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Age old matters

The attitude to the age of an F1 driver seems to be changing, with youth more sought after. But why is this? And is it really a bad thing?
Monday, April 14, 2014

April 14, 2014 (F1plus/Graham Keilloh).- Something has been bothering me. And been bothering me for a while.

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If any of you watched Sky’s coverage in the UK of the recent Malaysian Grand Prix you may recall late in the race commentator Martin Brundle referring to a battle between Jenson Button and Felipe Massa as one fought between two experienced old heads, or with words to that effect. Only upon being reminded that Button was a mere 34 years old and Massa 32 did he slightly backtrack.

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But it brought into focus that thing that’s been bothering me. That somehow, possibly gradually, over time the sport’s attitude to the age of drivers has changed.

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There were a few things on top of this that had got my suspicions going. In the last eighteen months or so I’ve lost count of the number of ‘Fernando Alonso’s running out of time to win title number three’ comments. Alonso himself is 32. And in this year’s BBC 5Live season preview Jennie Gow also speculated as to Jenson Button’s apparently imminent retirement (though she was corrected on the matter swiftly by Allan McNish).

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Michael Schumacher carried on in F1 until the age of 43, but it seems in the modern era at least he’s very much an outlier. Plus he’s Michael Schumacher, so he can do what he wants. The oldest driver in F1 right now is Kimi Raikkonen, himself a mere 34.

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Thinking back to when I first started following the sport in the late 1980s, the age range of 32-34 was considered roughly when an F1 driver was at their peak. And it tended to be that if they were good enough and the driver didn’t have personal reasons to choose to stop themselves retirement wouldn’t be spoken of until they pushed 40.

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Somehow, somewhere, in F1 since the figures in these aphorisms have had about five years subtracted from either of them. We often lament the F1 paddock’s obsession with money brought when picking drivers; but it seems these days that its obsession with youth is somewhere in the same ballpark.

To give a few illustrations, and with the comments about Alonso and Massa – both 32 – in mind, in 1992 Ayrton Senna was 32. To my knowledge no one then suggested that was getting on a bit, indeed it was more common to assume that he was still shy of his peak. Same with Alain Prost when he was 32 in 1987. I don’t recall many comments about Michael Schumacher’s age in 2001 either.

To go back further and take a few more extreme examples, Nigel Mansell hadn’t even won his first Grand Prix by the time he reached 32 (though reflecting that age isn’t a new consideration, he lied about his age for a while, knocking a year off; before him Gilles Villeneuve knocked two years off his own age).

Jacques Laffite who went on to have a lengthy F1 career, indeed jointly held the record for most race starts for a time, made his Grand Prix debut just a few months short of turning 31. Juan Manuel Fangio was still five years away from arriving in Europe at the point that he hit his 32nd birthday…

As a consequence of this changed attitude to age the modern F1 driver tends to fall into one of three categories (or combinations therein).

There are the top-drawer talents (Vettel, Hamilton, Alonso, Rosberg, Raikkonen, Hulkenberg, perhaps we can include generously Button, Grosjean and Massa too).

There are those who bring money and/or commercial opportunities (Maldonado, Perez, Gutierrez, Ericsson, Chilton, and Kobayashi brought his own money this year).

While aside from these the third and sole remaining category is those who are young and on the way up (Ricciardo, Bottas, Magnussen, Vergne, Kvyat, Bianchi).

The only 2014 driver who curiously stands aside from these is Adrian Sutil, who while he brings a bit of money it’s not thought to be loads as these things go.

And a natural extension of this is that those who’d been in the sport for a few years without really reaching for the stars, but by the same token showed themselves to be perfectly worthy midfield talents deserving of a place in the top 22 all else being equal – Timo Glock, Paul di Resta, Heikki Kovalainen, Jaime Alguersuari among others – have all lost their place at the top table in recent years.

Perhaps this rush to youth reflects that in the 1990s and onwards the physical requirements of an F1 driver rose like a rocket; refuelling and unburstable cars turned races into a series of 100% sprints requiring a gigantic effort in stamina and muscle compared with what was required before, as unlike then nursing cars and tyres through races barely was a consideration.

And first with Michael Schumacher and then followed by everyone else the fitness regime of F1 drivers rose in unison. With this it seems natural that paddock employers would look for younger drivers.

But these requirements are to an extent no more. Various factors have moved matters back towards how they were; first refuelling in race was banned, then degradation was engineered in to the tyres. Now of course we have fuel restrictions.

All of these have limited the physical requirements of an F1 driver. Schumi himself commented to this effect in the ‘Pirelli era’ that he felt stepping out of the car having done a race distance in modern F1 he could easily hop back in and do another one right away. But strangely the sport’s shift towards youth hasn’t shifted back in turn. Not yet anyway.

Perhaps though instead this shift reflects a self-correcting mechanism of sorts. Without at all wishing to sound callous time was that the risk to life and limb of being a racing driver – drivers dying, or being hurt, or stopping minded of not pushing their luck before either of these things happened – ensured that F1 seat opportunities opened up regularly for those outside knocking on the door.

Now, thankfully, these things hardly are factors. But perhaps this clearing out of drivers who are good but not world-beaters, and have had enough of an opportunity for us to be reasonably sure that they never are going to be world-beaters, is a way of achieving the same effect?

And perhaps with this it’s all a good thing? After all F1 is a tough business. And it should be tough; if it wasn’t then anyone would do it.

If you’ve had your opportunities over two or three seasons and in that time haven’t given indication that you’ll be in the top echelon of talent (or won’t bring money to help the team keep going) is it not fair enough that you are asked to clear out and give someone else a go? As after all the young guy may show themselves to be a top talent, and even if they don’t the team hasn’t lost a great deal by comparison.

It strikes me as well in keeping with the ever-changing and cut-throat sport, that in this game you’re either moving up or moving out.

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