Since the Macau Grand Prix adopted Formula 3 regulations in 1983, a victory on its incredibly narrow streets has become one of the most desired entries on every young racing driver’s CV. Starting with a victory by future legend and three-time F1 World Champion Ayrton Senna and extending through victories by future seven-time F1 champion, Michael Schumacher and F1 stalwart David Coulthard, the Macau Grand Prix has become “the” place for the world’s best Formula 1-bound young talent to prove their worth.
And it isn’t only winner that go forward. In the past, Jenson Button, Damon Hill, Jarno Trulli, Daniel Ricciardo, Valtteri Bottas, Mark Webber and Lewis Hamilton used Macau as their stepping stone.
History shows that is still true. Five drivers competing at Macau in 2012-13 found 2015 F1 seats: Carlos Sainz and Felipe Nasr (with Toro Rosso and Sauber) Pascal Wehrlein and Rafelle Marciello (Mercedes AMG F1 and Sauber F1 reserves) and Alex Lynn (Williams test driver).
Thus, with the chance of a F1 seat so tantalisingly close, the Macau GP’s 2014 entry list assembled the deepest pool of future F1 potential in the last 20 years. Leading the exceptional field were the series champions of each of the 2014 FIA F3 Championships; Martin Cao, Marcus Pommer and Esteban Ocon (British, German and European respectively). These champions faced the remaining grid of 28 entrants, knowing that each was eager to steal their limelight.
And then, there was 17-year old karting prodigy, Max Verstappen, racing in Macau for the first time. The mercurial Dutch youngster, with just one season of F3 under his belt, had already leapfrogged the field, having just been signed to drive for the Toro Rosso Formula 1 team in 2015 after dominating European F3 in his 2014 rookie season.
The stage was set for a classic Macau confrontation. After all, it is only on the 3.8-mile Macau circuit that one sees the best raw F3 talent together in an equally unfamiliar setting, without the aid of testing. Nothing proves true talent like a victory on a single-file surface with unforgiving barriers against the best in class.
When the smoke cleared, it was Sweden’s 2012 Macau runner-up Felix Rosenqvist, followed by Austrian Lucas Auer, and New Zealand’s newcomer Nick Cassidy, and not the reigning FIA F3 champions, who sprayed champagne from the podium.
Given the surprising race results, and the golden Macau GP legacy, which of Macau’s class of 2014 are bound for future F1 success? With both 2014 second place finisher Lucas Auer and top-rated Tom Blomqvist having departed single-seaters to join Mercedes and BMW respectively in the DTM (Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters) series, and champion Rosenqvist staying in F3, who might have the ability to follow the Macau-to-F1 path.
Here’s Blackbird’s predictions of 2013-14 Macau stars who will be emerging leaders in F1; those who have the total package; the requisite funding, the mature speed, and the complete mental devotion to a sport that demands everything you have to give:
News that 16-year-old Max Verstappen signed a Formula 1 contract with Toro Rosso for the 2015 season shocked the F1 world. Rules were immediately changed to set the minimum age of any future F1 driver to 18. Thus, just 17 when he took the start of the 2015 Australian GP on March 15, Verstappen might be assured of being the youngest F1 driver for all time.
For Verstappen, Macau was both a disappointment and a revelation. Fast throughout practice and qualifying, he was too aggressive in the qualifying race, and breaking his suspension; he started 24th. He then rocketed to the front; setting fastest lap, while finishing seventh, just a few tenths from passing Stefano Coletti for 6th place. Racing isn’t always leading from the front. Verstappen demonstrated he could recover from a self-induced error and collect points; Toro Rosso must have smiled.
The team’s smile has broadened since with his stellar performances in first four F1 races of the 2015 season. Verstappen has been immediately fast in every session; he took his first points in Malaysia with a solid seventh place. Unfortunately, his Renault power unit’s repeated electrical failures robbed him of points in Australia, China and Bahrain; veterans say he hasn’t put a wheel wrong.
Last year in Macau, Verstappen told us that F1 is the only thing he has ever dreamed about. The racetrack has been his school as taught by his father, Jos, a former F1 driver for Tyrrell and Arrows, among others. Through him, young Max Verstappen quickly assimilated the required skills and became aware of every pitfall. His mental attitude and physical transformation from 17-year old to mature racing driver occurs the instant he zips his nomex suit; it has to be observed to be understood. His answer to “how?” is instantaneous. “This is what I know. It’s all I have ever wanted to do.”
Verstappen, more than anyone else in the 2014 Macau F3 field has the rare combination of traits that point to a future world champion.
Macau veteran Sainz, Verstappen’s teammate at Toro Rosso, would have been called the “find” of the season, if not for Verstappen’s age. Sainz joined Red Bull’s junior team in 2010, and in 2011, captured 12 victories in Formula Renault 2.0 and more F3 victories in 2012; GP3, maiden F1 Red Bull and Toro Rosso tests and a seventh place in Macau in 2013, and a dominating Formula Renault 3.5 championship in 2014 led to his signing for 2015.
For his first GP, in Australia, the very competitive 20-year old Sainz overcame a slow pit stop that dropped him to the rear of the field to finish a strong ninth. He became the first Spaniard to score points on his debut since Pedro de la Rosa did so for Arrows at the same race in 1999. He’s also now F1’s eighth youngest points scorer. Like Verstappen, he only needs dependable Renault power units to score additional points this season. Sainz is here to stay.
Roberto Merhi’s fourth place capped a very successful return to single-seaters after two poor seasons in DTM with Mercedes. The Spaniard joined Formula Renault 3.5 and became the main title rival of Carlos Sainz, the eventual title winner. He fought for and grabbed free practice sessions in Monza, Suzuka and Sochi with the Caterham F1 Team. For 2015, he found a seat with the underfunded Manor F1 squad, and has finished three of the first four races. Unfortunately, the team is using 2014-spec power units and chassis; under such disadvantages, Merhi will need to summon up enormous grit to reveal his true talent level, or risk destroying his reputation.
Compared to the recognisable talent shown by Verstappen, Sainz and Merhi, the remainder of the recent Macau competitors need more development before finding their true level and attracting F1 interest. Here are a few 2014 Macau GP competitors that bear watching.
As 2014 FIA F3 European Champion, Esteban Ocon had a clear shot at winning the 2014 Macau race. He just missed taking the lead on the first lap, but his challenge evaporated through no fault of his own after he was hit by Tom Bloomqvist. His steering collapsed, triggering a massive pile-up. He couldn’t restart.
His reputation stayed intact due to three highly-praised testing sessions with Ferrari and the Lotus F1 Team. Only the continued team funding of Lotus supplied by Venezuelan driver Pastor Maldonado seems to have prevented Ocon from filling a 2015 Lotus F1 seat. Surprisingly then, he was unable to reach a 2015 deal with DAMS in GP2, despite help from Lotus partner Gravity Sports Management, so he was forced to settle for a drive in GP3. Now, Mercedes has just announced that they will back his GP3 season with ART Grand Prix, a long time associate team of Mercedes, as well as employ him as official Test and Reserve Driver for the Mercedes AMG DTM team. With patron Mercedes also supplying their power units to Lotus F1, Ocon is well placed to finally snatch that seat from the struggling Maldonado in 2016.
Incredibly, New Zealander Nick Cassidy’s third place at Macau was only his fifth F3 race outing; he had never seen the treacherous street circuit before. For 2015, Cassidy has joined the BMW junior team on the strength of his Macau result and will race and develop with the TOM’s team in Japanese F3.
Finally, which young veterans might return to seize Macau stardom? Two-time Macau veteran Antonio Giovinazzi is only 20, and has just extended his lead in the 2015 FIA F3 European Championship with his first victory of the season in a wet first race at Hockenheim, passing last year’s Macau winner Felix Rosenqvist for the win. He should be at his peak and a factor in the GP classic. Santino Ferrucci, 16, finished eighth at Macau last year, and has speed and funding, but has been recklessness so far this F3 season. He’ll have to correct that immediately to find Macau gold.
And new Macau faces? Remember the name Charles LeClerc. The 17-year old F3 rookie has taken over Max Vestappen’s seat with the Van Amersfoort team. He’s has been consistently fast and has already taken his first two victories ahead of Antonio Giovinazzi. Watch for him at the 2015 Macau GP classic; he could arrive as the FIA European F3 champion.
In F3, there is never a shortage of future talent in the passing lane, queuing to prove their worth.