Out with the old?
Max Verstappen did more than break a few records when he won in Spain earlier this year. Potentially, he could inspire a revolution in the F1 driver market… but first it needs Ferrari to unlock the key
Max Verstappen’s debut triumph with Red Bull could hardly have been more resounding – an instant Grand Prix victory for the 18-year-old, wiping more than two years off the previous record as the youngest winner of all time. That turn of events at the Spanish Grand Prix might yet have reverberations through the whole sport, an electric jolt to make it realise that a turning of the generations at the top is long overdue. Kimi Räikkönen, who scored a third of team-mate Fernando Alonso’s points at Ferrari in 2014 and half as many as Sebastian Vettel there last year, qualified almost 0.6sec adrift of Vettel in Montréal and finished about a minute behind. There are occasional glimpses of the old Kimi and he insists it’s all about getting the car just how he wants it, but it seems vaguely ridiculous that one of the key seats in F1 is effectively being wasted while many exciting new talents are in bit-part roles. Ferrari is surrendering performance to Red Bull even before the first lines of their cars are drawn. Perhaps Williams is, too, and rumours persist that Felipe Massa may be reaching the end of his distinguished career.
“Max is one of the hottest properties in Formula 1 at this point in time,” said Red Bull’s Christian Horner prior to Barcelona. “It’s only natural that other teams would show interest in a driver that’s demonstrating that kind of ability and talent. His signing also removes him from the driver market, certainly for the foreseeable future.
“I think a Ricciardo-Verstappen line-up is potentially the strongest pairing of future years. Of course that depends on how things develop and pan out and how regulation changes come in for next year. With the power units hopefully converging, that provides some opportunities for this team over the next couple of seasons.”
Verstappen is of course a special case and winning so early in his career does not signify that every promising young driver could do the same. But nonetheless, it’s posed the question boldly and brightly to a few of the top teams. Are they voluntarily surrendering performance with their driver line-ups? As Red Bull increasingly recovers its customary competitiveness, it will surely force that issue.
“The policy we’ve always had has been to invest in youth,” added Horner. “Whether Sebastian, Daniel or Max. Sometimes the safe option is to go for the experienced, known and trusted one and the perceived risk is to go for someone a bit younger and more dynamic. We’ve seen what Stoffel Vandoorne can do, there are some good youngsters in the wings and I feel it’s time for the next generation.
“It depends on a team’s outlook. Ferrari is always going to be a bit more conservative than Red Bull. They’ve always gone for experience. But I think we’ve clearly demonstrated there’s a generation that deserves its chance. The problem with today’s F1, without testing, is that it’s very difficult for these guys to demonstrate their potential. But recently we’ve seen Vandoorne, Max and Carlos Sainz make some outstanding performances. Yes, I think it’s time.”
It’s interesting that Ron Dennis chose Monaco – immediately after Verstappen’s victory – to warn other teams off his promising young reserve Stoffel Vandoorne. Jenson Button continues to do a fine job but is out of his very highly-paid contract at the end of the season…
This turning of the tide happens every so often, but the time between the tides has lengthened for the last couple of generations as the money and the safety have increased and the big teams have become ever more conservative in their choices, with the notable exception of Red Bull.
Both Ricciardo and Verstappen – just like Sebastian Vettel – are products of Red Bull’s brutally uncompromising junior driver programme. The whole culture of pitiless and relentless comparison – against team-mates, against theoretical optimums and data points seen in the simulator – continues from the junior categories into Toro Rosso and Red Bull, as Daniil Kvyat so recently found out. Formula 1 is a harsh environment, but Red Bull is extreme even within that. It has led to arguably the strongest driver line-up in F1, maybe the strongest since Vettel was paired with Ricciardo in 2014 – also at Red Bull. Not since 2007, when McLaren briefly paired Fernando Alonso with Lewis Hamilton has a team other than Red Bull had two stone-cold aces in its cars.
“Fernando is still the toughest team-mate I ever had,” recalled Hamilton two years ago. “He was just insanely fast. I’d look at the telemetry and I’d have to go out and find new limits to try to beat him.” And that’s the added performance you get even above that of having the best two drivers; it can be greater than the sum of the parts. Ricciardo has operated at an exceptional level throughout his time at Red Bull, but his motivation since the recruitment of Verstappen has been sky-high and it’s difficult not to discern a further step-change in his performance since the arrival of the Dutch teenager. He followed up a spectacular qualifying lap and lost victory in Barcelona with a totally mesmerising performance throughout the Monaco weekend – even if it was again thwarted by events outside his immediate control.
“I think we’ve seen even more from Daniel since Max arrived,” said Red Bull’s Helmut Marko. “He has responded and we are seeing a fantastic driver. I think this and Max gives us a line-up that is going to be OK for a long time.”
Does he believe that key rivals are giving performance away? A wry smile follows. “I don’t think we are.” So does he think Ferrari will retain Kimi Räikkönen into 2017? “If that happens then I think you see Seb is the boss of Ferrari!”
The whole driver market is currently corked up but here are the pressure points that may lead to the uncorking of a Verstappen-led new order.
Publicly, Ferrari’s Maurizio Arrivabene remains supportive of Räikkönen. Vettel, as recounted, is more than happy with the line-up. But there is reportedly a building inner momentum that change is needed. As many as five drivers have been mentioned as possibilities. At the time of writing our understanding of the order of preference is as follows: Valtteri Bottas, Sergio Pérez, Carlos Sainz, Romain Grosjean, Nico Hülkenberg.
Williams retains an option on Bottas’ services into 2017, but could probably be financially persuaded not to take it up. A lot of value is placed by Ferrari on the driver having a harmonious relationship with his team-mate – and the personalities of Bottas and Sainz in particular would be ideal.
Force India has an option on Pérez and the team’s sporting director Otmar Szafnauer recently stated that Ferrari “would need to pay us a lot of money”. The Mexican has convincingly rebuilt his F1 career since McLaren let him go after a single season in 2013 and he was previously a Ferrari Academy driver, so his links are already good. He is being guided by heavy-hitting driver manager Julian Jakobi, who would be just the sort of operator who could find a legal argument in the specific wording of a contractual point.
Sainz is still under Red Bull contract but, on the assumption that the Ricciardo-Verstappen line-up at the senior team is in place for potentially a long time, the junior Toro Rosso team would seem too limiting for a driver who is showing increasing signs of being a driver of major F1 potential – and who compared very closely to Verstappen at Toro Rosso. Some sort of release would need to be negotiated.
Grosjean and Hülkenberg have each proved their speed over several seasons of F1 and could do a fine job for the Scuderia. But they are a crucial few years older.
It is now a rarity for Massa to outperform Bottas over a race weekend and there is a growing feeling that the Brazilian, in his 14th year of F1, is no longer delivering his best. It would be fair to say the team is open-minded about replacing him.
Jenson Button has been mentioned as a possible recruit – not only for his still-high level of performance but also for the enormous sponsor appeal he carries. Williams is not in a financial position to match Button’s McLaren salary, but a deal with a multi-million-dollar sponsor that insisted upon Button might enable some sort of deal to be struck.
But although Button is still delivering at the wheel, he is one of the oldest and longest-serving drivers on the grid. Fast 17-year-old F3 racer Lance Stroll – whose father Lawrence makes a significant financial contribution to Williams – is expected to drive for the team at some stage in the future. But perhaps not until 2018.
The team’s official test driver, British GP2 racer Alex Lynn, could be an outside contender. Should Bottas be recruited by Ferrari, there could be space at Williams for former test driver – and current Sauber racer – Felipe Nasr. Pat Symonds has a lot of belief in the Brazilian’s speed and potential, he comes with sponsorship money and would probably surprise many after his difficult seasons with the Swiss team.
Button is out of contract at the end of this season. His high salary makes him look very vulnerable against McLaren’s cast-iron contractee Stoffel Vandoorne, especially after the young Belgian outqualified Button on his F1 debut as Alonso’s Bahrain stand-in this year and went on to score a point.
In his career to date Vandoorne has displayed startling car control, superb composure under pressure and great maturity. At 24 he’s six years older than Verstappen – but is just waiting to be an instant F1 sensation. It would be a surprise if anyone else is Alonso’s McLaren team-mate next year.
The Enstone team is rebuilding after the financial starvation of the previous few years. But with the right recruitments, this could again prove to be a top team in the medium term. Kevin Magnussen’s place there is secure, Jolyon Palmer’s less so.
Carlos Sainz has been mentioned as a target – and there is surely room for negotiation about Sainz’s contract with Renault Sport as Red Bull’s engine supplier. Nasr could also be a good fit for all concerned.
Is the dam set to burst?
Ferrari holds the key to this. Another 12-month extension to Räikkönen’s contract would throw a bucket of cold water over the driver market. But the announcement, say, of Carlos Sainz as Vettel’s new team-mate would, as well as adding a fascinating new dimension
to the sharp end of the grid, likely create a domino effect elsewhere and the final turning of the generations.
Many of the key young players – Sainz, Pérez, Bottas – have contracts that would require negotiated release. And the belligerence of the statements of those teams holding the contracts is – with the exception of McLaren and Vandoorne – probably illustrative of nothing more than a negotiating position.
“We’ve got a luxury problem with Carlos,” said Horner, “in that our Red Bull Racing line-up is probably stable for a long time but we have this great driver in the wings. But he’s under the same contract as all our other drivers. There’s no intention to release him.”
But such is the way of things in F1, it might happen anyway.