Recently, I have been thinking about Billy Bremner in Armani pants. I have not taken on a sudden fetish for former Leeds United and Scotland players. I have however been contemplating a curious phenomenon – F1 drivers, and sports people in general, are getting, or rather are looking, younger.
This may seem self evident. Empirical evidence confirms that sports people are achieving success earlier. Tom Daley was a Diving World Champion at 15 and from 16 years old Wayne Rooney was playing in the Premiership and kicking players twice his age. In F1 in recent years we have witnessed the inexorable downward trend in the youngest ever World Champion, from Alonso in 2005, to Hamilton in 2008 and Vettal in 2010. The average Grand Prix driver’s career now makes Doogie Howser M.D. look tardy. In contrast, both Carlos Reutemann and Clay Regazzoni, significant stars in the 1970’s, were both over thirty before they became established in F1. Juan Manuel Fangio was forty when he won the first of his five F1 titles in 1951, which must give some hope to Pedro de la Rosa.
However, even the younger drivers looked older in the 1970s. John Watson and Jody Scheckter both appeared to be mature men in their early twenties. When he was crowned the youngest ever F1 champion in 1972 (aged 25) and again in 1974, Emerson Fittipaldi looked like Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler.
The phenomenon is not limited to F1, but applies to other sports too. Take footballers, for example. Whether out on the pitch or swaying out of time to Back Home or Glory Glory Leeds United, even top footballers had about as much youthful sporting vigour as Michael Caine in Escape to Victory. It’s difficult to imagine anyone hiring any of the members of Don Reeve’s championship winning side to replace David Beckham on a billboard in a pair of Armani pants.
By contrast, today’s sportsmen are Peter Pans. When the carriage clock was finally forced into his unwilling hands at the end of the longest career in F1 history, Rubens Barrichello was still recognisably the same shy, fresh-faced twenty-one year old who joined the then Jordan Team in 1993. Michael Schumacher is aging like Reed Richards in the Fantastic Four, with a few flecks of salt-and-pepper grey hair added to his sideburns and temples, but otherwise largely unchanged.
I have no single explanation for the unaccountable transformation of our sporting heroes over the past twenty to thirty years. Muscle tone and conditioning are presumably part of the answer. It is difficult to imagine Jack Brabham or Alan Jones, even in their prime, joining Mark Webber on his 1,000km Tasmanian Challenge. In F1, the significant change in driver appearance seemed to come in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s around the time that, Scheckter, Hunt, Jones and Fittipaldi all retired and driver facial hair was banned as an aerodynamic aid.
With McLaren now testing their second generation of Magnussens – 19 year old Kevin – let’s hope The Finger is looking over his shoulder and feeling his age.
FORMULA ONE MUM