The Ben Evans Column: Age Concern

Posted on | Author Ben Evans

Formula BMWOnly time will tell the damage Formula BMW has done to single seater motor sport.

With excessive running costs (well in excess of ???200,000 for a tilt at the title), questionable driving standards and underpowered cars with way too much grip which teach drivers little in the way of feel.

But then again what’s do you expect with a field consisting almost entirely of well-funded teenagers, many as young as 15?

I am all for as many people as possible entering motorsport, but I am becoming increasingly concerned about the rapidly declining age of racing drivers.

Back in 1993 Alain Prost was Formula One World Champion at almost 40, and British Formula Three Champion Kelvin Burt was 25. Today many F1 drivers are in their early or mid-20’s whilst most F3 drivers are in their teens.

Lewis Hamilton, McLaren-Mercedes, Post-season, 2006, 2At 23 I know that my single seater career is effectively dead, even if I win every race next year, as I am simply too old to attract the backing needed to progress even as far as FBMW.

This trend has been quietly progressing for a number of years now, but with the emergence of Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Robert Kubica in F1 the issue of youth has been thrust to the fore. Fernando Alonso has just become the youngest ever double-champion.

Likewise at the other end of the age scale Michael Schumacher has retired from racing at a younger age than Nigel Mansell was when he won the World Title. So why have young drivers suddenly become the must have accessory for the well financed factory team?

First is the question of licensing. You can now compete in a racing car from the age of 14, as opposed to 18 which was the case until relatively recently. This has meant that karting (always a popular feeder to cars) has become increasingly important to the extent that it is extremely difficult for a driver to establish themselves without a karting background.

Likewise young drivers are cheap: Wave a ???10,000 contract in front of a 17 year old and they’ll take it, while a twenty-something would almost certainly hold out for more.

For those involved in racing in their teens, I’ve no doubt that the prevalence of young racers is a great trend, however I do have some concerns for the long term stability and popularity of the sport.

Most important is the question of driving standards. Anyone who has watched FBMW or FRenault this year will have seen some, quite frankly, appalling driving with numerous avoidable incidents.

It is hardly surprising considering these are teenage drivers with teenage temperaments. I know that at 16 I would rather have crashed than let another driver past, but given the speeds involved in FBMW it is downright scary (Formula Renault cars are quicker around Thruxton than F2 cars of the mid-1970s).

For a contrast watch a Castle Combe FF1600 or 750MC Formula Vee race to see single seater drivers racing on the limit, but – generally speaking – racing cleanly.

Furthermore with any young racer comes the problem of the ‘racing dad’. I for one am endlessly entertained by the tribunals section of the MSA’s Motorsports Now magazine which often has stories of karters dads beating up Course Clerks.

Greg, Nigel and Leo Mansell, 2006However this is now spilling over into car racing, as evidenced by Nigel Mansell’s scuffle with a fellow FBMW father at Brands Hatch in May. This has doubtless changed the atmosphere of many racing paddocks across the country and will hopefully be clamped down on by the MSA in the future.

It is hard to see licence ages being raised, but I really hope that some limits are put on entry ages into car racing. This is a dangerous sport, something that I know my teenage self struggled to take in, and I firmly believe that one serious accident involving a teenage driver could see motorsport vilified in the public eye.

And from my own, selfish standpoint, the number of times I have been held in the assembly area this year because of a Saxmax (cheap saloon car racing for 14-17 year-olds) shunt has pissed me off. For this reason alone only drivers who are slower, older and uglier than me should be allowed to race.

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Ben Evans

Contributing writer.