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Can This American iRacing Phenom Make It to F1?

formula 3 testing in bahrain day one max esterson
Can This American iRacing Phenom Make It to F1?Joe Portlock - Getty Images
formula 3 testing in bahrain day one max esterson
Joe Portlock - Getty Images

When you grow up in Manhattan, there’s no hurry to get a driver’s license. A lot of teens don’t bother because everyone takes the subway or a cab. But Max Esterson needed to learn to drive, and fast. He was 16, had never driven, and had been offered his first test in a race car. “We had to scrounge around to find a manual shift car for him before he did his first Formula Ford test,” recalls Max’s father, Robin. They borrowed a Mini from a friend. “Max zoomed around in it and that was it.”

Max headed to Roebling Road Raceway in Georgia, where he took his first lap in an open-wheel single seater with Team Pelfrey, a Florida-based racing outfit that had helped get Pato O’Ward and Pipo Derani a footing in the sport years ago.

A lot about this story already doesn’t make sense. But it all adds up in the end. It’s the story of a video game nut turned motor racing phenom who has quietly paved a path to the elite realms of the F1 feeder world. When Max first got into a race car, he had already established himself as one of the top iRacing competitors in the U.S.

formula 3 testing in bahrain day two max esterson
Joe Portlock - Getty Images

Soon after his first lap on a racetrack, he canceled plans to attend Georgia Tech, moved to Europe by himself in 2020, and set out to find success in the most cut-throat, expensive, and competitive non-team sport on earth.

In 2021, in his first full season in Europe, Esterson won the Walter Hayes Trophy, one of the most prestigious Formula Ford competitions. In 2022, he won the Formula Ford Festival; previous winners include Jenson Button, Mark Webber, and Jan Magnussen. Now Esterson is headed into a full season in 2024 as the only (as of now) American in the elite FIA F3 series. Testing for the season has started this week. For the 21-year old, it all started in a Manhattan bedroom with a cheap Logitech video game steering wheel and a PC computer. We interviewed him and his father, who wove together this unlikely story.

formula 3 testing in bahrain day one max esterson
Joe Portlock - Getty Images

Max: When I was nine or 10, I started with a Logitech wheel at my desk. I was competing seriously with just a desk setup for a long time. To be honest, it was never a thought that I’d be doing the real thing. I didn’t think it was possible. School was the main focus. Racing was something we watched on TV.

Robin: I was a race car designer and engineer in the Eighties, and was lucky to work my way up to IndyCar teams. We won the Indy 500 in 1989. But it wasn’t even on my radar to think about my kids racing cars. We lived in Manhattan. I had a busy career in finance. My wife had a busy career. We loved racing, but that was something I had done in the past. Then Max’s older brother got this Logitech wheel as a birthday gift one year. We didn’t even know what to do with it.

Max: I invested a lot of time in iRacing when I was 10 through 17, more seriously once I was 14. Doing pro level stuff. Whatever time I had not doing schoolwork, I was investing in this. The competition was pretty serious, but I was also focused on school. I was a pretty good student and went to Regis, a difficult high school.

Robin: The top level of iRacing ran GT3 cars in endurance format racing and that’s what Max was doing. They sorta mimic the real world schedule. The week before Le Mans, they’d run Le Mans. The week before Bathurst, they’d run Bathurst. And Daytona. To run a 24-hour race, Max would have a teammate in Australia, one in Finland, and one in Japan. It’s amazingly real. The strategy, the race plan … everything you do in those races is mimicked in the sim world with incredible detail. You’re as careful as you’d be in real life about taking care of the car. For us as a family, it was like … we’ll have a nice sunny day in the Hamptons and Max is doing a double stint at Spa. Then one day my wife said to Max, “It’s a beautiful day and you’re inside looking all pasty. Why don’t you go out and race a real car outside?”

70th macau grand prix max esterson
Qian Jun/MB Media - Getty Images

Max started karting in 2019. Through connections his father made in racing years ago, Max got an offer to test with Team Pelfrey, around Thanksgiving of that year, in Georgia.

Max: Just getting in a race car for the first time — I needed to learn quickly. So 2020 was supposed to be my first year in a car. It was delayed because of Covid. All the real-life series shifted to iRacing to get some viewership when there was no real racing. I helped coach a few drivers. I had to help them figure out what equipment to buy. They had no idea. I was tutoring Scott Dixon, Richard Westbrook. A few of the other Ganassi guys. And then competing, also. Competing against Max Verstappen in iRacing, you get to see what’s he’s doing and it makes sense how good he is. My first year of real racing was here in the U.S. in 2020, in F1600 [5 starts, 3 poles, 1 win]. The next step would have been the USF2000 championship. It wasn’t the right thing for us at the time.

Robin: We got some good advice at that point, which was, go to the place where it’s the most competitive and the most miles for the least money. The decision to go to England was easy based on that criteria. The guiding North Star has been, what do we do to make Max a good race car driver? The answer was: Lots of miles, lots of good competition, and good cars that teach good habits. It’s easy to make dumb decisions and chase the shiny bright object. I had a lot of experience but it was a long time ago and I had never been through this with my own kid. If we didn’t make good decisions we would run out of money right away.

Max: I finished high school online from Scotland because I was racing at Knockhill. I applied and got into George Tech to study engineering. I took a gap year, then another gap year, and they said, that’s enough of that. I live in England now pretty much all year. I’m on my own.

Robin: In 2021, when he moved over there, he grew up 10 years because he had to feed himself, fix his own car. Doing all the testing and making the commitment to live over there. That’s the hard part. To be away from your family and home.

Over the last three years, Max has raced in British Formula Ford then the GB3 Championship. Capturing the Walter Hayes Trophy in 2021—he was only the fourth American ever to do so and the first since 2012—raised a lot of eyebrows. Winning the Formula Ford Festival a year later raised even more. He debuted in the FIA F3 series last year and, now 21, will run a full schedule in 2024, with Jenzer Motorsport. Esterson will compete against teammate Charlie Wurz of Austria, son of former F1 pilot and two-time overall Le Mans winner Alexander Wurz, Sebastian Montoya, the son of Juan Pablo, and Luke Browning, who comes from the Williams Driver Academy and recently won the Macau Grand Prix.

Max: The Walter Hayes Trophy is a really cool event. There’s 100 cars that start, racing in four heats. You have to nail every step and it’s really hard to get it all right. And the weather is tricky all the way. I qualified on poll, then won a heat, won the semi-final, then led all 15 laps of the final race.

Robin: It’s a big trophy and, frankly, it’s an emotional thing to see someone work so hard and have it all work out. It’s a mega event. When Max won the Formula Ford Festival the following year, Arie Luyendyk called me up and said, “Is that your kid who won the Formula Ford Festival? Man, that’s pretty cool. I always wanted to win that thing.”

formula 3 testing in bahrain day two max esterson
Ryan Pierse - Getty Images

Max: I just raced in the Macau Grand Prix and I’ll do the whole season in FIA F3. We start in Bahrain. It’s a big car. It’s about 380 horsepower and a lot of downforce. There’s DRS. The biggest thing is the tires are so sensitive and you have so much work to do warming them up in a specific way, being careful on a long stint not to push every lap as you have to save them. It’s the first car I’ve driven where you can hit the brake pedal as hard as you can at the start of a braking zone without locking up. It’s a lot of downforce.

Robin: You talk about brake pressure. People can’t even fathom how much pressure that is. To give you some perspective, this F3 car is as heavy as an IndyCar was back when I was working on IndyCars in the Eighties. It’s bigger than an F1 car was in the Eighties. The FIA has driven a lot of safety into the cars and a lot of that is weight and size. From a pure engineering standpoint, that is not always the greatest thing, but coming from the point of view of a dad, it’s safer.

Max: To be honest it would be good just to score points consistently and hopefully throw in a few podiums or a win.

Robin: There’s 30 cars on the grid and the top four or five teams are the Penske, Ganassi, and Andretti kind of teams, in this series. You gotta approach it as a multi-year thing. It’s quite hard to come in as a first year driver and win.

Max: F1 would be the absolute ultimate goal. It’s unlikely for anyone no matter how good you are. But just driving professionally and making a living would be amazing. I like sports cars, IndyCars…

Robin: For Max to be the only American in FIA F3 for 2024 is amazing, given that, just four years ago, he was in his room racing on his computer. The commitment is hard. You’re surrounded by billionaires’ kids in foreign lands. You see one of the drivers you’re competing against get on his private jet to head back to Monaco and Max is trying to figure out how to get back to England and do his laundry. It all sounds great, but it’s also a grind.

Max: It’s still better than school.

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