At the most recent Australian Grand Prix one of the biggest standouts, amongst all of the chaos that ensued, was the battle between Alonso and Hamilton that helped to keep the race alive after Max checked out relatively early on. Many recalled that the battles we’ve seen between the two former teammates have been a great source of entertainment whether it was this past weekend or Hungary 2021 or throughout their infamous time at McLaren, anytime they are on track together it’s sure to keep you paying attention. Despite being at the top of their game, the one thing that you can rely on to be brought into the conversation is their age. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard that Alonso’s driving has been extremely impressive ‘even at his age’ or the constant questioning surrounding Hamilton’s retirement, prior to that start of the 2023 season there was even some skepticism relating to Hulkenberg’s return and whether he would be able to keep up with his younger teammate that he is currently outperforming. In the modern era of Formula 1 it’s almost expected that once a driver reaches their mid to late 30s they will retire, the outlook of a drivers’ age dictating the lifespan of their career is an understandable one but with more and more drivers refusing to conform to the standard career path that we’ve come to know this got me thinking, will this become F1’s new normal?
Older drivers reaching success in Formula 1 is not a new story, we’ve seen Fangio win the title at 46 years old, Fagioli win a race at 53 years old and Louis Chiron take part in the Monaco Grand Prix at 58 years old, but the one thing they all have in common is that they achieved these milestones in the 50s. The inception of Formula 1 saw older drivers make up a majority of the grid and so stats such as the ones above were commonplace in the sport but as time has progressed and the sport has evolved the average age of Formula 1 drivers has steadily been on the decline, favouring a much younger pool of drivers than what we saw in the 50s. However, there have been a few anomalies in recent years, Kimi Raikkonen stands out at the most obvious of these cases as he retired in 2021 at the age of 41 which is still somewhat uncommon in today’s day and age. At the time Raikkonen held the record for having the longest F1 career, spanning two decades, but now this has already been surpassed by Alonso in the short space of two years. The most recent retirement was that of Sebastian Vettel at 35 years old, which falls on the slightly younger side, but when looking at the grid it looks as though the older drivers will not be following in the footsteps of Raikkonen and Vettel anytime soon. Over the past 5 years there have been more drivers aged 35 or over to remain in the sport than those that have retired marking a shift in the expected longevity of a Formula 1 driver.
There’s no denying that a majority of the current grid is made up of younger drivers but with the pattern that we’re starting to see emerge who knows how long that will last. When looking at all of the drivers that have left F1 over the past 5 years, whether it was through retirement or being dropped, there were 6x as many younger drivers that departed from the sport compared to their older counterparts. This was particularly interesting to me as it looks as though the age boundary within the sport is starting to become blurred and if you’re good enough there are no limits on when your career will end. Not only are we seeing drivers remain in the sport for much longer than they previously had we’re also seeing drivers enter the sport at a much later age, Nyck De Vries started his debut F1 season this year at the age of 27 which is a rarity within the sport. Admittedly, this is quite uncommon and I can’t imagine that this will catch on, but it shows that teams may not be as concerned as they once were about signing younger drivers who may not last long in the sport as oppose to choosing an older driver that can offer more experience.
So, what does this mean for the sport? In a sport that only allows 20 drivers in the world to compete they will always have a greater pool of talent than they can accommodate for, and with drivers opting to stay even longer than they previously would have, this will only reduce the amount of drivers that will be afforded an opportunity in F1. We saw this play out recently with the Alpine saga in which Alonso wanted a longer contract whilst Piastri was waiting on the side-lines to make the step-up into F1. Fortunately, things worked out in this case with both drivers having secured a seat for 2023, but this is not usually the way that it goes. There’s no real argument that can justify pushing an older driver out of the sport especially when they belong to upper echelon of Formula 1 drivers, such as Hamilton or Alonso, but we’ve seen a resurgence in drivers such as Niko Hulkenberg who is currently doing an undeniable job at outshining his teammate and proving why he was the right choice for Haas. In future this could put a strain on the drivers who are on the precipice of entering F1, if the spaces on the grid are set to become even more limited the teams will need to carefully consider who is actually deserving of a seat as once a driver is passed up on they might not receive a second chance as we’ve seen with the likes of Hulkenberg, Magnussen or Albon. Could this lead to the eventual eradication of pay drivers in favour of those who have demonstrated their pure talent? Or could we see the current grid remain unchanged for years to come? Seeing the new era of F1 drivers go up against the old guards of the sport is bound to be box office as this generational clash draws in audiences, new and old, whilst injecting excitement into the sport as it continues to grow.