Old head, young shoulders

Is 17 too young for F1? Max Verstappen’s early form for Toro Rosso suggests not, despite that crash in Monaco. But promise is one thing, living up to ‘next Senna’ hype is quite another

As the subdued, crestfallen voice answered the radio call asking if he was OK after his heavy impact with the Ste Devote barriers, Max Verstappen suddenly did seem just a 17-year-old kid – who happened to find himself in a Grand Prix car. It was difficult not to feel paternally protective of him. It gave ammunition to those who suggested it’s too early. “Because he’s 17 if he gets hurt, there’s going to be a big fuss,” said Felipe Massa. But how he’d ended up there – a small misjudgement in an otherwise hugely impressive weekend – was the stuff that could apply to a rookie of any age. It was a rookie error rather than a 17-year-old error. On his very first visit to this notoriously unforgiving place he’d put his Toro Rosso second-quickest on Thursday morning, less than 0.2sec adrift of Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes. He can easily handle the car but his age can bring an emotive element to his presence on the Formula 1 grid. 

In Malaysia and, especially, China we saw his uncanny ability to overtake, the way he ambushes the car ahead from a long way back so the opponent isn’t even defending the place, but just suddenly sees his peripheral full of blue and red. Normally, especially with a rookie, what then happens is he finds himself still going too fast to make the apex and locks up. But in his passes on team-mate Carlos Sainz in Malaysia, Red Bull’s Daniil Kvyat and the Saubers of Marcus Ericsson and Felipe Nasr at Shanghai, he just gathered it all up while still alongside, got the car rotated into the turn, sometimes correcting a pre-apex slide, but by the apex all was calm, the tyres never locked – and he was through. He has an incredibly fine-honed feel and judgement of speed, relative speed, grip and braking, as if it’s all happening at more frames per second than for others. There are F1 drivers, successful ones, with multiple years of experience who cannot do what he’s routinely done in just his first few races. 

The engineers will tell you that they are also amazed at how he tracks their optimum wheelspin/speed graph like a tracer line – as though he just has it inbuilt.

But as Monaco showed, there are weaknesses to his game – not unreasonably at this stage. A certain difficulty in being aggressive enough with the car and tyres in qualifying and with being as assertive within the team as is sometimes needed betray his inexperience. But are they also by-products of his youth? And, F1 being what it is, might it take longer to address these traits than F1 will be prepared to give him? 

In person, he’s composed, polite yet confident. There’s none of a typical 17-year-old’s awkwardness in the company of elders – because he’s not your typical 17-year-old. The offspring of two very good racing drivers – father Jos Verstappen, mother ace ’90s kartist Sophie Kumpen – he’s been brought up in the racing world and belongs in it. He’s been racing since the age of four. 

“This is the crucial thing,” says Red Bull’s head of driver development Helmut Marko. “It’s about mental age and experience. People develop at different rates, some don’t really develop at all. How old is Maldonado? Max is more like a 24-year-old mentally.”

“If you go out for dinner with him it’s like being with a guy in his 20s,” says Toro Rosso team principal Franz Tost. “You don’t feel you are with a 17-year-old.” Tost has not been surprised at how immediately at home Verstappen has been in the car. “I have watched him for many years, saw many of his kart races and a few of his F3 races last year. I was convinced he had the driving skills to come straight to F1. It’s nothing to do with his age. He’s won the world championship in karting, the European championship, has been educated in a very good way by Jos and in the end we see the fruits. 

The difference is that the racing education system has completely changed from when we used to think 23-24 was a good arrival age in F1. They are all arriving much better prepared now.”

It’s a point that double world champion Mika Häkkinen – initially critical of Verstappen’s F1 entry at such a young age – acknowledged recently, saying: “It is an example that times have changed. F1 technology is now very powerful and the information the drivers get is much higher, which you can study to become a better driver. Everything is better organised, you can test in the simulator all day and in any conditions… I’m not saying it is easier now, but it is more possible to come in and reach a high level.”

“A lot of those guys who used to arrive at 24 had only begun karting at 17 or 18 or maybe hadn’t karted at all,” continues Tost. “Now, at 18 most guys have been karting for 10 years already. You watch these races and they know exactly how to sort the car, even small things. Now if even a highly skilled driver of 18 came to start racing he would never have a chance against karters. Because what you learn between eight and 15 is something which sets your thinking and acting for the rest of your career.” 

It’s true that Verstappen’s karting career was extraordinary, by any standards. There are long-time observers of the karting scene who will swear he’s the best driver they’ve ever seen. Even his F1 race engineer Xevi Pujolar – who numbers Juan Pablo Montoya and Mark Webber among those he’s worked with – reckons the basic level of ability is higher than any driver he’s known. Marko has already gone on record as comparing him to Ayrton Senna. These are extraordinary claims – yet to date his fellow rookie team-mate Carlos Sainz Jr has looked at least as impressive. After the first six races, the qualifying score between them stood at four-two in Sainz’s favour. They are each creating a highly favourable impression, but the ‘new Senna’ epitaph is as yet a very uneasy fit – and not a fair expectation. Verstappen’s not yet the fully formed package. 

His qualifying is the most obvious area for improvement – and a small incident during Saturday afternoon in China gives some insight into the sort of circumstances at play. “We’re going to do this session on just one set of options,” said Pujolar over the radio at the beginning of Q2, the engineer confident his man could get through at his first attempt, thus saving a fresh set of options with which to set a time in Q3. “OK,” came the uncertain-sounding response from inside the car. He locked up at turn six on that one crucial set and thus didn’t make it into Q3. It later transpired that he felt far from certain one set was going to be enough. The track was changing all the time, the car was oversteery through the quick interlinked turns of the middle sector and he was still unfamiliar with the place. He’d have preferred to have run both sets of options in Q2. But he’d just meekly accepted what he was being told. How does a 17-year-old assert himself when necessary over a 42-year-old engineer with more than a decade of F1 experience? 

He absolutely has to when necessary. 

Jos accompanies his son to the races but once there stands back. He would not be allowed, nor does he want, a direct input into Max’s race weekend. But he observes, listens in – and they talk. In the car back to the hotel – Jos driving, of course, as Max is years away from being old enough to rent a car – at the hotel itself, at home, for Max still lives with his father. Of course he still lives with his father – he’s only 17! 

A Grand Prix driver who hasn’t yet left home. 

The incongruity of it all vividly emphasises just how young 17 is. One of the things Jos has spoken with him about is this need for assertiveness when necessary, to know when to accept the guidance of those more experienced and when the more relevant point is what he, as a driver, feels he needs. To know when to bang the table. 

“He is more in control of himself than I was,” accepts Jos. “I could get over-excited at times.” But there’s a line between loss of control and unquestioning deference, the latter a charge that was never levelled at Jos… Dad has been a hard task master, but with a more than willing pupil. “He has always been incredibly fascinated by motor racing, even when he was younger,” confirms Jos. “He is now more than ever. Even when he’s been in the simulator at the factory and flies home, arrives 11.30 at night, the first thing he does is jump in his own simulator just to drive the same track and see the lap time difference between the team simulator and his. That’s his level of dedication. He is always with the engineer, preparing himself well, watching the sessions from last year. You need to be exceptionally keen to do all that.”

Assistant technical director Ben Waterhouse believes it’s just a question of experience, not age. “He proved in the first race that he’s old and mature enough and skilled enough for F1. He’s delivered, though not yet to his full potential. Every race he learns something new. There are small areas where it’s very difficult to find the optimum and he’s still working on doing that. The margins are smallest in qualifying and he’s yet to fully control how to achieve the maximum on every single run. That’s without doubt the most difficult thing to do for a young driver, with these tyres and these set ups.”

The raw ability has as yet not dovetailed exactly into the demands of an F1 car, but the peaks hint at what we might be about to see. He tends to be fantastically fast when grip levels are low, as that sensitivity comes to his aid. In his very first qualifying session – Q1 at Melbourne – he was fourth fastest on the same prime tyres as all the quick cars. 

His way of combining pace with looking after the rubber in the race is sometimes uncanny. “Though his race in China made the big impression because of all the overtakes, his race in Melbourne actually was even better,” says Tost. “His driving there was very clever. Sadly we didn’t see this in the results because of a technical failure. But he was out on the primes and could control those behind him on options, and he was driving as fast as was necessary that the others could not overtake him while not overworking the tyres. The lap times he was doing on those tyres were fantastic. He’d placed himself perfectly for his switch to the softer tyre when the others would have all been on the prime – but the car stopped on the out-lap of his pitstop. 

He would have finished sixth or seventh. It was a fantastically controlled drive. He has a great sensitivity for the tyre but is also able to react immediately. If he feels that he overworks the tyre then next corner he finds a solution, doesn’t just continue to push in the same way; he finds a way not to lose too much time but save the tyre. Normally a driver needs minimum one year experience for this.”

But that same sensitivity could sometimes be ignored to his benefit. In qualifying, you might need to accept a bit of tyre damage in exchange for grid position – and this brutality doesn’t come naturally to him.

Sainz is in his sixth season of car racing, Verstappen his second and perhaps this is part of the reason the Spaniard is often ahead on the grid. But once in F1 there are no excuses. Perception is all and career momentum vital, something Jos is only too aware of. “Yes, you need some luck to help with this. If his race had played out in Australia he would have made a big impression on his debut. But the car stopped before he was noticed. He’s finished two races from the first five – because of reasons outside his control. That’s what I mean by the luck. Sometimes I’m a little worried about it.”

There comes a time when a driver needs to strike out on his own, to graduate from being the grateful protégé to fighting his own corner. For all that he’s remarkably composed and very gifted, is his hide yet tough enough to prevail? This process will probably unfold within the team first. But some day it will play out between father and son, too. Jos looks surprised when it’s suggested. “Why would he want to leave home? At the moment everything is taken care of for him. He doesn’t have to think about running a house, doing his washing, all those sorts of things. He can concentrate fully on his racing.” For now. 

Max Verstappen could one day become the ‘new Senna’ – if he can tie all those outstanding peaks together. That will require a toughness that might take time to acquire.