Why the FIA was right to introduce ‘Kimi Antonelli rule’ with super licence regulation change

Thomas Maher
Kimi Antonelli and Toto Wolff, Mercedes, 2024 Monaco Grand Prix.

Kimi Antonelli could now be granted an F1 super licence before his 18th birthday, due to an FIA rule change.

The FIA has opted to soften its stance on the criteria drivers must fulfill in order to qualify for an F1 super licence.

Since 2016, rules have been in place to prevent drivers from being fast-tracked too quickly into Formula 1 – the move coming as a direct response to the rapid rise of Max Verstappen into the top rung of motorsport.

Max Verstappen prompts rules rethink for 2016

In late 2014, Verstappen was one of the sensations of the motorsport world as the fresh-faced 17-year-old made his debut appearance in an F1 car when he drove for Toro Rosso in free practice at Suzuka.

Just 12 months prior, Verstappen had been in karting and drove a single-seater for the first time when he drove a Formula Renault and carried out a series of single-seater tests in junior category equipment. Embarking on an F3 campaign with Van Amersfoort, Verstappen’s performances were enough for Red Bull to take notice and prompt the Toro Rosso outing – he was given a full-time F1 seat in 2015 as a result of the impression he made.

From karting to F1 in a single year was quite the rapid rise and, even just 10 years later, appears unwise and foolhardy to have even attempted. Verstappen duly proved all of his doubters wrong but would a year in GP2 ultimately have proven detrimental towards his development? Unlikely.

Certainly, Verstappen’s rise led to the FIA taking steps to ensure it couldn’t happen again. So unusual was Verstappen’s climb into F1 that the FIA was forced to introduce a ‘Max Verstappen rule’.

From 2016 onward, drivers under 18 years of age simply couldn’t get an FIA super licence as needed to race in F1, while a weighted points system was introduced for junior categories (as well as other racing series).

Drivers accumulate super licence points depending on the championships they race in, and where they finish in the standings – 40 points are needed in order to satisfy the requirement for a super licence, and must have been scored over the past three seasons prior to the super licence application.

Over the last decade, it’s meant that every driver stepping up to F1 has had to meet three requirements – be 18 years old, have racked up the required 40 points from racing in other categories, and hold a valid road driving licence (this one seemed pretty superfluous, to be fair).

By and large, it’s a system that’s worked well – but there haven’t really been many drivers that have shone through ala Max Verstappen in order to test the solidity of those rules.

The most prominent occasion on which these rules have come into focus was in 2022 when Red Bull sought dispensation to sign IndyCar star Colton Herta and bring the American driver into the F1 fold as a driver for AlphaTauri.

Having sought dispensation from the FIA, the governing body did not grant this exception – Herta duly remained in the States, while AlphaTauri signed Nyck de Vries instead.

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Kimi Antonelli prompts FIA super licence rules rethink

This week, the FIA World Motor Sport Council has rowed back on the rigidity of the F1 super licence rules – seemingly, although not confirmed to be – in response to the dispensation request that was lodged by an undisclosed team to grant Kimi Antonelli a super licence.

Given that Antonelli already has the 40 points needed for an F1 super licence, the only reason a dispensation request would be needed would be if a team intended to field him before his 18th birthday – suggesting there was some urgency to the request.

The request is known not to have come from Mercedes, with all the signs instead pointing towards Williams. Given the ties between Mercedes and Williams as engine supplier/customer, as well as team boss James Vowles having worked for Toto Wolff at Mercedes for years, the Grove-based squad is also known to be weighing up its driver options as Logan Sargeant clings on to his seat.

With Antonelli faring well in Formula 2 – albeit not setting the world alight just yet – is there now the chance that he could make his F1 debut with Williams as a replacement for Sargeant before the end of summer, with an eye to slotting the Italian in at Mercedes next year if he fares well at Williams?

The rule change made by the WMSC this week has made that possibility much more straightforward and, in theory, can now happen immediately.

Gone is the requirement for drivers to hold a road licence, while the FIA has written into the regulations that teams may apply for dispensation for 17-year-old drivers. If the FIA feels they’re good enough, this dispensation can now be granted under the regulations.

Given the 40-point rule still exists, it makes it very easy (and legal) for the FIA to thus grant a driver who reaches the points requirement, but hasn’t yet turned 18, a super licence. It’s a simple solution to a situation that Antonelli’s talents have exposed – only for him to hit a glass ceiling based on nothing but the month he was born.

The opening of this FIA discretion might make complete sense but has already resulted in some social media outcry against how the rules have been tweaked to favour Antonelli. Former F1 racer Alexander Rossi took to X (formerly Twitter) to tersely say: “Oh so exceptions can be made? Huh” – seemingly in response to how IndyCar rival Herta did not get similar leniency two years ago.

But the key difference, rather than being an underhanded way to keep an American driver out as many social media users have posited, is that Herta, while similar to Antonelli in that he failed to reach one of the criteria for a super licence, fell short in terms of super licence points – although this wasn’t helped by IndyCar’s weighting being quite low in the eyes of the FIA, ranked even behind Formula 3.

It’s also important to note that the rule itself hasn’t changed – drivers must still be 18 years old at the start of their first F1 competition weekend, as has been the case since 2016. The only difference the rule change introduces is that dispensation may be sought for 17-year-olds – dispensation can then be granted for those who are easily assessed when they already have the necessary super licence points.

Where the FIA must seek to ensure a grey area isn’t introduced is by ensuring the 40-point threshold is stuck to. After all, the ‘Kimi Antonelli rule’ makes sense in the case of Antonelli himself, but ensuring blanket application from this point on is critical to ensuring fairness.

For example, allowing a 17-year-old who hasn’t achieved the 40 points would open a huge can of worms and would leave the governing body open to all sorts of accusations of favouritism – the wording of the rules should therefore probably be tightened up further to remove the onus from the “discretion” aspect in order to point more firmly to the 40-point rule.

The purpose of the super licence rules has always been to protect drivers – both those already on the grid and the young people trying to make it there. While Verstappen’s freakish rise ended up paying off in spades, the potential of rushing a 16 or 17-year-old with very little experience on the grid won’t always result in such favourable outcomes.

What Antonelli’s remarkable junior career has shown is that there was room to build in some leniency into the rules without being dangerous for anyone. The next question is whether Antonelli can justify the hype and respond to the pressure that is slowly but surely pressing down on his shoulders…

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