August 31st, 2014 (F1Plus / Kate Hewitt) - In a recent interview with Autosport, former Formula One champion Jacques Villeneuve explained that he thinks the sport is flawed with the arrival of Max Verstappen.
Normally, I stick my fingers in my ears and nod off to anything Jacques related. But this time, he does have a point. Albeit a small one. In my view, it is not F1 that is flawed, but what does have an increasingly worrying future is the Red Bull junior driver programme.
Jacques says that age is partially due to his concerns, but does age really define how good a driver is? No, it doesn't. Daniil Kvyat seems to be doing just fine. Age strictly defines maturity and experience, something that Verstappen will gain in due time. And whilst I – with many others I'm sure – was stressing over my GCSE results at 16, this new hot-shot will become the youngest ever driver to race in F1.
The sensible decision would have been to put Verstappen into a top junior series to gain experience and mileage in single seaters. Much like Ferrari did with Raffaele Marciello. But why wait? If someone is showcasing sizeable ability that captures your attention, they could be worth the risk. I mean, what have they (as a team) got to lose?
Red Bull Racing has this clever format whereby if you're good enough for F1, they'll slot you into their junior team, Toro Rosso (which incidentally is just Italian for Red Bull, nothing fancy.)
Toro Rosso has seen many Red Bull youths come and go. If you're no match for your team-mate or the new talent, you'll be taken out with immediate effect. Harsh? Maybe. Brutal? Yes. But that's the nature of Red Bull and its system. It's not a team that strives off passion or heritage like that of Ferrari or McLaren. It strives off success and success alone. Which is why its logo is plastered on most of the top athletes in the biggest motor-sports around the globe. For marketing reasons, not so much for 'backing the rising stars'.
Of course, it's not all plain sailing being a Red Bull junior. It's a tough old world. The programme requires the very best of drivers. And since all the juniors are fighting within themselves to perform at their peak, there are a select few that get pushed out faster than they were pulled in. Beitske Visser and Lewis Williamson, for example. Their results were far from what both drivers and Red Bull expected, so they were quickly taken out of the equation.
Verstappen brings raw talent with him. Many suggest he's a future world champion. There's no need to state the obvious with saying he's young, because yes, he is. But if the team nurture him as well as they did Sebastian Vettel, then who knows what could happen. That is the light-bulb moment. In their eyes, he's their next world champion. And yes, they do have Carlos Sainz Jr and Alex Lynn awaiting their call up, but if someone is carrying good momentum, you grab it and capitalise on it. Just like in football - James Rodriguez (ex Porto and Monaco player worth 45 million) had an immense World Cup with Columbia and suddenly transferred to Real Madrid (for 80 million) almost doubling his worth.
The problem that lies within the Red Bull programme is not the drivers, it's the actual system. Sainz Jr, Lynn, Pierre Gasly and technically speaking, Antonio Felix da Costa, Mitch Evans and Daniel Abt are all within that small army of young drivers that Red Bull have recruited. One too many, or spoilt for choice? I think the former.
Back in the day, Sir Jackie Stewart rejected an F1 seat early in his career and stayed put in Formula 3. It takes guts to admit you're not ready; of course Sir Jackie could afford to do that in his day. Would Kvyat have gotten another chance had he turned down Toro Rosso? Would Verstappen get another opportunity if he said no to this offer?
Only they'd know the answer. But the question wouldn't be posed if Red Bull didn't sign multiple drivers to their programme who are all in the same position. What's better – maturing a handful of drivers or signing up tens of them to let half of them go later in their career?
What are Sainz, Lynn and co supposed to do now that Toro Rosso isn't an option for two or more years - Sportscars? I'm sure that's the destiny they didn't want to result to when they'd signed with the defending teams' champions. What's more, is that their partnership with Red Bull almost puts any hope of signing with another F1 team out of reach. So looking at it from an outsiders perspective, other than the funding aspect, I fail to see a reason why the system would work for half of the drivers that join them.
But that's the risk you take when signing with Red Bull. You either make it or you don't. It's not a guaranteed spot for the future but it is guaranteed short-term financial stability. You have to trust that you'll be one of the few who make it. But is it worth it?
Villeneuve told Autosport, “It is the worst thing ever for Formula 1 because it will have two effects. It will either destroy him [Verstappen] or, even if he is successful right away, then F1 will be meaningless.”
But again, I don't think F1 would be harmed. Sure, the egos of the more experienced ones will be in jeopardy, but what would be in more trouble is the top junior series like GP2 and Formula Renault 3.5 that have been slowly building their recognition. Suddenly they're at the same level of Formula 3 and then we're back to the argument of 'there's no clear path to F1'.
Don't blame the driver, blame the system.