x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Top drivers need to start early in life

So what can we learn about becoming the best driver in the world? Well, you need to start early.

Do you have to be in your twenties to win a Formula One crown? That was the case for each of Sebastian Vettel, Jenson Button, Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen, but in years gone by, Juan Fangio won the World Championship at 46, Jack Brabham at 40 and and Nigel Mansell at 39. These seem to be age-related trends, but this doesn't offer much of an explanation.

Motor racing started life as the preserve of wealthy aristocrats, for upper-class Biggles types. In the old days of racing in the UK, the drivers looked and sounded like RAF pilots. Public school accents abounded at race circuits like Goodwood and Aintree. Young Spanish driver Alfonso de Portago, who was killed in a horrific racing accident in his Ferrari in Italy in 1957, was the 17th Marquis de Portago and Count of Mejorada, racing driver, Grand National jockey, polo player and Olympic bobsleigh driver.

Although the life of today's young racer is much safer, far more work is required to succeed. It takes a very strong work ethic that typically results from a modest background aligned with the overwhelming focus and competitive spirit of the parents.

A child wouldn't normally start karting seriously at the age of eight unless his family was already focused on loftier goals. Vettel, whose father was a carpenter, started his racing career 15 years ago at Michael Schumacher's kart track in Kerpen, Germany. He went on to win several junior karting titles, German Formula BMW and came second in European Formula Three before moving to F1.

Same thing for Jenson Button, whose father, an ex-rallycross driver, helped him as he won kart races from the age of eight, moving up the ladder through Formula Ford, and Formula 3 before turning to F1.

I'm sure I don't need to tell you about Hamilton's karting career, which also started when he was an eight-year-old cadet with support from his father, who took two jobs to pay the bills. Raikkonen didn't start karting until he was 10, and later went through Formula Ford and Formula Renault to get to F1.

So what can we learn about becoming the best driver in the world? Well, you need to start early. You need a lot of support from your family. Mum and Dad need to be prepared to invest heavily for the first 10 years, and like most sportsmen and women, you can forget about having a social life: weekends will be taken up with racing. This is not a unique process. Just look at the early careers of golf's Tiger Woods and the Williams sisters of tennis.

But let's keep this in perspective. We are reviewing the history of a couple of young world champions. What about all the hundreds of others who have great careers in single-seaters, GT cars, touring cars, Nascar and sports prototypes who didn't start karting at the age of eight?

Here's an example of a driver who didn't. With no karting experience at all, this chap started racing motorcycles at the age of 23. He switched to single-seaters and moved up to F3000 before he got his break in F1 at the age of 33. He was quite good at it, and went on to win the Formula One World Championship at the age of 36: Damon Hill. Maybe age doesn't matter, then?


Barry Hope is a director of GulfSport Racing, which is seeking the first Arab F1 driver through the FG1000 race series. Join the UAE racing community online at www.singleseaterblog.com