Only in Formula One, going wheel to wheel at speeds of 200mph, does Max Verstappen drive unaccompanied.
The youngest driver the sport has ever seen is not old enough to drive alone in the Netherlands, not that he owns a car anyway. “I don’t really need a car,” the Dutchman says, though presumably he won’t be telling the Toro Rosso mechanics that before Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix.
Verstappen is only 17, and the notion of him lining up on the Albert Park grid alongside Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button and Sebastian Vettel feels faintly preposterous and, worse than that, perilous in the extreme. The former world champion Jacques Villeneuve has described the move as “the worst thing ever” for Formula One. “Does Red Bull [who own Toro Rosso] realise they are putting a child in F1?” he added.
We have been assured that Verstappen is no ordinary 17-year‑old. The head of Red Bull’s driver development programme, Helmut Marko, says: “He’s like Ayrton Senna and in such a case you must not look at his age. He’s an exceptional talent that comes along only once in decades.”
The success of Red Bull’s young driver programme, and in particular the performances of Daniel Ricciardo and Daniil Kvyat, means that we should respect their judgment.
It’s still astonishing, though, for this karting graduate – he won his first kart race as a seven-year-old in April, 2005 – has been racing cars for only a year; he was third in last year’s F3 European Championship and won the F3 Masters.
He was only 16 when he signed for Toro Rosso in August and had to be driven by his father to meet reporters. “I have a kind of driving licence. It’s just that I can’t drive alone,” he says. “I don’t like to drive on the roads, so I don’t do it. But anyway, I’m not at home that much so I don’t really need a car at the moment.” In January he passed the theory part of his driving test, allowing him to drive on roads when supervised.
His father is the former F1 driver Jos Verstappen, while his mother was an outstanding kart racer. “Since I was very young my father and I talked about things,” he says. “When we drove back from karting we never shut off from racing. We were always talking about how to improve and what we learned that day.”
The FIA were so worried about Verstappen’s signing that they changed the rules. From next year a driver will have to be over 18 to qualify for an F1 super-licence. He will also have to have competed in other series for three years.
The many people who are concerned about the Dutchman’s age will have been reassured by the consistency of his driving in the last testing session in Barcelona recently. In driving, as in other walks of life, precocious talents usually show us a glimpse of their gifts, even a starburst of their genius. Consistency, though, is very rare in someone so young, and there were some gnarled old pros nodding with approval at the Circuit de Catalunya.
“If I just do a good job in my first few races, without making mistakes, they will stop talking about my age quite quickly,” he said. “I can understand the reaction. But I just have to prove them wrong. Try to be mature for my age, that’s the most important.” In Australia he plans to “be consistent, build up slowly, practice, hopefully be there in qualifying and then in the race it’s to try and finish and hopefully we can score some points.”
He can drive, that is now beyond dispute. But there are still those who understandably worry about his emotional maturity away from the track, especially if things don’t go well.
Verstappen, though, is just the most spectacular of the new faces this season. His team-mate, Carlos Sainz Jr, 20, is also a newcomer, replacing Kvyat, who has been promoted to Red Bull.
Sainz, whose father was a legend in rallying, won last year’s Formula Renault 3.5 series with seven victories. The Spaniard has also won races at F3 level and has been with the Red Bull setup for several years.
Felipe Nasr, 22, has joined Sauber. The Brazilian has won at GP2 level and also impressed recently in testing. He is a former Williams test driver, so is well apprenticed to the F1 setup. There are two new drivers at Manor Marussia after the team announced that Spain’s Roberto Merhi will be joining Britain’s fellow Formula Renault 3.5 winner Will Stevens.
Kyvat is not a newcomer, having driven so impressively for Toro Rosso last year. But, at 20, this son of a ski instructor is also one of the rising stars of F1 and this year will line up with Ricciardo at Red Bull.
“It’s a new team, a big team, a top team and it’s a big challenge,” says the Russian. “I have set myself no specific targets but I am aiming high.” Has he bought anything after his big pay rise? “Nothing special – just a couple of T-shirts,” he says.
On Sunday Kimi Raikkonen and Jenson Button, both 35, will be feeling as old as Methuselah’s grandfather.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010