Formula One: Watch out for a troublesome threesome

Verstappen has good company to push the big guns in 2017 season

Image Credit: Action Press/REX/Shutterstock
Mandatory Credit: Photo by Action Press/REX/Shutterstock (4402465e)Max VerstappenFormula One 1 Grand Prix Testing, Jerez, Spain - 01 Feb 2015
Gulf News

Two new kids on the cylinder block will join teenage wonderboy Max Verstappen in what is sure to be a three-way series of energetic and fiery confrontations in next season’s world championship chase.

And if their promise, and build-up background from the junior ranks of racing is anything to judge by, the sport is all set for a season-long showpiece of honest-to-goodness competition, not necessarily right upfront all the time but certainly ahead of the also-rans.

Their names : Stoffel Vandoorne, McLaren’s Belgian-born replacement for Jenson Button and Lance Stroll, Williams’ Canadian recruit in place of Felipe Massa. Alongside Red Bull’s Verstappen, as fine an example as they could wish for, the newcomers will discover what it is like to be under the glare of the harsh fault-finding spotlight week-in-week out.

But neither driver falls short on confidence and each established himself as a looming threat to Formula One’s established order in his progression to the pinnacle of the support series via an apprenticeship in GP2 and F3.

Let’s start with a quick Stroll. Born in Montreal October 29,1999 - and all set, after Verstappen, to be the youngest starter ever in Formula One at the opening 2017 grand prix, who made his debut race appearance aged 15 alongside first-timer,too, 16-year-old Verstappen in Sebring, Florida.

His father Lawrence, fabulously and famously wealthy and behind the Tommy Hilfiger and Michael Kors fashion brands, steered him towards his race career and placed him with the Ferrari Driver Academy until 2015 when he switched to Williams. his talent was further shaped in F3 with the Prema team, again with his multi-billionaire father’s financial backing when he invested heavily in the set-up.

Wins and high finishes all the way from 2014 saw him comfortably capture the European F3 title, still with Prema, with a tally of 13 victories and 12 pole placings. Little wonder Williams pounced and revealed him as Massa’s replacement for 2017 and onwards.

Rumour has it that Stroll senior doled out £ 20m to Williams for a development programme to prepare Lance for his upcoming stint in F1. It involved top secret and private tests at circuits around the world in a two-year-old ex-GP car. It is also said, without any denial or confirmation from Williams UK headquarters, that doting dad Lawrence is paying out the same sum for his son’s 2017 F1 seat.

What he could not buy was Lance’s F1 Super Licence. The skilled boy with vast potential earned all himself by clinching the European F3 title in ultra-dominant fashion. Not a figure guilty of self-promotion, he shyly states: “I’ve raced hard in F3 but in F1 there is a lot more going on. And I will be learning all the time, every race. But equally, I’ll be giving it all I have got to justify all the faith and support put into my career by my father and the people at Williams who have put their trust in me to replace Felipe.He will be a hard act to follow, but I shall give it a go.”

Back to that Sebring debut in January 2014: Verstappen was fourth. Stroll seventh. I wonder if that sort of result will be reversed come next season.

Next up is 24-year-old Stoffel Vandoorne. The once-all conquering McLaren’s fresh hope for a revival of fortunes from their disastrous lowly spiral down the rankings since their frustratingly continuing setback of a link with Honda.

He comes from a long list of eminent GP2 or World Series talented young and baby-faced heroes like three-times world F1 champion Lewis Hamilton, his Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg,Nico Hulkenberg, Romain Grosjean and Jolyon Palmer and Robert Kubica and Carlos Sainz.

The general feeling and anticipation all along the pit lane is that Vandoorne could well be the best yet after an impressive record-breaking winning stint in GP2 en route to his total takeover of the 2015 title. It was such a classic long runner of a commanding show that Mercedes kingpin Toto Wolff hailed it:”Exceptional” – and then tried, but failed to lure him from McLaren.

Vandoorne was too enmeshed in the McLaren set-up to even consider a switch… not even to legends Mercedes despite their flattering interest in his monumental potential. He did have a grand prix taster with a one-off appearance in Bahrain at the opener when he stood in for the ailing Fernando Alonso – and it was an impressive kick off to his F1 ambitions. He outpaced world champion Button, running 12th fastest in qualifying and then secured 10th spot in the race making himself the first reserve driver to score points on his debut since Vettel managed it in 2007.

It was pretty evident to all and sundry around the paddock that here was a new shining star on the grand prix horizon, a target for rival bosses to tempt to their teams, and McLaren, fearful that they could lose Vandoorne hastened his promotion at the expense of veteran Button.

“The announcement that I was getting the job was pretty cool. Everything is now going as planned,” he said,” It gives me some time to think a lot of stuff between now and the start of next season.

“Obviously because I’ve been around McLaren for a while, I know the team and the people and the way it all works and it will be up to me to carry on the great tradition and do my utmost to ensure that Jenson is not missed.”

He didn’t have the backing of immeasurable family wealth like Stroll and had to fight his way to the ultimate level of recognition and resultant reward on sheer ability and attitude. Team manager Eric Boullier reveals he had been carefully tracing Vandoorne’s progress through the lower racing GP2 ranks and says: “What impressed me about Stoffel was his amazing maturity in racing situations as well as his success in the junior categories. He had the makings of an all-rounder.

“He doesn’t have the same experience as Fernando and Jenson, but under their influence and guidance he will keep on growing and develop. What he achieved in Bahrain, at such short notice, showed us that he is ready. That was a really high pressure situation, a major test of his readiness and determination, ability, too, and he made it all so easy for the guys in the garage. In the race, he delivered exactly what we wanted. It was, very very impressive. And, believe me, there is as lot more to come from him when he gets in to his stride.”

His gift of far-sightedness and recognition of a need to understand cross cultures meant he has put in a lot of effort into communicating with the Japanese Honda staff and taking time to understand their culture. “”When I am in Japan, I pop into head office to say hello.It has been a great opportunity for me to create a personal relationship and help build the team around me.

“It hasn’t always been easy for me – but it has all been a useful and valuable experience.It has given me an insight into the Japanese way of life, their way of thinking and the way Honda works and their motives.”

The overall picture of Vandoorne is one of complete confidence, an old head on young shoulders who stands out as a figure to be respected behind the scenes and among his pit crew and feared out there on the race circuit where he can be prodigiously quick.”

The trio of toweringly talented eager-beavers, Verstappen, Stroll and Vandoorne, will certainly give the established front-runners plenty of reason to keep their eyes firmly focused on their rearview mirrors.

- The writer is a motorsports expert

Factfile

Max Verstappen (Red Bull)

Born : Hassett, Belgium

Father : Jos, ex Grand Prix driver

Age :19

GP’s entered : 39

First race : Australian GP 2015

Wins : 1, Spain 2016

Podiums : Seven

Fastest Lap: 1

Rookie of the Year 2015.

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Nico Rosberg celebrates after winning the Drivers World Championship by finishing second to Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton at Yas Marina circuit in Abu Dhabi. Virendra Saklani/Gulf News