F1 has emerged from its summer slumber, but the big talking point at Spa-Francorchamps will be a 16-year-old 'kid' who doesn't even have a license to drive a road car. "Because he lives in Belgium, he cannot start lessons until about six months before his 18th birthday," manager Raymond Vermeulen told the German newspaper Bild.
He is referring, of course, to Max Verstappen, the 16-and-a-half year old who has been signed up by Toro Rosso to debut next year and make history as F1's youngest ever driver. But Verstappen, the son of former F1 driver Jos and female karting sensation Sophie Kumpen, is unfazed, particularly as a top-three finish in the FIA's top F3 category will ensure he receives the most important document -- a F1 super license.
"I think the biggest step I had was karting to formula three," he told the BBC this week. "I think F3 to formula one will be a smaller step. The cars are really safe. I think it's more dangerous to bike through a big city than race in an F1 car." He told the Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf: "The biggest adjustment will be the life around it all -- the attention, the full agenda, the travelling. But I'm pretty relaxed. I have never had nerves or stage fright, and I won't now."
Verstappen may not be worried, but his age and inexperience may make some of his 2015 rivals nervous. "What the senior drivers will think about it? Don't ask them, because they won't like it," admitted F1 broadcaster Tony Jardine.
Verstappen said: "These are guys I only know from television, and some of them my dad even raced against. I'm thinking about being in the driver's briefing and saying to Fernando Alonso, 'Can you move over, please?' But once I'm in the car I'm not afraid of anyone."
Toro Rosso gave another teenager his F1 debut this year, and Daniil Kvyat is now regarded as a new star of the sport. "Everybody has the right to an opinion about my age," said Verstappen. "Of course its beneficial if you have more experience, but you only gain that from driving the car. At Red Bull and Toro Rosso there will be plenty of people to help me."
John Watson, another broadcaster and a former driver, sides with Verstappen in the new era of cars that are easier to drive and unprecedented safety conditions. "The age aspect is no longer as compelling as it was in my generation," he told the Mirror. "They can put the kids with talent in simulators and help make the technical side second nature."
And as far as F1 legend Gerhard Berger is concerned, Verstappen is a cut above. "To switch from karting straight into formula 3 and go straight to the front is something I've never seen," said the Austrian, who is now the FIA's junior series chief. "Max stands out," Berger told Auto Bild.
Sports physio and performance expert Camiel van Druten told the Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf: "Does it matter whether you're 17 or 19? Max is strong and mature." But all that doesn't mean the speed of Max's rise to the pinnacle of motor racing hasn't given father Jos - whose first F1 teammate was the great Michael Schumacher - pause for thought.
"The past few weeks has sometimes felt unreal," he admitted. "In the middle of negotiations, I was constantly asking myself -- 'Is it the right decision? Is it too early?'. Of course he is missing experience, but it was a well thought out decision. The bottom line is that I am the one who knows Max best. People need to understand that he is extremely adaptable and he learns extremely quickly. And formula one is different now to what it was twenty years ago, with all the advanced simulators for example."
Just before Red Bull signed on the dotted line, Verstappen was put at the wheel of a much more powerful Formula Renault 3.5 car. "Straight away he went like hell," said Jos. "He will also know how to drive a formula one car. Red Bull is also the benchmark when it comes to building young talent. This is especially true for motor sports."
Verstappen snr said he will travel to all or most of the grands prix next year, but only to be there for Max rather than play an overly active role. "I will not interfere with the team or the car," Jos promised. "I will just be there for when he needs me. I've done everything for my son and now it feels as though I have to let go. I think with Red Bull and Toro Rosso, he is in the right hands." (GMM)