Lewis Hamilton’s astounding success in his debut season is a sure sign of an incredible talent, a future multiple world champion if he plays the team card properly. At the same time, this is a stunning reminder of the increasingly lower average age of Formula One drivers. At one time, it was seat-of-your-pants experience and prior race results which got you promoted into Grand Prix racing and, almost invariably, the first F1 team was a back-marker or a mid-grid team at best. Will tomorrow’s success story read something like: “Willi drove go-karts at age 9, Formula Three at 12, then learned on the F1 team simulator and took a testing role at 15 before earning a place on the grid at the ripe old age of 16?” That was the age (minimum driver’s license age) when aspiring race drivers were lucky to set foot in any kind of racecar period. Graham Hill got his first chance in Formula One at an age, which today could make him Lewis Hamilton’s father! It will be interesting to study the criteria for an FIA super-license to race in F1, whether this is applied consistently and what it will resemble if the average age and years of experience continue to drop. Not that long ago, Kimi Raikkonen was suspected of being too young and inexperienced to qualify for an FIA super-license, but after he took a race seat at Sauber, he proved his doubters wrong in his rookie season. Why has Formula One all of a sudden become so accessible to younger drivers? Probably, in my humble opinion, it has everything to do with the modern electronic age and electronic driver aids, the “steroids” problem of modern motorsport. This has maybe supplanted the number of years you once needed in junior formulae to learn how to control a car’s drift through a corner or how to master braking distances and throttle response. Perhaps growing up practicing on a Playstation console is now a more valuable training ground for F1 than actually going out and getting a driver’s license. Today’s wannabe F1 drivers start on go-karts at a young age, jump formulas quickly, and adapt to the push-button, electronic aids controls of modern F1 cars much faster than their older peers. Look at Nico Rosberg, Robert Kubica, and the latest hotshot, young Sebastien Vettel. The future implications that this phenomenon holds for much of the current Formula One grid is quite staggering. We are on the verge of seeing half the grid made redundant within the next five years. Let’s face it, Coulthard, Barrichello, Ralf Schumacher, Fisichella, Button, Trulli, Webber…none of these really has a hope of ever becoming a world champion. They will all go the way of Jacques Villeneuve, the first casualty (to Robert Kubica) last year. Raikkonen and Massa should probably be equally concerned that time could pass them by quickly at this rate. Some unknown kid currently experimenting with his X-box in a suburb of Prague could supplant them all in three or four years. The “window” for coming into the sport, pairing up with the right team at their competitive prime, and scoring big will now narrow considerably for a driver. Jacques Villeneuve was lucky to come into Williams in 1996 but he still got to race in F1 for nine years after winning the title in 1997 before being shown the door. It now looks, as drivers get younger, they will also be expected to win sooner, otherwise they will be out of the sport before they know it. The number of mega-buck salaried drivers à la Michael Schumacher will probably decline quickly. (Both McLaren and Ferrari are probably wondering about the huge gap in the respective salaries of their number one and two drivers at this stage of the season.) The money saved should instead slowly seep into the pockets of the real deciders of modern F1 results; the designers, aerodynamicists, software tech gurus, tire guys, and other specialists who from year to year, either get it right (BMW) or get it horribly wrong (Honda, Renault), or who simply don’t seem to get it any more, no matter how much time they spend at it (Toyota). Their drivers seem like impotent passengers along for the ride when something about the car was “tweaked” in the off season….But not in the right manner! Michael Schumacher understood that in this “black box” era, his fate could be doomed by such men and he was the first driver to truly form a team around him with whom he could communicate and who (correctly) devoted himself entirely to winning before the car ever hit the track. Half the battle was already won. Raikkonen still seems to believe he should be able to jump into a car like Moss or Fangio did in the 1950s, and driving skill alone will carry the day. Alas, those days of pure racing are long gone.
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