Undercut: Youth or age, you decide…

3

I’m not sure when it happened, I’m not sure I was aware there was a seismic shift – I can’t remember ever hearing an official announcement, but something has fundamentally changed in F1. Was it obvious, looking back? No. Was it immediate? Most definitely not. It was gradual and subtle but the direction of F1 has been forever altered.

Do the names Clay Reggazoni, Carlos Reutemann, Ronnie Peterson mean anything to you ? How about Alan Jones, Emerson Fittipaldi, Jochen Rindt, or Jack Brabham? Peter Revson, Fancois Cevert?

I don’t blame you if these names are unfamiliar to you although if you’re reading anything from this blog my guess is at the very least you recognize them.

Now lets juxtapose those names with these: Max Verstappen, Charles Leclerc, Pierre Gasly, Lance Stroll. I suppose you could also put Sebastian Vettel here, and Lewis Hamilton as well. Going back a bit Fernando Alonso.

Does anyone see a pattern here; does anyone see what happened, the shift, the change? Or is it just me? When did F1 go from being a grown man’s sport to that of a teenager, that of boys?

What inspired this post is a recent quote from Martin Brundle in which he describes Kimi Raikkonen’s exit from Ferrari and the promotion of a very young and very unseasoned Charles Leclerc and aptly states that in F1 we are witnessing a “changing of the guard.” But in fact I have wanted to explore this subject for quite a while.

Let’s go back

At the expense of revealing my age, I grow up watching F1 in the glorious 70’s. The era of shaggy hair, crazy sideburns and earth tones taken to an extreme level. Say what you want about the era of polyester, smog and sappy Carpenter songs (but we all love ’em), to begin one’s education of F1 in this era, well it was something that cannot be conveyed.

I am sure that if I had been a kid in Jim Clark’s, Graham Hill’s, or a young Jackie Stewart’s era, I would be saying the same thing. But the 70’s… The sound, the car design, the weird and exotic destinations, the playboy lifestyle or at least the implied living of it, the smell of rubber and oil, but most importantly, the drivers.

Where the men of Clark’s era where refined (just look at any of those photos from that era), with the perfectly parted hair, the skinny ties and tie clips, Hill’s aristocracy mustache, the men of the 70’s where rough, unpolished. These men with big arms, full mustaches, crazy sideburns, the men looked like men, like real men. “Heroes,” as Damon Hill one described it, “The real article,” which of course included his father’s era as well and the era going back to Fangio, Ascari, and a bit later, Moss.

That is the F1 I grew up with and that is definitely not the F1 of today. There are many reasons why the sport as gone in the direction it has and to be clear, it is not just F1. Several sporting endeavors have moved in the direction of younger players, Basketball comes to mind, football to a lesser degree due to the contact nature of the sport but in regards to the QB, they are drafted right out of college and much of the time skipping their senior year. Baseball keeps getting younger and younger as well, so all sports are finding a benefit in younger, hyper-talented athletes.

Yet there is something different about twenty-year-olds driving several million dollars worth of carbon fiber and metal at speeds over 200 mph. Max Verstappen in an F1 Car is just different than Lonzo Ball in a Laker uniform, I’m sorry the two are just not equivalent.

Safety

It does not take a rocket scientist or even a race engineer to see safety has played a significant role in the age of drivers dropping precipitously. Who on earth would allow an eighteen or twenty year old in the type of death traps, albeit beautiful death traps, from the 70’s, when the speeds and horsepower were constantly increasing and the tracks and the safety measures hadn’t changed since the fifties? There were the exceptions – Jackie Ickxx was in his early twenties but that was most definitely the exception.

There is a great line in the film Rush, which Niki Lauda has all but verified he said in a driver’s meeting. It is something along the lines of “I accept every time I get in my car there’s a 20% chance I could die.” This is depicted in the movie at the drivers meeting right before the now famous race at the Nurburgring that changed the course of history for both Lauda and James Hunt. And while some would argue the specific percentage is based on a variety of factors, if a driver did indeed race all the races on the calendar for a given amount of time then this 20% is pretty accurate.

There is a line in Jackie Stewart’s autobiographical account of his racing career and one that he retells in the doc “1” in which he shares, “We lost a driver every month for four consecutive months.” Racing has never been for the faint of heart.

Then the unthinkable happened, somehow it got even worse. In 1994 on the weekend of the San Marino GP not one but two F1 pilots lost their lives. Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna passed away in race car accidents and the F1’s world came to a stop and finally the powers that be said enough is enough. Thus the FIA and F1 ushered in the new era of safety that has continued to evolve at a rapid pace and has most recently seen the introduction of the halo. This device more than likely saved Charles Leclerc from a severely compressed neck at the very least and at the worst, well lets just say, it could have been really really bad.

So while safety has increased, conversely, the age of an F1 driver has dropped considerably over the decades. There are other reasons for sure but one can draw a direct correlation between this phenomenon of [young] age and safety in this post, post modern era of F1.

The times they are a’ changing

Nothing stays the same nor would I expect it to, but the rate at which youth has now taken over the sport, of all sports is just mind boggling. What makes this trend more arresting in motorsport is of course the fact that we are not talking about a goal post or a net, a parquet floor, or grass, but the sport is still about machinery and tarmac, and in the case of street circuits, armco’s and cement barriers. I find myself saying all the time to the TV on race weekend, but he’s just a kid, or look at that kid go, or…

Then again is it at all surprising with this super hopped up society that we all live in, that puts so much importance on sports, success and winning at all coasts? Parents that are so focused on their child’s process they start them earlier and earlier in that chosen sport? I read that USC’s Todd Marinovich’s dad was throwing him the football while he was still in his crib.

Gone are the days when a driver or athlete could start in earnest in their teens. If you haven’t started racing something, being able to dribble a basketball with your head up, already swing a golf club with the right grip for the fade or draw, have the proper stance in the batters box or dribble a soccer ball in the air like 10 times by the ripe old age of 6 then kiss your F2 title, your Heisman, or your whatever it is trophy goodbye.

It kinda makes sense doesn’t it? If say Lance Stroll or Max Verstappen have been racing cars from the time they were five or six then by the time they are eighteen, nineteen and twenty they have already been racing in some form for 12 to 15 years. I suppose it stands to reason they are ready for the big leagues regardless of their youthful appearance.

When is too young too young?

Getting to F1 is one thing; being good enough to stay and actually race competitively is quite another and this is the crux of the matter and one that makes me suspect of the way this phenomenon has evolved. I am not 100%, in fact I’m not even 75% convinced that the young drivers that are coming into the sport actually deserve to be there.

Take the Red Bull young driver program, while it has produced both Sebastian Vettel and Daniel Ricciardo, both race winners and one a four time champ as well as Pierre Gasly (and I would say the jury is still out on Gasly), to name the most recognizable drivers currently, how many have been left for dead? The list is long.

Many, many blog posts ago I wrote this. The context was Sergio Perez’s one and done year at McLaren.

Let’s just run down some of the names F1 has chewed up and spit out shall we. In no particular order: Sebastian Bourdais, Scott Speed, Jamie Alguersuari, Heikki Kovalainen (although he might be back soon) Takumo Sato, Ralph Ferman, Bruno Senna, Vitaly Petrov, Timo Clock, Kamui Kobayashi, Narian Karthikeyan, Sebastian Buemi, Jerome d’Ambrosia, Pedro de la Rosa, Vitantonio Liuzzi, Karun Chandhok, Lucas di Grassi, Christian Klein, Jazuki Nakajima, Anthony Davidson, Christian Albers, Marcus Winkelhock, Michael Ammermuller, Robert Dornsbos, Yuji Ide, Neel Yani, Tiago Monteiro, Franck Montagny, Yamamoto Sakon, Giorgio Mondini, Partrick Friesacher, Antonio Pizzonia, Nicolas Kiesa, Chanoch Nissay, Recordo Zonta, Zsolt Baumgartner, Gorgia Pantano, Bas Leinders, Bjorn Wirdheim, Cristiano da Matta, Gianmaria Bruni, Heinz Harald Frentzen, Allan McNish, Satoshi Motoyama, Matteo Bobbi, Ryan Briscoe, Justin Wilson, and who can forget a driver that was not only chewed up and spit out, but in the process was part of the worst cheating scandal in recent history: Nelson Piquet Jr.

The sheer number of drivers that have been promoted only to be shown the door is astonishing. I go on to state:

I consider myself a pretty hardcore fan, also a student of F1 and have been following it day in and day out for a very, very long time and I must confess there are several names from this list that I honestly cannot recall in any way, shape or form. Apparently a failed stint in F1 not only derails your racing career it can also completely wipe you off the face of the map if you’re not up to snuff.

This is how I ended that particular post; I think these words are still relevant today:

I have come to see that F1 is similar to an anti-hero. Not at all altruistic, possibly immoral, certainly rapacious, definitely unforgiving but somehow still admirable for rebelling against the status quo and refusing to accept anything less than perfection from those pursuing its impossibly high standards. The character that is flawed yet also the character that you are most inspired by. I think Sergio got a bit of a raw deal, a bit too young, a bit too un seasoned to drive for McLaren and by extension the big leagues of F1, but by definition the anti-hero is not perfect and we will now move to the next gladiator on deck. We move to the next young driver that is there for the taking with clear eyes, a bright smile the promise of speed or that one intoxication that no team can resist. Money. The line is endless after all.

  • One and Done; A case study of Sergio Perez Nov. 2013 –

Exceptions to the rule

Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and most recently Max Verstappen. Four names that completely debunk this entire post. No, really, take any one of these drivers and the only [not logical] conclusion by which one can arrive is too young is most definitely not too young.

Each one of these drivers set records revolving around their age and a particular feat. Youngest champion, youngest pole sitter, etc. In fact as if to really drive the point home in the youth vs. age discussion, each one of these drivers was out done in some record as the new (and ain’t this appropriate) kid on the block (tarmac) came into the sport. Alonso was outdone by Hamilton who was outdone by Vettel who in turn was out done by Verstappen in one or several F1 records.

Clearly age in the super elite, super talented has little to do with raw speed, race craft sure but still, let me ask you this, at that point does it really matter?

Peter Windsor once related a story, not sure where I read it – F1 magazine I think and it goes something like this: He asks Michael Schumacher who he most feared on the grid of the new drivers, Windsor suggests a few names, Kimi Raikkonen, Giancarlo Fisichella maybe someone else, I can’t quite recall. Michael does not hesitate and says straight away Alonso.

Hamilton was so good right from day one that he was on par with Alonso in race trim and just a hair faster than Alonso in qualifying most of that year. I have always maintained that the Briton is the best driver over one lap period and he showed it in his rookie year and every year after to date. That is scary talent, Singapore recently; completely bonkers was his qually lap…

Vettel was so good in his first race he scored points for BMW, Canada I think and then the next year won in Monza beating the likes of Hamilton for one of his many records I might add, in the rain, and in a backmarker car no less. Well maybe the Toro Rosso was not quite a back-marker, but you get my drift. Completely off the charts folks…

However for me, it was in Brazil 2016, in the rain in which Verstappen announced to me and the F1 world alike he was special. The titanic battle with Vettel in Mexico that same year is what galvanized what everyone was saying in the paddock and what I would later discover myself: This kid is the real deal.

It reminded me of Alonso vs. Schumacher in Imola in 2005 where for 3 or 4 laps the Ferrari of Michael was hunting the Renault of Fernando but to no avail. That is the magic of racing and when one gets to witness something like that, one truly understands the power of this sport and the top drivers in it.

Yes, Verstappen was a bit cheeky that day in those final laps but good grief the steely nerve of the rookie to make his car so wide and on tires that were giving up the ghost – just so lovely to see true gritty racing, so much so I forgot all about Max’s age and in that moment he had arrived.

The F1 Gods revealed to us in that moment the great driver of the next generation and we are all the better for it. It felt like I was witnessing the beginning of a legend like Fangio, Moss, Clark, Steward, Senna, Prost, Schumacher. The one difference of course is the age.

I miss the 70’s

I love F1; this is as true a statement as it can get for me, if you’re reading this post you are the same. I love all the tech in F1, the complexity of what it takes to build a modern day F1 car, the innovation, and the sheer will to find the smallest of margins of speed. How far these race cars have come since a tube frame, engine, steering wheel and a gear lever is quite remarkable.

I love the razor’s edge performance that cuts both ways. Get your aero correlation wrong, forget the top step. Misjudge the suspension geometry, don’t be surprised if your tires don’t last the stint. Your team takes just two extra seconds in the pit box and kiss your podium goodbye – such is the level of competition and the degree of perfection that it takes to race in motorsport’s most celebrated formula.

I love the show, the circus, and the cut-throat mentality. I love the fact that F1 history shows up time and time again to the races. To see Jackie Stewart, Keke Rosberg, Damon Hill, Mika Hakkinen or Gerhard Berger on a regular basis is the perfect cocktail of F1 luminaries and elder statesmen right next to the up and comers. I love the chaotic grid right before the red lights go out and all the gear, umbrellas, and team personnel standing around the car either protecting their secrets or showing moral support for what is always a tense time of the race weekend as the pressure builds for the divers.

But I have to say I really miss seeing those drivers of yesteryear. There was just something about it. Maybe it was because I was just a kid that it made such an impression. Maybe because these drivers looked like my father who of course was into cars (my dad had several Porsches from a 356 to a Carrera S to a few turbos) and so by extension all these drivers were like a father, fathers that were fearless, bigger than life and doing this thing that was so different and exotic and just so manly…

Newest new kid on the block

Right, back to reality JP. While Max has yet to dominate or even win a championship it is quite clear he is the stuff champions are made of. Despite the fact that Red Bull lags behind in the engine department, he has shown that not only does he belong in F1 he will surely win a Championship, several if he is in the right place at the right time a la Seb, a la Ham.

And so the love affair with youth continues. Ferrari, which typically waits till drivers are multiple race winners and/or champions before entertaining a contract with a driver, has signed up rookie Charles Leclerc.

In fact so highly rated is this (and now we have all learned a new word) Monégasque driver, that the late Sergio Marchionne threw caution to the win and choose him to partner Vettel in 2019 and beyond at the expense of the much more seasoned Kimi Raikkonen and Ferrari’s last champion. Sadly Marchionne will not see this driver compete next year in a red car but his wishes were honored and there are several that feel he will seriously give Vettel a bit of a hard time. As Leclerc said himself, he’s not going to Ferrari to learn; he’s going there to race and to win.

Again, I am a bit on the fence in regards to Leclerc. I have not seen the speed as of yet and I have not see the real head to head battle with a competitor either while in front or following, in a car of more ability the way we witnessed with Verstappen while at Toro Rosso, but what do I know really??? I’m just some guy that watches several forms of racing almost every weekend, reads 10 – 20 articles a day from multiple websites all credible in not a bit redundant, have read countless books and biographies from drivers and anyone else who has worked in F1 over the years and has watched countless hours of anything that is remotely close to F1 over the years (mostly on Youtube – F1 Masters is one of my favorites). I have been wrong before however…

The Leclerc experiment will be one to watch, to see if he actually has the speed to stay with Vettel. We can’t expect him not to make mistakes, how many races in a row did Max bin his car?? Six?? We can’t expect Leclerc to get the whole weekend right either. I really don’t expect him to manage his tires the way the veterans do, or drive around a problem the way Hamilton or Alonso can, at least not yet. But if he has the speed, then all that other stuff will come and he will yet again disprove my thesis and the general idea that a driver needs years and years of experience to compete in F1.

What else is there to say really? It’s a young man’s game now and there is no going back. There is no stopping the seemingly endless stream of young drivers that are able and willing and at the disposal of F1 and honestly at the end of the day I’m ok with that.

As much as I come off as a hopeless romantic longing for the golden years of F1, I think F1 is doing just fine no matter how young the drivers are, but the 70’s will always be a magical and special time for F1 and one I will always look back on with a type of glee that just does not happen anymore.

For the record I just received a new cap in the mail. It has the number 33 on it. It is orange and white and proclaims to have some association with Aston Martin and an energy drinks company. My favorite part is the flat bill like all the cool kids wear these days and while the driver that this cap represents is not the 30 year old of the 70’s, all macho and full of true grit, he sure the hell drives like one and that is enough for me.

3
Leave a Reply

avatar
 
Photo and Image Files
 
 
 
Audio and Video Files
 
 
 
Other File Types
 
 
 
2 Comment threads
1 Thread replies
0 Followers
 
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
2 Comment authors
MIETom Firth Recent comment authors

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  Subscribe  
newest oldest most voted
Notify of
Tom Firth
Editor

Interesting read but we have always had some unusually young drivers among the older drivers. Ricardo Rodriguez and Chris Amon still rank among the youngest drivers to start Grand Prix. Ricardo is still Ferrari’s youngest ever driver (I think) and will remain so even after Leclerc gets a go. Chris Amon was the young driver of the 1970s and Mike Thackwell was seen as a teenage sensation in other areas of the sport in the 1980s and though never had good drives in F1, is still among the youngest to start a grand prix. Peter Collins was also pretty young… Read more »

Tom Firth
Editor

By the way, has also been quite a few Monégasque drivers in F1 before and motorsport. Louis Chiron, Stefano Coletti recently in GP2, Olivier Beretta who raced in F1 then made a career racing for Ferrari in Sportscars for a long time among them.

MIE
Editor

While thirteen of the twenty five youngest drivers to start a world championship race made their debut since 2000, that means twelve started before then: – four in the 50s (Troy Ruttman and Jimmy Davies both at Indy, so not strictly F1), Peter Collins and Bruce McLaren; – two in the 60s, Ricardo Rodriguez and Chris Amon; – two in the 70s, Eddie Cheever and Elio Dr Angelis; – one in the 80s, Mike Thackwell; – leaving three in the 90s, Esteban Tuero, Tarso Marques and Rubens Barrichello. All these drivers were well under twenty one. Lewis Hamilton was over… Read more »