Monday, August 02, 2010

Teen Spirit

Sometimes, ideas for articles come from unexpected places. And this week, it was listening to Laura Marling's 'I Speak Because I Can' that got me thinking. The first really good record written and performed by a child of the 1990s as my ears hear it*. And there are certain things that you don't really expect of teenagers. Like really well made folk records. And you wouldn't anticipate that they would start turning up on the Grand Prix grid.

Except, from time to time, they do. And while it feels like the Formula One grid has been getting ever younger in recent years, it's not an entirely new phenomenon either. The first driver under the age of 20 ever to compete in a World Championship F1 race was the wealthy Mexican 19 year old, Ricardo Rodriguez, who made his debut for the Ferrari team at the Italian Grand Prix of 1961. The younger of the two Rodriguez brothers, he had been racing motorcycles since his early teens, regularly shared sportscar rides in the States with his elder brother from the age of 15 and made his Le Mans debut at the age of just 17 in 1959.

A year later, he became the youngest man ever to finish on the podium at the French endurance classic, sharing a Ferrari 250 with Andre Pilette to take a second place finish. And how did he do at his Grand Prix debut? At the fearsome old 10km Monza autodrome with its steep banked corners? He stuck the car on the front row, ahead of Phil Hill, the man who would win the title that year in the same car. Sadly, a water pump failure put him out after just 13 laps and ensured there would be no fairy-tale debut win. It was enough, though, to convince Enzo Ferrari to sign up Rodriguez for the 1962 season, albeit he didn't get to drive as regularly as his more experienced team mates. By 1962 though, the 'Sharknose' Ferrari 156 was not quite the all-conquering machine that it had been the year before and Rodriguez' relative inexperience told over the season as a whole. There were a few minor points finishes, a few accidents and nothing to grab the attention quite like his debut. That said, there might not have been any wins, but there was every sign that Ricardo was a potential star of the future. A man still learning his trade, but learning fast and with time on his side.

Except, sadly, time was not on his side at all. With Ferrari not entered for his home race, the non-Championship Mexican Grand Prix (at the circuit now named after him and his brother) in November 1962, he did a one-off deal with Rob Walker to race a Lotus 18. In qualifying, he flew off the road at the fearsomely fast Peraltada and was killed instantly. While it might be tempting to draw an Icarus-like moral of a man who flew too close to the sun, propelled too young into the dangerous world of F1, and paid the ultimate price, the truth is that it is more likely that his Lotus suffered a mechanical failure on the entry to Peraltada and Rodriguez was simply unlucky.

If Rodriguez was a shooting star, who shone brightly but all too briefly, New Zealander Chris Amon had a much more conventional F1 career, and his debut as a teenager two years later at the Belgian Grand Prix was a low key affair. Driving a Lola-Climax for former driver Reg Parnell, he qualified 15th and went out after ten laps. Two season with Reg Parnell Racing brought only a couple of points for one solitary 5th place finish at Zandvoort, and thereafter, sporadic F1 outings in assorted Lotuses, Brabhams and Coopers were interspersed with a more successful parallel career in Can-Am racing for several years, until Ferrari came knocking, offering a drive for 1967, which appeared to be Amon's opportunity to make the big time. As it was, he would never win a an F1 GP, but over the following few years, he would come tantalisingly close on several occasions and would earn a reputation as the best driver never to win a Grand Prix. He finally retired in 1976, after some 13 years in F1, after Niki Lauda's fiery accident at the Nurburgring led him to conclude it was time to cash in his chips. His failure to win a Grand Prix earned him a reputation as the unluckiest man in F1, a driver of whom Mario Andretti famously said "if that man became an undertaker, people would stop dying." Amon, though, took a more mature perspective. He might never have stood on the top step of the podium, but he survived 14 seasons in F1, and that made him a lot luckier than some. And maybe it's better to be remembered as the best driver never to win a race, rather than merely one of many good drivers who won one or two.

As Formula 1 became more genuinely professional as the 1960s and 1970s marched on, there would be no more teenage Grand Prix drivers for nearly 20 years. F1 became something you couldn't simply walk straight in to, as arguably it had been in the late 50s and early 1960s. It was no longer simply a matter of buying a Grand Prix car (as Moss, for instance, did at first) and turning up to collect the start money. You needed experience of F3, F2 or similar, before you could race at the top level, and increasingly, the sport's governing body demanded that drivers had sufficient relevant experience before they would be allowed to race.

It would be another New Zealander who would become (arguably) the youngest man ever to start a Grand Prix up to that time in 1980. Mike Thackwell had previously tried and failed to qualify an Arrows at the Dutch Grand Prix but scraped onto the back of the grid a few weeks later at the Canadian Grand Prix, driving a Tyrrell. It didn't last long - he was eliminated in a start-line accident that caused the race to be restarted (some pedants would argue that he therefore never started the race and as such, the record for the youngest starter remained with Rodriguez until Jaime Alguersuari turned up in a Toro Rosso last year).

Thackwell would go on to win the final Formula 2 Championship in 1984 and was unlucky not to follow that up with the first ever F3000 title a year later. Despite that, he never established himself in F1, taking just one more start, in a hopelessly outclassed RAM at the Canadian Grand Prix in 1984. After Martin Brundle was sidelined with a broken leg,he would also attempt the forlorn task of trying to qualify a normally-aspirated Tyrrell against the turbo cars on the drag-strip that was the old Hockenheimring later that year, to no avail.

He is regarded by many as one of the sport's great lost talents and when his career finally ran up against a brick wall, he stepped away quietly to go surfing off the south coast of England after spending a while racing sportscars for Sauber. Was his reputation hurt by coming into F1 too early? Perhaps, though if one is searching for a single neat explanation for Thackwell's failure to progress in F1, then the testing accident he suffered in an F2 car, the year after his GP debut, which seemed to knock his confidence as a driver, might be the more important factor. By the time he had recovered from that, the F1 world had moved on to younger, fresher faces.

Seventeen years later, the Minardi F1 team, which had brought Jarno Trulli and Giancarlo Fisichella into the sport in the previous couple of years, signed up an Argentinian kid by the name of Esteban Tuero for the 1998 season. His scanty pre-F1 single-seater career gave no indication that he had any business being on the GP grid and while the team claimed that he had been signed on the basis of his testing performances, the fact that he brought a lot of cash to the struggling team was probably decisive.

Tuero did a better job than might have been expected. While there was nothing in his performances at Minardi to suggest that he was a future champion, he matched his more experienced team mate Shinji Nakano and did enough to persuade Giancarlo Minardi to keep him on for 1999. But then came a huge accident in the Japanese Grand Prix which left him with a neck injury and he retired from the sport for good, just six months past his 20th birthday. Whether he had been scared by his Suzuka accident, had become disillusioned with life on the road, far from home comforts and family, or whether he had simply run out of money, isn't entirely clear. Tuero himself has never fully explained his reasons for calling time on his F1 career. These days he races with moderate success in Argentinian touring cars. Of all the teenage F1 drivers, I wonder if he is perhaps the clearest example of a man whose career suffered from having used family money to buy his way too far up the racing ladder too soon, before he had either the experience to make the most of his F1 chance, or the maturity to deal with life in the Grand Prix bubble.

Three years later, another 19 year old made his debut for Minardi, and at first glance, it might have looked like Fernando Alonso was just another Esteban Tuero. Someone who could bring money to the struggling team, now owned by airline magnate Paul Stoddart. History, of course, has shown just how wrong such an assumption would have been. Youngest race winner up to that point at Hungary 2003 (he would later lose that accolade to Sebastian Vettel, or whom more anon). Youngest World Champion just two years later (subsequently beaten by Lewis Hamilton) he's now regarded by many as the best in the business. Scratch beneath the surface and it was always clear he was a quite different kettle of fish from Tuero. A karting star, it was not his family's money that was buying his way onto the grid (his family background is, by F1 standards, quite modest) but that of wealthy manager/svengali, Flavio Briatore. In other words, he was not in F1 at 19 because Daddy thought he should be, but because someone with years of experience as an F1 team boss and entrepreneur saw in him the potential to go all the way. Someone mature enough, but more importantly, fast enough, to make the most of whatever opportunity he was given, at whatever age.

Seven years later, and another 19 year old found himself making his Grand Prix debut, filling in for an injured Robert Kubica at the US Grand Prix of 2007. If Messrs Alonso, Tuero and Thackwell had all made their debuts unobtrusively in cars that were never going to trouble the points-scoring positions, Vettel found himself in a rather different position, making his debut in a BMW Sauber which Nick Heidfeld had finished 2nd in only the week before. He was in a car that could do the business if he could. Rather than be blindingly quick and end up throwing the car off the road, he drove steadily to take a single point for 8th. Sebastian Vettel, though, was merely the youngest of a new breed of drivers, the best prepared and most heavily groomed ever to enter the sport. The products of well funded, manufacturer (or team) backed 'driver development programmes' the best of which, at least, provided drivers with both the hard cash and access to physical trainers, psychologists, media handlers and often, the opportunity to test an F1 car, in exchange for the driver signing a long-term contract with the team in question.

Where Vettel stood out is that he somehow contrived to be signed to not one but two such programmes. A few weeks on from his BMW Sauber debut, he found himself at the wheel of a Toro Rosso when the team parted company with American Scott Speed. A year later, he became the youngest Grand Prix winner ever, when he guided his Toro Rosso to victory at a soaked Italian Grand Prix. There can be no doubting that the 2008 Toro Rosso/Red Bull was very quick in the rain, but all the same, it was a remarkable performance. In only his third full season in the sport, he's arguably favourite to become World Champion, and but for errors on both his part and that of his team, he could even have taken the title last year.

The most recent, and youngest of F1's teenage stars is another driver from the Red Bull stable, Spain's Jaime Alguersuari. Drafted in after the team parted company with Sebastien Bourdais part way through last year, he has been solid rather than spectacular, and I wonder whether like Thackwell and Tuero, he might have got his chance too early. On the other hand, it may be that he only needs time, or it may be that he's a solid, dependable pro who simply isn't quite quick enough and never will be. The story of teenagers in F1, though, is an interesting echo of the path that the sport as a whole has taken over the last half-century or so. From a playground for the rich and fearless in the late 50s and early 60s, through the increasingly serious and professional 70s, 80s and 90s, where a young kid with little experience could hardly be expected to jump straight into a Grand Prix car and be competitive, until, finally, in recent years, the increasing professionalism of junior karting, the ever younger age at which drivers can begin racing single seaters, and the ever more intensive coaching and preparation of junior drivers has enabled drivers to gain the necessary experience to race in F1 at ever younger and younger ages. How long before we see the first child on the F1 grid?

*You say 'second rate Joni Mitchell imitator', I say 'best singer song-writer I've heard in years'. De gustibus non disputandum est...

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