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GP Week : Issue 208
20 GPWEEK.com // 20 GPWEEK.com // PARTNERS: It's all over the newspapers and the web, so you won't need me to tell you that Red Bull has signed a Dutch schoolboy to its F1 programme and that he'll be on the grid in Melbourne next year at the wheel of a Toro Rosso. He turns 17 next month and by the end of the season he will almost certainly have improved on his current score of eight wins in the highly competitive European Formula 3 championship. In the paddock at Spa, there has been endless discussion about the wisdom of letting him go head-to-head next year against the real men when most kids of his age are still riding BMX bikes. I caught one of those F3 wins on TV from the Nürburgring last week, and the kid certainly impressed me as he simply drove away from some genuinely hot opposition. His name is Max Verstappen and (with his younger sister Victoria, who's already racing karts, too) he's the product of a glamorous but short-lived marriage between two celebrity racing drivers. His father is Jos 'The Boss' Verstappen, himself a former F1 regular with 106 GPs to his credit between 1994 and 2003. Mum is Sophie Kumpen, a Belgian lass who not only raced karts to an international level between 1991 and 1995, but occasionally trounced a couple of future F1 winners, among them Giancarlo Fisichella and Jarno Trulli. There have been plenty of drivers who have made a successful transition directly from junior formulae to F1, not least two still-active world champions, Kimi Räikkönen and Jenson Button. Ayrton Senna did it, too. But when these guys made the jump, they had at least two or three seasons behind them in cars – and they were into their 20s when they first raced in F1 (Senna was 23). Kid Max will have the full resources of Red Bull behind him, of course, and will no doubt be spending hundreds of hours in an F1 simulator when he isn't pounding round Jerez and Barcelona during winter testing. By the time he shows up in Melbourne for the AGP on March 15 he'll have been through the Bull charm school and learned how to avoid answering journalists' questions by smiling sweetly and discussing something else. Those of us who know his dad, however, will hope that Max has some of the infamous paternal mongrel in him and might occasionally be tempted to earn a headline or two by poking a persistent hack in the hooter. Max started the 2014 season as a complete rookie with minimal sponsorship on his Van Amersfoort Racing Dallara-VW. The format for the F3 Euro-championship this year consists of three races per weekend. Max had his first win in the second round and really raised eyebrows in June when he won six-in-a-row at Spa and the Norisring. Early in August he was adopted as a Red Bull driver, and it was less than a week later that his new sponsor turfed the unfortunate Jean- Eric Vergne out of his Toro Rosso seat next year in favour of Max. It all appears to have taken place in an unseemly rush and there is some conjecture as to whether the deal would even have been considered if it hadn't been for the poisonous atmosphere that exists between joint Mercedes F1 boss Toto Wolff and senior Red Bull fixer Helmut Marko. I understand, you see, that Mercedes had spotted Max's potential and wanted to sign him to its Junior team. Since this would require the consent of Red Bull, a meeting was set up at which Wolff, with Niki Lauda alongside, sat down with Dr Marko. The Verstappens, father and son, were also in attendance. The suggestion is that Wolff opened by indicating that Mercedes, in return for a provisional undertaking to adopt the youngster, might eventually take him to F1. The notoriously short- tempered Marko responded for Red Bull along the lines of, “Gott in Himmel, we can put him into F1 next year – and we will.” Thus did a 16 year-old bumfluffed Dutchman blackmail the representative of a multi-billion energy drink corporation into promoting him to the F1 ranks without so much as having to open his mouth ... Now, while I may be a cynical hard- hearted old hack, I can still appreciate the romantic side of this story. But there are wider implications which we ignore at our peril. For one, it will clearly be asking a lot of Max next year to confront the 20 or so men who have a right to be considered the best in the world, all on the basis of a couple of dozen F3 races. Yes, there have been a few 19 year-olds who have acquitted themselves well in F1, among them Max's own 2015 team-mate Daniil Kvyat. But attempting to do the same at 17, a good 10 percent younger, looks to me like a dangerous gamble. I feel some sympathy here for the FIA, which will probably have no alternative but to issue Max with a Super Licence simply because his F3 achievements look set to qualify him for it (there is no prescribed age limit for licence holders). The FIA has gone to the trouble, over many years, of organising championships designed to test young drivers, and to sluice the most promising nuggets of talent from the dross. What consolation can there be for all the youngsters spending millions on their campaigns in GP2 and GP3 when they see some kid bypass the system in one spectacular swerve? As it happens, I know what Britain's Jolyon Palmer said. The 23 year-old, who's in his third season of toiling in the salt mines of GP2, indirectly called into question the FIA's hard- earned reputation for responsible administration of the sport: "They surface the run-off areas for safety," he observed, "and then they put kids into the cars." The arrival of Max Verstappen on the F1 scene is a story with an endless appeal to us all, not least to the tabloid end of the news market. While I admit that I'm a bit alarmed about it, I have to concede that the tyro is in good hands and may indeed have all the potential that Red Bull claims to have found in him. All I would ask is your understanding for having presented the downside of the argument. Oh, and if Max Verstappen should happen to snag a world championship or two, I will of course deny having written all of the above. Is 17 TOO yOuNG fOR f1? Of COuRsE IT Is ... OPINION OPINION MIKE DOODSON