Max Verstappen impressed by British teenager Ollie Bearman’s qualifying display

By Sports Desk March 08, 2024

Max Verstappen hailed the “incredible” Ferrari stand-in Ollie Bearman after the British teenager qualified 11th for his shock Formula One debut in Saudi Arabia.

Bearman, 18 years, 10 months and one day when the lights go out for Saturday’s 50-lap race in Jeddah, was thrown into the deep end following a dramatic late call-up for Carlos Sainz, who was hospitalised with appendicitis.

But the Essex teenager – with just one hour of practice under his belt, and having never driven an F1 machine at night – came within 0.036 seconds of toppling Lewis Hamilton and progressing to the final phase of qualifying.

Verstappen put Red Bull’s continued off-track woes to one side by taking pole position, with Charles Leclerc second, three tenths back, and Sergio Perez third. Hamilton qualified eighth.

But Bearman, who will become the second youngest driver to start an F1 race, stole the show. And Verstappen, 17 when he made his debut nine years ago, led the tributes.

“What Ollie has done has been very, very impressive,” said Verstappen.

“I watched his first few laps in practice, because that is where you can judge if someone is comfortable in the car, and by lap two or three I thought ‘that is a strong start’, and to be 11th, and only six tenths off pole at the time, is more than you could have asked for. He he has done an incredible job.”

Probably to Christian Horner’s relief, all eyes were off Red Bull and on Ferrari as Bearman followed in the footsteps of Britain’s first F1 champion Mike Hawthorn and John Surtees – the only man to win a world title on two and four wheels – when he rolled out of the Italian team’s garage.

He will be the 12th British driver to race for Ferrari – and the first Englishman since Nigel Mansell in 1990.

Bearman was just 18 months old when Hamilton made his debut in 2007, and he was not even born when Fernando Alonso entered his first F1 race.

But in Jeddah on Friday, Bearman took to the same track as the men who share nine world championships between them. And, remarkably, he came within a hair’s breadth of beating Hamilton.

Forced to abort his first run in Q2, Bearman returned to the fastest street circuit on the calendar and hauled his Ferrari into 11th. He needed to be 10th to make it into Q3.

With the clock ticking down, Bearman geared up for his final run, and rode his Ferrari on rails in a valiant attempt to force his way through. His father David, the millionaire founder and chief executive of an insurance company, was living every minute of his son’s adventure at the back of the Ferrari garage.

Hamilton, failing to improve, afforded Bearman a chance to beat him, only to come up agonisingly short. Berman finished less than six tenths behind Leclerc in the other scarlet machine.

“That was a messy session,” said a critical Bearman over the radio. “Sorry about that.”

But when he faced the media, his smile lit up the night sky.

“I didn’t have time to get nervous or to overthink it,” he said. “I was focused on what to do and didn’t have time to think about the gravity of the situation and that was probably a good thing.

“On Monday, I will feel it and I will be quite proud. I am sure when I step back, I will pinch myself.

“My phone is going crazy but I will have a look at it tonight.”

Following four victories in his rookie Formula Two season – the feeder series to F1 – Bearman was thrust into the spotlight in Mexico City last October, eclipsing Lando Norris as the sport’s youngest Briton to take part in a practice session, when he drove for Haas.

He was handed a second practice run-out in Abu Dhabi a month later. On Saturday, he will surpass Norris – who was 19 years, four months and four days when he made his debut in Australia in 2019 – as the youngest British driver to start a Grand Prix.

“The stars have aligned,” added Bearman. “It has been such a quick progression in my career.

“Three years ago I was still in Formula Four and I only did my first F1 test in October so it has been a really quick progression and to make my F1 debut in red is special. Hopefully it is a sign of things to come.

“There is a lot of analysis to go through tonight – things like starts and pit-stop procedures that I have not had time to work on – so it will be a busy evening but hopefully I will get eight hours of sleep in.”

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