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GP Week : Issue 218
14 GPWEEK.com // 14 GPWEEK.com // PARTNERS: ThE RApId RISE ANd RISE oF mAX VERSTAppEN OPINION “In a top team before he’s 20,” opined Martin Brundle. “World Champion before he’s 20,” offered Johnny Herbert. “He’d better get on with it then,” offered the dry Damon Hill, “because time’s getting by – he’s running out of time!” It may have been a commentatorial contest to see who could be most effusive but, as Brundle repeated a number of times during the Chinese Grand Prix, the doubters have been silenced. Not only is the youngest grand prix driver ever not suffering through his relative lack of calendar years on earth, but Max Verstappen is starting to look very much like the Next Big Thing. His moderately older team-mate, 20 year-old Carlos Sainz (who doesn’t like the ‘Jnr ’), is doing a pretty good job too but, as with Nico Rosberg in the championship-elect Mercedes team, the headlines are being stolen by the other side of the garage. Brundle’s genuine head-shaking amazement as the #33 Toro Rosso arrowed down the inside of rivals at Shanghai’s hairpin are a testament to the innate feel that the 17-year-old has. As Brundle knows, arriving down the inside is one thing; but managing it without locking a front wheel, while at the same time starting to turn – with all the shifting weight distributions that involves – is extraordinary. While Max has the pedigree – former F1driver, Jos Verstappen, as a father, a successful female kart driver, Sophie Kumpen, as a mother – it is his meteoric leap from karting to the F1 grid that has set records unlikely ever to be matched. (Okay, never say never ...). Just two years ago, in 2013, Max was racing in, and winning, the most prestigious of the karting world championships, at the age of 15. Yes, history shows that world level karting is about the best motorsport education you can get, but ... He first drove a race car for the first time later in 2013, testing a Formula Renault in the first of a series of Renault/F3 tests, resulting in his 2014 drive in the European F3 Championship. He finished third in the series, won 10 races (of 33 – three per event), punctuated by the announcement (before he’d even driven an F1 car) that he would drive for Toro Rosso in 2015. Three weeks before his 17th birthday, in September, he completed his first laps in a 2012 Toro Rosso – 148 of them, enough for Superlicence qualification apparently – at the Italian Adria circuit, prompting team sporting director, the experienced, Steve Nielsen to tell Autosport: "Max did a very competent job, giving the impression he has been driving a Formula 1 car for quite a while, not like someone on their first day behind the wheel. He made no mistakes all day, seemed confident, and once he was told something he remembered it.” The rest is very much recent history. Compare that with Ayrton Senna. In September 1978, Ayrton – at the ripe old age of 18 – contested his first European kart race, the 1978 World Championships, at Le Mans (he finished sixth, and was runner-up in the next two years). Five years later, in July 1983, he tested an F1 car for the first time – a Williams FW08, at Donington. His grand prix debut, with Toleman, came a little short of his 24th birthday. It’s a sobering comparison, isn’t it? Max Verstappen was roughly seven years younger than the great man on F1 debut ... The Max V phenomenon isn’t totally new to modern motorsport. You only have to look as far as MotoGP and Marc Marquez to see that there are young men, almost children, today who have the ability to cope with everything that goes with being a contender at the top of the motorsport tree. (Although even the amazing Mr Marquez took five years to come through the 125/Moto2 ‘school’ and was 20 years of age on MotoGP debut – having debuted in the 125 world championship at the age of 15!). There has to be some limit – and in some ways the new 18-years-of-age qualification for a Superlicence is sensible. Otherwise what next – 15 year-old Ferrari stars? Regardless, like Brundle, in a year threatening to dissolve into a Lewis- wins/Nico-frets series of predictable results, I’m fascinated by, and enjoying, the impact Max Verstappen is making. That alone is enough to keep me tuning in. OPINION cHrIs LAmBden