Finding the ideal age of a motorsport champion

Lightning reactions, skill, bravery, endurance: this is the stuff of a modern racing driver. But is youth or experience more likely to forge a champion?

Back in 2013, retired NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb caused uproar on Fox Sports Live when he claimed that Jimmie Johnson, six-time champion of America’s NASCAR racing series, was “absolutely not” an athlete. While it was clumsily made, the subtext to his point was clear: racing drivers are qualitatively different from football, tennis and rugby players who live and die by their athleticism.

For the vast majority of athletes, losing a yard of pace in their mid-thirties spells the beginning of the end, and it is only those with exceptional natural ability – the Ryan Giggs, Roger Federers and Brian O’Driscolls of this world – who can adapt their game to prolong the inevitable. However, motorsport simply isn’t like this. Forty-year-old Johnson is one of the leading contenders in this year’s championship alongside 39-year-old defending champion Kevin Harvick. Over in IndyCar, the most powerful open-wheel series in America, Juan Pablo Montoya won the flagship Indianapolis 500 aged 39 this year and lead the standings for the duration of the season before ultimately losing the championship on a tie-breaker to 35-year-old Scott Dixon.

Being a good racing driver is a balance of being at the peak of your physical abilities and experience

None of the above seem remotely likely to throw in the towel any time soon and are set to enjoy an indefinite number of years of further success. So is age important in motorsport? Two-time Le Mans 24 Hour winner Alex Wurz, 41, doesn’t think so.

The stopwatch doesn’t know how young or old I am, so age is irrelevant as long as you are really on fire and you can give it your best,” says the Austrian, who retired from Formula One at just 33 before returning to sports cars with Peugeot and Toyota.

If you are a young person and you are mature and have a lot of racing experience then equally being young is not a disadvantage, and I can see both extremes with myself. Having been the youngest winner at Le Mans and now being not the youngest any more, it makes little difference.”

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Young success

Lack of experience doesn’t have to be a barrier. When news broke that 19-year-old Jaime Alguersuari, whose only previous F1 experience had been in straight-line testing, would be thrust into energy drinks company Red Bull’s Toro Rosso team for the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix, it didn’t take long for naysayers to brand the Spaniard a safety hazard. It was a similar story this year when Red Bull’s Helmut Marko plucked Max Verstappen – aged just 17 – from Formula Three. The doom-mongers were soon proved wrong when Verstappen qualified sixth for only his second Grand Prix in Malaysia.

That said, while there can be no doubting just how impressive Verstappen’s start to F1 has been, the teenager is a very raw talent and still has some way to go to iron out mistakes and become a truly consistent performer deemed worthy of a promotion to the senior Red Bull team. Much of that will come naturally through experience. Already a potent competitor at 17, there is no telling where Verstappen will be ten or more years from now. Like all good wines, racing drivers tend to get better with age.

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Experience versus talent

Being a good racing driver is always a balance of being at the peak of your physical abilities and experience,” says 1992 British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) champion and British Racing Drivers Club (BRDC) Superstars coordinator Tim Harvey. “So whilst the young driver at the height of his physical prowess in terms of reactions might be better between the ages of 18 and 25, he won’t have the experience that an older guy will have when it comes to managing a race.

A lot depends on the type of racing that you’re doing. For example, GT and sports car racing is all about reducing your stint length [rather than single lap pace], so experience obviously plays an important part in the outcome.” Other experts concur.

I think there does come a cross-over point where you start to lose the edge on speed, but you gain it in experience and being a bit savvy in situations,” says circuit commentator David Addison. “For example, you might see an experienced driver decide not to get stuck in for third place, he’ll lag back and wait for the accident to unfold ahead. The older they get and the more experienced they become, the more they realise that there is more to winning races and championships than the lap they’re on at that moment.”

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Optimum years

Pinpointing the age when racing drivers operate at their peak, both mentally and physically, can never be an exact science because it hinges on the age they started in the sport, whether they developed good habits early on, how long it took them to achieve any major success, and much more.

Porsche LMP1 driver Neel Jani, 31, has been one of the stars of the 2015 World Endurance Championship (WEC) with pole positions at Le Mans, Germany’s Nürburgring and the Circuit of the Americas in Texas in his locker, but he is quick to play down any suggestion that he has never driven better.

I wouldn’t say that. For sure I have more experience and I can turn more difficult situations into easier solutions, but the big difference I have now is good equipment. Without that you can’t do anything,” he says. “Look at the Toyota drivers – last year people were watching Buemi and Davidson and saying ‘my God they’re amazing’, but now you don’t see them anymore. When I started in endurance racing at Rebellion I had some very good years in terms of driving, but now at Porsche I really get the platform to make the most out of everything I have learned.”

With so many mitigating factors, the average age of an F1 champion – 31.8 – should be considered little more than a rough guideline, particularly at a time when the increased emphasis on discovering a hidden gem means the competition is younger by the year. The average age of competitors in the first ever Grand Prix back in 1950 was a handsome 39. By the time of the season-opening Australian Grand Prix in 2014 it had dropped to just 26.

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If you were to think of it traditionally, I would think the perfect years would be the early thirties to mid-thirties or maybe a tad older, but it rather depends on when you start,” says three-time F1 champion Sir Jackie Stewart, who switched to car racing aged 23 after a successful career in competitive shooting.

Nowadays people are starting karting at eight years of age in some cases, and from that point on they’re doing an awful lot of starts and first corners, which is all adding up to good experience and knowledge – although there are some who get that experience but aren’t capable of banking it and using it in the most positive way. Chris Amon was very young when he came in, and I think he was a wonderful driver, as good a driver as you could find, but you have to ask why we didn’t see him winning.”

Mental desire

Stewart was 30 when he won his first title in 1969 and 34 by the time of his third title and retirement in 1973, a dark period for the sport when drivers were fortunate if they lived to experience their sporting peak. With nothing left to prove following the death of his close friend Francois Cevert at Watkins Glen, Stewart promptly retired one race shy of his 100th Grand Prix, and the Scot rightly points out that experience is of little value without the burning desire to compete.

You could maybe stretch that peak operating window to 35 or 36, but I think there’s few racing drivers, certainly in Formula One, who really have got it together after their late thirties,” he says. “After a point I think the mental aspect, as well as the physical starts to go. You look at Mark Webber, he was physically as fit as any man who has ever been in a racing car, but mentally he had decided that it was time.”

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The oldest man on the current F1 grid at 35, 2007 champion Kimi Raikkonen, arguably finds himself in a similar boat to Webber who is now a race-winner with Porsche in the WEC. With only his own, somewhat doubtful, competitive instincts to satisfy and a Ferrari that still, despite improvements from last year, is no match for the dominant Mercedes, Raikkonen faces a difficult decision when his one-year contract extension with the Scuderia runs out next year.

Tough at the top

Make no mistake, the life of a professional racing driver in 2015 shares little resemblance with the romanticised picture of glitz and glamour portrayed in Ron Howard’s seventies biopic Rush. With F1’s globalisation extending to the Caucasus region when Azerbaijan hosts a Grand Prix for the first time in 2016, there is now far more time spent away from home than ever before, not to mention the necessary sponsor appearances and gruelling fitness work even before a wheel is turned.

Being a competitive driver at the front of a headline championship is a massively pressured, self-absorbed thing. You don’t win by rocking up on a weekend and having some fun,” Harvey points out. “You have to be consumed by it, but that takes its toll and there comes a point where actually you don’t want to do that anymore. I don’t regret making the decision to stop at all. For one, my wife says I’m a nicer person to live with!”

Once you get past 25, you start to acknowledge that maybe you’re not immortal

With 21 Grands Prix next year, there’s a lot more travelling than there used to be and to a certain extent you can understand why the desire starts to drop off a little bit,” agrees respected F1 journalist Bruce Jones.

Maybe that’s the camp Kimi is moving into right now. He’s arguably got by at times when he hasn’t applied himself simply because he has so much natural talent.”

But with the competition getting younger and, crucially, hungrier, Raikkonen will need to call on more than just natural talent and experience if he is to add to his tally of wins. To this end, he could learn a lesson or two from his own team-mate, quadruple champion Sebastien Vettel, 28, whose inclination to immerse himself with every minor engineering detail has drawn inevitable comparisons with compatriot Michael Schumacher. But whether Raikkonen will change the approach which has served him throughout his career remains to be seen.

With age comes… vincibility

Ultimately just how great a significance one attributes to age is a matter for interpretation – the many conflicting reasons given for Schumacher’s disappointing comeback with Mercedes, three years after leaving Ferrari at his prime, perfectly illustrates this point. Nevertheless, there can be no mistaking that with age comes a more acute sense of perspective.

Once you get past 25, you start to acknowledge that maybe you’re not immortal,” says Max Mosley, former president of F1’s governing body the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA). He had first-hand experience of this having raced in the ill-fated Formula Two meeting at Hockenheim in 1968 that claimed the life of Scottish F1 champion Jim Clark. Mosley retired from driving just two years later aged 29.

I remember at Monza once saying to Jochen Rindt, ‘listen Jochen, I can’t bring myself to take the Curva Grande flat’ and he said ‘why not?’ ‘Well, if somebody has dropped some oil or something goes wrong, it’s a grisly end in the trees,’ I said. He replied: ‘if you think like that, then you shouldn’t be racing.’”

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