Saturday 30 August 2014

Taking youth to the Max

It's easy to forget now, but before Nico and Lewis's latest fankle it was the thing that we were all talking about. Often with a lot of heat; some self-disgust. That, as announced before the Spa weekend, next year Max Verstappen will be racing for Toro Rosso. That's Max Verstappen, not a year out of karting. Max Verstappen with at the time of writing just 26 car races on his CV. Max Vertsappen who's 16 years of age, and will be a mere 17 when he makes his F1 bow proper in Melbourne next March.

Max Verstappen was the centre of
attention for much of the Spa weekend
Photo: Octane Photography
Of course, plenty weren't happy with this. As compared with what has gone before in terms of age this is uncharted territory. Even with the sport's dash to youth in recent times this will not shave the record for youngest ever F1 driver but rip the body out of it, smashing the record by close to two years or to put it in perspective by upwards of 10%. They said surely Verstappen won't be ready - in terms of his driving or mental approach - and worse the premature throwing of him into the deep end has the potential to ruin what looks a promising talent.

I don't agree though. Not entirely anyway.

My instinct always in such situations is to give people the benefit of the doubt, and to at least afford them a chance.

And this isn't just out of compassion. About the only universal rule in F1 is that there are no universal rules. It loves to confound us. Plenty of fine F1 careers started out as teenagers - Alonso, Vettel, Amon. I'm also old enough to remember 2001 when many - including FIA President Max Mosley - wrung hands over the debutant in that year's campaign-opening Australian Grand Prix, who had but a solitary season of car racing, in his case in Formula Renault, and just 23 car races in total under his belt, fewer than Verstappen has now indeed (although he was four years older). His name was Kimi Raikkonen. Think he turned out all right.

The lesson is that nobody knows anything. Particular not in F1 which reminds us continually that past performance is not guarantee of future results, and that we cannot say with confidence how someone will do in F1 until they're doing it. It was perhaps with this in mind that the consensus view among current F1 drivers in Spa on the Verstappen promotion was each to their own, that everyone is ready at a different point, and being ready very young is not impossible.

Then we should remember what we're dealing with. The Red Bull young drivers' programme, and its afforded opportunities, is many things. Ruthless certainly. Unorthodox often. But up until now its judgement just about every time has been shown to be impeccable.

We don't even have to go back a full 12 months to find an example, and one with a lot of parallels. When 19 year old Russian Daniil Kvyat was confirmed for the Toro Rosso drive for 2014 late last year - leapfrogging the apparent shoo-in of Antonio Felix da Costa - there was much cynicism about. He was too young; too inexperienced. Someone even went so far as to work out the number of Red Bull cans sold in Russia year on year, the not-particularly-concealed implication being that the promotion was based on the drinks company's commerce. You don't find many questioning the decision now.

Some were similarly aghast when Sebastien Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari were discarded by Toro Rosso at the end of 2011 in preference of Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne. You wouldn't argue with the call now. Nor would you with Danny Ric getting the chance in the big team ahead of Kimi Raikkonen, which a few claimed at the time it was confirmed was based on the assumption that the Australian wouldn't challenge Vettel. Plenty, including fellow drivers, decried Jaime Alguersuari's qualifications when he got his Toro Rosso chance in mid-2009, straight from F3 and only with straight-line testing of an F1 car behind him. They reckoned he'd be a danger to others. He wasn't.

Verstappen has impressed in F3 this year
Photo: Octane Photography
And those who have observed Verstappen this season in F3 speak of a rare speed, flair and audacity, and certainly throughout the Spa weekend he showed impressive maturity and poise in front of the media too. And that the Bulls are prepared to go to such lengths in order to get him under lock and key, and not lose him to a rival outfit in Mercedes (where everyone for the most part had assumed he was going), can only reflect well on his potential.

We know too that many are in effect destroyed by getting their chance before they're ready, and indeed Max has a glaring close-to-home example in his father Jos. He got thrown in at Benetton in 1994 (paired with a certain Michael Schumacher), and indeed was older than Max is now by around five years, and the perception was that it rather snuffed out a bright talent. But there is a potential flipside, that having this experience close at hand Max and Jos have no excuse not to be wary of it, and perhaps are best placed to learn lessons. Max indeed hinted as much at Spa: 'I have always been together with my Dad...He was an F1 driver and really close to me and we did everything together...I think I am ready for it. The age is just a number.'

And in many ways the trend towards younger drivers makes sense, given that these days drivers start earlier, as well as are developed more intensively in advance. Verstappen noted this too: 'You start a lot younger now in karting and car racing, compared to a few years ago. I think we have a lot more things available now with regards to data and simulators, so you're much better prepared to make a big step.'

Jacques Villeneuve perhaps typically was instead rather scathing about it all, declaring that 'it will either destroy him or, even if he is successful right away, then F1 will be meaningless.'

The latter point struck me as betraying an odd attitude, rather like the banner headlines that accompany improved exam results which insist that it reflects that exams are getting easier (it couldn't possibly be that young people are getting cleverer...). I'm pretty sure too that when Pele led Brazil to a World Cup triumph in 1958 at the age of 17 no one viewed it as a damning indictment of football. Perhaps our focus should be on a job well done, and on things getting better.

Jacques Villeneuve for one was scathing about the decision
"Jacques Villeneuve at Canada's Sports Hall of Fame
 Induction Dinner" by 5of7 - Jacques Villeneuve. Licensed
under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 via
Wikimedia Commons -
But Villeneuve did threaten to have a point when he asked: 'What's the next step? A team who will sign someone at 15 just to get the image out of it?' You have to assume the saturation point exists somewhere. F1 doesn't yet have a minimum driver age but perhaps it should head off the sort of issue Villeneuve foresees by establishing one.

He also had a point in there that - even with all of considerations outlined above - this decision remains one heck of a gamble. As mentioned Verstappen's debut will take place at an age that will not so much sneak under that of any driver in F1 before but bore a large excavation. It does have a lot of the sink or swim about it.

Some too have speculated as to why the chance came about, and why now. A few thought that the Toro Rosso race gig was confirmed within a week of Verstappen joining up to the Red Bull programme instead of Merc's - as noted his assumed destination in advance - wasn't at all a coincidence. There was one thing that the Bulls could offer that Merc couldn't: an instant F1 race seat.

And as Jenson Button (himself one who got an accelerated F1 opportunity, that some thought too accelerated) noted: 'if someone comes to you and says, "are you ready for a F1, I will give you a drive?", what are you going to say?'.

Red Bull is an organisation that likes to raise the stakes. And even its long shots have an uncanny tendency to come in. It remains to be seen if this particular gamble comes off.


  1. I'm against this for reasons completely unrelated to whether Max succeeds or fails: I'm simply not interested in watching F1 get taken over by teenagers. Nobody is an interesting human being at 20, let alone 17 - they're basically unformed zygotes driving cars.

    This is also of a piece with the increasing moves toward youth in most sports, as kids are immersed at younger and younger ages, to their detriment as far as development of a well-rounded mind are concerned. They live an breath sport(s) day and night, so while they may have a handle on that one thing, it's at the cost of having a clue about much else.

    I had hoped that the new F1 would have mitigated against this, as the current formula demands more racecraft than raw reflexes (which the previous formula seemed to play to). Seems to not be the case, or at least, the teams don't seem to see it that way. Is it down to the teams finding the youngsters more pliable, and thus handling the racecraft part of the job via radio? The kids have raw speed, the rest can be coached in real-time.

    All I know is that, when I was young, even the youngest F1 drivers were men (yes, there were a very few exceptions). Now that I'm in middle age, they're all becoming boys, and so much less interesting to watch because of it. If we set Senna as the ideal, something of a Philosopher King in a crash helmet, only Alonso of the current crop is even on the same planet, and only as he's gotten older. The move to ever-greater youth on the grid will not help this.

  2. Realized after posting that I said drivers were "men", when I should have said "adults", so as not to exclude any of the very-talented female drivers in the vicinity of F1 these days.