Or how Verstappen’s quick rise to F1 might change the rules of the game.
(By S.Murtas – realized and published in November 2014)
After the Dutch star was signed by Toro Rosso F1 team for the 2015 season, a new era began. Motorsport, and the ladder to F1, might never be the same again.
Verstappen’s case has given us the incipit to rethink the whole motorsport-ladder thing. And guess what, we came to the conclusion that the single-seater world as we know it, the vast array of series and championship that is said to prepare drivers to Formula 1, has received a huge blow as a result, and it’s likely to become less central, maybe even marginal for future drivers, sooner than anyone thinks.
On the contrary, Karting as the real training ground for hopeful young drivers has received a huge boost, mainly thanks to Verstappen – at the blushing age of 17 – going from winning his KZ World title in 2013, to 10 wins, 16 podiums and a 3rd place in Formula 3, and most importantly to a seat in F1 with Toro Rosso, Red Bull’s sister team, in a span of only one year.
Sure, the Dutch has done plenty of mileage in single-seaters, testing extensively before actually making it to the grid of his first ever F3 race. Choice that in itself made news! When everyone thought Max would have gone for a softer approach to single-seaters, he stunned the pundits effectively skipping two steps of the ladder (F4 and FRenault 2.0, Alps or NEC) after convincingly (and effortlessly) proving the Florida Winter Series by Ferrari was no real deal. And on paper, a season in F.Renault 3.5 or GP2 would have been useful, even advisable.
But who would turn down a F1 offer due to lack of experience? From Red Bull’s point of view, Verstappen has definitely represented a unique opportunity for two reasons. Securing the young talent before anyone else must have had its importance for the Milton Keynes-based team, but the huge PR and marketing opportunity is pivotal, and we can’t fail to recognize that this second, and probably most important reason, is key to Verstappen’s quick rise to F1. After all, it’s been months that the Verstappen- Red Bull affair has occupied pages and pages in mainstream press, requiring floods of ink, and has been granted plenty of air-time across the global media.
The ingredients for a cover story are all there: the youngest driver to secure a F1 seat, with only months of experience in single-seaters, to race for the team that effectively launched 4-time world champion Sebastian Vettel to the a period of domination with Red Bull second only to Schumacher’s 5 titles with Ferrari. In other words, very bad publicity for the so-called motorsport ladder, and much-needed golden exposure on mainstream media for Karting. Vital promotion, that can really change the general perception of the sport, all too often regarded merely as a very expensive hobby.
Why Karting can really outdo single-seaters
So has the Verstappen story really put in question the relevance of pre-F1 championships? And as a result, will Karting replace lower single-seaters series as the real training ground for Formula 1?
A few arguments stand for this to happen. The first is technical: according to many experts, today’s F1 cars are nothing close to the untameable beasts they use to be until the early ‘90s (before electronics started to play a vital role in F1 cars design), which makes the transition from lower series “easier” than ever.
Also, Karting has become ever more demanding, and the level of the major championships very professional. Despite the age limit to jump in single-seaters has been lowered at 15, on average the greatest majority of drivers aspiring to race in F1 have between 6 to 8 years of kart racing under their belt, at various level, making their Karting experience more essential than ever if they’re aiming to spend 2/3 seasons in pre-F1 championships (and future demand seems to be pushing for this to happen).
A third argument is purely financial. As the legions of wealthy parents that today act as main sponsor for their sons’ development in international karting will start to pretend a similar path to F1 for their pupils as Verstappen’s, the permanence in lower formula series will generally shorten. In fact, who would want to spend hundreds of thousands of euros to race in lower formulas for more than a couple of seasons, if the Formula 1 option become more readily available to those who can afford it?
And in the Karting paddock today, those who can afford it are indeed more than a handful. Just think of the likes of Norris, Ahmed, Mazepin, Schumacher Jr., just to name a few. All drivers with great appeal for sponsors that will move up to single-seaters next year, who can count on very well off parents with the right connections. Drivers who started out for fun at 8 or 9, that turned into real pros already at 14/15. Years of racing, days and days of testing and training, hours and hours spent at the sim. No doubt, if managed well, they will all do very well in their racing careers.
Core racing skills
As Alonso, Hamilton, Vettel proved well before today’s up and coming talents, Karting is where drivers learn core skills, which then become part of their instinct as pros (even though today’s level of professionalism is unparalleled). Overtaking, handling in wet conditions, race strategy – as well as determination, commitment, and focus – are all part of every professional driver’s race craft. These can definitely be instilled even later on in ones career, but will never really belong if the learning process begins too late. Matching oneself against the very best from a very early age is key in developing and maximizing ones potential, truly “owning” such skills. The later one starts matching himself against the best, the less will those skill come natural.
And Verstappen’s case is the ultimate proof. The lad has been on a kart since he was 5 – not racing of course – establishing a connection with the machine, with the concept of speed, getting to grips with technical notions that do change from one machine to another, but are based on similar working principles.
Speed and racing are his bread and butter, for as long as he can remember; the lad has spent more time around go-karts and racetracks that in school! No wonder why he could jump on a single-seater and be so impressive straightaway; after all, he only had to learn the technical aspects of making a formula car fast, the grounding skills were already there.
It’s not as easy as it looks
And yet, Karting as the road to F1 would probably make things very complicated to those who approach the sport, and to the sport itself.
Let’s not forget that Verstappen is one of a kind. He is an extremely talented driver, and talent doesn’t come in huge supply. Every generation can produce a handful of promising drivers, those who really stand out, those who have a spark in them, but due to several contingencies along their progression up the motorsport ladder, only one or two might actually make it to Formula 1. So for all the rest, lower formulas will indeed be the only option.
So to actually claim the role as “the road to F1”, for Karting could spell disaster, as to the thousand that don’t really make it would be a very hard pill to swallow, ultimately discouraging people to start in the first place.
In fact, Alonso, Hamilton, Vettel, F1 rookie Daniil Kvyat and even Max Verstappen himself were allowed to grow in Karting without too much pressure. Sure, everyone that takes up the sport dreams of becoming the next F1 world champ, just as they did. It’s the very same reason that has young kids turning up at the local football pitch wearing Messi’s or Rooney’s shirt. To every speed-loving youngster, deep inside, Karting already represents the beginning of the F1 dream.
But a softer approach to the sport in which the best F1 drivers were nurtured and honed their skills is probably the best option.
So let’s just celebrate Verstappen’s tremendous achievement, and help as many people as possible – those who see in him or Alonso, Hamilton, Vettel someone to aspire to – to join in the ‘purest form of motorsport’, as Karting was once famously defined by the great Ayrton Senna himself.