Verstappen’s limited F1 ‘apprenticeship’ comes back to haunt Red Bull

At the time of Max Verstappen’s accelerated graduation to F1 and subsequent promotion to Red Bull, those who questioned the wisdom were lambasted. Verstappen is undoubtedly a prodigious talent and the old adage “if you are fast enough, you are old enough” was frequently rolled out as justification.

But being fast is not the sum total of becoming an accomplished F1 driver, let alone a champion. Now Verstappen’s lack of time in junior racing categories honing his racecraft is coming back to haunt him and the team that fast-tracked him to Formula 1.

Verstappen’s costly mistakes go under the F1 microscope

Now into his 4th season of F1 and it is not Verstappen’s pace that is being questioned. It is his judgement and decision-making in the heat of battle. The 20-year-old’s aggressive defence against teammate Daniel Ricciardo in Baku eventually led to the mega shunt many – myself included – had considered inevitable.

Verstappen simply does not have the previous experience to use as a reference. He is in effect still using race craft developed in karting and a single season in European F3. Environments where moves around the outside and elbows-out overtaking are commonplace and relatively consequence-free.

Verstappen’s lack of a proper ‘F1 apprenticeship’

A proper apprenticeship served in the F1 ‘ladder’ would have given the Red Bull driver time to make mistakes and learn from them.

Questionable dives down the inside and risky overtakes have less impact and generate fewer headlines in categories like F3, GP3 and F2. By contrast, Verstappen is making these mistakes in the pressure-cooker environment of F1, under the glare of global media attention.

Verstappen’s approach to defending position has certainly caused the greatest uproar and rightly so. It started back in 2016 at the Belgian Grand Prix when youthful exuberance/a chronic lack of experience saw him cut across the nose of Kimi Raikkonen at over 200mph on the Kemmel straight. Raikkonen was soundly unimpressed.

The former Toro Rosso driver further angered fellow drivers with his driving technique in the braking zone. A fine example being the podium secured in Mexico in 2016 following some seriously dangerous driving in the closing laps. A stewards enquiry saw Verstappen politely asked to leave the staging room for the podium celebrations as an absolutely furious Sebastien Vettel was promoted to 3rd.

The past weekend’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix antics were just the latest instalment of a saga that has dogged Verstappen’s arrival in F1. Whilst the fingers of blame have been pointed at Verstappen himself, it is actually the fault of the FIA and Red Bull.

Why the blame lies with the FIA

The FIA are culpable primarily for permitting such a young and inexperienced driver to enter F1. Bending the super licence rules is nothing new for motorsport’s world governing body of course. But in the case of Verstappen it felt very much that in the clamour to get the latest wunderkind into F1, certain realities were overlooked.

Whether they like it or not, the FIA’s role is to make the hard and often unpopular decisions. Slowing Max’s inevitable march to F1 would have been the right decision.

Verstappen’s interpretation of the FIA’s rules on defending from behind has evolved into a sort of slow fade. It blurs the lines between a genuine defensive block (illegal) and a pedestrian return to the racing line (legal). And this is why the FIA should shoulder a large portion of the blame for the current situation.

The FIA has served as something of an enabler for Verstappen. By frequently giving the youngster the benefit of the doubt with inconsistent rulings, they have failed to educate Verstappen’s on the difference between robust driving and the wildly dangerous. The Verstappen ‘fade’ – his prefered defensive move – blurs the lines between blocking (illegal) and a pedestrian return to the racing line (legal). Rather unfairly, Max is being left to learn the do’s and don’ts his peers picked up in junior racing, with little help from inconsistent decisions by the FIA.

Red Bull reap the ‘reward’ of Max’s rapid rise to F1

There is a great deal of irony in the fact that Red Bull – the team that fast-tracked Verstappen to F1 – are now reaping the results of his almost non-existent junior apprenticeship.

Had Red Bull opted to give the Dutchman at least a season in GP3 or F2, we might have been watching a much more rounded driver taking part in F1. In the short term, it might have prevented Verstappen from becoming the youngest race winner in F1 history (an accolade now unlikely to be taken from him due to FIA rulings on minimum driver age). As fans, we would not have been treated to the mind-boggling drives like Brazil 2016.

However, in the longer term, Verstappen would have benefitted from a more comprehensive apprenticeship. Yes, he would have arrived on the F1 scene later, but also potentially wiser and smarter. In the rush to get this prodigious talent to the top, Red Bull – and Helmut Marko in particular – gave little thought as to whether Verstappen should be accelerated into F1.

Verstappen will eventually cut out the mistakes and learn the tough lessons of Mexico, Bahrain, Singapore, China and Baku. But it will likely mean he is not the finished F1 ‘article’ until he is at least 21 or 22.

Which – strangely enough – is the age he would have debuted in F1 had Red Bull and the FIA required him to spend at least a couple of seasons honing his race craft in GP3 and F2.

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