Sauber’s plan to fast-track Russian teenager Sergey Sirotkin into Formula 1 has raised eyebrows among those drivers who set youth records themselves as well as rivals envious of the cash that seemingly comes with him.
The financially-troubled Swiss team announced last week that they would prepare the youngster, who is 18 in August, for a 2014 race seat as part of a partnership with three Russian entities to secure Sauber’s survival.
“I wasn’t ready at 18. I was pretty good at 18 so...,” commented Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton, who was world champion with McLaren in 2008 at the age of 23 and 301 days after making a sensational debut the previous year.
Hamilton was the youngest champion until Germany’s Sebastian Vettel came along with Red Bull and won the first of his three titles to date in 2010 at the age of 23 and 134 days after making his debut at 19.
Championship leader Vettel agreed with Hamilton that 18 might be too young.
“When you are young and you dream about Formula 1, you want to race no matter what. But I think things can be coming too early for you,” he told reporters at the Hungarian Grand Prix.
“I think I was probably just on the edge, if I look back now... It clearly took me a while to understand how Formula 1 works, how the car works and to make sure that I am driving the car and the car isn’t driving me.”
The youngest driver in Formula 1 to date is Spaniard Jaime Alguersuari, who made his debut in Hungary in 2009 at the age of 19 years and 125 days.
One British newspaper asked readers at the time whether Alguersuari, who raced for Toro Rosso and had only ever previously driven an F1 car in a straight line, was the most dangerous man in Formula 1.
Sirotkin does not yet have the mandatory super-licence and cannot test until the season ends in November.
Kimi Raikkonen, the 2007 champion who made a highly controversial debut with Sauber in 2001 as a 21-year-old after just 23 car races in junior series, felt the Swiss team knew what they were doing.
“For sure they will take him if they feel it’s the right thing, so I don’t see that age will be the problem. It’s about experience and that. He might be ready, he might not. Time will tell,” said the Finn.
Sirotkin has been barely a blip, if that, on Formula 1 radar until now and the teenager is currently competing in the Formula Renault 3.5 series.
Sauber have been coy about the details of the partnership they announced with Russia’s Investment Cooperation International Fund, the State Fund of Development of the North-West Russian federation and the National Institute of Aviation Technologies.
The lack of financial specifics and the apparent involvement of Sirotkin’s father Oleg has raised further questions in a sport that has at times been too willing to suspend disbelief when huge sums of money are bandied about and deals seem too good to be true.
“It appears to be some deal that a chap has put together to promote his son into Formula 1,” said John Booth, whose backmarking Marussia team are Russian owned but still struggling to attract major partners in the country even with a Russian Grand Prix planned for next year.
“Sirotkin’s father is the head of the aeronautical institute. I’ve seen some drivers with decent support, but half a billion (dollars)? That is some support, that,” he added, referring to some of the media speculation about how much the Sauber partnership might be worth.
“If it’s genuine then good luck to them. The sport needs new investment, no doubt about that,” added the Briton.