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Max Verstappen Comparisons with Ayrton Senna Hint at Once-in-a-Generation Talent

Matthew Walthert@@MatthewWalthertFeatured ColumnistOctober 1, 2014

Max Verstappen, F1 prodigy?
Max Verstappen, F1 prodigy?Luca Bruno/Associated Press

Max Verstappen is set to make his Formula One debut for Toro Rosso during the first free practice session at the Japanese Grand Prix on Friday. He also turned 17 on Tuesday. So it's kind of a big week for the Dutch teenager who is already confirmed for a Toro Rosso race seat in 2015.

As if he didn't already have enough pressure, becoming the youngest driver to take part in an official race weekend and all, Red Bull advisor Helmut Marko recently mentioned him in the same breath as one of the greatest drivers in history.

When asked by the official F1 website who he would compare Verstappen to, Marko said:

Most likely Ayrton Senna. And in such a case you must not look at his age. He has been talking with people who are experts when it comes to the development of youngsters and they all say that (in terms of) his mind he is more like 22 than 16. And regarding his skills behind the steering wheel, he has been racing since he was four years old—professionally. So we expect him to be competitive from the first race. We are not playing the lottery—we know what we are doing. And success proves us right. 

Senna won 41 races and three world championships. Did I mention Verstappen just turned 17?

As Marko said, though, success has proven Red Bull right. Sebastian Vettel, Daniel Ricciardo and Daniil Kvyat are all products of the Red Bull Junior Team—Vettel and Kvyat were both 19 when they started their first grands prix.

Red Bull @redbull

Meet @MaxVerstappen3 who'll be #F1's youngest driver when he races for @ToroRossoSpy in 2015: http://t.co/rjN9Q0T5mv http://t.co/vLlHP9oDkF

If Verstappen can handle the pressure—and his first season in single-seater race cars has given no indication he cannot—he will have all the support he needs for a long, bright F1 future.

And Marko is not the only one to foresee greatness for the young Dutch driver. As long ago as 2009, highly respected journalist Joe Saward discussed Verstappen's pedigree on his blog (His father, Jos, is a former F1 driver and his mother, Sophie Kumpen, a successful kart racer). The young Verstappen, "should one day be a top notch racer as a result," wrote Saward. "I expect he will be turning up in F1 before too long."

Jos and Max Verstappen.
Jos and Max Verstappen.Dan Istitene/Getty Images

Meanwhile, Jackie Stewart, a three-time world champ and former team owner, told BBC Sport's Lawrence Barretto: "He has been sensational early in his career, but F1 is another story. ... I've seen some great young drivers come along and the pressure has been too much for them. It can go either way."

But all of that is just talk. What of Verstappen's results on the track?

After finding success at every level of karting he tried, Verstappen graduated to single-seaters, making his debut in January in Ferrari's Florida Winter Series. In 12 races, he won twice and scored five podium finishes against older, more experienced drivers.

NBC commentator Will Buxton, who also raced against Verstappen in Florida, wrote on his personal blog: "Max Verstappen is quite an astonishing talent."

That success prompted Verstappen to jump straight into Formula Three this year—again, he has not disappointed. The Dutch teenager's eight wins and 13 podiums in 27 races have him second in the drivers' standings with six races to go.

Chevy48 @chevychevelle48

Max Verstappen took his first career Formula 3 Euro win this weekend at Hockenheimring. #F3 http://t.co/9sHKb8nRZ9

Coincidentally (or not), Senna's last championship before he made the jump to F1 was in British Formula Three.

Verstappen's strong performance from the moment he jumped into a single-seater led to a bidding war between Mercedes and Red Bull for his services. Red Bull won by offering him an F1 race seat in 2015 with Toro Rosso. Mercedes, without a sister team, could not match that offer.

"I believe that Max is a great talent," Mercedes executive director Toto Wolff explained to Autosport's Jonathan Noble after Verstappen signed with Toro Rosso. "We had two or three meetings, but because we are lacking a real programme, the opportunity we could have given to him would have been GP2, probably some testing in F1, and then maybe we could have had him in a Friday seat for a couple of races." 

Not everyone thinks the young Verstappen has done enough to earn an F1 seat, though.

Jacques Villeneuve, who raced against Jos and won the 1997 world championship, told Autosport's Dieter Rencken and Pablo Elizalde: "Basically, it's like getting all the presents without deserving anything. But there is this thing of 'the younger, the better.' What's the next step? A team who will sign someone at 15 just to get the image out of it?"

"He is still a boy so it is very risky," Villeneuve continued. "You don't take a 16-year-old, who hasn't even been to university, in the best hospital as a doctor even if he is very good and very intelligent."

While Verstappen's quick rise is unusual, it is not unprecedented. Kimi Raikkonen only had 23 races of single-seater experience in Formula Ford and Formula Renault before Sauber signed him for the 2001 season. He finished sixth in his first race and 10th in the drivers' standings that year. In 2007, the Finn won the world championship.

Despite his inexperience, Kimi Raikkonen was signed by Sauber for the 2001 season.
Despite his inexperience, Kimi Raikkonen was signed by Sauber for the 2001 season.Clive Mason/Getty Images

Looking ahead, Verstappen now has a clear path to the top. If he is successful at Toro Rosso for a few years, he can expect either a promotion to Red Bull, like Vettel and Ricciardo, or to be scooped up by another top team—we know Mercedes are interested.

And if, for some reason, his success does not continue in F1, it will not really hurt Red Bull. Toro Rosso are a driver development team and are not expected to win anyway, and the senior team will not be negatively affected.

Right now, though, there is no reason to expect that Verstappen will not be successful. He has all the makings of a true prodigy, and now, he has the means to support and nurture that talent.

As Marko told the official F1 site, "He is an exceptional talent that comes along only once in decades."

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