“It is now more dangerous to ride a bike through a big city than it is to drive a Formula 1 car…” Max Verstappen.
This week, the news broke that Max Verstappen, son of former Formula 1 driver Jos, will be driving in Formula 1 next year for the Red Bull junior team, Toro Rosso.
That in itself isn’t necessarily news. New drivers come along each year, some go on to do amazing things (Sebastien Vettel won his first race in a Toro Rosso before going on to win four World Championships (so far) with Red Bull; Daniel Ricciardo moved up to the reigning world champion team this year and is so far the only driver to properly take the fight to the Mercedes of Hamilton and Rosberg) but the big news about Verstappen is his age.
Right now, he’s only sixteen.
By the time the season starts next year, he’ll be seventeen.
The previous youngest driver to ever get behind the wheel of an F1 car was Jaime Alguersuari in 2009, who was 19 at the time. And this year, Daniil Kvyat, also 19, became the youngest ever driver to score world championship points.
The connection between these two is that they both started out their F1 careers with Torro Rosso, as will Verstappen.
The media and public are, of course, split. Some say it’s a fantastic thing for Verstappen – and it is! Don’t get me wrong; what 16 year old wouldn’t be ecstatic to be handed such an opportunity on a plate? It generates fantastic media for a sport that is often very good at shooting itself in the foot and it will give other teenagers the boost they so desperately need to prove they can make it in top flight motorsport.
The other point of view is that he’s too young, and so often we see young drivers come and go from Formula 1, used up and spat out by a machine that craves publicity and sponsorship dollars. Alguersuari, above, had departed his F1 career by the end of 2011.
But there is another way to look at this and, sadly, it’s the terrible reality of the situation.
The recruitment of Max Verstappen, at age sixteen, to drive a Formula 1 car unfortunately says less about his ability as a driver and more about how dumbed-down Formula 1 has become.
The FIA and team bosses have been hankering left right and centre this year for a way to ‘improve the show’; audience figures continue to decline and this takes with it the revenue the sport so craves.
In its heyday, Formula 1’s fans looked forward to crashes, engines blowing up, tyres exploding and while the FIA has done a fantastic job in saving drivers’ lives, the spectacle of the show has been diluted by the need to reduce costs and save money.
There was a time when no matter how well a driver had done, there was no guarantee of him finishing the race. History is littered with drivers not quite making it to the finishing line because a tyre exploded or the engine imploded on the final lap. Just look at Mika Hakkinen in Spain in 2001:
The need for reliability and austerity has taken away these uncertainties and thwarted the spectacle that Formula 1 once was.
The worst thing that can happen in a pit-stop now is that a driver can be released in to the path of another car; with the absence of fuel stops there’s little chance of anything worse than a wheel gun operator breaking a nail as a car exits his slot and occasionally a wheel nut won’t get attached properly.
Gone are the days of fuel hoses snaking off down the pitlane behind its charge or a hose not being able to connect to dispense fuel and, from time to time, the belch of flame when the fuel ignites. See Max’s dad in 1994…
I’m not suggesting, of course, that we return to the days of men dying every week and maybe I’m being too flippant – accidents do still happen, some with terrible consequences, but unreliability and uncertainty bred intrigue, not the fact that a driver has to push a button to open a flap on the back wing at certain points on a track if he’s within a second of the car in front to help him overtake (or sometimes defend from) another driver. Or pushing another button to engage a boost of electrical energy via a KERS system.
Formula 1 was once the pinnacle of motorsport. It bred heroes and gladiators and the cars were notoriously difficult to drive. No mere mortal could ever hope to get one started or to hold their neck up straight after a few corners. Drivers from lesser formulae would drive a Formula 1 car and marvel at its braking power and the grip it had in a corner.
Now, they have to worry about lifting off and coasting in order to conserve fuel rather than fighting to use every last drop in a battle to reach the finish line.
But perhaps the most damning evidence of Formula 1’s plight comes, ironically, from its newest, and youngest, driver: “it is more dangerous to bike through a big city than race in an F1 car,” says sixteen year old Max Verstappen.