SPA, Belgium (AP) — Max Verstappen will find himself in a unique position next year: fitting school exams around his debut as the youngest ever Formula One driver.
When the 2015 F1 championship starts in Australia in March, Verstappen will be only 17. It will also be his final year of school, as he shares the cockpit with the classroom.
The Dutch teen, who competes in this year’s European Formula Three title, has been signed by Toro Rosso — Red Bull’s feeder club — in a move that divides F1 opinion.
Several drivers, including Felipe Massa, Daniel Ricciardo and Adrian Sutil, have questioned whether Verstappen is old enough to compete.
But the fresh-faced Verstappen sees things differently.
“I was always (taking) big steps. From karting to F3 was obviously a big step. I think I am ready for it,” he said at a news conference Friday at the Belgian Grand Prix. “Age is just a number and it’s on the track where you have to show.”
The packed media huddle offered only a glimpse of the scrutiny he will face in next year’s season-opening race, where he is bound to be the center of attention.
“I think I’m ready for it. How many chances do you get these days? Driving-wise it shouldn’t be a problem, it’s more everything around it,” Verstappen said. “I think if you start to need a mind coach, that wouldn’t be a good thing. You need to have a strong head as well. I don’t see any problems about that.”
Of more pressing concern is figuring out how to fit his racing program around his education.
“I still need to plan how we are going to do that,” he said. “We will see.”
For all things F1, however, he can ask his father for advice. Jos Verstappen competed in 106 F1 races from 1994-2002.
“He was really close to me and we did everything together,” Max Verstappen said. “I remember just running around in the paddock. I was about four years old.”
In terms of racing, though, he has a different role model: two-time F1 champion Fernando Alonso.
“I have a different style than my dad, maybe a bit more like Alonso,” he said. “When he needs to be aggressive, he is aggressive. It’s all under control. That’s what I like and this year I have proven that in F3. I think I am more like him.”
Toro Rosso has nurtured the likes of four-time champion Sebastian Vettel and Ricciardo — who has won two races so far this season for Red Bull — and team principal Franz Tost fully expects Verstappen to adapt.
“Right now he is 16 years old on paper, but for me he is much more mature,” Tost said. “I am absolutely convinced that we can bring him to a level where he will have success.”
Like Vettel and seven-time champion Michael Schumacher, Verstappen excelled at karting. He was crowned world champion last year and Tost says the level is far more intense than before, helping bring drivers up to speed more quickly.
“He is coming from the fourth karting generation, they even have school at the race tracks. That means they have such a high level of driving abilities that we are talking here of a completely new generation of drivers,” Tost said. “These kids start at six or seven, so they already have 10 years’ race experience.”
Verstappen will start testing in the car after the season-ending Abu Dhabi GP in November.
“The wintertime will be very intense with training and more of a technical schooling,” Tost said.
Verstappen’s arrival means that 24-year-old Frenchman Jean-Eric Vergne has to find a team next season.
“I told him that we will do anything so that he can show that he deserves a seat,” Tost said.
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