Sunday, February 22, 2009

Life After F1

At one time, when a F1 driver hung up his helmet, it usually meant the end of his racing career, full stop. The likes of Juan Manuel Fangio, Guiseppe Farina, Phil Hill and John Surtees all called time on their professional racing life altogether around the time they quit Formula 1.

There were a number of reasons why it used to be unusual for drivers to go on racing beyond the length of their F1 career. Self preservation was probably high on the list. As the ticket stubs remind us spectators even now, Motor Racing is Dangerous. It used to be much more so. Some of the sport's early post-war stars I haven't mentioned above for the simple reason that they never made it to the end of their F1 career - Clark, Ascari and, in a sense, Moss, for example. Continuing to put your life on the line once you knew you were past your peak probably struck many drivers of that era as a gamble too far.

Perhaps just as important was the fact that racing drivers tended to be older by the time they retired. Fangio was 46 when he won his final title. Farina was nearly 50 by the time he entered his last F1 race. There were various reasons for this. In the early 1950s, the after-effects of the Second World War were still being felt and drivers whose 1930s careers had been arrested by hostilities still felt they had something to prove, while those might have spent the 40s in the junior formulae were only just getting started. Added to that is the fact that with the first go-karts still perhaps 15 years away, it was not possible for drivers to start as young as it would later be. Drivers didn't tend to reach F1 in their early 20s. It took longer for all but the most supernaturally talented to build up the kind of experience they needed to compete at the highest level.

Added to that is the fact that, at least until the late 1960s, the demands placed upon an F1 driver were not so great as to prevent him from competing elsewhere if he so fancied. So Graham Hill was able to do the Indy 500 and Le Mans at the same time as he competed in F1. Jackie Stewart frequently turned up behind the wheel of a sportscar at endurance events, and Jim Clark did amazing things with a Lotus Cortina both in touring car racing and, on one occasion, on the RAC Rally. There wasn't the need to go and do these things only after being finished with Grand Prix racing.

There were odd exceptions to the rule. Jack Brabham occasionally dabbled in touring car racing in his native Australia well into the late 1970s. In '76 he even teamed up with Stirling Moss, who came out of retirement to attempt the Bathurst 1000kms in a Holden and as late as 1998, he shared a VW Beetle in a 6hr race around the old Nordschliefe. Denny Hulme came out of retirement in the 1980s to race in TWR's Austin Rover squad and would go on racing right up to his death, from a heart attack, at the wheel of a BMW M3 in a touring car race in Australia. For the most part, though, through the 1960s, F1 drivers tended not to go on racing professionally once they were done with F1.

It was Emerson Fittipaldi who broke with this pattern. With a works Lotus drive, he became world champion at the age of just 25, in only his second full season of Formula 1. He would remain the youngest ever champion for over thirty years, until first Fernando Alonso and then Lewis Hamilton lowered the bar still further. A second title came with Mclaren in 1974, but after that his career went into freefall. Signing for his brother's Copersucar team in 1976, he would never win another race, and would score just one more podium, from 24th on the grid in a race of high attrition at Long Beach in 1980. By the end of that year, he was washed up, disillusioned, and out of the sport, at the age of just 33.

He was, thus, young enough to contemplate a come-back. In 1984, aged 37, he began racing in Indy Cars and carved out a very successful second career, winning the Indy 500 twice and taking the CART championship in 1989. His final victory came as late as 1995, when he was not far off 50 years old. In establishing his second career in the US, he became the first of a very small band of former F1 champions who went on to find success elsewhere in the motor racing world.

It could be argued that Mario Andretti falls into the same category, although he had established himself as a star in his adopted home country of the US before he ever made his F1 debut. He'd won NASCAR's Daytona 500 and was a front-runner in the USAC Champ Car Series and had a string of US sports car victories to his name. His F1 career is perhaps best seen as a particularly successful interlude in a largely US-based racing life. Like Clark and (Graham) Hill before him, he was one of the sport's real all-rounders and F1 was but one part of a long and immensely successful racing life.

From the early 1980s, it has seemed almost the rule that the sport's leading F1 drivers go on to race elsewhere when they have tired of the globe-trotting Grand Prix life, or else, have run out of options at the very top of the sport. Alan Jones dabbled in Australian touring car racing. Nelson Piquet was set to make an attempt at the Indy 500 after retiring from F1, only to fall victim to a career-ending crash in practice for the event (though he did return a few years back to share an Aston Martin sportscar with his son at the Mil Milhas Brasleiras, which they won.) Keke Rosberg tried his hand at sportscar racing with Peugeot, a few years after his retirement from F1, but never seemed at home there and switched to DTM where he raced for some years before finally retiring from racing at the end of 1995, nearly ten years after he left F1.

Other former champions have trodden rather less travelled paths. For years after retiring from the sport as reigning champion at the end of 1993, Alain Prost did not race competitively, not least because his time was taken up with running the ill-fated Prost GP team. A brief sojourn in the French GT championship brought little in the way of results and in 2005 he turned to the peculiar world of ice-racing. It seemed an odd choice for a man famed for his smooth, unhurried style at the wheel of a racing car, but he turned out to be rather good at going sideways, and won the Andros Ice-Race trophy twice. Michael Schumacher, meanwhile, perhaps feeling that he has nothing left to prove in cars, has switched to motorbike racing. Strictly for fun, he says, but he's no slouch and rumours persist that he'll make an appearance in the World Superbike Series at some point.

In recent years, former GP winners Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Jean Alesi have been joined by double World Champion Mika Hakkinen in the DTM. With their high-tech aerodynamics and around 500BHP, the DTM machines are perhaps about as close as touring cars are ever going to get to being thoroughbred racing cars. However, it is notable that, like Rosberg before them, Frentzen, Alesi and Hakkinen all performed respectably, but not one of them was an out and out front-runner in the series.

In fact, it is remarkable how few former top-F1 drivers who went on to race elsewhere ever found real success. Perhaps it is not surprising. Did, say, Hakkinen really have the same level of motivation as young guns like Mattias Ekstrom, Paul Di Resta or Gary Paffett? Come to that, was there the same will to win as drivers of his generation who never got the breaks they deserved in F1, like Bernd Schneider?

This might go some way to explaining why some of the ex-F1 drivers who have met with the greatest success elsewhere in the sport have been those who didn't achieve what they might have done in F1. Perhaps it's because they feel they still have something to prove, and perhaps it's because, unlike the big stars they have to show they are worthy of a paid drive on their own merits, rather than because they are a star name who will bring people through the gates and guarantee press interest. After all, Schneider, a man who had but a couple of seasons in an awful Zakspeed, was the dominant force in DTM for years. Of the ex-F1 drivers who have plied their trade in S2000 and Super-Tourer spec touring cars, it has been Gabriele Tarquini and Nicola Larini who have done best. Two drivers who showed flashes of real pace in Formula 1, but who never really had the equipment to show what they might be capable of (though Larini, to be fair, did get a couple of runs in a Ferrari in 1994 - his best result, a second place at Imola being understandably overshadowed by the deaths of Senna and Ratzenberger that weekend.)

Perhaps the one exception to this rule was Nigel Mansell. Fresh from winning the world title with Williams in 1992, he was unable to agree terms with Sir Frank to carry on at the team, who had a rather differing view on Mansell's worth to that of the man himself. The result? He went off to race in Indycars with the all-conquering Newman Haas team and duly won the Indycar title at his very first attempt. Why was Mansell different? Well probably it helped that he went straight into one of the very top cars - though that wasn't enough for Michael Andretti, who left Newman Haas for Mclaren in F1 and found himself out of his depth. I suspect, though, that Mansell's chip on his shoulder, the way that nobody rated him as highly as he himself did, gave him a drive and motivation which other retiring F1 champions might have lacked in their post-F1 careers. When he came out of retirement again in the late 1990s to race a Mondeo Touring Car, he might have lacked a certain finesse, but there was no doubting that, when the mood took him, he was certainly very spectacular.

David Coulthard finally hung up his helmet at the end of last year. He's apparently still a test driver for Red Bull - though he has not been seen at the wheel of the car since Australia, and since the testing restrictions agreed by FOTA kicked in, it would appear he's surplus to requirements on that front. Of course, newly married and with a young child, he might have other things to occupy him for a while, but I wouldn't bet against him reappearing eventually, in a touring or sportscar. Rubens Barrichello didn't appear ready to retire at the end of last year. In fact, he had one of his best seasons in years. Nonetheless, with the collapse of Honda Racing, the decision may have been made for him. Perhaps a ride with the Acura ALMS squad would be up his street...

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