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Max Verstappen: An F1 driver, despite not being old enough to legally drive

How can a 17-year old get a Formula 1 seat? Read the story of Max Verstappen.

02 Apr 2015, 20:20 IST
The new teenage sensation of F1

Toro Rosso driver Max Verstappen created history last month by becoming the youngest ever Formula 1 driver during the season opening Australia Grand Prix at the age of 17 years and 166 days. And, by the round two in Malaysia, Verstappen also became the youngest ever point scorer in the history of the sport. This was no surprise to the people who have put money on the youngster to do well. And they have been redeemed by his race and qualifying performances so far.

The son of a former F1 driver Jos “The Boss” Verstappen, junior Verstappen has impressed everyone since pre-season testing, and the chances are that, he will keep on doing so, further into the year.

However, this may come as a surprise to you, but Verstappen cannot even legally drive a road car alone in Belgium, the place of his residence. The young Dutchman has recently passed the theory part of the driving license test and can only be allowed to drive with a supervisor on board.

Hence, the youngster doesn’t even have a full road car driver’s license. And, this has created the question that; how can he compete at the highest level of motorsport (with tons of engine output and horse power), if he can’t even drive a road car legally. Isn’t F1 becoming too smart for itself?  

The question of being too young for Formula 1:

Rubbing shoulders with the top drivers in the world is a dream of every young kart racer, and Verstappen also had the same dream. However, we have to understand to know how he could enter F1 so early and quickly, and at this young age.  

In fact, many people in the paddock were dumbstruck on the prospect of a 17-year old teenager racing in F1 when tjhe idea was announced last year. And, some even said that, he was just too young to race at the pinnacle of the motorsports. But, like it or not, the trends have changed in the recent years, and teams are looking for younger drivers, nevertheless. 

In fact, we all began to think that the inclusion of Fernando Alonso in 2001 was at a very tender and a young age, and after that in 2007-08 we believed that Sebastian Vettel was just too inexperienced to compete.

And, finally we contemplated that, with Jaime Alguersuari (at 19), the bar couldn’t go any lower. But, the inclusion of Verstappen has moved the line further down, and well, till now, the gamble seems to have paid off for Formula 1’s and Red Bull’s sake.

The strategic role of the F1’s Young Drivers program:

Inclusion of young drivers in Formula 1 is nothing new, since the early years of the sport; we have seen young drivers coming in. Typically, before the turn of the new millennium, a driver with an age of around 20 or 21 was deemed young. However, in the recent years the structure has changed and shaken up a bit.

That’s because, drivers are taking up karting (and other motor sporting events) at a very young age. Hence, because of that, even teenagers are knocking on the doors of a Formula 1 drive, and that too in a large number. And, there are many young drivers out there, and they just have to be sure that everything click’s for them when they want a F1 seat. Like the case of young Verstappen.

The process is also accelerated with the fact that many young drivers’ programs are being run by various F1 teams in order to find the next biggest talent of the sport. For example, in the case of Verstappen, the Dutch was using the Red Bull Junior Drivers’ program to crawl his way through the hierarchical chain of motorsports.

But, there are others too, like McLaren has its own version, which has produced Giedo van der Garde and Kevin Magnussen, while the Ferrari program has provided us with the likes of Sergio Perez and Jules Bianchi. Even Renault has a very successful program, and Mercedes are also trying to setup a decent academy.

These programs provide support to drivers from their nascent age with financial backing and race-seats at various junior categories. Both of which are very important for a young driver and a nurturing driver.

The catalyst called the Red Bull Junior Drivers’ Program:

Verstappen was included last year to the Red Bull Junior Team, at the time when he was competing in European Formula 3 Championships, in which he finished third in the table. But, that wasn’t the only reason why the Dutchman could so quickly get a seat in Formula 1, yes even without competing in GP2 or F 3.5. For that, he can be thankful to the whole Red Bull Junior Driver structure and Dr. Helmut Marko, the de-facto head of the program. Also, even F1 in general should be indebted to the vision of the drinks company.

Red Bull is one of the main reasons why we see young drivers coming to the sport very frequently, and their Toro Rosso team is the place where these young boys trade at first. The Italian team, since its inception from the ashes of Minardi in 2006, has given debut to many young Red Bull motorsports graduates.

And, some of them have gone on to become very successful. Like, in Vettel they have created a quadruple world champion, while many other drivers have also plied their trade in F1, thanks to them.

The main motto of the team is, to get the young drivers ready for their parent team Red Bull Racing. Hence, drivers as young as Verstappen, and even Carlos Sainz Junior (the second Toro Rosso driver this season at 20 years), drive for the team.

It is done for a hope that anyone, from that young pool of un-nurtured drivers, can turn into a new Sebastian Vettel or Daniel Ricciardo for the drinks company.  

Verstappen driving during the Malaysia Grand Prix weekend

The fact that Red Bull wants their talents to get a quick debut in F1:

Red Bull has always felicitated young drivers in their outfits; in fact they have to, so that they can stop other “teams” from roping in their probable talents. Well, citing the example of Verstappen again, the Dutchman, after his more than impressive European Formula 3 debut at the age of 16, was offered a role at Red Bull and a place Mercedes Young Driver Development program.

But, it is sure that Red Bull may have given him an assurance of a much quicker F1-ticket than Mercedes, and hence his decision to go with Red Bull. The team must have done that because they believed young Verstappen was ready for F1, and if they did not offer him a quick route to F1, someone else might have stolen him away.

Maybe Mercedes, or even Ferrari or McLaren, hence the quick debut for the 17-year old with the Italian team. Besides, Red Bull have 4 seats to play with (Red Bull and Toro Rosso), hence they can always take a chance with young drivers, but a calculated chance only. 

Thus, the whole ‘grasping the opportunity’ has also played a huge factor in Verstappen’s quick rise to F1. Besides, Red Bull is a brand which is associated with youth and youthfulness; hence the promotion of young drivers to their teams makes a lot of sense. And, Verstappen can easily become a very young ambassador for the team, just like Vettel was.

The effect of Verstappen’s debut on the FIA and the rules:

You must be wondering that the teams can put in any driver into a F1 car as they wish so, no matter how young or inexperienced they are. Well, that’s not true. Teams can only select drivers for F1 if they, the drivers, have acquired a FIA super license. There is no “F1 race car test” in which anyone can apply and show off their skills in order to gain a license or race-seat.

To become a F1 driver, you are required to have talent and then subsequently compete, and achieve success, at the various junior levels of motorsports. Only by crossing these milestones, a driver can gain a FIA certified super license, which is mandatory to have if he or she want to race in F1. A driver can only gain super license points by racing in lower categories, and this is one license, which even money can’t buy.

This is done for one very simple reason, and that is; F1 cars can become an untamed dangerous dragons for an inexperienced novice. And even if you are fast enough, it doesn’t mean you won’t be a threat to other racers. This is why; you have to harness your racing skills in the junior categories and then gain license-points to earn a license. And, from next year onwards, young drivers will have to be a minimum of 18 year old to get a F1 license.

Before that, there was no age restriction and the license-point gaining system was also quite easier and relaxed. As before, a year’s worth of F1 testing and some junior formula runs always made sure that a driver qualified for a F1 seat.

This, the restriction and stringent rule, was direct knock-down effect of Toro Rosso’s decision to sign Verstappen. So, one thing is for sure, FIA has made certain that the young Dutch will stay on as the youngest ever racer to drive during a F1 Grand Prix for some time being. But, was that necessary?

Well, till now (after Verstappen’s instant success) it doesn’t look like; however the decision was done based on the backlashes made by some experts in the paddock, and only time will tell who was right. However, since Max is the son of former F1 favorite Jos Verstappen, everyone could safely assume, from the beginning, that the speed was always in the genes of the driver. And, the first glimpse of the boy in action has not let us down.

But, Verstappen has been vindicated by his pace:

Two races and already Verstappen has shown that he is in F1 for his pace, not because of his age. He is not a branding or marketing strategy for Red Bull, and he means business in F1.

The Dutchman comfortably equalled his father’s best qualifying position during the second Saturday session of his career by finishing sixth in the final part of qualifying. And that was also when the track at Sepang was wet like an ocean.

Hence, he has proved what he has in him within 2 races only. This notion was also echoed by Toro Rosso boss Franz Tost, after his overall stellar performance throughout the weekend in Malaysia. Thus, counting on young driver will not be a bad idea for us after all.

And, maybe, it is also about time that we must sing along with the fact that teenagers are going to make F1 debut much more often than ever. In fact, the role of GP2 and F 3.5 Renault might become redundant thanks to teams opting for drivers from even lower-level ancillaries like Formula 3000s. In fact, do not be surprised that by the time Verstappen earns a full road car driver’s license, he might become F1’s rookie of the year with a podium place finish or two. 

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