Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Old Age And Experience...

How does it stand up against youth and enthusiasm? When old sportsmen retire, it is usually because they have achieved all that they set out to do, or because they know that they are past their best, and never likely to achieve their ambitions. In motorsport, especially at the very top level, the decision is often made by others. F1, in particular, is a harshly competitive world and human nature being what it is, team bosses are often quicker to spot when a driver is no longer as quick as he once was than the driver himself.

I've occasionally found myself wondering, how would Boris Becker or Steffi Graf do if they were to enter a minor tennis tournament? Could Eddie Lawson still win club level motorbike races? Would Gary Linekar be racking up the goals these days if he went up against young players outside of the football league?

As a motorsports fan though, the most intriguing question to me is: How would a retired F1 driver get on in, say a Formula Ford or Formula BMW race? Would the fact that said F1 driver had reached the very top of the tree be enough to ensure that he could see off the vast majority of the drivers in the junior ranks? Or is the gap between the great and the merely good so small that, after a few years away from the sport, he'd be left tooling around at the rear of the pack?

Until now, it's been no more than a matter of speculation. Retired F1 drivers, whose careers were in full flow around the time I first started following the sport in the mid-1980s might be interested in coming together to compete against each other as a number of them did with the now defunct Grand Prix Masters series (echoes perhaps of the seniors tennis and golf tours) and several of them continue to make a good living as endurance racers. None, though, have shown any inclination to try their luck against today's up and coming drivers (at least if one takes with a huge pinch of salt the reports a few years back that Nelson Piquet Sr. was considering driving alongside his son in GP2).

That changed last weekend when former F1 driver and current ITV commentator Martin Brundle stepped behind the wheel of a Formula Palmer-Audi to take on his son Alex, among others around Spa Francorchamps. In his words - "an early 49th Birthday present to myself" though the fact that the time when he could race directly against his son, Alex was fast running out must have been a factor too. The FPA series may not be as intensely competitive as, for instance, the British F3 or Formula Renault series are, but on the other hand, it has in the past served as a training ground for drivers such as Justin Wilson, Giorgio Pantano and multiple World Touring Car champion Andy Priaulx. Whether any of the current front runners, such as Jonathan Moore, series-boss's son Jolyon Palmer and Ivan Lukashevich will follow in their footsteps remains to be seen. There's no doubting, though, that this is rather more of a serious race series for junior drivers than it was a few years back when half the field consisted of cash-rich middle-aged guys indulging their hobby at the weekend.

So how was Brundle going to fare? On the one hand, he was a man who had been a thoroughly competitive F1 driver - not quite from the very top drawer, but more than decently quick. For much of his F1 career, he struggled with uncompetitive cars, such as the Cosworth powered Tyrrell, the truly awful Zakspeed and the unreliable and difficult Brabham Yamaha. When he finally got himself a really competitive car, in the form of the 1992 Benetton Ford, he had the misfortune to find himself paired up with one Michael Schumacher - and that before anyone knew just how good the young German was. A couple of years later, he picked up a drive at Mclaren only to find himself driving alongside a relatively unknown Finnish guy called...Mika Hakkinen. All the same, he showed pretty well against these future F1 champions, so surely against a group of youngsters of whom few, if any, surely, have the same ultimate potential things would not be too difficult? Add to that experience from competing in 11 Grands Prix and numerous Group C sportscar races at Spa and surely he would have things all his own way...

Or perhaps not. On the other hand, here he was up against a group of determined young racers with everything to prove - a man nearing 50 years old, who last raced a car in anger back in 2001, and who hadn't raced a single seater competitively for over 12 years. Unlike the rest of the field, who had extensive experience of the Formula Palmer Audi car, he had done just a bare minimum of testing. He was more than twice the age and probably considerably heavier than most of the rest of the grid. Surely there was a real danger that he would trail embarrassingly around a the back of the field? Brundle himself remarked "a few people said to me 'you're crazy, what are you doing'...

In the end, he neither dominated nor was he humiliated. He beat his son in two of the three races, and finished in the top eight (of a 22 car field) every time. After all that time away, he was still on the pace, and still quicker than most of the field, but no longer able to dominate in the way that one suspects he might have been able to at the very height of his powers. Interestingly, for a man reckoned by Nigel Roebuck to be amongst the most intelligent ever to sit behind the wheel of a racing car, and who might reasonably be expected to take advantage of his greater understanding of getting the most out of the car, he reckoned it was his technique through the slow corners which was losing him time, and not his 'bottle' through Spa's fast stuff.

All in all, quite an interesting result - and I'm glad that Martin Brundle, whom I reckon is about the best 'expert' co-commentator the sport has ever seen (let's hope that reports on Pitpass are wide of the mark and he'll make the jump over to the BBC) provided the answer to our question. Now, wouldn't it be great if Michael Schumacher decided to enliven his retirement with a GP2 race or two...

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Anonymous john said...

Excellent story, and I am glad that Brundle can still hold his own. I have to agree that he has found his niche after retiring from racing, with his intelligent commentating and BBC would be fools not to take him with the coverage.

10:13 AM  
Anonymous Geneza Pharmaceuticals said...

It is very sad that retirement age of sportsmen is so law(

7:09 AM  

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