The first in a new series of articles profiling young drivers from around the world, as they progress through the ranks to a possible seat in a major series and future stardom.
Neil Verhagen was born in Ridgefield, Connecticut and like most young drivers cut his teeth in karting. After starting at an indoor track at the age of 7, it became a family operation as his parents took both he and his brother, Alex, to events all over the USA. As Neil got more successful his grandparents became part of the operation, too.
In 2011 the brothers attended the Indycar race at Baltimore and a meeting with Will Power (who incidentally took the win, pole and fastest lap at that race) convinced young Neil that he wanted to be a professional driver.
A couple more seasons of karting followed before Neil entered the 2014-2015 Skip Barber Winter Series, then competing in both F1600 and F2000 events. For 2016 the youngster, still only 15, signed on with the K-Hill Motorsports team and won the F1600 championship taking 9 wins, 15 podiums, 4 pole positions and 6 fastest laps in 21 races.
Enter Red Bull
This got the attention of the Red Bull Junior Team and he was invited to contest the final round of the Asian MRF Challenge series in Chennai, India alongside Dan Ticktum (who recently won the Macau GP for a second time). His performance there led to Red Bull Junior Team offering a spot in the program starting in 2017. This meant a huge transition as he moved to the Netherlands and drove for MP Motorsport in the highly competitive Euro Formula Renault 2.0 series, as well as contesting a couple of rounds in the F.Renault 2.0 Northern European Cup, winning his first race at Assen. The 2017 Eurocup was more of a struggle but Verhagen scored a podium at the Hungaroring on his way to 11th in the standings.
The young American moved to the Italian Tech 1 Racing team for 2018, again competing in Formula Renault 2.0. As well as all the rounds of the Eurocup, he also contested 5 of the 6 Northern European Cup rounds, but the season was frustrating. After a promising start Verhagen had a run of 6 races without scoring points, though he did bounce back strongly at the final two rounds to again finish 11th in the standings.
His plans for 2018 have yet to be announced with a move to Formula 3 or another season of Formula Renault 2.0 being possibilities for the American. We’ll be following his progress here at MCZ F1.
We are now into the European portion of the 2018 Formula One season and with multiple contracts expiring this year, silly season is now in full swing. One of the key figures is Daniel Ricciardo and where he goes (or if he stays) will have a bearing on the rest of the big team line-ups. Many think he is lining up a seat at Ferrari, but let’s just think about this for a moment. Sebastian Vettel is the undisputed #1 at the Scuderia, and his contract is rumored to give him a say on his teammate, so why would he allow the man who beat him in a fair fight at Red Bull to come into “his” team? So where might the Australian turn if Red Bull can’t convince him to stay? After calling Max Verstappen the second coming, it’s a bit of a tough sell – but there again they’ve made billions selling a drink that tastes like rotting gym socks…
So the alternative is Mercedes. Lewis Hamilton isn’t scared of any teammate (“paging Fernando Alonso..”) but still hasn’t signed a contract, so maybe they will hedge their bets and pursue Ricciardo, leaving Valtteri Bottas out in the cold. Or would he be? The Finn would make a perfect replacement for a Finn – at Ferrari. Kimi Raikkonen is clearly not the better of Vettel (and Sebastian likes it that way) but he isn’t doing enough to help Ferrari win the Constructors’ Championship, where the money comes from – and with Liberty Media wanting to strip away the Bernie Ecclestone-era bonuses that becomes all the important. So why not install “Finn 2.0” at the Scuderia? He’s fast, he’s quiet, he’s relatively cheap and he’s a team player. He also doesn’t have accusations of drunken sexually impropriety being leveled at him – another compelling reason for him to be put out to pasture.
So that gives us:
Mercedes: Lewis Hamilton / Daniel Ricciardo
Ferrari: Sebastian Vettel / Valtteri Bottas
Red Bull-Honda: Max Verstappen / Pierre Gasly (?) – that’s one for next time!