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How soon is too soon for a seat in F1?

23 October 2013

Just a few months ago, the F1 paddock was conflicted over whether it was too soon for 19-year-old Russian driver Sergey Sirotkin to move directly from the Formula Renault 3.5 Series straight into a full-time F1 seat at Sauber.

But this week's news that Toro Rosso has opted for Daniil Kvyat to replace Daniel Ricciardo at the end of the year when the Australian moves to Red Bull to take over from the retiring Mark Webber means that question has been doubled, or possibly squared.

Kvyat's elevation is the first time that a GP3 drivers had made the leap straight into an F1 car. Valtteri Bottas came closest before that, taking up a position as Williams F1 test driver last year after winning the GP3 title in 2011 as a prelude to his full time drive this season.

McLaren managing director Jonathan Neale didn't sound entirely convinced by the decision when he spoke to journalists on a pre-scheduled teleconference the morning after the news about Kvyat had been confirmed.

"I think stepping out of either the GP or Formula Renault series in to F1 is still a very big step. The weight of expectation, the technology in particular of the transition from this year to next year," Neale pointed out.

"It has been done successfully, historically, by the exceptional candidates, but F1 is a very high-pressure environment, very unforgiving, and that's what makes it so exciting," he added. McLaren is itself still wondering whether they were too eager to sign up the 23-year-old Sergio Perez for 2013, despite the Mexican having had two years at Sauber after his own early promotion from GP2.

Just a few weeks ago, even Kvyat had thought it was probably too early to make the jump and had been looking at spending some time in Formula 3.5, where the former front runner for Ricciardo's seat - António Félix da Costa, now a positively ancient 22 by comparison - has spent two years honing his skills.

This year da Costa has been outshone by two rising stars of McLaren's Young Driver Programme, Kevin Magnussen and Stoffel Vandoorne, both currently 21 years old. Vandoorne was one of the outside bets mentioned to take the Toro Rosso seat, while Magnussen's fortunes seem to lie firmly in Woking with a possible trial run first for Marussia to get some experience.

"Kevin has impressed in the tests he has done, and as a team that has brought young drivers into F1 he is in the frame," said Marussia's sporting director Graeme Lowdon last week.

The sentiment is shared at McLaren, with Neale describing both drivers on Tuesday as "mouth-watering prospects for the future."

"For our own young drivers of course with Kevin Magnussen winning the Formula Renault 3.5 series we're delighted for him, and Stoffel Vandoorne winning the rookie championship and also finishing runner-up in the series," said Neale.

"We do need the young drivers coming through," he agreed. "I think that some of the work that's been done around the reintroduction of testing will help some of that, and it is an exciting prospect watching the next generation of drivers ready themselves on the horizon."

But the implication is clear: for McLaren at least, fishing drivers out of junior series at such a tender age is simply too risky, both for the team and for the drivers themselves who might be in over their heads and sink before they can find their footing.

"That's all going around the mix at the moment as we decide what we're going to do with our driver line-up over the next two or three years," said Neale. "We're working very hard to make sure that those two [Magnussen and Vandoorne] are part of our future plans."


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