ruthless, and will not wait around for the Dutchman to come good while there are other promising drivers on the production line, of which Red Bull currently has no shortage, in Pierre Gasly and Alex Lynn.
No one wants to see the Dutchman out of a drive and left on the Formula 1 scrapheap in two-three years, just 20 odd years old. He’s far too talented for that.
And indeed, if he is so talented, Formula 1 is the right move for Verstappen.
The main debate here is to do with his age and experience. After just one year in single seaters, can a driver really be ready for Formula 1? Is it possible for a 17-year-old to cope with the mental stresses of the sport?
It is a big ask, and his first season in F1 may not be a fruitful one. Indeed, it would be something of a surprise if he does manage to beat teammate Daniil Kvyat in the teammate war next year. However, maybe it’s better to give him this experience in F1 instead of racing in the feeder formulae? This way, he doesn’t get overwhelmed in the madness that GP2 and GP3 occasionally offer. Instead, he has a chance to prove himself against the very best.
Red Bull won’t be expecting miracles from Verstappen in his first year, but, as we have touched on, there is a certain expectation that comes with racing for Toro Rosso. It may in fact be second only to Ferrari in the high-pressure seats. He will have to prove his worth to both Red Bull and Formula 1 over the next two years.
However, this pressure will not be lost on Verstappen. He will be well aware that the team has taken a huge punt on him, and that he must prove to them – and to the wider F1 world – just why he is worth it.
Red Bull is a brand that has helped F1’s revolution in the 21st century. It has broken new ground, even to the extent that it has its own grand prix in Austria. Putting in the sport’s youngest ever driver is frankly par for the course.
Will this move devalue the likes of GP2 and GP3? Quite possibly. It will make drivers question why they’re spurning away millions of dollars to race when a kid just out of karts will be, in career terms, ahead of them. As much as they may deny it, drivers that are struggling to keep racing because of budget constraints are frustrated that others have it easier.
However, isn’t that life? Isn’t it obvious that kids with richer parents are more likely to go to better schools, get a better education, and get a better job? They have ‘backing’ in a way. You’ve ultimately got to play the game and make it however you can.
Verstappen is a very special talent. Frankly, he’s more likely to go down as a Schumacher or a Senna than a Mike Thackwell. Red Bull has taken a risk, but it is one that could prove to be a masterstroke.
Images courtesy of Octane Photogaphic. Featured image courtesy of Red Bull/Getty Images.