Opinion: Why Kimi Raikkonen is proof F1 should give experience a chance

I’ve just noticed a rare milestone that Formula 1 is about to hit. Or rather a Formula 1 driver is about to hit. And the pique of my interest is likely related to that I am someone who, sadly, joined the quadragenarian club recently.

In next month’s Mexican Grand Prix Kimi Raikkonen will participate in an F1 race as a 40-year-old. Something that feels incongruous in what has long struck as a youth-obsessed modern-day F1. And, in matter of fact terms, Raikkonen is an outlier, as the next oldest current F1 pilot is Robert Kubica who is over five years Raikkonen’s junior. Heck, next season as things stand the next-oldest F1 pilot will be the ever youthful and trendy Lewis Hamilton…

But Kimi’s not entirely on his own, as we may recall Fernando Alonso, when he popped into Monza for the Italian round earlier this month, said that the 2021 rules may tempt him back to F1. And if that indeed comes to pass he too would turn 40 as an F1 driver.

And this is indeed unusual these days. Underlining as much, to find F1’s previous active drivers aged 40 or above you have to go back to 2012’s season-closing round in Brazil. Then you had Michael Schumacher, who was pushing 44 at the time, plus Pedro de la Rosa who was 41 when tugging around at the back for HRT. But then again Schumi at least may be considered an outlying case, as seven world titles on your CV gives you greater leeway to insist on staying on.

Concern about age and being viewed as ‘too old’ isn’t new in F1 or anywhere else, as after all Gilles Villeneuve in 1977 felt obliged to pretend to be two years younger than he actually was for fear of otherwise not getting his foot in the F1 door. Similar went for Nigel Mansell who for the most of his F1 career claimed to be a year younger than his actuality.

But it’s demonstrable that the F1 driver is getting younger, and that’s even with ignoring that in the 1950s F1 drivers aged 50 and above were common – something which most likely reflects the peculiarities of motorsport stopping during the Second World War. And no-one aged in their fifties has raced in F1 since Louis Rosier in the 1956 German Grand Prix.

In next month’s Mexican Grand Prix Kimi Raikkonen will participate in an F1 race as a 40-year-old. To find F1’s previous active drivers aged 40 or above you have to go back to 2012’s season-closing round in Brazil

After that, according to the F1 website, “between 1960 and 1993, the average age for an F1 driver hovered around 32.” Yet at the start of this 2019 season the average was 26.7 years old, while five of the 10 teams, including Ferrari and Red Bull, had a driver aged 21 or under.

As ’93 gave way to ’94 there was, for a few reasons, a conspicuous changing of the driving guard which resulted in a drop of the average age, and since the trend has been for the figure to creep down further.

It went to the top too, as since ’93 Schumacher, Jacques Villeneuve, Alonso, Hamilton, Raikkonen, Jenson Button and Sebastian Vettel have won titles aged in their twenties (while Mika Hakkinen had only just turned 30 when he claimed his first crown), and five of the seven youngest champions ever got their first title in this era.

On some levels F1’s rush to youth is understandable. In the 1990s and onwards the physical requirements of an F1 driver rose. Refuelling and reliable cars turned races into a series of sprints requiring a much-increased effort in stamina and muscle.

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

Another shift in this time is that the preparation of budding F1 talent has started younger and become much more exacting than used to be the case, with young drivers’ programmes and the like, quintessentially – but far from exclusively – by Red Bull.

Now many drivers – the good ones at least – are something like complete performers at an age the rest of us are barely-formed and entirely-awkward adolescents. And that revered F1 drivers of generations past hadn’t even first stepped into a racing car.

Commerce more generally is often attracted to youth and its image. And the potential of finding the next big thing may always have greater allure than the known – and perhaps limited – quantity. Particularly in an age where the number of F1 seats are about as limited as they’re ever been. In the age of car park run-off areas and the like there’s less risk of a young driver increasing the damage-repair bills too.

The preparation of budding F1 talent has started younger and become much more exacting. Now many drivers are something like complete performers at an age the rest of us are barely-formed and entirely-awkward adolescents

But you wonder even so the extent that F1 teams are missing out by eschewing the experience of those nearing or even past their 40-year vintage.

For demonstration of what teams could be missing, we only need look at the current drivers’ table and the very same afore-mentioned Raikkonen. He sits on 31 points compared with his (youthful) team-mate’s four, and in points-bagging has by consensus vastly outperformed his car.

His Alfa Romeo squad with two lots of Antonio Giovinazzi’s points would possibly be talked of as a team in crisis. Certainly it’d be one expecting millions less in prize money.

And F1 teams’ insistence on young drivers wasn’t always the case. Mansell hadn’t even won his first grand prix by the time he reached 32, took his long-overdue title at 39 and won a grand prix at 41. Jack Brabham and Graham Hill also won grands prix as 40-somethings.

Jacques Laffite, who went on to have a lengthy F1 career including jointly holding the record for most race starts for a time, made his F1 debut just a few months short of turning 31. He was still bagging podiums at the age of 42.

Clay Regazzoni in 1979 at the age of 40 remained a willing and popular frontrunner for the rising Williams team. His replacement at the squad Carlos Reutemann two years later finished a point from the drivers’ title at the age of 39. Damon Hill didn’t make his F1 race bow until aged 31 and won his last race a few weeks shy of 38. Juan Manuel Fangio arrived in Europe when he was 37 and won his final title at 46.

You wonder the extent that F1 teams are missing out by eschewing experience. Raikkonen sits on 31 points compared with his (youthful) team-mate’s four

Take IndyCar too, where drivers routinely cruise towards and past the aged-40 mark and no one bats an eyelid. Therein, Scott Dixon is 39; Will Power and Ryan Hunter-Reay are 38; Sebastien Bourdais is 40; Takuma Sato is 42…

And given everything, such as having to do 500-mile full-pelt oval races in intense heat, it’s hard to make the case that IndyCar is less physically taxing than F1.

Plus many of requirements listed above that led teams to want younger drivers are in large part no more. Various factors have moved matters back towards how they were; first refuelling in race was banned, then degradation was engineered into the tyres. Then we had fuel restrictions. It used to be that drivers, as well as the races, had what was approaching a 9-5 Monday to Friday job testing. That’s another thing now severely restricted.

But it seems the accepted wisdom in F1 today remains that once a driver hits their late thirties – perhaps even sooner – it’s the time to insist they hang up the gloves. And we can tell as much from the language used in the discourse.

For example it is common to hear scoffs in response to suggestions of an Alonso comeback. “F1 has moved on,” they say. Which is an odd argument given F1 by definition moves on when a driver stops – I look forward to the day that F1 as an entity decides it not worth continuing because Joe Soap or whoever has called it a day… So that can be dismissed as tautology.

“He’s had his time in F1,” which makes it sounds as if all F1 careers are accompanied by a clock which ticks away over the years and at some point an alarm bell rings to say the equivalent of ‘come in number 14 your time is up’.  But of course that’s not the case.

Take IndyCar, where drivers routinely cruise towards and past the aged-40 mark. Therein, Scott Dixon is 39; Will Power and Ryan Hunter-Reay are 38; Sebastien Bourdais is 40; Takuma Sato is 42…

“It’s time to give younger drivers a chance”. Well were it the case that the young drivers were better than Alonso is now then you’d have a point. But it seems probable that Alonso would still slot comfortably into F1’s top five on driving talent. And F1 is supposed to be a meritocracy after all.

We can add that throwing your lot in with youth is hardly a guarantee of success either. Red Bull can attest from recent experience with Pierre Gasly and Daniil Kvyat before that. A few have opined that the team should recalibrate its policy and take on the experienced Nico Hulkenberg (who seemingly is about to become the latest to suffer from F1’s youth infatuation).

We can look at plenty of examples of those discarded by F1 who have gone on to be successful elsewhere. Jean-Eric Vergne, winner of the last two Formula E championships as well as useful in LMP2; Sebastien Buemi continues to be a frontrunner in FE and WEC; Kamui Kobayashi and Kazuki Nakajima are doing similar in the latter.

You suspect all of them could still do an F1 team a turn. It suggests that talent is being ditched prematurely.

And ultimately it’s matter of mind-set among F1’s employers. Drivers don’t wake up one morning in their thirties having forgotten how to drive, or having suddenly lost their physical abilities. Perhaps it’s time to reconsider.