Growing up quickly

Formula One 

Does experience still matter? Drivers such as Hamilton are seasoned racers by the time they graduate to F1

Lewis Hamilton leads the world championship in his rookie season. Sebastian Vettel, at 19 years old, scores a point on his F1 debut. It’s got some people saying that there’s no gravitas to F1 any more, that experience doesn’t count for what it used to. 

Except it’s not really quite like that. Hamilton is now in his 14th season of racing, having started at eight years old in karts. In his decade of kart racing he will have contested around 450-500 races – from all places on the grid, as grid position for the heats are invariably randomly allocated. Plenty of time and opportunity to build up the fabulous racecraft he’s now applying in F1. In the latter years of his karting career he was driving for a works manufacturer, leading a programme, being the point of focus and determining the direction of development, core skills in F1. 

After karting, his rise through the junior car racing categories was steady but not phenomenal: two seasons of Formula Renault, two in F3 and a season of GP2 – a total of around 90 races. They showed that his very obvious talent in karting translated into cars. Some drivers find it tough to make the transition, cannot adapt from a device that feels like an extension of your spinal column to something that feels like a bus by comparison, cannot get used to the lower levels of mechanical grip in the very junior car categories. But everything else learned in those hundreds of kart races – those multiple thousands of overtaking and defensive manoeuvres, the honing of translating changes in inner ear balance to the dynamics of the vehicle, the psychology of racing – they all still apply. They form a huge, hard-won database that takes years to acquire. 

When Jim Clark made his F1 debut in the 1960 Dutch Grand Prix, he’d done 124 previous events including sprints, trials and the occasional hillclimb. Actual circuit races numbered just 90. When he climbed into his Lotus 18 and drove onto that Zandvoort grid, it was just 18 months after his first try of a single-seater of any sort. His total racing experience stretched back no more than four years. In terms of experience, Clark was a full decade and more than 400 races behind Lewis. And that’s before we talk about the F1 simulator, on which Hamilton had logged thousands of hours before he ever tried the real thing.

Clark wasn’t really an exception either. Virtually none of the F1 stars of the ’60s and ’70s had as much racing experience behind them as Hamilton when they sat on their first grand prix grid. Furthermore, although Vettel’s eighth place in the USA Grand Prix made him the youngest points scorer in the championship’s history, having teenagers show well in F1 is not a new phenomenon – as anyone who recalls Ricardo Rodríguez’s front row debut at Monza 1961 for Ferrari will understand. It’s also a fair bet that had the teenage Chris Amon climbed into a car as competitive relative to the competition as Vettel’s BMW, rather than the privateer Lotus he campaigned, then he too would have scored points. The prospect of the teenage Mike Thackwell in a competitive F1 car in 1980 rather than the third Tyrrell he tried is also one of those great motor racing what-ifs. 

In terms of F1 driver ability at a young age we’re not seeing anything unprecedented here. What is different is that these guys are getting the chance to come straight in with top teams. That’s the real reason for their early success. And that goes back to the manufacturer junior driver programmes that are now hoovering up talent in the lower categories, and helping them develop. A guy like Robert Kubica from a relatively humble background – in a country out of the motor racing mainstream – would never have made it to F1 just 10 years ago. Hamilton has raced against Kubica for much of his career and reckons him ‘a future world champion’. Had he been born a decade earlier Kubica would likely have been working in his father’s little print shop in Poland rather than pounding around the F1 tracks of the world. 

So rather than bemoaning the fact that F1 drivers, like policeman, are getting younger, traditionalists should be celebrating the fact that we are therefore likely to see an overall greater depth of ability on the F1 grids.

It’s true that F1 cars of today, with their fantastic precision and traction control to scoop up excesses, are easier to drive than most F1 cars of yesteryear. That makes it easier to quickly reach a standard of competence. But that has no bearing on how far you can then stretch the limits. That still has everything to do with pure ability – and experience. 

Hamilton’s performances aren’t so much confirmation that F1 is too easy – although it probably is; rather, they are a barometer of an exceptional talent. Rewind back to 1984 and Ayrton Senna’s graduation to F1 with the underdog Toleman team. Just like Hamilton, Senna had years and years of karting experience behind him. Just like Hamilton, he had the ability to operate at the very front of F1 immediately. Had Senna graduated with McLaren in ’84, and had a winter’s preparation like Hamilton has just had, then do not be in any doubt that he would have been giving team-mate Alain Prost just as big a headache as Hamilton is now giving to Fernando Alonso.