On the same weekend that 17-year-old Max Verstappen finished fourth in the Hungarian Grand Prix—directly ahead of double world champions Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton—he said he hoped to get his driver's licence during the Formula One summer break, according to the Press Association (h/t the Guardian).
To describe Verstappen's rise as meteoric would be cliche and also inaccurate. Meteors flash brilliantly and quickly through the sky and then disappear forever. And while Verstappen is brilliant and quick on a race track, he is showing no signs of disappearing. Quite the opposite.
Despite arriving at Toro Rosso with just one season of single-seater experience, Verstappen has looked right at home at the top level of motor racing—almost as though he was born there (his father, Jos, was racing for Tyrrell in the Luxembourg Grand Prix two days before Max's birth).
Before the Hungarian race, it had been nearly seven years since a Toro Rosso driver finished as high as fourth in an F1 race.
Daniel Ricciardo, promoted to Red Bull last year after two seasons at the Italian sister team, never finished higher than seventh. Jean-Eric Vergne, signed as a Ferrari test driver this year, had one sixth-place finish in his three years at Toro Rosso.
The last driver to finish fourth for Toro Rosso was Sebastian Vettel, at the 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix, where he nearly handed the drivers' title to Felipe Massa after passing Hamilton late in the race. Vettel, then 21 years old, was promoted to Red Bull the following season and won four straight championships from 2010 to 2013.
Is Verstappen on a similar trajectory?
It's not supposed to be this easy. A teenager who can't legally drive down the street isn't supposed to jump into one of the most advanced race cars in the world and start beating drivers 10 years older with hundreds more races on their resume.
Searching for Verstappen's comparables (as they say in baseball) is not easy. Kimi Raikkonen entered F1 after just 33 car races, but he was already 21 years old (and presumably had a driver's licence). Vettel was 19 when he made his F1 debut, although he already had four years of single-seater experience, including two as an F1 test driver.
After driving in the Florida Winter Series in early 2014, Verstappen made his Formula Three debut. He finished second in his third race and won his sixth. Ultimately, he won 10 times in 32 starts, scoring 16 podium finishes and coming third in the overall standings.
In Vettel's first season of F3, after two years in Formula BMW, he won zero times in 20 races.
Of course, Vettel also produced a stunning win during his first full F1 season, at the 2008 Italian Grand Prix—the only podium finish in Toro Rosso's history.
"We can still hardly believe that we scored so many points—and even won a race!" Vettel told the official F1 website at the end of that season. "It’s phenomenal."
No one expects that of Verstappen (nor was it expected of Vettel at the time), but if the young Dutch driver continues to produce strong results, he will find a place at a team higher up the grid soon enough. Perhaps not next year, but it will happen.
At this point in his career, developing Verstappen's skills properly, rather than quickly, is the key. His father was thrown into the deep end in his first F1 season, racing with Michael Schumacher for Benetton. Although the elder Verstappen finished on the podium twice, he never drove for a top team again.
"I'm in a good environment here," the younger Verstappen told Autosport's Ben Anderson and Pablo Elizalde last year. "It's more of a junior team so they are really there to prepare young drivers, so I think it's much better than how my dad started."
Still, if Verstappen junior keeps impressing, it will be difficult to hold him back.
Ferrari have already shown interest in Ricciardo, according to Autosport's Ian Parkes and Matt Beer, which could lead to a vacancy at Red Bull. And the team has already shown a definite preference for promoting from within. When Vettel left for Ferrari last year, then-20-year-old Daniil Kvyat was quickly slotted into the empty seat.
Another season at Toro Rosso would not hurt Verstappen, though. He will have more opportunities there to learn by trial and error, rather than living up to the expectations of the big team.
And the expectations for Verstappen are already sky-high, with Red Bull adviser Helmut Marko comparing him to Ayrton Senna before Verstappen had ever driven an F1 car, according to the official F1 website (via ESPN).
Nothing seems to rattle the young Dutchman, though: not a heavy crash at Monaco, not comparisons to one of the sport's all-time greats and not lining up on the grid with five world champions around him.
At just 17, who knows what his limits are?
Verstappen could be the next Vettel—a multiple world champion—or not. The only thing you can say for sure, given what he has achieved so far, is that it would be foolish to place any limits on his potential.
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