To acquire the best driver pairing for a Formula 1 team is a complex task. Candidates are compared based on their experience, speed, sponsorship ties, previous performances and general workings within a team. In other words, impress the right few people and you are secured a drive.
Partnering an experienced driver with a rookie is fast becoming the chosen formula. It is desired because the youngster can develop with the aid of telemetry and mileage while his more experienced team-mate – whom is perhaps wrongly deemed more capable – fights for championship position. This combination also provides an obvious hierarchical structure and title strategy. All in all, an amalgamation of youth and experience is easier to sell to share-holders and sponsors.
It works in theory and does have its success stories but Formula 1 history tells us that a marriage of this kind can end in divorce. After all, I have heard it be argued, partnering a young hopeful with a driver of four or five years can downplay the talent of the rookie. F1 has its elitist nature and a case of pay driver syndrome but a permanent chance on a grid does warrant meeting a select criteria. If a driver meets the standards of the FIA, then they are entitled to their place on the grid. Max Verstappen may be a relative unknown but he meets this specification and therefore slots quite happily into the Toro Rosso fold.
The backlash to Verstappen’s signing is simply a case of déjà vu. When Lewis Hamilton first contested a season with McLaren back in 2007, many were quick to write him off. Hamilton was partnering the then defending, two time champion Fernando Alonso, the man who ended Michael Schumacher’s reign of dominance. McLaren believed in their driver and proved a flurry of doubters wrong when the rookie came painfully close to a championship win that year. Alonso’s own break up with Ron Dennis was ugly and their season was not the fairy tale the team had initially planned. One cannot dispute Alonso’s talent but his time at McLaren was somewhat overshadowed by one young racer with an awful lot to prove.
From this assessment, one thing is clear – F1 is very quick to judge rookies. When Daniel Ricciardo and Daniil Kvyat outpaced their team mates in 2014, the racing world was left in a state of shock but there is now no doubting that Helmut Marko’s decision to over look Antonio Felix da Costa was vindicated this year.
Verstappen and the 2014 Formula Renault 3.5 champion Carlos Sainz Jr. will join Toro Rosso in 2015 and, with an average age of 18, they make up the youngest pairing in history.
Does this mean Toro Rosso will fail? Definitely not.
During any conversation with 20-year-old Sainz Jr you will probably forget his tender age. Both drivers are naturals at wheel, have beaten their junior rivals on numerous occasions and are far more intelligent than they are often given credit for. Their chances of winning an F1 race are incredibly slim, granted but their predecessor Sebastian Vettel scored his maiden victory during a very different time for the Italian outfit. Back in 2008, Red Bull was undergoing some growing pains and Mercedes AMG was still Honda. A Toro Rosso win should consequently be deemed an anomaly and not the expectation.
A double rookie line up is a risk. There is a lot riding on this decision and the weight of the F1 world is on the shoulders of these two young drivers. However, Marko and his aides have made the call. It is not open to debate and no petition titled ‘Get JEV Back’ will change their mind. Toro Rosso’s place in the championship is as important as Red Bull’s – though less money is at stake, of course. The call comes from the top, a decision to find the most competitive line up is made and F1 deals with the consequences.
If F1 ruled out all its rookies before their debuts, the sport itself would cease to exist. The conveyor belt of drivers has claimed three victims already – Vergne and the Sauber duo Esteban Gutierrez and Adrian Sutil with some drivers still awaiting their fate. The cautious amongst us may continually argue for more experience and championships but this boundary is very precarious. Toro Rosso is not in the sport to win championships but, instead, to mould the drivers who can. So far, the development scheme has produced several success stories since first meeting a young Sebastian Vettel 15 years ago.
To reach F1 is an exciting time. While I cannot claim to know Max, Carlos is a driver I have followed for the last two years through my duties in Formula Renault 3.5. From his debut mid 2013 to his record-breaking season one year later, the Spaniard has matured, brushing off his occasional teething problems and some troublesome rookies. He is not the most consistent of drivers but this will come.
Carlos, once initially overlooked for a Toro Rosso drive in favour of Verstappen, now has potentially less to lose. It was the Dutchman’s signing that many questioned, noting his age and inexperience. However, the son of the World Rally Champion is Red Bull’s longest serving junior and the most experienced of their four young candidates. Sainz also steps up to F1 after winning a championship and with momentum on his side.
These days, it is easy to group all young drivers and treat them as one. They all have the same goal, all believe they can achieve it and all endure a tough few years seeking the help they need. Nevertheless, the rise of Toro Rosso’s new rookies is a symbol of hope for those lacking funding as neither carries an ostentatious pot of gold. Their signings, however surprising they might be, are based purely on merit.
I have spoken often about Vergne’s talent time and time again but his dismissal from Marko cannot be a surprise. Sebastien Buemi is clinging onto the coat-tails of Red Bull while his former team mate Jaime Alguersuari is firmly off their radar. Daniel Ricciardo was given the push over Vergne and so too was Kvyat. Loyalty is not on the agenda for The Red Bull Junior Team. Instead, for its drivers, it is a case of survival.
Both sons of former drivers, Toro Rosso’s new incumbent will have no misgivings about the task that lies ahead. More than most, Sainz Jr and Verstappen will understand that nothing really is ever guaranteed.
Images courtsey of Photo Antonin Grenier / DPPI / Renault Sport Media