First reaction on seeing the headline ‘Yuki Tsunoda to attend 2023 Red Bull Formula Nurburgring’ on an AlphaTauri Formula 1 team press release: “Wow! They’re letting Tsunoda do what they barred Max Verstappen from!”
Second reaction, on actually opening it: “Oh, it’s only in a GT3 Honda, not an old F1 car”.
Third reaction, after a further second of reflection: “No, that’s still harsh on Verstappen”.
In case you missed it, Verstappen mentioned earlier this month that Red Bull motorsport advisor Helmut Marko had responded with a firm “no, no, no, you’re not doing that” when the F1 world champion mooted being allowed out on the legendary Nurburgring Nordschleife in an old F1 car at Red Bull’s September 9 event there – as Sebastian Vettel and Daniel Ricciardo will be.
Verstappen said he “found it quite funny” and didn’t argue too much, but added that “hopefully one day I’ll get to do it” and even said “if it’s not allowed to be an F1 car, hopefully one day in a GT3 car or whatever”.
Today’s news that there’s a GT3 car ready and waiting for Tsunoda – a driver who, with no offence intended, generally has a higher percentage chance of finding his way into a barrier than Verstappen – really should be followed soon by an announcement that there’s a Honda NSX that Verstappen can use at the event too. If Red Bull’s willing to let one of its active F1 drivers tackle the Nordschleife in a GT car, it should let its very best one, too.
Maybe it would be too annoying for Verstappen to be stuck at GT3 pace when two old F1 rivals have got F1 cars to play with and he wouldn’t fancy it (although his own quotes suggest that isn’t the case). Maybe Red Bull’s still too wary that he’d try to smash some lap records and feels letting him on the Nordschleife with anything more powerful than a bicycle carries too much risk when there would still be eight rounds of the 2023 F1 season left after this event. Though, again, it’s letting Tsunoda do it…
This is not the most serious, passionate column I will ever write and this is not among the most serious or important issues The Race will ever tackle. But I felt as soon as Verstappen revealed he’d been barred from a Nordschleife F1 run that it was harsh, and the Tsunoda announcement made me feel that even more strongly.
McLaren let Jenson Button attack Bathurst in an F1 car in 2011 (Red Bull itself had Ricciardo drive an RB7 there at a more leisurely pace this year, but Ricciardo isn’t a current F1 driver right now). Jordan hadn’t quite dropped Ralph Firman for 2004 when it sent him to the 2003 Macau Grand Prix to do an F1 demo.
OK, the Nordschleife is another step up in hazard level even from Mount Panorama and the Guia circuit. But they’re in the same ballpark. Mercedes has let Lewis Hamilton try a MotoGP bike. That was bold regardless of the circuit.
And of course there’s even precedent for an active F1 team letting a current driver take a current-ish F1 car around the Nordschleife: as BMW Sauber did in 2007 with Nick Heidfeld and its 2006 car.
In all those cases, the F1 teams had enough faith that their drivers had the skill and sense to make sure they came back intact. Red Bull really should feel that about the driver that’s dominating F1 single-handedly for it.
As Verstappen himself put it when chatting about the event in Montreal: “It’s also risky to drive here, it depends how you hit a barrier. But that’s normally not the plan, of course”. If you’re sending Verstappen out onto a racetrack, you ought to be doing so feeling fairly confident he’s unlikely to crash. These days, at least.
Perhaps he didn’t help his cause with all those late-race radio debates about whether he should try to smash a grand prix’s fastest lap or not. When asked jokingly if he would’ve been aiming for a new Nordschleife lap record, he replied: “I would have definitely given it a go but you need some proper tyres, which they don’t allow, not demo tyres”.
So yes, while you ought to be able to be confident he wouldn’t crash you could also be absolutely confident that he would push hard and that any ‘take it gently’ instructions would somehow be misheard.
Verstappen can be divisive. But the fact he even fancies thrashing an old F1 car around a lairy 14-mile 1970s F1 circuit is more evidence of just how cool he is on a motorsport passion scale.
Most of his extra-curricular exploits are in simracing, so less obvious to a wide casual audience than a video of him attacking the Nordschleife in one of Red Bull’s 2010s title winners would be. In publicity and popularity terms, letting him do it would be a win-win for Verstappen, Red Bull and F1 itself.
Whatever Ricciardo, Vettel and Tsunoda get up to in September, there’ll be a sense of something missing unless Verstappen’s in the line-up too.