Interview: How maths class phone call teed up America’s next F1 hope

Not many F1 drivers can recount how school lessons helped them on their way to the top, but if Red Bull new junior Neil Verhagen does make it to grand prix racing, he will never forget a call he got in one of his maths classes.

Interview: How maths class phone call teed up America’s next F1 hope
Neil Verhagen, Pabst Racing
Neil Verhagen
Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing talks with Dr. Helmut Marko, Red Bull Racing Team Consultant
Neil Verhagen
Neil Verhagen
Dr. Helmut Marko, Red Bull Racing
Neil Verhagen
Neil Verhagen
(L to R): Jos Verstappen, with Dr Helmut Marko, Red Bull Motorsport Consultant
Neil Verhagen

Earlier this week, Red Bull announced that the 15-year-old from Mount Kisco would become part of its young driver programme – as it bids to get a full-time American back on the F1 grid for the first time in a decade.

For Verhagen, whose successes in karts and the US Formula 1600 Championship brought him to the attention of Red Bull's Helmut Marko, news of the energy drink giant's interest came at the most unexpected of times.

"I was in school when he [Marko] first called, in maths class," Verhagen told Motorsport.com.

"Obviously, the number wasn't recognised as I'd never talked to him before. I let it ring, but then I was sitting in there and I was kind of thinking more and more 'OK, this obviously shows an area code which was Austria'.

"I'm sitting there and thinking... and then there is a voicemail now. So I ended up going to the bathroom and listening to it and hearing it was Dr. Marko.

"From that point, I called my father and had him take me out so that I could make a proper phone call to him back at the house.

"That was probably the most exciting phone call I've ever received before. The entire week after that was absolutely amazing for me."

Verhagen's success in stepping up to single-seaters, which included nine wins last year in F1600, allied to Red Bull's backing to move him to Formula Renault 2.0 in 2017, means he could be American's next best hope of a full-time F1 driver.

The United States has been without a full-time F1 racer since Scott Speed in 2007, although Alexander Rossi did five races in 2015.

Verhagen admits is more determined to make the move to F1 than he is the local IndyCar category.

"The original goal from the beginning has always been Formula 1 for me," he said. "I've enjoyed watching Formula 1, and IndyCar would have been satisfying for me, it's a really professional series, but everybody's ultimate goal has always been F1.

"That's the best of the best. I would have been happy with IndyCar but I'm just amazingly happy right now being in the position I am. To have a chance to get to F1 is an amazing feeling."

Dutch links

With a Dutch-born father, and now living in Holland to help with his 2017 season, Verhagen obviously is well aware of fellow Red Bull man Max Verstappen.

"He's obviously an amazing talent," explained Verhagen. "He has shown he should be there. I think with the [Red Bull] programme, it not only brings in the best drivers but also develops the drivers further to make them the best they can possibly be so that they are prepared to get to F1."

F1 is still a long way away though and the immediate target is to make a success in Formula Renault 2.0 with MP Motorsport, where he will be competing against highly-rated teammates Jarno Opmeer and fellow Red Bull junior Richard Verschoor.

"Obviously I'd like to win, that's what I'm here to do, I'm here to win," says Verhagen. "I think for a first year racing in Europe I'd be happy with a podium finish at the end of the year, but obviously I'm going for race wins and I'm going for the championship at the end of the year, as well as all the other drivers."

But it's not just racing in Europe that will be different either, for moving continents means new cultures and new experiences too.

"It's for sure quite a difference already," he said. "I've already made the transition as I have an apartment here, and I figured out a couple of things with school.

"For sure for me it's a lot easier in America, as I know everybody there. I can interact and hang out with people there. Living in Holland and not speaking Dutch makes it a little difficult to try to make friends and hang out with people.

"But I have two amazing teammates this year so we hang out quite a bit as well, so at least there is somebody I can hang out with. But definitely that's going to be challenging, it much different to America over here."

And of course, maths classes will never be as good again.

Interview by Tim Biesbrouck

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