Yesterday’s announcement from Toro Rosso that 16-year-old Dutchman Max Verstappen will be joining the team from next season has left the Formula One paddock in a state of shock. How is it possible that a teenager, who cannot even qualify for a UK driving licence, can compete in the most competitive and demanding motor sport series in the world?
The fact that Verstappen will be 17 by the beginning of the 2015 season makes little difference. Formula One is taking a step into the unknown and is taking a huge risk in the process.
Some will point to the fact that both Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso were also given their debuts as teenagers. However, they were 19 and two years is a huge difference in both experience and maturity.
Verstappen won’t have taken the now conventional route into F1 through the two feeder series, GP3 and GP2. He will not have had time to compete in them. In fact his only experience is 27 races in the Formula 3 European Championship. Prior to that, he’s been in karts.
There is no doubt how talented Verstappen is. Many inside the sport believe him to be a rare find, the most talented driver of his generation. But is he more talented than Vettel or Hamilton at the same age? Is it necessary to rush him into the sport?
A great testament has to be paid to Verstappen. Toro Rosso and Red Bull believe him to be mature enough to handle the most scrutinised motor sport in the world at 17.
And the last driver who was given a chance in F1 which such little experience was a certain Kimi Raikkonen. And that didn’t work out too badly.
But still the risk is huge, for both sides.
By the tender age of 20, Verstappen’s Red Bull career could have been decided. Toro Rosso’s policy is to maintain a revolving door of hot young drivers who try their hardest to show that they might one day be able to drive a Red Bull. Only potential world champions graduate to the ‘first team’.
Sebastian Vettel and Daniel Ricciardo are the only two since the team’s inception in 2006 to make the grade. Drivers are not given much time to impress, highlighted by the three years of service Jean-Eric Vergne will have done at the end of the season. No driver has ever done more.
And even if Verstappen manages to impress, the chances are that his road to Red Bull will be blocked. Daniel Ricciardo was fortunate that Mark Webber decided to retire when he did. Now established at the champions, Ricciardo’s seat is guaranteed for a few years as long as he does a good enough job.
Sebastian Vettel is expected to move at the end of 2015, tempted by opportunities at Ferrari or McLaren. This is likely to give current Toro Rosso teenage protégé Daniil Kvyat a place at Red Bull as long as he continues his encouraging career.
If Ricciardo and Kvyat do line-up at Red Bull in 2016, you would bet that they would be there for a long time. Red Bull, unlike their junior team, is loyal to their drivers. Mark Webber struggled in his last 18 months but Red Bull was prepared to offer him a new contract for this year.
That would mean that a place at Red Bull would be very hard for Verstappen to get before his three years at Toro Rosso are up and it’s time for some new blood.
Perhaps his best chance is by beating Kvyat in their head-to-head battle next year. By doing that, Red Bullm may choose him to replace Vettel in 2016, should the champion leave. By then he would be still 18. To do that in a debut season on a set of circuits he has never raced at would be some achievement. Red Bull hope Kvyat is destined for great things. For Verstappen to beat him , he'd have to drive with speed and maturity that should be beyond him.
So, realistically, Verstappen has a mighty fight on his hands to ever become a Red Bull driver. If he fails to progress due to a settled line-up ahead of him, then he must do what no Toro Rosso driver has ever done before and secure a drive elsewhere.
Due to the current nature of the midfield teams signing drivers who bring their own finance, ex-Toro Rosso drivers have often missed out. Then again, neither Jaime Alguesuari, Sebastian Buemi or Sebastian Bourdais have ever been as talented as Verstappen is supposed to be.
How the rest of the gird reacts to Verstappen’s signing will be captivating. Will they race him as if he was another driver? Will they exert caution when near him, not knowing how he will react under pressure? Surely they will? How will Verstappen cope with the added pressure of the media following his every move?
It will all be a fascinating sub-plot to next year. All eyes will be focused at the front, but plenty will be bearing down, judging and scrutinising this 17-year-old. Did Toro Rosso have to put him in so early? Couldn’t they have put him through GP3 and GP2 first?
Well, they could but the fact that they decided they didn’t need too shows how talented, mature and exciting Verstappen happens to be. So when he lines up next year, he will deservedly be there. And that is what makes this whole episode so exciting, the arrival of another amazing talent in Formula One.