The toughest decision a sportsperson faces in their career is when to retire. This is especially true in F1, where drivers, team owners and even the sport’s administrators past and present have outstayed their welcome, to the detriment of their legacy.
Of course back in the ‘golden age’ of racing this was not a problem as there was a natural turnover of drivers due to the frequency of fatality. Others, like James Hunt and Jackie Stewart, decided the risks no longer justified the rewards and quit perhaps before their time
In today’s world of Grand Prix racing, and especially in the light of the Indianapolis debacle, the question of stepping aside is increasingly important. While most retirement speculation is centred around drivers, it is perhaps the sport’s controllers for whom the bus-pass and pension is the best option.
Few disagree that Max Mosley’s controversial predecessor Jean-Marie Balestre did his damnest to overcomplicate F1 in the 1980s. But what of his successor(s)?
Max Mosley and Bernie Ecclestone – living embodiments of poachers turned gamekeepers – are having an increasingly detrimental effect on F1 and its future, because they have lost sight of what they are supposed to be doing.
There is no doubt that they helped make Grand Prix racing the global industry it is today. But now perhaps it is time to pass the baton on to a newer generation, who have different priorities (such as the fans) and who are looking to the long term. A new generation without so many axes to grind.
Such a shift is the only way to guarantee the survival of Grand Prix racing for the future. I believe that, following the US GP farce, Bernie will begin to ease himself out, as he was aware that for the first occasion he was unable to broker a face-saving deal.
Especially if, as many suspect, his eagerness to find a rapprochement with the Michelin teams was scuppered by Mosley. With his influence on the wane it is hard to see what Bernie can offer F1 in the long term.
For Mosley the problem is more serious. Whereas with Bernie, one has always had the sense that he loved the sport (albeit in equal proportion to money), with Max it is impossible to see where his goals lie. The teams are angry at his constant meddling in their day to day affairs, and it is hard to see whom (apart from Ferrari) some of his judgements benefit. As his (and the FIA’s) actions proved last weekend, putting on a show for millions of fans is secondary to politics. For the good of the sport he must step aside: otherwise it is hard to see F1 enduring.
The same could perhaps be said of some of the team bosses. A scan down the pit lane clearly illustrates that all the big players (Max, Bernie, Ron Dennis, Frank Williams, Jean Todt) are all of broadly the same generation, first immersing themselves in the running of teams in the late 1960s or early 1970s.It is perhaps time for a newer generation of team owners to emerge, although the demanding entry criteria to F1 does not make this an easy proposition. The remarkable results from Red Bull Racing under Christian Horner have demonstrated that new ways of thinking can been instantly successful, and will hopefully encourage more of the top junior teams to make the step-up. New personalities will hopefully prevent Grand Prix from being the cosy club it sometimes appears to be.
Of course there is the added dimension of manufacturer involvement (especially with BMW’s recent purchase of Sauber). I have always had my concerns about car firms running F1 teams for the following reason. While Frank Williams and Ron Dennis run teams because they love racing, Toyota runs a team because it wants to sell more cars. Consequently at the point where Toyota believes an F1 programme will no longer shift units, they will withdraw on the spot. Don’t believe me? Look at Renault’s record for the past 25 years, dipping in and out of racing as the stock market waxes and wanes.
It is the drivers who are the subjects of the greatest speculation about retirement. This is a particularly tricky issue, as it is very hard to pick the right time, and not ruin it with a disastrous comeback. Had Nigel Mansell stopped racing after the Australian GP in 1994, he would be persisted as a legend who had more to offer the sport. But his brief, disastrous stint at McLaren the following year saw his image plummet to that of laughing stock, from which it has never really recovered. Likewise Alan Jones’ two comeback efforts in 1983 and 1986 proved that he should have stayed at home and watched the races on TV after all.
Of the current crop of drivers it is Michael Schumacher whose retirement is the most speculated upon. For him finding the right time to go will be incredibly difficult as he has repeatedly shown his form throughout 2005. Furthermore, as David Coulthard’s form this season has illustrated, a bad season (or 10 in David’s case) does not necessarily mean a driver is ready for his bus pass.
From a personal point of view, I believe a driver should keep racing as long as they enjoy it, and that furthermore, this is often demonstrated in their performances. Both Damon Hill and Mika Hakkinen were only sporadically interested during their retirement years and it showed. There is little to be gained by peddling around in the midfield preventing new talent from emerging. Certainly Jacques Villeneuve’s seat this season would have been far better filled by Heikki Kovalainen or Anthony Davidson. It is only by taking risks on driver choice that the next generation of F1 superstars will emerge. Raikkonen, Montoya and Alonso were all benificiaries of team owners taking a chance on their talent. And how well-rewarded they were.
Last weekend F1 showed that it is gravely ill, but it is not a terminal case just yet. However, it is in dire need of new blood at every level, from the cockpit to the boardroom. New generations need to be given their chance to shine, to introduce fresh initiatives and find a way to make Grand Prix racing appealing to new sets of fans. It is never easy to find the right to time to retire, but several key F1 figures should perhaps take a long look in the mirror and rethink exactly what they are trying to achieve.