Rushing youth into F1 can go “terribly wrong” said Wolff, so why hurry Antonelli?

Formula 1

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Last week the FIA opened the door for Mercedes junior driver Andrea Kimi Antonelli to make his Formula 1 debut before his 18th birthday.

Mercedes may not have been behind the request to review the licence rules and Antonelli is not about to immediately start racing a W15. But he is under consideration for a place at the team next year as it needs a replacement for Lewis Hamilton.

Team principal Toto Wolff has been at pains to downplay the team’s expectations of a driver which has been part of its junior programme for years. Keeping a lid on expectations has proved difficult, however as everything is aligning for Antonelli to make a remarkably rapid ascent into a top seat.

Last week’s development showed time is of the essence. The FIA’s new rule allows it to grant a dispensation for 17-year-olds to obtain a super licence to compete in F1 if it believes they are up to scratch. But there are only six grands prix until Antonelli turns 18 anyway – the festivities coincide with the Zandvoort round – when no dispensation would have been required. The same reasoning applies to the other rule changed last week, dropping the requirement for super licence holders to have a road car licence, which Antonelli could not obtain in Italy until he reaches 18.

The obvious inference to draw is that Antonelli will be on the starting grid for a Formula 1 race between now and his next birthday. That would make him only the second 17-year-old to race in the series since Max Verstappen, whose debut nine years ago prompted the creation of the very rule the FIA has now devised a means of circumventing.

Max Verstappen, Toro Rosso, Melbourne, 2015
Verstappen’s debut as a 17-year-old led FIA to change rules
Due to the timing of the change in the rules, it’s unlikely Antonelli could make his debut this weekend. However it would be no surprise to see him appear in the opening practice session, as his Prema Formula 2 team mate Oliver Bearman will for Haas.

The same two rules changes for race licences have also been made for the ‘free practice-only super licence’ which Antonelli requires to do this. He already fulfils the requirement of collecting 25 super licence points.

The route for Antonelli to make his debut in F1 for Mercedes next year therefore appears clear, if Wolff chooses it: He can spend the remaining two-thirds of the current season serving an apprenticeship in a seat at a customer team, widely expected to be the one Logan Sargeant currently occupies at Williams, where he would also be reunited with team principal James Vowles, whom Antonelli already knows well from Mercedes.

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If Mercedes do then pick him up for 2025, he will be paired with another product of Mercedes’ junior driver programme, albeit one whose ascent to the factory team was not nearly as rapid: George Russell.

George Russell, Williams, Hungaroring, 2019
Russell spent three seasons at tail-enders Williams
While Antonelli skipped Formula 3 entirely, Russell spent three years at that level (the FIA series was still known as GP3 when he won the title). Russell also served a full year in F2, which looks increasingly unlikely for Antonelli. After three seasons at Williams, Russell finally joined Mercedes at the age of 24.

Wolff explained why they did not rush Russell’s promotion to Mercedes halfway through his first season at Williams in 2019:

“I don’t think that you’re given the possibility to learn in a Mercedes because you’re being put in a car that is able to win races and championships in a high-pressure environment,” Wolff explained. “And I think it can go terribly wrong for a young driver that has the talent to become a world champion if he’s thrown in that environment next to the best driver of his generation who has been who has been with us for seven years. I wouldn’t want to burn George.”

But these are different times, different circumstances and – perhaps most importantly – different drivers.

When Wolff was speaking five years ago, Mercedes were the team to beat. Putting an unproven youngster in one of their cars brought with it a huge risk: If they failed to perform it could cost the team a championship.

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Andrea Kimi Antonelli, Prema, Formula 2, Imola, 2024
Antonelli looks likely to be on the F1 grid soon
Mercedes won 10 of the 12 races before Wolff made that comment. Two of the first four were won by the driver Russell eventually replaced, Valtteri Bottas, who also led the early stages of the championship that year. Mercedes therefore had little motivation to change their line-up, unlike today, when they know they have a vacancy for next season.

Finally, there is the difference in drivers. Russell earned his place on Mercedes’ young driver programme – famously – by pitching his case to Wolff. He grafted, won the championships he needed to – including back-to-back GP3 and F2 titles – and earned his stripes in a succession of largely uncompetitive Williams chassis. He stunned on his debut as a substitute for Hamilton in the 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix, a race he deserved to win, and though by that time it was too late to contemplate a change in their line-up for the following year.

Antonelli, however, was backed by Mercedes from a younger age. His progress to F1 was gaining speed even before Hamilton’s shock off-season announcement – Mercedes decided Antonelli should bypass F3 well before then.

The stars have aligned for him now, and while the speed of his ascension has come as a surprise for some, Verstappen has shown how well it can work. That’s the kind of rare talent Mercedes suspect they have on their hands with Antonelli, which combined with a change in their circumstances has prompted a change of view on how great a gamble to take on youth.

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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32 comments on “Rushing youth into F1 can go “terribly wrong” said Wolff, so why hurry Antonelli?”

  1. Because he’s called Kimi!
    It worked for the other one – he skipped GP2 (and F3?) and needed special dispensation to get his licence, but made himself at home in an F1 Sauber.

    1. Yeah, the OG Kimi had done fewer than 20 races in single-seaters before Sauber called him up to race in F1. I forget what happened next, probably nothing remarkable.

    2. @bullfrog Incomparable since no requirements regarding lower single-seater experience, let alone points system or anything else that came in 2016, existed when he entered F1, & the same with everyone else who debuted in F1 pre-2016 but wouldn’t have qualified under the 2016-present requirements had they been in place in their times.

  2. I hate all of this.
    I wish the minimum age for entering F1 was sth like 23. Why? Because it would lessen this awful culture of big corporations acting like vultures around talented children.
    F1, as the supposed pinnacle of motorsport, should be a place for accomplished drivers, big name drivers to compete in. But most of the field have never competed in anything other than a junior series as kids racing against other kids.
    Top young single-seater talents should be able to go through their junior careers without all of that big money nonsense and marketing manipulation, and then spend a couple of seasons in serious adult racing series, develop their talents and make names for themselves.

    And then F1 teams could offer contracts to the very best drivers in the world, and not just talented kids, especially as many top talents never go through that silly FIA junior formulae ladder.

    1. It would make karting payable again as even karting is very expensive too far for the normal working people right now. (~100k euro each year which sound not much but if your parent earn 40k-60k a year you see this is massive.

      When i was karting it was 2k-10k guilders a whole year and you could compitive. But from the 90s it went sharp up as more factory teams came you needed to spend 50-75k guilders stay with the fastest.

      1. It really depends on the country, in italy 40k is unheard of for the normal working people, more like 20k, and with the basic expenses it’s already a lot to bank anything at all, so 100k definitely DOES sound like a lot for an italian.

        1. I ask a frontrunner and that was the price for succes. You could do it cheaper but your material isn’t for the front nr. 20+ you drive for your entertaiment only….
          If your son/daughter isn’t 1 or 2 there isn’t a future for motor sport (F1) you have to be noticed to get into factory teams.

    2. Why? Because it would lessen this awful culture of big corporations acting like vultures around talented children.

      This happens in most sports, not only F1, you’re not ever gonna get a 23 years old minimum age in F1 or any other sport, imagine if it happened in football, Messi? yeah really good but can’t ever play in Spain because it’s one of the big leagues and it has a 23 year old minimum just go sit back to the junior leagues in Argentina for years, or a modern UK one, Bellingham, well since he is from the UK he can play in the Premier league I guess, which is pretty unfair to non-european players, but no Champions league or UEFA or World Cup that’s 23 and up only sorry.

      And vultures? really? these ‘kids’ are paid more in a single season of F1 than some normal worker will see in his lifetime and seeing their dreams come true, it’s not like they’re getting ripped off at all, If I had some vulture big corporation behind me in my young days I could have at least tried to get to F1, motorsport is still a way too expensive sport that doesn’t pay all that well, maybe there are a couple of Senna+ around in Brazil but we will never get to see them since there’s no way to even begin to try racing, having a minimum age only makes it harder for the non rich guys.

      1. Your comparison to football makes zero sence at all.
        You can be a great football player outside of a any football league. You cannot be a great F1 driver… outside of F1.
        Is Antonelli a great F1 driver? He is not. You can’t be one without being an F1 driver.

      2. An Sionnach
        19th June 2024, 0:53

        Correct. A driver or footballer will not become great if they do not get to compete at the highest level.

    3. ASD, I very much agree. I’ve always liked the NFL model. NFL is the pinnacle league of Amercian Football, and they have a rule that effectively means a player has to be old enough to have left school and completed a college degree. Coupled with that, they have a very good semi-pro college football network which is the feeder league for NFL. This means that most NFL players have a level of maturity when they enter the top flight, they have physically matured too and better able to cope with the stresses of training and play, and they often have majored in things like marketing, business studies, journalism and media, etc, so much better placed to remain in the sport industry if their playing career doesn’t work out.

  3. I suppose the Piastri saga made teams double check their contracts with juniors. Mercedes might well have to deliver a seat, even if they’d prefer not to right now.

  4. James Vowles made clear in Imola that no driver changes will happen during the season, so people should stop contradicting him & assuming that just because FIA altered the age requirement, things would change on this front/he’d change his mind, especially since debuting during the season was already theoretically possible, albeit effectively from the Italian GP weekend, as in Zandvoort, he could only participate in the race & a practice session under the zero-flexibility limit.
    I don’t get the 25 license points reference, though, as he’s had the overall minimum amount reached since late last year anyway, & was 18 the strict minimum for even a free practice-only license, which hasn’t seemed to be the case at any point since 2016, given that the minimum age requirement was meant for ‘competitive’ running in the first place rather than literally any F1 car driving.

    1. I am sure Kimi get a free pratice this year.

    2. Okay, so no one is allowed to question something some guy says. It’s not like twists ever happen in F1, and no one changes their minds. Plus, you read and comment on every article here, which is practically a gossip blog, so why do gossips bother you?

  5. Adam (@rocketpanda)
    17th June 2024, 18:28

    I do wonder if being able to come in to ‘the pinnacle of motorsport’ F1 at a very young age, bypassing a lot of the feeder series and not having significant titles under your belt cheapens the product somewhat. Seems like if you have the right connections you can just ignore the whole feeder structure entirely. ‘The best drivers in the world!’… and some teenagers – a precious few that succeeded and a horde of them whose careers were over before they hit 25.

    1. No, it just emphasizes the talent level of drivers who make it in this fashion and almost every driver who has come into F1 with very little junior formula experience and/or at an extremely early age went on to achieve amazing things: Kimi, Alonso, Seb, Max, etc. The way you describe makes it sound like as if rich kids were paying to bypass junior formula.

  6. Last week the FIA opened the door for Mercedes junior driver Andrea Kimi Antonelli to make his Formula 1 debut before his 18th birthday.

    Repeating a statement that is not correct many times does not bend the universe to make it true.

    Yet again, I quote the actual regulation:
    13.1.2 The driver must be at least 18 years old at the start of the event of his first F1 competition.

    Last week’s development showed time is of the essence. The FIA’s new rule allows it to grant a dispensation for 17-year-olds to obtain a super licence to compete in F1 if it believes they are up to scratch.

    Antonelli can have a Super Licence right now, he can not compete until the race event that begins after his birthday.

    1. Once again, you’re misinterpreting or failing to fully get the concept.
      Obtaining a standard super license precisely means that a driver can immediately start racing in F1 in any case, which is what granting a super license before turning 18 under relevant criteria circumstances is all about.
      Otherwise, no point in having the minimum age requirement feature caveats if a driver still couldn’t drive in F1 competitively until 18th birthday at the very earliest anyway.

      1. Once again, you’re ̶m̶i̶s̶i̶n̶t̶e̶r̶p̶r̶e̶t̶i̶n̶g̶ ̶o̶r̶ ̶f̶a̶i̶l̶i̶n̶g̶ ̶t̶o̶ ̶f̶u̶l̶l̶y̶ ̶g̶e̶t̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶c̶o̶n̶c̶e̶p̶t̶ whining…

        1. Simon I’m not whining but simply pointing out an aspect for accuracy’s sake.

      2. no point in having the minimum age requirement feature caveats if a driver still couldn’t drive in F1 competitively until 18th birthday at the very earliest anyway

        Which is why I have said, repeatedly, that what the FIA might have intended and what they delivered are two different things.

        It’s basic English.
        The FIA authors may be English-as-second-language and therefore missed the precision required, what English-as-native users are confused by baffles me.

      3. Obtaining a standard super license precisely means that a driver can immediately start racing in F1 in any case,

        If they are 18 they can compete, if they are not 18 they cannot compete.
        That’s what the first sentence says, and no part of the first sentence is negated by the whole, or any part of the second.

        1. I think you are parsing this to death. If, as you state, one has to be 18 to race then what’s the point of giving a 17 year old, at the discretion of the FIA, a super license if they can’t use it? No, the intent is clear that the FIA can let a 17 year old race in F1 if they feel he is qualified.

          Personally I think 17 is too young and there needs to be a chance for maturation. Sure, a 15 year old can be a fantastic skate boarder, but so what? A good example is how Max has matured over the past couple of years and become a great driver, getting away from the kid stuff.

          1. If, as you state, one has to be 18 to race then what’s the point of giving a 17 year old, at the discretion of the FIA, a super license if they can’t use it?

            Very little.

            Maybe the FIA intended to open things up to 17-year-old drivers, maybe they intended to create the impression they were doing so.
            Either way, leaving in sentence 1 unchanged, with a MUST, is a showstopper because its very precise wording blocks every twist and turn people can think of and their new second sentence doesn’t make an attempt to modify the age restriction on competition at all, just the possession of a licence.

            Personally, I think 17 is probably an edge case. Whatever my view on that is irrelevant, since no one can compete in an event that starts before their 18th birthday under the current rules as written.

    2. José Lopes da Silva
      17th June 2024, 19:02

      The semantics of “Formula 1 debut” is an intriguing and interesting question.

      1. José Lopes da Silva Which ofc always refers to driving in a race for the first time.

    3. To 13.1.2 they added ‘At the sole discretion of the FIA, a driver judged to have recently and consistently demonstrated outstanding ability and maturity in single-seater formula car competition may be granted a Super Licence at the age of 17 years old.’

      It’s a ‘this is the requirement, unless’ clause.

      1. I’ve read it, I understand the text.
        It does not negate the limit on the age required for competition

        It does reduce the age at which you can obtain a full SL to 17 (with dispensation), but you can’t use the SL to compete until you are 18.

        1. The 18 years thing is one of the requirements for a Superlicense. The date of the first race is only important in case a team wants to appoint someone at the end of the F2 season who turns 18 during winter testing or so.

          The ‘unless the FIA says otherwise’ clause makes that whole thing irrelevant, so there’s no need to add further notes on it. If someone has a full (not FP-only) Superlicense they can race.

          1. If someone has a full (not FP-only) Superlicense they can race.

            Which part of the first sentence (which is not negated by any part of the second sentence) did you not understand?

            13.1.2 The driver must be at least 18 years old at the start of the event of his first F1 competition

  7. So he will be in the car in 2025! Nice prospect!

Comments are closed.