The explosive arrival of Max Verstappen on the Formula One scene has again demonstrated how truly talented drivers are able to scale the ladder to motorsport’s pinnacle two (or more) steps at a time.
By Graham Duxbury
Since graduating from karting, Verstappen only competed in a handful of car races before he sat in a F1 racer. Earlier this year he found himself standing on the top step of a F1 podium.
The fast track to F1 stardom – missing out the traditional feeder series such as Formula Two, Formula 3000 or GP2 – is the hallmark of some of the greatest drivers in the world.
The legendary Jackie Stewart, three-time world champion, leapt straight from Formula Three into a F1 Lotus. After winning 13 F3 races in 1964, Stewart’s first taste of F1 power came in South Africa at the Rand Grand Prix at Kyalami the end of that year. He qualified on pole. Unused to the power of a F1 car, a drive shaft snapped as he released the clutch at the start of the first heat of this non-championship event. He won the second heat after starting from the back of the field.
Jackie’s first world championship race, the ’65 South African GP in East London, netted him a sixth place finish and his first championship point. His first win came just eight months later at the Italian GP. His world championship crowns were gained in 1969, 1971 and 1973.
Emerson Fittipaldi is another driver who reached the lofty heights of F1 in the shortest time. The Brazilian arrived in the UK in 1969 to compete in F3 races. So obvious was his talent that in May 1970 he was on the grid at the British GP driving for Lotus. Just five months later he won the American GP at Watkins Glen. In 1972, at the age of 25, he became world champion, the youngest at the time. Fittipaldi’s second title came in 1974.
In September 2000, Kimi Raikkonen caused a stir when he was invited by the Sauber F1 team to test a F1 car. Kimi had only 23 car races under his belt at that time, all in the Formula Renault series in the UK and Europe. However, he had won 13 of them, placing him firmly in F1’s spotlight.
Despite his inexperience – and difficulty in obtaining the required Super Licence because of this – Kimi scored a world championship point on debut for Sauber at the 2001 Australian GP and won the world championship for Ferrari six years later.
Of course, progressing rapidly up from F3, or any of the lower racing formulae, into the rarefied atmosphere of F1 does not guarantee success. Take the case of Australian Dave Walker. He won 25 out of the 32 F3 races he contested in 1971, including the prestigious F3 support races at the Monaco and British GPs. These sensational wins impressed Lotus founder Colin Chapman who put Walker behind the wheel of a F1 car for the 1971 Dutch GP. Sadly, he spun out and retired.
Nevertheless, Chapman kept the faith and signed Walker as number two to Emerson Fittipaldi for the 1972 season. However, Walker’s lack-lustre performances led to an inevitable split. With Fittipaldi winning the world championship in 1972, Walker remains the only driver not to score a single point in the same season in which a team-mate won the drivers’ title.
Perhaps Dave Walker’s experience should serve as a caution to drivers like teenager Esteban Ocon who says he is “100% ready” to go head-to-head with the best in the F1 field after winning the 2015 GP3 championship.
Also on a mission to break into F1 full time as soon as possible are youngsters Stoffel Vandoorne, the McLaren reserve, Alex Lynn, who is retained by Williams, Pierre Gasly, a Red Bull reserve driver, Nikita Mazepin, the Russian who recently tested for Force India, Charles Leclerc, Hass F1 team development driver, and Red Bull junior team member Sergio Sette Camara.
For them, the words of American teenager Santino Ferrucci may be interesting. Ferrucci, a regular GP3 series competitor, is also a development driver for Haas – possibly because of their shared American heritage.
After the recent two-day Silverstone test, he is reported to have said that moving quickly into F1 is out of the question. “I’ve got a lot of learning to do. Hopefully I’ll get to step up to GP2 but if not, another season in GP3 never hurts.” Wise words from a young driver who refuses to roll the dice on his career by taking the treacherous fast track to F1.