Max Verstappen was labelled ‘high risk’ by Mika Hakkinen before F1 icon offered apology
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Max Verstappen has been destined for greatness from a young age after becoming Formula 1’s youngest-ever driver at the age of 17. The Red Bull star is on course to clinch his second Drivers’ Championship in succession after dominating the 2022 campaign. But if Mika Hakkinen had his way, the Dutch star would have had to wait for his introduction to the sport.
On this day eight years ago, Red Bull announced their driver prodigy Verstappen would be racing with their feeder team Toro Rosso for the 2015 season, replacing Jean-Eric Vergne to partner Daniil Kvyat. At the time, Verstappen — the son of former F1 driver Jos Verstappen — was only 16 years of age.
The announcement was met with a mixed response from pundits and ex-drivers, with some questioning whether a driver of such a tender age could cope with the pressure of racing at such high speeds and in motorsport’s most popular series. Former McLaren driver Hakkinen, a two-time world champion, was one of the more prominent voices.
“It’s too young because in F1, the risk is high,” Hakkinen was quoted telling BBC Sport. “In F1 you don’t go to learn, you have to be ready. F1 doesn’t allow you to do too much learning.”
The Finn was perhaps right to raise the issue, as Verstappen was not even old enough to drive on the road in his native Netherlands — let alone race an F1 car capable of producing 810bhp. Red Bull’s decision to bring in a young, fresh face went against the grain at the time and it was a gamble from team principal Christian Horner and special advisor Helmut Marko.
But the pair were relaxed having seen Verstappen in action as a test driver — they knew his pace and were confident their faith would be repaid in good time as Verstappen took to the track in Melbourne for his debut at the Australian Grand Prix.
Verstappen’s first qualifying session rendered a 12th place start on the grid, only four tenths shy of his team-mate Daniil Kvyat at the time, before a technical failure forced him out of the session. When asked about whether he felt his age would be a problem, he replied, almost unperturbed: “I’m not focused on the age, it doesn’t matter to me.”
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This unfazed response hinted at the swagger within the youngster that was reminiscent of Michael Schumacher or Ayrton Senna. Their confidence in their ability often overrode their self-doubt or nerves on the track – and it showed. Verstappen would go on to showcase his ability, securing his first points finish in only his second race with a seventh-placed finish at the Malaysian Grand Prix.
Within a year, Verstappen was bumped up to Red Bull to replace his former team-mate Kvyat, who had been promoted just months earlier. The decision paid dividends immediately, with Verstappen becoming F1’s youngest race winner at the age of 18 at the Spanish Grand Prix in his first race for the team.
In his 154 race entries, Verstappen has finished on the podium on 70 occasions and collected 28 wins. By the ways of comparison, Hamilton had only 11 race victories under his belt when he was the same age as the Dutchman. Naturally, his progression to becoming one of F1’s most talented drivers prompted Hakkinen to retract his words.
“I was really happy I was wrong, and it has strengthened my understanding that young girls and young boys they are much more ready in this world. You have to let them speak, you have listen what they have to say,” Hakkinen said in 2016.
“Max, obviously, it’s great what he has been doing and when I was a young kid – 16, 17 – when [I was] go-karting, it was amazing. It was incredibly competitive: the materials, discipline, physical efforts – what I needed to perform was at a very high level.
“And I was thinking at that time that I was ready for everything, ready to compete at the top of motor racing. But at that time it was not normal that people were looking at you at this age, that a young guy can be ready for big racing categories like Formula 1.
“And time has changed. Young people, more and more they are going in higher sport categories, including business, including everything.”
Verstappen’s entry into F1 has lifted the stigma of whether age should be considered as a factor in teams choosing a driver, and that is one of many legacies Verstappen will have when he hangs up his race gloves.
But given that he is still only 24, that day is still a long distance away in the future — and with a second title now looking more likely with an 80-point gap to Leclerc at the top of the standings, he will be hoping that people only think of success when referring to his stellar career.
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