SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS Belgium (Reuters) - Jenson Button will always remember the moment team owner Frank Williams rang him on his mobile to enquire whether he felt ready for Formula One.
The future world champion, then only 19 years old and enjoying a pint of beer and a plate of sausages in the pub with his mates, was caught off guard and gave a disarmingly honest reply.
“I said no initially,” Button recalled on Thursday as the Belgian Grand Prix paddock digested news that 16-year-old Dutch driver Max Verstappen will become the sport’s youngest ever starter when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next year.
“And then my dad said ‘I can’t believe you just said that. Phone him back, lie to him... tell him that you are ready’,” the Briton, who made his race debut in 2000 as a 20-year-old, recalled with a grin.
“So I did and got the test drive and then I got the race drive. You’ve got to take the opportunity because you never know if it is going to come again.”
Verstappen turns 17 next month and will break the current record, set by Spaniard Jaime Alguersuari with the same team in 2009, by two years.
The Dutchman was in go-karts only last year and will arrive with just one year of single seater racing, in European Formula Three, under his belt.
Drivers questioned about their future rival, a man whose father Jos raced against Button as well as Ferrari duo Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen, were united in agreeing that they would not have been ready at such a tender age.
But most also agreed that they would all have said they were if asked.
“Sometimes you are ready for Formula One at 17, sometimes 29, or sometimes you are never ready. It depends on the character, personality,” declared double world champion Alonso, who made his debut with Minardi as a 19-year-old in 2001.
“Probably (at 17) I was not ready. Even if you feel you are ready, and if I felt at 17 I was ready, now with 14 years in F1 you know there are things you need to improve on and that you learn with time,” he added.
“But now F1 cars are a lot easier to drive, not so demanding physically, so in a way that could help the new guys.”
Formula One is a fickle business, with few openings and chances that have to be seized when they arrive and before they evaporate.
“You’ll always say that you are ready to race in Formula One,” said Button. “And I hope he is.”
Sauber’s German driver Adrian Sutil agreed entirely, even if there were big career dangers.
”It might be the only chance you get,“ he said. ”I would probably do the same if I got the call and I was 17 or 18. I wouldn’t say ‘No, it’s too early. Call me back three years later.’
“You can only hope that everything goes the right way, otherwise life is very difficult for a young guy who has this opportunity and he might not perform and then no-one wants him any more. We’ve seen that a few times.”
Raikkonen, the 2007 world champion who made his F1 debut in 2001 after just 23 single seater races in Formula Renault, said Verstappen’s arrival made him feel old.
But he, like other drivers, repeated the old racing adage that ‘if you’re good enough, you’re old enough.’
The Finn also pointed out that in all probability, Verstappen would have more experience than he did on what was a similarly controversial debut.
He also agreed that the new generation of V6 turbo hybrid cars, while more complicated from an engineering perspective, were easier to drive than the old ones that needed more musclepower.
”Time will tell how he will do but obviously it’s more simple now than it was in the past,“ said the Ferrari driver. ”I think you can prepare yourself more easily now than in the past so I don’t think there will be issues.
“You take a chance because it might be the only chance you ever get to get to Formula One. I did pretty well out of it so I don’t think it would have made me any more ready for F1 to do another year in some other series.”
Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Toby Davis