SEP 21st 2015

Henry Hope‑Frost: In Formula 1, the kids are alright

Watching Max Verstappen carving his way back through the field after a botched start during yesterday’s Singapore Grand Prix reminded me of all the pre-season noise about whether the teenaged Dutchman was ready to race at the top level.

After all, he was just 17 and couldn’t possibly handle the power, the grip and the wheel-to-wheel combat in Formula 1, let alone the pressure and the relentless media attention. Could he?

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Well, the naysayers and doom-mongers were wrong. Not only has Verstappen, son of 106-time F1 starter and podium finisher Jos, proved that he was ready, he lies 11th in the drivers’ championship race and has scored points in five of his 13 Grands Prix. And he’s made very few of the mistakes expected of a rookie – especially one who graduated from a (relatively) weedy Formula 3 car into the big time.

At the start of the 61-lap, floodlit dash around the Marina Bay circuit, Verstappen suffered a software glitch on his Renault-powered Toro Rosso that required attention from pitlane. And that little diversion cost the number 33 machine a lap, a deficit that it could be safely assumed had ruined his afternoon.

Max Verstappen

Not so. Verstappen spent a dozen laps running dead last, another 11 in 19th and then no more than a lap or two in the next six places, meaning he was knocking on the door of the top 10 at just after half distance. With 17 laps remaining, he found himself in eighth, where he stayed until the finish. 

It was a performance that justifies the decision to parachute him into F1 with very little single-seater experience following a successful karting career.

The problem that arises from the ease with which Verstappen has adapted to F1 is the metaphoric kick in the face it presents to wannabe racers in their early-to-mid-20s. They’ll all be thinking they’ve missed the boat, surely? 

So young was Verstappen when granted his superlicence at the start of the year, the outcry forced the sport’s governing body, the FIA, to impose a scoring system to ensure drivers have achieved a certain level before being granted the ‘passport’ to race at the top level.

As a result, it’s highly likely, thanks to regulation, that Verstappen will be the youngest F1 debutant and points scorer in perpetuity, which may take the pressure off those trying to break into the big league being worried about their age. Remember that 1996 World Champion Damon Hill didn’t make his F1 debut until he was 32, while Nigel Mansell didn’t secure the world title until he was 39. Those days that offered a ray of hope for late-starters are almost certainly gone.

If, like me, you first became fascinated by F1 and its crop of grown-up, macho, adult drivers in the 1970s, you’ll have already gone through the pain barrier of being older than every driver on the grid. It happened to me at the start of 2007, after Michael Schumacher had retired for the first time. A three-season respite came in 2010 when the great German champion returned with Mercedes, but from 2013 onwards it was back to being older than each member of the talent pool.

Instead of wallowing in self-pity at my advancing years – in racing-driver terms, that is – I shall concentrate on marvelling at the super-talented young racers making a name for themselves. Those who can, do, those who can’t, write and talk about it.

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