Max Verstappen, Toro Rosso, Suzuka, 2014

Why the next karting prodigy won’t reach F1 as quickly as its newest champion did

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Formula 1’s latest world champion was able to debut at the top level when he was just 17 years of age.

The next year, Max Verstappen became F1’s youngest ever winner – by some margin – aged just 18 years and 228 days. But while Verstappen achieved so much so young, his breakthrough has not led to other teenage sensations making similar splashes in the world championship. At least, not from the current generation of junior single-seater drivers.

After Red Bull picked up Verstappen from the European Formula 3 championship, which he had moved to almost directly from karting, the FIA changed the qualification requirements for an F1 superlicence to remove two key elements which made his F1 arrival unique: he was under 18, and had only completed one season of car racing.

From then on all drivers applying for a superlicence need to have “completed at least 80% of each of two full seasons” of recognised championships and be at least 18 years of age. There is also a points requirement – very much a quality filter to make sure not all drivers who meet the other conditions can qualify for the licence.

But it’s not just this FIA-enforced system that is reducing the chances of a young driver entering F1 with the same impact as young Max Verstappen did.

Before having a junior driver academy was common among teams, there was only really McLaren who had a formalised structure for supporting young talents over the late 1990s and early 2000s before Red Bull upped their game. Part of the reason Red Bull not only increased the scale of their driver development programme, but then also brought an F1 team by 2005, is that they had limited negotiating power against the ‘super managers’ and those with a budget at the time.

Kimi Raikkonen, Sauber, 2001
Raikkonen’s promotion to F1 surprised many
Back in 2000, Red Bull were targeting a Sauber seat for protege Enrique Bernoldi, but the team instead signed unknown name Kimi Raikkonen from Formula Renault 2.0. Raikkonen’s test performances had convinced Peter Sauber he was the driver to go for, but it was also the fact that the 21-year-old was managed by Dave Robertson and his son Steve.

Dave, who sadly died in 2014, had brought Jenson Button onto the grid in similarly surprising fashion the year before as the British Formula 3 racer was chosen over Formula 3000 winner Bruno Junqueira. While commercial appeal was and still is a major element of attraction to F1 teams when signing a driver, the influence of managers who had already successfully brought future superstars into F1 only increased at that time.

Not long after, Nicolas Todt built a similar reputation as he engineered Felipe Massa’s path to Ferrari and many drivers after him. But nowadays, with several F1 teams running young driver programmes which can each feature as many as 10 juniors, there is an easier way for talents to be thrown into the paddock spotlight by something other than their pure commercial value.

This is where Red Bull has had a stronghold with their long-time de facto B-team Toro Rosso that has now become a ‘sister’ operation as AlphaTauri, currently fielding grand prix winner Pierre Gasly and Yuki Tsunoda. While Tsunoda had just a year apiece in F3 and Formula 2 before landing his F1 berth, Gasly had to win the GP2 title, almost repeat that feat in Super Formula and then race in Formula E before finally reaching F1.

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Red Bull still have their motorsport consultant Dr Helmut Marko at the helm of the junior team, but many rivals have brought in or have links to the best-known managers and talent supporters in junior single-seaters. Red Bull’s rapid promotion strategy – with six of the 20 youngest F1 racers of all time having debuted with Toro Rosso, but only half of those still being on the grid today – has made others more cautious in moving drivers up the single-seater ladder too fast and particularly at the final step.

Oscar Piastri, Alpine, Yas Marina, 2021
F2 champion Piastri has been left in limbo
Reigning F2 champion Oscar Piastri, who was signed to what’s now known as the Alpine Academy after winning the 2019 Formula Renault Eurocup, is a perfect example. He was supposed to be supported through two years each in F3 and F2, but winning the title on his first attempt both times has left him in limbo as FIA regulations bar champions of the junior series it certifies from returning the next year.

Piastri’s career is managed by former Red Bull driver Mark Webber as well as Alpine, and despite the status his fellow Australian holds in the F1 paddock both as a racer and talent spotter, he does not possess the promotional power needed to place his protege in an F1 seat. Despite Piastri winning the two biggest titles on the FIA pathway to F1 back-to-back.

The Covid-19 pandemic contributed some amount to that with the lack of face-to-face meetings able to take place, and also the instability of the period leading to some teams finalising their 2021 line-ups as early as possible. The rising costs of racing have changed how the time of the likes of the Robertsons, Webber and Todt is spent. Previously, you could have been a PR machine for your driver, telling everyone in F1 how brilliant they were and that you need to sign them. Now, you’re not even thinking about that until you’ve sourced the millions needed to even put them on the back of the grid in a high-end junior series. And because of the current superlicence system, most drivers are obliged to do F2 if they want a realistic shot at scoring the required superlicence points to be F1 eligible.

Even when Piastri was leading F2, Webber’s priority was finding the budget to keep him in a top seat there for 2022 and it meant there was little window of opportunity to sell the 20-year-old’s skills to other F1 teams.

Theo Pourchaire, Alfa Romeo, Hungaroring, 2021
Pourchaire tested for Alfa Romeo but Zhou got the drive
For a while last year, it looked like Alfa Romeo, run by Sauber, would promote Theo Pourchaire to a race seat after eye-opening F2 wins in Monaco and at Monza as a rookie. The 18-year-old is a protege of Sauber but ultimately was beaten by Alpine junior Guanyu Zhou to the seat.

Pourchaire had only been in that position after F4 title success and F3 runner-up status as a rookie meant he rocketed up to F2. For anyone to repeat that trajectory, they need to be in a top team in F4, then realistically be picked up by an F1 team that will help them bypass Formula Regional by placing them straight into F3 – ideally at a top team. The same goes for progressing to F2 after just one season, regardless of results.

Nowadays, it’s not just Sauber following that pattern of investment. Ferrari and Red Bull do the same, while Alpine signs juniors only when they reach F3. Unless they debut in cars in Formula Regional, it means drivers require a minimum of two seasons of racing experience – therefore reducing the chances of the French-owned British team ever bringing a teenager into F1.

Sometimes being an F1 junior is all the promotion you need to bring additional investment into your career to finance being in junior series, although many teams will have their own logos all over your car anyway. But having a good management structure separate to that is key to making a splash when you move up the ranks.

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ADD Management looks after Lando Norris and has been instrumental in the trajectory of his career and several other McLaren-linked drivers, and Infinity Sports took George Russell to the top as well as convincing Williams to sign its latest junior Logan Sargeant and calming the storm of Dan Ticktum’s junior career (he will make his Formula E debut next week). Each of these drivers has been kept ‘on the right road’ by having a strong group of supporting people around them.

As impressive as it may be to be self-managed or to just be a father-and-child combination like Verstappen was, not having that additional support can be seen as a red flag when a young driver attempts marketing themselves to F1.

Which bring us to the elephant in the room concerning the superlicence system and the whole junior single-seater pyramid in general: Money. Its influence is felt deeply, long before a young driver steps into the office of an F1 team.

Mazepin has tested for Mercedes
To make a splash in F4, you need to test. And to match what your rivals do, you need to test a lot. Maybe 40 or so days per year. To do that, you need money, and not even F1 teams put that kind of cash into a junior driver whose prospects of still being under contract with them eight years later is going to be very low.

So to do private testing, you need to be rich. Being rich alone doesn’t make you F1 standard, but in the long-run you will have more room for improvement than someone without that budget ever would.

To get all the 40 minimum required points for your superlicence, the easiest way to accumulate them is to race in as many series as possible. Again, this means money, but it also means if you’re doing two or three championships a year from the day you start in cars, you’re going to be far less sensational a signing by the time you reach F1 than the likes of Raikkonen or Verstappen were.

The FIA now allows superlicence points to be earned from two non-clashing series in a calendar year, so you can do winter and summer series. The winter series give you a head-start on your main campaign if it’s in the same car, and also provide a benefit on securing a seat for that campaign.

Formula Regional Asian Championship, Dubai, 2021
Report: Four F1 juniors among 28 drivers confirmed for Formula Regional Asian Championship
If you land a seat at a top team for the Formula Regional Asian Championship which starts this weekend, then you basically get first dibs on the same seat for the Formula Regional European Championship. Vice versa, if you’ve already signed for FREC then there will probably be a place waiting for you in FRAC. And as those seats sell early, often the previous summer, those who get there earliest are the richest.

What’s more, you can then work with the same engineer and mechanic across the two series, and your preparations therefore greatly outweigh those of a driver without the budget to do both championships.

When moving up to F3, you can still do FRAC as a secondary series, and previously F2 drivers were allowed to as well. Nikita Mazepin and Zhou used it to facilitate their moves into F1. In F3, you’ll likely be doing 10 or more private test days in old GP3 cars too. This may actually be against FIA rules, but it goes unobserved because those tests are a key part of the market for selling seats in the F1 support paddock.

It’s a similar story even in F2, but the likes of the late Adrian Campos did at least regularly sign drivers that impressed him personally despite a lack of budget.

While the superlicence system was shaken up in 2015 to prevent drivers making an impact at such a young age to limit underprepared drivers from reaching F1, it has instead created a climate where now only those who are over-prepared with thousands of kilometres of additional running hold a realistic chance of a rapid progression up the ladder.

And then, if they do get into F1, it’s usually with a big wad of cash for them to hand over when they get there.

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Author information

Ida Wood
Often found in junior single-seater paddocks around Europe doing journalism and television commentary, or dabbling in teaching Photography back in the UK. Currently based...

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44 comments on “Why the next karting prodigy won’t reach F1 as quickly as its newest champion did”

  1. Thanks @idawood for this thorough look into the junior ladders. Sadly it shows us a not unexpected, but not very pleasant reality. But a very well written article and good to read.

    1. Thanks @elliotwood for the article!

      1. Indeed, thanks @elliotwood for the great article! I’ve never known about the influence of some managers despite knowing their names.

  2. I still fail to see any upsides to the new superlicense points system…

    1. Well, it does mean that pay drivers at least have some skills. Either inherent, or at least from endless testing and racing in many categories to get the points needed on the board.

      1. That’s an interesting point @bascb, and Axel I would add the big positive of having to go through official FIA channels, which might not seem like much of an advantage to us as outsiders, but certainly at the time of introduction appeared a big thing for the FIA. See also why Indycar success, for example isn’t an efficient way to get to F1

      2. That is the only thing i find good of the superlicense points system for the rest i see no use.

    2. Without it, Nikita Mazepin could have debuted in F1 in Japan 2018, and with some merits to boot.

      1. Much worse pay drivers would have entered F1, and existing pay drivers have had to prove a minimum level of competency. Just imagine Sean Gelael taking a F1 seat and suddenly Mazepin doesn’t look half as bad.

        1. Sorry meant to reply to Axel with that comment

  3. It’s time to stop ring-fencing the current grid.

    If Audi and Porsche come in, they should do so as teams.

    Four more seats on the grid would be a massive help to this.

    1. I wish :) i am from a time you had a prequalify to do a prequalify and if you made that you could try qualify. But those times you have many teams and even more privateers (with one car forexample)
      those old movies were you see the grid totally filled and a bit more.

    2. May be if F1 drops the anti-dilution fee of $200.000.000. And that probably won’t happen before 2026, when a new Concorde Agreement comes into play.

  4. Perhaps some changes could be in order: Keep the minimum age limit, but remove points system altogether, i.e., only one restrictive factor that arrived in 2016 would stay along with those that were already in place, which are 300 km in an F1 car at proper pace & some others like rule studying, etc.
    As long as a driver turns 18, he could get an SL at any point when meeting the preceding criterion.
    BTW, Gasly only did a one-off appearance in FE, so didn’t actually race in the series.

    1. Who is this supposed to help? Who are these mythical world championship level talents that cannot get into Formula 1 because of needing 2 seasons in cars and at least one result good enough to garner 40 licensing points?

      Seem to me you’d mostly fast-track pay drivers and sons of overly ambitious parents into F1.

      1. It’s not two good seasons in cars. Generally it’s three now, at least. That costs millions upon millions. And with he super licence points you NEED to go with a good team because otherwise you won’t be able to get them. That means teams can up their prices.

        1. If you’re that good, people will fight over who gets to pay for your rides up the ladder.

          If however you are not that good, I, frankly, couldn’t care less.

          1. “If you’re that good, people will fight over who gets to pay for your rides up the ladder”

            no they won’t. That’s not how it works at all in motorpsort. The level of investment required is gigantic. That level of investment doesn’t just ‘appear’.

            Tom Joyner won the 2013 World Karting Championship, beating Max Verstappen (who we all knew at the time was otherworldly good), and I don’t recall anyone with several million telling Tom they’ll pay for several years in single seaters (and back then technically you only really needed one season as Max did).

          2. Alan Dove I was interested to read your comment about Joyner so I did a little search just for fun.

            From Wiki…”In 2013, Verstappen won the European KF and KZ championships. At the age of 15, Verstappen won the 2013 World KZ championship at Varennes-sur-Allier, France, in KZ1, the highest karting category.[33][34]”

            Indeed you are right that Joyner beat Max in 2013 but that was in a different karting category and Max came 3rd. Max was also 5 years younger than Joyner.

            Anyway, for sure you are right that money doesn’t always follow talent, and I think many things can complicate who gets backed and who doesn’t and for sure sometimes it is just timing, and can be like a lottery. But I think at the same time talent does get noticed and followed through on. Isn’t that what happened with Hamilton? I read a quote from Joyner admitting his family didn’t have deep pockets, and it seems like the ‘only’ racing he has done is high level karting. At this point he is pretty much 30 years old. We know LH’s dad didn’t have deep pockets either, but Mac saw great potential in LH. Of course Max had the advantage of his dad being from F1.

          3. @robbie

            It wasn’t just a ‘different karting category’. It was the 2013 Karting World Championship. The original ‘world championship’. KZ has had sporadic world championship status in comparison. That doesn’t undermine Max’s achievement though, he really is as good as he looks.

            With regard to Hamilton. I raced Lewis back in the day at club level, so I guess I have a bit more knowledge than most. Lewis was and is a fantastic driver, the greatest F1 driver of all time. No doubt. But he was =lucky, just as Max was lucky his parents were ex-F1 and one ex-world class karter.

            Hamilton’s local track was Rye House, the base of Zip Kart, and thus he caught the eye of the very influential Martin Hines. Zip Kart dominated the Cadet karting scene back then. So having the backing of Hines was crucial. Secondarily in 1996 ‘Champions of the Future’ was on ITV on Saturdays for the first time. (hence why you can go watch Hamilton racing Cadets on YT). This was sponsored by McLaren. For Hamilton this was perfect timing because he was the dominant Cadet driver at the time. No karter in the history of the sport before and since has ever had what amounted to mainstream exposure on a national television station. It was unique then and still to this day nothing has really come close to it. So the novelty of signing up Hamilton was there for Mc. He was winning CoF on ITV.

            So when people say hamilton ‘got noticed’.. well yes… but he was fortunate that he had Champions of the Future and Hines to show off his talent on mainstream TV at age 10 Drivers don’t get that nowadays. He was exceptionally talented, don’t get me wrong, but he was not without luck. He deserved all his success though.

          4. @ Alan

            Thanks for sharing, always interesting and informative to hear from people who were actually there! 👍

          5. Alan Dove Thanks for that interesting info. For sure when there is so much talent out there the stars really have to align for a Hamilton etc etc. Reminds me of hockey here in Canada which is huge, and yeah ultimately you have to have ultra talent and even then it can be the luck of the draw as to a scout being there on the right day at the right time etc etc.

            Some have had an interesting way of looking at this by saying things such as ‘the best ever race driver (substitute hockey or football player etc etc) is out there but just hasn’t been discovered or hasn’t gotten the opportunity.’

          6. Russel didn’t go to Bahrain to race iirc.

          7. The 2013 Championship races are both available officially on Youtube, btw, as I found out yesterday when looking for them.

            Tom Joyner was genuinely quick in both races but started the first outside the top 10, worked himself into the top 5, but must have gotten into a tussle that had him disappear into the midfield again as Max was just driving away from everyone.

            Max appeared off the top tace in the second race despite leading early and did a quintessential Max trying to stay second, putting himself and Nielson in the sand.

            Seeing how the Championship ended up getting won on 29 points, a more mature driver would probably have kept that in mind in race 2 and just finish in the top 5 or even top 10 to take home the title.

            All in all a fun watch, and karts look genuinely quick at Youtube 2x, so thanks for the pointer, Alan! 👍

          8. I was at the first race watching just on the outside of Bobby Game corner (another incredible driving talent from back in the 90s). Max was so good it was unbelievable to watch. At the end of the day Tom won the championship deservedly. An incredible talent. One of the best karters I’ve raced, though I only raced him once and I had no testing and was slow. ‘Maturity’ talk is a bit of a red-herring. Older drivers make mistakes too.

            It is what it is. Max was going backwards fast anyway, whatever the reason. He made up for it at the KZ worlds anyway. The karts are genuinely quick at 1x speed by the way. They are absolutely exhausting to drive.

            Like I have said, I am a ‘karting is its own sport’ man, so I am more than happy to rank to the top karters alongside any other racing series. To a large extent I rank them higher.

            but the original point here was this false notion that ‘good’ drivers get spotted and supported. They don’t. No one really cares how good you are nowadays, if anything being good and not having money is a problem as teams don’t like having drivers showing up paying customers. You need to be bringing serious money. Super Licence has just made it much worse, especially for single-seater racing. We all knew this as soon as it was introduced. Motorsport, especially single seater cars, needs a high level of ‘flexibility’ for drivers.

      2. Yup, this system basically favors rich kids and helping the FIA to force people to use its series for access. It’s ridiculous. If a driver tests an F1 car is fast that’s all we need to know. Give them a probationary license and if they show they’re a Grosjean like risk, revoke it.

    2. 300 km in an F1 car at proper pace

      Define, “proper pace” you only introduce more unclear definitions in the fia rulebook with this statement.
      And 300 km is only one race distance. That’s hardly a level of experience enough to even mention.

      1. @erikje How should I know? Proper racing speed, pushing, etc. Certainly not driving like a pedestrian.
        I didn’t make these up since they’re official, generally known stuff.

  5. There is no benefit to this system at all. It’s preventing nothing, it’s helping nobody.

    Like none of the drivers that got into F1 with “too little experience in motor racing” are worse off for it. Kimi won a WDC, Max won a WDC, Button won a WDC. Yes, these drivers were “fast tracked” into Formula 1, but not because of money or having a good manager, it was because they were stellar drivers that teams saw something in that made them want to sign them.

    On the opposite end, you have the pay-drivers like Stroll who were also fast tracked, but then you still ended up getting Nikita Mazepin (who’s not as good as Stroll by quite a margin, but that’s besides the point) that still ended up in F1 anyways.

    So. Again. Who or what is this system for? F1 isn’t any better or worse off with this system in place. Everything’s the same except now there’s arbitrary rules that would prevent Max Verstappen from coming into F1 if there was to ever be a Max Verstappen again. And 2015 with Verstappen was a much more entertaining season then 2015 without Verstappen, so I’m not convinced that’s a good thing.

    1. It was indeed een seaon i enjoyed and got my F1 fan blood going again. If Max wasn’t there i probaly would quited on f1 as the last enjoyment was 2007-2008 with Lewis and my interest was waning a lot after that….

  6. This requirement seems to ensure the moderately talented rich are able to qualify for a superlicence over very talented but underfunded drivers. Gone are the days that F1 had the best drivers, the future is super rich kids spinning out in record time, while 2nd and 3rd generation rich kids with famous names are ushered in for marketing value.

    At least Hill, Rosberg and Villeneuve had enough talent to really compete once they had winning machinery. I have big doubts about Mick (I’m pretty sure he is a Ralph more than a Michael), no doubts about Nikita though, he has less talent than a drunk taxi driver swiping tinder profiles while driving.

    I wonder how a Jim Clark would go making the grid these days.

    1. This requirement seems to ensure the moderately talented rich are able to qualify for a superlicence over very talented but underfunded drivers.

      BS. Show me the underfunded Max Verstappen level talent.

      Virtually every team is looking for that talent, to the point of signing a bunch of second-rate drivers just to cover their bases.

      This whole discussion is largely about people that don’t have that level of talent, but might be good enough for a couple of seasons in a midfield team, the Giovinnazzis of the grid, if you will. And frankly, I’m not particularly invested in whether these drivers make it to Formula 1.

      I wonder how a Jim Clark would go making the grid these days.Didn’t he start racing using his dad’s old car. In the 50s. In post-war Great Britain?

      He’d do all right.

      1. While I am very much in the ‘karting is its own sport’ Tom Joyner. Beat Max to the 2013 World Karting Championship. Fantastic talent. Danny Keirle is up there 2017 World Champ in karts. Mike Spencer of yesteryear. I can spend all day doing this. There’s an endless list of drivers who are top top top level. It’s largely a money game.

        1. Alan Dove Yeah, as per my comment to you above, for sure it is largely a money game, moreso than ever, but I think not always. See Lewis Hamilton. Mind you, that was a number of years ago, but still…must have been tons of great karters in his era too.

          And yeah I have no doubt Tom Joyner is a fantastic talent, but as I discovered Max also beat him in 2013 too, and at 15 years of age to Tom’s 20 at the time. Actually I didn’t search deep enough to know if in the other categories in which Max did win in 2013, Joyner was racing in those categories, but suffice it to say as I reference above, Max was also winning karting championships in 2013. And then of course there’s the deep pockets and the former F1er dad on his side.

          1. Lewis benefited from racing at a time when Champions of the Future was on ITV on Saturday afternoons. This coverage was worth millions. Hamilton didn’t come from money, but his timing was absolutely spot on. I am happy it was him who got it because he deserves the success.

        2. Tom Joyner is 5 1/2 years older than Max Verstappen and apparently beat him at the age of 21 1/2 years by (if reporting is to be believed) not being involved in a crash?

          If that’s the Championship level talent not being recognized by potential backers, I am not too perturbed.

          1. Max was losing time after being passed by Tom who was flying in Bahrain. Tom won the British Championship two years prior. Top level talent. Age is irrelevant. He didn’t just beat Max btw, he beat everyone. I should add Max is a once in a generation talent. To even compete with him is an achievement. Harry Webb also beat him at the Rotax Euro round Max wildcarded at. (albeilt on a CRG which wasn’t great on the Mojos)

            As was Danny Keirle in 2017. Travisnuttu was/is unbelievable. I can list drivers all day who are as good as many on the ‘F1 ladder’. Mike Spencer, Niki Richardson, Fore, Ardigo, Catt, Litchfield etc…

            Jack Doohan, RBR junior in F2, finished outside the top 10 of my local club KZ race the other month. (fair play to him for racing tho he wasn’t slow either). I am being literal here though – I have friends at my local club kart race who in terms of talent I put on par with drivers who are close or in F1. A lot of people will be uncomfortable with that, I think it’s kinda cool because I am a karter. ​

            ​Max and Lewis are up there of course in terms of talent, obviously, but if you don’t think major talents don’t just get routinely overlooked, you’re mistaken.

          2. Alan Dove Great to hear (read) your perspective on this.

    2. That’s one of the bad things it will do. If a driver can find funding for only three F2 races and wipes the floor with the competition, he’s good enough to be given a chance in F1. Moreover any driver, who tests and F1 car and is within a second, should be given a license to drive in F1.

      This seems mostly about forcing people to spend more money in FIA sanctioned racing series.

  7. I’m not a fan of the ban for champions to return to F2 and F3, because the championship is often decided too late to get a good new seat, so the champion is often punished for winning, by being left without a drive or with a poor drive, hampering their career.

    In general, the entire system seems rather pointless, designed to prevent a non-problem, while creating lots of new problems and benefitting the wealthy, rather than the talented. Just let the teams decide who they think is ready for F1. If they go too far in giving a drive to a rich kid with zero talent, the FIA can already intervene with the 107% rule, penalty points or the good old black/white & black flags.

  8. It’s an idiotic rule as so many drivers from Kimi to Max to Seb have all proven. All drivers who would not have qualified to drive in F1 under the current system. They should simplify things so that if a team wants a driver without an SL, he simply needs to do a test thar shows he’s on the pace. If a driver is fast enough to lap within a half second of what the current drivers do in the test chassis, he’s safe to drive in F1.

  9. Nice in-depth analysis without all the loftiness and patting yourself on the back ala Dieter

  10. “Champ” aided by cheating.

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