A young driver's guide to surviving F1

Jenson Button is the youngest F1 driver of his era. History shows many who start so young fail to master the discipline. Marcus simmons asks those who have been there and seen it about the pressure and perils of reaching the top of racing at so young an age

It’s July 1986, British Grand Prix weekend. One of the Radio Brands’ presenters is interviewing Alan Jones. “Got any tips for aspiring young drivers?” he quizzes the Australian. “Yeah,” responds Jones, “don’t bother.”

It had been a hard road for Jones. He knew the sacrifices, the disheartening slog of paying your dues and scraping together last minute deals to stay racing. No wonder he was so negative.

Coincidentally, during the 1980 Canadian Grand Prix in which he clinched his only world title, his protégé became the youngest man to start a world championship F1 race. By contrast to Jones, Mike Thackwell had skipped through the junior ranks with barely a care in the world, believing Grand Prix success was his divine right

New Zealand-born Thackwell, then only 19 years and six months old, represents the other side of the coin, the latest edition of which has been minted by Jenson Button on his arrival in the Williams-BMW squad — the Briton’s scheduled Grand Prix debut in Australia was at the age of 20 years and two months.

It’s a double-edged sword. Talent is clear whatever your age, but maturity? That’s another question. “I was an arsehole really,” Thackwell reveals with remarkable candour. “The hype got to me and I wasn’t a complete driver. The complete driver could do the sponsorship and press and I couldn’t. I thought I’d be better off working — I wasn’t cut out for that I could do the job in the car but there’s more to it than that”

Like Button, Thackwell came from a motorsport family. The former’s father –John — was a talented rallycross driver and went on to establish a thriving karting business; the latter’s — Ray — raced with some distinction Down Under.

“I didn’t choose to go to motorsport when I was 16,” Thackwell continues. “I’d grown up with it. You could write a book on my old man. I grew up on motorcycles and went to karts, so it was nothing special to me. It never really hit me until later on. I was very cocky. I was on a roll, and when you’re so into yourself at that age you think you’re unbeatable. I was really — there was no one who could do what I’d done in such a short time.”

Again like Button, Thackwell attracted interest from other F1 teams before finally making his debut with Tyrrell. While Button’s camp has negotiated with McLaren, Jaguar and Prost, Thackwell turned down an Ensign drive and failed to qualify an Arrows in a last-ditch effort at the Dutch Grand Prix before properly taking the plunge.

“I just happened to be at Zandvoort watching,” he relates. Jochen Mass had hurt his neck and they just threw me into the garage to drive this ground-effect car. I’d missed first qualifying so my chances of making it were zero. I went out on the track with all these F1 heroes, thinking, ‘What the hell am I doing this for?’ I only missed out by 0.3sec and I was offered the Tyrrell drive on that performance.”

There seem to have been two sides to Thackwell: the couldn’t care less, God given right arrogance; and the wow-I’m-here-with-all-my-heroes wide-eyed teenager. Button? He probably veers towards the latter. While we interview him he’s standing in the limixton paddock at a Formula Ford test Talk about keeping in touch with your roots.

“At home I’m exactly the same with friends as before,” asserts the Williams new boy. “The only difference is when we go out in London I’m able to get in VIP bits which is cool and meet all the stars, so they all love that! F1 is what I’ve always wanted and now I’m here I’m not going to change. Well, I probably will a little bit, but not in a bad way hopefully.”

Thackwell: “Button’s just got to go with it Someone asked me what advice I could give him and I said, ‘I can’t give him any — he’s a talent’ If he jumps in a car and drives it as he did a kart when he was giving his all as a 12-year-old he’ll be a top driver. I beat Mansell and Prost and all those boys in F3, but they stuck at it and I let things get me down. If he’s mature enough to see through the shit he’ll be OK.”

Button: ‘There’ll be a lot of hard work with the press and everything, and that’s just away from the circuit. The last British driver to come into F1 was a long, long time ago —1994 is a long time ago when you’re only 20! I enjoy it but I try not to read newspapers anymore — it won’t be a good idea for the next few months.

“It’s a good time to go into F1 now. It’s the best opportunity I think I’m going to have. It’s worth taking it, although it’ll be a learning year for me, especially in the first few races. At the same time it’s good for me that Juan Pablo Montoya has a possibility of coming back in 2001. It makes me push harder. Having Ralf Schumacher as a team mate helps in that sense as well. This is my time to move up and I’m here now.”

Dick Bennetts, the man whose West Surrey Racing team ran Ayrton Senna, Mika Hakkinen and Rubens Barrichello to British F3 titles, isn’t convinced. “I’ve met Jenson — seems a nice guy and confident enough,” he says, “but my concern is when those lights change he’ll realise, ‘Oh shit — what’s this all about?’ If you get to the top too early you will bum out and the pressure will get to you before you’ve got that racing experience under your belt”

When Bennetts ran Barrichello in 1991 the Brazilian was just 18. Two years later he made his F1 debut with Jordan. “His talent was ready,” Bennetts recalls. “His psychology and strength possibly not He got rattled a bit. Emotion is probably a better word. He had nine poles and should have walked the F3 championship. As it was he pipped David Coulthard at the final round.

“The first race of the year at Silverstone he got pole and stalled it. The rest of us thought, ‘bad luck’ but he just burst into tears.”

A contrast to Senna, who was 22 when he hooked up with Bennetts. “When we met him the maturity was there already. I admired him because he didn’t jump straight from Formula Ford 1600 to F3. He did Formula Ford 2000 in between. He knew he had time. He had a natural talent but chose not to jump up.”

But even at that age, Barrichello’s intelligence was clear. Bennetts makes the point with an unusual litmus test: “You can tell if they’ve got a level head if they can find their way around England and not get lost You get blokes ringing you four times asking directions and you’ve already sent them a map. Rubens was OK, but others are a nightmare. A racetrack’s easy — they can only go round one way. Send them on a motorway or a little errand and they get lost”

Another Latin, Mexican Ricardo Rodriguez, showed maturity beyond his years out of a car, but was still impetuous behind the wheel. Driving for Ferrari, the 19-year-old qualified on the front row for the 1961 Italian GP at Monza, his F1 debut Little over a year later he died at the wheel of Rob Walker’s Lotus 24 while qualifying for the Mexican GP.

“I knew Ricardo had started very young,” Walker remembers, “but I didn’t realise he was that young then. You telling me surprised me.

“Ferrari refused to go to the D4 Mexican GP, but of course Ricardo wanted to be in it. He came to me and asked if he could drive my Lotus. They were wicked cars — very quick but they used to break away without any warning. “Ricardo had got pole in first practice. There were about ten minutes left and Surtees beat his time. Rodriguez’s father went to him and said, ‘Look — Surtees has beaten your time’ and he obviously told him to go quicker.

“Ricardo did an unusual thing before he set off. He crossed himself. Then on that wicked banked corner, he overdid it I think he hit a post. I’m sure it just broke away as he drove over the limit. Ricardo hadn’t got youth out of him and that causes the danger.”

Thackwell would have admired Rodriguez. “I had no respect for those who gave second best You give your all or none at all.

“People’s stories are all different, and Button’s making his. If it’s in him it’s going to be there. I’ve seen people who are really talented lose it. They could have been anyone but that wasn’t their story. We all make that story — the people around you, the media, friends, his mother, father, mechanics. In my life I may not have gone on to do that in F1, but is come through in other things I’ve done.

“Button’s so lucky. He’s been given a great chance. It’s what he’s dreamed of and now he’s there.” Even Alan Jones, the man whose driving brought the Williams team to prominence in the first place, would probably be impressed.