You gotta know when to fold
Some Formu o 1 &Kers wa away from tne sport of tn6r own accord; otners are §mpy cast off. But wnat nappens next? BY ADAM SWEETING
Damon Hill puts it, “everyone talks about climbing Everest, but they don’t talk about coming down again.” It’s impossible for anyone who hasn’t ridden the rocket of a career as a Formula 1 driver to imagine what it must feel like to suddenly stop. Sometimes it’s of the driver’s own choosing,
but more often than not the decision is made for him — he’s considered too old or too slow, or doesn’t bring a large enough cash dowry along with him. Whatever the reason, the transition is never easy. As driven turned-commentator John Watson observes, “If you’ve had that intense and exciting F1 lifestyle, if it’s suddenly cut off it’s a bit like a drug addict going cold turkey. It’s quite difficult because the alternative is frankly pretty boring, pretty bloody awful.” Watson found himself an ex-F1 driver when McLaren suddenly replaced him with Alain Prost for the 1984 season. A similar fate recently overtook Rubens Barrichello, when he was tersely informed that he didn’t have an F1 ride for 2012. The popular Brazilian came into F1 with Jordan in 1993, and over the next 19 years drove for Elll?
Stewart, Ferrari, Honda, Brawn and Williams. In the process, he became the most experienced driver in Formula l’s history and almost an honorary Brit, but this didn’t save him from being replaced at Williams this year by his countryman Bruno Senna. The team were at pains to stress that the 28-year-old Senna had earned his place on merit, but it was surely no coincidence that he arrived loaded with sponsorship from Brazilian telecoms company Embratel and oil company OGX. The surname probably doesn’t hurt either.
Barrichello gallantly congratulated Bruno by tweet before heading west to take up a drive with IndyCar team KV Racing Technology, but he hasn’t found the transition easy.
“I obviously didn’t choose to go out of Fl,” he admitted. “It was unfortunately decided for me, but I’m a motor sport fan. Fl became too much about the money side, and IndyCar offered me the drive. I can honestly say I thought it was going to be an easier transition, but it wasn’t. The car is so different from the 19 years I’ve driven in Fl.” To his surprise, he has found driving on ovals more enjoyable than he expected (“it is dangerous, but the excitement and the smoothness is the closest thing you can get to Fl “), but the street circuits have thrown up unforeseen problems. “The tracks are so bumpy! That’s been the hardest thing because I don’t know the circuits. You have to be more brutal to the car, go through the bump and see where it lands on the other side. It’s pretty tough on a beginner, even though people say ‘what are you talking about, he’s had 19 years
of experience’. I’ve been a rookie here.”
Although he turned 40 in May, he refuses to accept that his Formula 1 days are over. “I don’t know if I’ll go back to Fl or stay on this side. I don’t know how many years I’m going to be racing, so I don’t think we should plan those things. I really thought I would race in Fl for 25
years, so I never thought of when I would stop or this or that. I think it was pretty obvious that the money side was taking precedence over talent, so I was upset that I didn’t get the Williams drive because it would have been a much better choice for a team that needs a result. But things happen in life for a reason, so maybe it was in my plan to race in Indy.” I told Rubens I’d been speaking to Jody Scheckter, winner of the 1979 Fl Drivers’ Championship, but now reborn as an organic farmer with his Laverstoke Park operation in Hampshire. In Scheckter’s words, “At some
stage a racing driver has to start making another life.” I could hear Rubens wince down the phone. “I don’t know, it makes me depressed already. I’m too young to think about that.”
Barrichello has doubtless been studying with interest the continuing Fl comeback of his former Ferrari team-mate Michael Schumacher, 43. It seems ironic that this most organised, disciplined and successful of drivers should suddenly have chosen to make a potentially humiliating comeback to the grid, but despite a paucity of point-scoring finishes and the fact that Lady Luck seems to have been recouping all the help she gave him in his championship winning years, Schumacher has had the appearance of a man simply happy to be involved again. He may have felt he had unfinished business with Formula 1, since rumour has it that his retirement in 2006 wasn’t entirely of his own volition.
“Until recently, I was absolutely sure I had ended my career as a race driver at Ferrari,” Schumacher wrote on his website when he decided to join Mercedes for 2010. “But sometimes things change suddenly and unexpectedly… And, to tell the truth, the failed comeback attempt last summer [for Ferrari] gave me reason to reconsider my situation. I was surprised myself how fast and how strong I committed myself to this topic again… And when — thanks to Ross [Brawn] — the opportunity arose to drive for Mercedes GP, I realised that my old motivation was back, full of fresh energy and great force.” That’s one solution to the retirement problem: simply un-retire yourself. However, it was an opportunity that would only have been available to Michael Schumacher, and even he has had to call it a day. In his book Winning Is Not Enough, Jackie Stewart described the reasoning behind his own decision to retire from Fl in 1973. He’d already won two World Championships and was on his way to a third, so there wasn’t a lot left to
prove. He was also driving in an era of extreme physical danger where many of his close friends had been killed, so having reached the age of 34 unscathed it was only rational to conclude that his luck might not last much longer. In addition, Stewart was one of the best-prepared racing drivers to cope with a post-racing environment, having perspicaciously lined up a string of commercial and media contracts to carry him smoothly into the next phase of his life. Nonetheless, his comments on the difficulties of retirement will strike a common chord: “It is the one decision that so few sports people seem
to get right; some decide to retire in the midst of a slump and later regret it, others hang on too long and outstay their welcome.” Or, as his team manager Ken Tyrrell observed, “Very few people leave motor racing before it leaves them.” Hill went public with some thoughts about what options exist for ex-F1 drivers when news of Barrichello’s
departure for the States was announced. “Nothing is the same as Fl and there’s no gradual climbdown from it,” as he put it — and this is a subject he has given some thought to.
“I always had a goal in Fl, which was getting the most out of myself in my window of opportunity and then stopping,” Hill reflected. “I likened it a bit to being fired out of a cannon; y’know, you see these guys who put their helmet on and are then shot into thin air. Being in a Grand Prix career is a bit like being in the barrel, and when you stop you’re still going 1000mph and everyone else is standing still. I found the most difficult thing of all, and I still find it difficult, is being in an environment where people are moving at a very gradual pace, whereas in Fl there’s the excitement of being with people who are making decisions quickly and seeing the results quickly. Outside Fl, I’ve found that difficult to replicate.”
Hill has been enjoying himself as a pundit on the Sky Sports Fl channel this season, alongside fellow British veteran Johnny Herbert, and points out that journalism is one arena in which he can experience the demanding deadlines and need to think on the spot he was accustomed to in Fl, but the prospect of Hill working full time in the media doesn’t seem likely. More feasible, perhaps, is a role more in the mould of his presidency of the BRDC, where he displayed considerable tact and subtlety in helping to guarantee the future of the British Grand Prix.
“It’s very difficult to find anything that will ever come close to Fl,” he ponders. “Sooner or later you have to say ‘I did that, that’s mission accomplished, now let’s find another chapter’. I’m still asking the question really of what do I like doing and what do I get satisfaction from.
“I got a lot of frustration from the Silverstone thing and the BRDC, but I gained satisfation from having played a part in the process. In terms of putting a toe in the water in those kinds of things, I’d say I learned a lot. Whether it was good for my health is another question.”
It’s possible to divide racing drivers into two categories. There are those who’ll doggedly carry on racing until their eyesight fails and they have to be dragged from behind the wheel, and others who accept that the racing life is finite, and with more than half their lifetime still ahead, they need to find alternative pursuits. In the former category, we’ve seen drivers such as Jarno Trulli or Jean Alesi running In,
through a string of teams and slithering inexorably down the starting grid towards terminal uncompetitiveness, while former World Champion Jacques Villeneuve has popped up in Speedcar, NASCAR, V8 Supercars and the little-known Copa Caixa Stock Car as he grapples with his post-F1 state. Even Nigel Mansell has never officially announced his retirement from motorsport. drivers have proved to be tough-minded entrepreneurs for whom motor racing was just a stage they went through. Niki
Lauda launched two new airlines from scratch, while Thierry Boutsen trades executive jets through his company Boutsen Aviation. Eddie Irvine seemed to treat Fl as an amusing diversion while he got on with the serious business of building himself an enormously valuable property portfolio with matching playboy lifestyle, and Carlos Reutemann has enjoyed a prominent political career in his native Argentina. Triple World Champion Nelson Piquet became a successful businessman in Brazil, not least through his company Autotrac, which pioneered a GPS tracking system for use by haulage companies. David Coulthard seems to share some of Jackie Stewart’s Scottish acumen, having emerged from 16 years in Fl as the former owner of Monaco’s Columbus Hotel and investor in several international properties, while sounding increasingly authoritative as a Formula 1 commentator for the BBC.
As Coulthard put it, “You have to deal with the inevitable next phase of your life and accept that you have reached the end of your journey. You’ve got a choice: you either eke it out to the point where you’re the last to know it’s time to stop racing, or you acknowledge that it’s time to stop and become part of the process — which is the way I did it.”
Still, few drivers have ventured further from the Fl comfort zone than South Africa-born Jody Scheckter. After reaching a career pinnacle by becoming World Champion with Ferrari in 1979, he moved to the USA and formed Firearms Training Systems (alias FATS, Inc), which manufactures and markets “high quality weapon simulation and training programs” for military and police use. This was not perhaps the most politically correct of enterprises, but it was a staggeringly successful one. “It was massive,” Scheckter reports. “We were in 35 countries and we had 95 per cent of the world market. The company went public two months after we sold it, and in the last three years we’d done $29m, $60m and $100m. That’s how I can afford to do what I’m doing now on the farm. It was probably as satisfying as racing in some ways, but nobody knew about it. I came back to England after 12 El,
years in America, and I was still known as the last Ferrari World Champion.”
Scheckter quit Fl aged 30. Would he have done so if he hadn’t been champion?
“Phew, I’ve never been asked that question and I don’t really know. I retired because Fl didn’t mean much to me any more. One or two guys were dying, and in some places there wasn’t a lot of sympathy for that, so you lost respect for some of the people and organisations within it. It didn’t mean that much to me to be two-times World Champion.”
Scheckter evidently has the capacity to focus his entire attention on a subject and bore deeply into it until he has mastered it to his own satisfaction. That’s what happened when his wife gave him a book about organic farming, which proved to be the trigger for what eventually grew into his Laverstoke Park operation. “I read the book and it made a lot of sense,” says Scheckter. “It became a passion and then a disease. If I don’t do something 110 per cent, I do it badly. If I concentrate on it totally I can do it quite well.”
He believes that drivers often possess valuable skills and qualities that can prove useful once they’ve quit racing.
“People like IMG, who manage a lot of sportsmen, always felt that racing drivers were probably the most intelligent out of all of them. I’m not saying every one of them — most of the French ones in my day weren’t — but you’ve got so much more technology and things to think about as a racing driver than as a golfer or a tennis player. You get involved in a massive amount of decisions. Another thing with Fl is that you learn to develop things very quickly, and that’s what helped me in my businesses. You learn to deal with different people from different countries and get on with people as part of a team, hopefully.” point is echoed by Andy Lane, professor of sport psychology at the University of Wolverhampton. Lane deals with a spectrum of sports
people from athletics to rugby, football and motor racing, and when they’re forced to face the dreaded ‘retirement’ issue, he seeks to “make people aware of the transferable skills they’ve got. They’re athletes so they’re determined and motivated, and they’re pretty good problem-solvers. They’re very good at performing under pressure and they’re usually good with people.”
Lane adds that a readjustment of expectations can help with approaching retirement, for instance David Beckham’s decision to swap the speedy intensity of the Premiership for showbiz soccer in Los Angeles. But the hard part comes when the performer finds he’s no longer top of the heap and the centre of attention. “As a driver you’re the boss in your car,” says Lane.
“The idea that you then give that up can be difficult for the ego to take.” Damon Hill learned something about all this from watching his father Graham grappling with the transition from swashbuckling sporting hero and Fl World Champion to… well, we never really found out what, since he died in a plane crash aged 46 while still trying to establish his own Embassy Hill racing team. In today’s corporate Fl it has become harder still for an ex-driver, or any individual, to follow that course and launch their own team, but Damon believes that “my dad’s Embassy team were on the verge of pulling it off, but I think he found that transition from being a
driver to running a team extremely different and therefore difficult. “It’s a question of developing a different mindset from that of being a racing driver, which is single-minded and very self-centred. A driver is like the singer in the band. The band’s rehearsing, the singer turns up last, gets all the glory and is the first to
leave. It’s very difficult after that to work with a group of people as part of an organisation.” Because of the self-motivating, individualistic nature of racing drivers, the question of how or when to retire and what to do next has to be addressed by each of them in their own way. Whereas Premier League football clubs have an academy system to foster the education and welfare of young players, and the English Institute of Sport has ‘lifestyle managers’ to
help athletes cope with the stresses of their trade, nothing of the sort exists within Fl.
“F l’s too self-involved and self-focused for that,” reckons John Watson. “It’s an aggressive, competitive environment which eats up people and talent, and you get your day in the sun and then you piss off. If you reach Fl you are by definition somebody who has achieved, and most likely you’ve got other abilities that will enable you to adapt. Some drivers, such as my countryman Eddie Irvine, have been as big a success in other areas as they were in Fl.” Watson spent several years in Group C sports cars after he lost his McLaren seat, but felt enormous relief when he found a berth in
a broadcasting. “It gave me almost everything I got from being a driver outside the physical driving experience, because broadcasting live to an audience is very focusing and stimulating. It also gives you a purpose, because when you walk into the Fl paddock you’re there to provide a service.” There is an added
benefit for the former Fl driver which isn’t shared by sportsmen from most other disciplines, which is relief that he’s still alive. “Whichever way you skin it, motor racing is dangerous,” says Damon Hill. “I’ve got four kids and I wanted to be there for them, so I’ve been trying my best to be responsible. I think there comes a point where you’re very thankful for all the luck you’ve had, and you don’t feel like pushing your luck any more.” (1)