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When a strong racing pedigree isn’t quite so…
“Reputation is an idle and most false imposition; oft got without merit, and lost without deserving.” – William Shakespeare
So true, Bill. So true.
In Part 1 yesterday we established the underlying elements of arrogance and where I feel that word is correctly, and incorrectly, used with respect to Formula One. We touched on that corrosive element of entitlement, which can hold onto some drivers’ spirits in Formula One – think Villeneuve Jr. and Montoya – particularly in this young driver program era. Verstappen of course isn’t the only one, but at this stage he has the most to lose and it’s most apparent with the youngster that the extreme hype isn’t quite matching the reasonably solid substance; a hype that’s doing him no favours. Expectations are all skewed, and he is potentially in a no-win situation – unlike Sainz Jr. who is possibly in the perfect situation.
So where does this potentially career-damaging entitlement come from with respect to Verstappen? Of course, he’s still young at 18, and also let’s be totally frank; parents usually guide their kids (knowingly or otherwise) into what they become early on with respect to things like entitlement, humility, work ethic, graciousness, kindness, dealing with anger and the like. But that’s all bit general. I’m not too interested in using this article to delve into the depths of age-old questions on Nature vs. Nurture, Jung vs. Freud, Causality vs. Synchronicity / Meaningful Coincidence… trust me, we’d be here forever and I’m trying to keep matters succinct. That’s not easy for me. As an example, this was supposed to be a single Tweet! Then a small, one-part blog post!
But I digress…
So Verstappen, son of Verstappen has a racing father (and mother for that matter), and is 18. That’s not quite enough of an answer, is it? The fact of the matter is there’s something more deep-seeded, something greater needing to be resolved in order for Verstappen to take that next step over the coming two years. Red Bull are not backward about throwing drivers out, and lest he be lost to the sands of Formula One time.
Having a look through the youngster’s junior career is mildly surprising and potentially goes some way to answering where this disconnection between the hype and the emerging trend of his substance lay. The hype train did indeed leave the station in 2015 vis-à-vis Verstappen getting the Toro Rosso drive with placenta still on his ears, instead of sticking with Mercedes and taking another year, or two, to win a car championship and perhaps compete in a feeder series as Ocon has done. But what precipitated this development? Was he such a prodigy so as to take this extraordinary leap? What kind of mentality must he have had, and what guidance was he getting, to take this step?
As a youngster, from about four years of age, Verstappen was lapping local provincial tracks in minis and eventually from about 2006 to 2009 Verstappen was racing proper karts in Rotax-mini categories, showing promise by winning provincial and national series throughout Belgium and the Netherlands. All low level stuff, but a good start to establish a young racer’s reflexes, mind and fitness early on. That desire to win becomes part of the DNA of a racer, which is integral and established early.
Things stepped up a level in 2010 when Verstappen made the leap to international level competition with varying results but largely running at the front regularly and winning various national series. Verstappen’s karting peaked when he won the 2013 World KZ championship at Varennes-sur-Allier, France, in KZ1, which is one of the highest karting categories, if not the highest.
I don’t want to get too bogged down into the karting details, because, well karting is karting. Tough racing, to be sure – depending on the series – but it is limited in that the momentum management, complexity and skill set of car driving/racing, which can often blow top karters out of the water. I’ve seen it in Australia first hand. I’ve also observed it internationally. I’ve karted competitively myself, with a good degree of local, state and national success, and had drivers that were slightly better than I at times, at certain levels. But when everyone moved to cars, Formula Ford or what have you, things changed dramatically. It’s the first true filter of who is good, and who is just a good karter.
This is why if you Wiki many racing drivers’ profiles, their detailed career begins at cars with a small blurb of “oh, yeah, I karted too. Think I won something, once.” It’s primary school. You learn to keep mid-corner speed up. You learn lines. You learn racing technique. It’s pure, but limited. Traction isn’t really an issue. Braking modulation also not a great issue. Complex set-ups and gear changing are not relevant. Primary school is quite irrelevant if you’ve completed high school, and high school is largely irrelevant if you’ve ultimately gone onto tertiary education.
Trulli and Pantano, as examples, were two of the world’s best karters, yet in Formula One… on the other hand, Damon Hill who was a motorbike fanatic didn’t kart at all, jumping straight into cars and as we know eventually competed for three WDC’s, winning one in 1996 and many GP’s, against Schumacher no less. I hate you Damon! #Schumi4Eva!
Sorry… bad habits.
Nevertheless, it is a good start for a still very young Verstappen. But it’s primary school stuff, albeit top level primary school stuff. He did well in primary school. Let’s check out high school.
Now here is where the disconnection between hype and reality begins to manifest.
In essence, this is THE beginning of Verstappen’s career. On closer inspection it turns out he has done only one full season racing cars having competed in the 2014 Florida Winter Series, which is a non-championship racing series organised by the Ferrari Driver Academy in Florida where 12 races are held over 4 race meetings at Sebring International Raceway, Palm Beach International Raceway and Homestead-Miami Speedway using Formula Abarth cars, which are in line with Formula Ford, or presently Formula Four. Basically, first step from karting level cars. Hmm, Ferrari sponsored American Formula Ford? Hardly hyper-competitive, but decent experience nonetheless if that’s the start of a long process.
In this series Verstappen placed 3rd overall behind Fuoco and Latifi. For what it’s worth, this writer has raced – and won many races and two championships – at Formula Ford level. I don’t say that to brag, just that I understand the category well and the performance of the cars. One doesn’t consider Formula One at this level. Placing 3rd overall in this series doesn’t quite make one a prodigy.
In the same year (2014) Verstappen raced in the prestigious FiA European Formula 3 Championship; a series I have much respect for. The pre-eminent Formula 3 category. I’ve also raced at Formula 3 level, nationally, and won races / set poles. Ok, that one was a bit of a brag – deal with it. The point is, it is here that the skills really develop and the speed becomes apparent. Consistency is cultivated and decent understandings of a car’s set-up begins to be learned. Alterations in set-up don’t really make massive differences in Formula Ford, unless one is being completely stupid with respect to settings.
Still in the same year as the previous series, this is the first real substantial questioning a driver (and his supporters) ask, “will I be a racing driver full-time?”, “am I good enough to really start cultivating my talent and committing to this life?”, “how do I get to Formula One?” etc. This is where backers really come into play because at this stage, and beyond, it’s serious stuff. Too expensive to do it alone, and too complex to rely on oneself. This is where you have to, more or less, dominate if Formula One is the goal. This is where one needs to be a prodigy, or if not, very good and unashamedly dominate the following season.
In this championship Verstappen placed a 3rd overall, behind Ocon who won the title (and a driver I’ve rated for a few years) and Blomqvist. Verstappen however won a lot of races, in fact more than the eventual winner and runner-up. But was far more inconsistent and had a few more retirements. In short, his first season of car racing, his first season of his career, showed good promise of a potentially winning talent, a boy with strong car control, but that’s it…
…then, after ONE season of racing cars he was guided to turn down Mercedes backing – which Ocon now enjoys – and jumped into Formula One as a result of Toro Rosso promising him a seat. Wait, what?! Erm, ok then. “But he’s got unparalleled pedigree.” No, he doesn’t, but he looks promising I suppose. Ocon is better. “Well, I’d take the ride if it was offered.” Yes, so would I, so I don’t blame him in a way. But he shouldn’t have been offered that ride from the oh so kind Red Bull Young Driver program. How sweet. How inflating.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand that some have stepped up from Formula 3 (or equivalent) to Formula One. But, none where a single year in cars represented their entire car racing experience. As an example, Button and Raikkonen jumped into Formula One after much karting and two seasons of car racing, both winning titles, and that was considered extreme then. They each dominated their respective series and subsequently kept their head down using their debut years in Formula One to learn without complaint. Button got served even more humble pie a year later against Fisichella in the Benetton team with a dog of a car. But Button and Raikkonen’s ascensions are not the norm, and even in such extreme examples, Verstappen’s is mindboggling. It could be understandable, kind of, had he dominated his ONE car season; but he didn’t.
But in Formula One Verstappen is, and similar talent he has shown to that of his single year in cars, as well as similar mistakes that shouldn’t quite be there. Worryingly, it’s not the mistakes that are the issue, many drivers much older have made similar mistakes years into their careers. It’s the inability to want to learn and move forward. It’s the… you said it… entitlement, which comes as a result of the story I’ve just told you. One season in cars and a Formula One team comes knocking to undercut another. Wins in a Ferrari sponsored American Formula Ford equivalent series, a series that he didn’t dominate. DNF’s that didn’t matter then, and inconsistencies that didn’t need ironing out then.
Mark Webber once intimated that Formula One isn’t a finishing school. At some stage the Red Bull Young Driver program went from finishing off and polishing well-formed drivers to, now, representing their (almost) entire car racing experience and schooling kids in the unforgiving arena of Formula One – the pinnacle of motorsport.
Vertappen is now in that very dangerous range where hyped careers can go terribly wrong; often fuelled by entitlement. I’ve seen it before, with Magnussen Snr and Verstappen Snr where Formula One simply tore apart the minds of those who think they deserve to continue to rise by virtue of having overinvested in expectation, but underinvested in experience during juniors where they turned relatively decent success into prodigy-like self-belief.
Worryingly, Verstappen Jr’s junior career can only be characterised as ‘promising’, at best. It doesn’t matter now, he’s in Formula One and that’s that. I, for one, hope to see him take that next step and fill in the gaps as quickly as possible – the gaps that two or three seasons in top level open wheel racing would’ve given him. I will experience no schadenfreude if in the end he doesn’t quite make it.
“The way to gain a good reputation is to endeavour to be what you desire to appear.” – Socrates