Retirement: it’s a dirty word for racing drivers

Sports Car News
Le Mans 2017

Retirement can be a touchy subject to many racing drivers

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Why are we always so keen to skip to the end? Once racing drivers hit a certain age, typically around their mid-to-late-30s, it’s so often tempting to start asking them about their plans for the r-word: retirement. In my experience with racers, it tends to trigger a response akin to saying ‘Voldemort’ out loud in Harry Potter’s world: there’s a shudder, a sucking of teeth, perhaps even an involuntary twitch of the eye.

They don’t want to talk about the end, they don’t want to even think about it. C’mon, why would they? For the majority who toil in the mundanity of the real world, retirement is a sunny horizon. But if you are one of the privileged few who can actually make a living driving racing cars as fast as possible… why would you want to give it up?

Yet still we ask them, because it’s only natural for every story to have a conclusion. And even on the phone you can hear them tighten. Some of them even struggle to say the word.

This year, in the (mostly remote) conversations I’ve had with older racing drivers, retirement seems to have become something of a running theme. Perhaps that’s down to the generation I grew up with having made it far beyond the age when racing drivers tended to call it a day. We’re no longer talking about mid-30s here, but at least 10 years further on.

Off the top of my head, I’ve had the ‘what next’ chat in some shape or form this season with Andy Priaulx (46), Johnny Mowlem (51), Darren Turner (46), Peter Dumbreck (47) and Oliver Gavin (48), the latter just last week.

They’re all still pressing on because racing is all they really know, they’re all in good shape because they look after themselves a damn sight better than most of us… and most crucially they’ve all still ‘got it’. But they’ve all got kids too, some of whom are grown up and have already fled the nest. It seems natural to ask them what’s on their mind for the future – even if it does make them uncomfortable.

Oliver Gavin, Sebring 12 Hours 2020

Gavin says his Corvette driving duties aren’t quite over

Brian Cleary/Getty Images

Gavin’s response last week was typical of the breed and offered an insight into why he’s been so successful over a career that spans a remarkable 30 years. That’s a lot of flights, hotel rooms, race starts, chequered flags and debriefs.

At the pandemic-delayed Sebring 12 Hours earlier this month, he officially concluded his full-time racing career with Corvette, which stretches all the way back to 2001. It was an emotional weekend, both for the Gavin family and for the Pratt & Miller team that clearly thinks the world of him. But when I spoke to him, he pointed out he’s not completely done yet when it comes to racing Corvettes.

He couldn’t tell me when, where or how often, but the 1995 British Formula 3 champion still looks set to make some appearances in the mid-engined C8.R during 2021 – and naturally, he steered me away from the r-word.

“Retirement is not a word I’d use,” he said. “I call it the next chapter. It is a funny thing making the transition from being a competitive sportsman and understanding there is far more of your career in the rear-view mirror than there is out the windscreen. My wife would say that’s been the hard thing I’ve been battling with the last six months, and I’m still trying to figure it out. To stop after so many years of focus… all of a sudden to stop and have nowhere else to channel your energy, it’s very strange.”

Gavin would readily accept he’s lucky to be in a position to wind down rather than be forced into an abrupt halt. Some, like Dario Franchitti, don’t have that choice. In 2013, the Scot endured his ‘big one’ in an IndyCar race in Houston, sustaining injuries that forced him into immediate retirement.

Looking lost is perhaps a little strong, but in the years after the shunt it was obvious that Franchitti was grappling with the prospect of finding a new direction in his life. Initially he never thought he’d race anything again, but with huge relief has at least now found a happy outlet for his addiction in historic motor sport.

Others, most famously Jackie Stewart and Jody Scheckter, walked away by choice at the top of their game and never raced again. Stewart was 34 when he quit as world champion at the end of 1973, Scheckter just 30 when he walked down the nose of his awful, obsolete Ferrari 312T5 in ’80, a year after winning his title. But they raced in a far more dangerous era in which motor sport robbed them of far too many friends and colleagues.

Jody Scheckter, 1979 South African GP

Scheckter walked away from F1 relatively early but Renault tried to tempt him back

Grand Prix Photo

Self-preservation was a far greater factor then than it ever is today. And even then, Scheckter struggled to leave it alone more than it might have seemed. He’s admitted there was temptation when Renault offered him a ‘money-no-object’ deal to race on and at first, he dabbled in race promotion, even looking into setting up a global series in the style of the old International Race of Champions (IROC), before he headed to the US to set up what was ultimately a hugely successful defence training business. But it was a hard transition going from being a ‘somebody’ to a ‘nobody’.

“I always said I went from first class to stand-by in one year,” Scheckter told me in 2013. “When we went over to the States we started in a hotel that didn’t even serve breakfast. Then we lived in a small apartment in Hilton Head, South Carolina, then on to Atlanta. Nobody knew my background. I would go to a show to talk about my idea and while I was talking to a guy, he’d just turn around and walk away. I was there with my cashmere jacket, which in those circumstances was completely out of place.”

No wonder most successful racing drivers do their best to stick with what they know. And for every Scheckter or Nico Rosberg, another who looks unlikely ever to drive competitively again, there’s a Jenson Button, who has made it clear that even with 17 F1 seasons behind him and the 2009 world title in his pocket for the rest of his life, he’s still not had his fill.

From the archive

When I spoke to him back in September, before he’d officially lined up his refreshing British GT cameo at Silverstone, Button admitted he’d been “going mad” this year not racing, for the first time since he was a little boy. At 40, Button might be 10 years older than Scheckter when he stopped, but he’s a very different man and is still going through the process of adapting to a post-F1 life.

“I didn’t have any direction to go with my life and work,” he admitted, “but there have been some really good opportunities in the past six months, which is great. I’m really looking forward to the future – but with everything I’m doing, running my own team [Jenson Team Rocket RJN], the TV work with Sky F1, it’s not about driving and I need to find out where that fits in. I have to race. I’m a racing driver. It’s always been my life and it’s what I’m best at.”

Button had just come back from a run when we spoke and remains in top nick, to an astonishing degree. Life begins at 40? Well, it certainly isn’t about to stop for a man who could race on in endurance racing – and even in IndyCar street and road races, if he can find a drive – for at least another decade. There are others who are pushing on even further. Yvan Muller has just finished second in the World Touring Car Cup at 51, and his old rival Gabriele Tarquini has absolutely no intention of quitting at the age of 58.

Sebastian Vettel, 2020 Turkish GP

Vettel isn’t done just yet and will embark on a new chapter with Aston Martin in 2021

Kenan Asyali - Pool/Getty Images

Racing at the pinnacle in F1, of course, might be a different matter – although no one appears to have told 41-year-old Kimi Räikkönen. Then there’s Fernando Alonso’s impending return with Alpine in a year when he’ll turn 40 – and 15 years after he won his last F1 world championship… While at 35, Lewis Hamilton’s career conclusion will surely be defined by his desire and hunger to race on rather than his age.

And what about Sebastian Vettel? He’s a mere slip of a lad at just 33. But of all the current F1 ‘old guard’, it’s the four-time champion around whom the r-word has circled the most – purely because of his spiralling decline in form in the past couple of years. At times, it’s been painful to watch and I’ve found myself wishing him to quit, only because there’s something so desperate about seeing a great driver – which Vettel undoubtedly is – still tilting at windmills when his heart is no longer in it.

But that’s the point, isn’t it? It hasn’t looked much like it for quite some time, but Vettel must still be as hungry as he says he is if he’s willing to embark on a bright new start with Lawrence Stroll’s Aston Martin. If it’s just pride motivating him to press on, it might well come before another fall. But instead, it’s probably a simple case that, for all this intelligent man might have to offer the wider world outside of the cockpit, he’s no different to the rest of them: racing is what he does and all he’s ever done.

So I’m making a personal note to stop hassling him and others much older with the r-word. Life’s too short – even if racing careers no longer are – to keep worrying about the ending. Live in the present and press on regardless.