How much longer for F1’s Golden Generation?

(Feature image: Sutton Images)

The field of the 2017 Formula One grid is a mosh pit of multi-cultural and multi-generational drivers who all share the same goal: to win a Formula One World Championship. But, sadly, it’s a cutthroat industry. Formula One is a very selective sport, a revolving door of the world’s greatest racing talent. Yesterday’s potential is today’s performance and there’s no guarantee of a tomorrow for many young drivers who fight to make their name. Very few get to truly leave on their own terms.

It’s interesting to cast an eye up and down the grid and reflect where *insert driver name here* has come from and think about his career, or imagine what *insert driver name here* could accomplish in his career. Experience is so key in this sport and it comes in all sorts of different forms throughout the grid. In fact, when it comes to experience, you can place the field of the 2017 Formula One grid into three categories:

The up-and-comers/young pups/rookies 

(Drivers who have raced in F1 from 0-4 seasons)

These are drivers that are either brand new to the sport or are still learning/improving their craft. Others, meanwhile, are a little more established but are still learning what it takes to win/win consistently.

(Bracketed information represents what season said driver debuted and their current team)

Valtteri Bottas (2013, Mercedes)
Lance Stroll (Rookie, Williams)
Max Verstappen (2015, Red Bull)
Esteban Ocon (2016, Force India)
Stoffel Vandoorne (Rookie, McLaren)
Carlos Sainz (2015, Toro Rosso)
Daniil Kvyat (2014, Toro Rosso)
Kevin Magnussen (2014, Haas)
Jolyon Palmer (2016, Renault)
Marcus Ericsson (2014, Sauber)
Pascal Wehrlein (2016, Sauber)

Mid-tier veterans

(Drivers who have spent between 5 and 10 seasons on the grid)

These drivers have been around long enough to know how things work and have survived long enough to carve out a meaningful F1 career for themselves (very meaningful, as the case is for some).

Lewis Hamilton (2007, Mercedes)
Daniel Ricciardo (2011, Red Bull)
Sebastian Vettel (2007, Ferrari)
Sergio Pérez (2011, Force India)
Romain Grosjean (Technically 2009 but really 2011, Haas)
Nico Hülkenberg (2010, Renault)

The true veterans

Drivers who have spent more than 10 seasons on the grid

Kimi Raikkonen (2001, Ferrari)
Felipe Massa (2002, Williams)
Fernando Alonso (2001, McLaren)

It’s this final category of drivers that I want to focus on today.

With both Nico Rosberg (2006) and Jenson Button (2000) stepping aside, that trio of Kimi, Massa and Alonso are now the only drivers remaining in F1 who you could class as the “Golden Generation”. Roll the clock back to 2004. Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso had just picked up their first victories the season prior in 2003, Raikkonen just falling short of the 2003 driver championship. Both were tipped for huge futures while Massa would steadily improve before truly arriving on the scene in 2006 with Ferrari.

A lot of time has passed since these three (all, coincidentally, have been teammates at some point in their careers) debuted and they’ve seen a lot of success.

The three have combined for:

3 world championships (that number should be at least four, if not five/six but we won’t go there…)
63 victories
222 podium finishes
54 pole positions
80 fastest laps
4,316 points
775 race starts
43 seasons

These guys have literally seen it all. The 2005 Indianapolis tyre scandal, spy-gate, Rascasse-gate, crash-gate, monsoon conditions, team orders, red flagged races, the first death in the sport since 1994, the Max Mosley sex scandal and they’ve all had their own heart stopping accidents. And those were just a few off the top of my head, I’m sure there are many more that could be listed.

They’ve also duelled, arguably, the greatest F1 driver of all time, Michael Schumacher.

They’ve all had wonderful, decorated careers and each will always be remembered in their own special way. But it’s no secret that their time in F1 is coming to a close. With Jenson Button stepping aside for Stoffel Vandoorne and Nico Rosberg retiring, only these three drivers remain out of F1’s golden generation. How much longer do Raikkonen, Alonso and Massa have left in F1?

Kimi Raikkonen is the oldest of the bunch at 37 years old but showed last season that he still has what it takes to compete at a high level, definitely showing more consistency than the four-time World Champion Sebastian Vettel in 2016. Vettel, who was certainly expected to perform much better than his older teammate, was actually out-qualified by Raikkonen last season, 11-10. Raikkonen’s overtake on Lewis Hamilton at Singapore showed us that he’s still got it.

Watching this live brought back so many memories of a young Kimi in his McLaren days. He still has it. Not many drivers get the opportunity to drive up the back of Lewis Hamilton, let alone overtake him…

Arguably, his most impressive move of the season was his unbelievable save when overtaking Felipe Nasr at Hungary.

The 2007 World Champion still has the touch…

It’s interesting. Although Raikkonen is now the oldest driver on the grid he’s the one driver out of this group that hasn’t spoken about retirement or possible retirement in the near future. I wouldn’t be surprised if Raikkonen had another two more seasons in him. It seems to be Sebastian Vettel who is under more scrutiny at Ferrari than Raikkonen, who really picked up his performances after he got married as the season wound down. You also have to wonder if there’s even more left for Raikkonen in F1, he could find the new aerodynamic changes favour his style…

Felipe Massa didn’t originally want to retire last season. He would’ve been open to racing in F1 again if Williams wanted to retain him. However if Williams didn’t, Massa didn’t want to drop down the grid and feature for an uncompetitive team in order to “make up the numbers”. He wanted to be in F1 to matter. Make no mistake about it, if Massa wanted a seat with one of the lower teams for 2017, he’d would’ve taken it. From an interview with F1.com in late August:

Q: Is Formula One an option at all for you, then? You have been in the sport for so long – you have seen it all, done it all…

FM: Let’s put it this way: I want to be in Formula One to matter! I am definitely not here to make up the numbers. I am here to give my talent and my work to achieve results. If I don’t have that I will look for different things. So everything is moving! (Laughs)

Of course, as it turned out, Williams decided that they wanted to roll the dice with Lance Stroll (and all the sponsorship money he brings to the table) and, when Felipe was informed that he would not be retained, Massa announced his retirement at the Italian Grand Prix, the same track that his mentor and friend, Michael Schumacher, announced his retirement 10 years earlier.

Unlike Jenson Button, Massa was able to finish his final grand prix in Abu Dhabi, finishing in 9th place, and had the opportunity to burn some donuts one last time.

So, that was it for Felipe Massa in F1. It was a great journey. A career that exceeded all of his expectations when he sat in that Sauber on that fateful day in 2002 where his F1 journey began.

Only extraordinary circumstances could’ve dragged Felipe out of retirement. And that’s exactly what happened…

Nico Rosberg’s shocking and sudden retirement left Mercedes with a driver dilemma. The driver market was well and truly shut by the time Rosberg announced his retirement, and drivers like Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso were too expensive to buyout, leaving Mercedes to search for a cheaper/viable option. While they wanted a cheaper option, Mercedes also wanted a driver who might be able to at least push Lewis Hamilton and that ruled out their junior drivers like Pascal Wehrlein.

Massa’s teammate of three seasons, Valtteri Bottas, was — for lack of a better way to phrase, and to semi-quote The Dark Knight — not the driver Mercedes deserved but the one it needed right now. And so negotiations with Williams began. Williams deputy team principle Claire Williams, after Bottas had completed his move to Mercedes, revealed to AutoWeek that Williams didn’t want to hold Bottas back.

“…Valtteri has grown close to our hearts over the years — I just wish we could have given him a better car.”

∼ Claire Williams

Claire also revealed that due to an agreement with Williams’ sponsor, Martini, that since Lance Stroll is just 17, and Martini obviously deal with alcoholic products, his teammate needed to be at least 25.

“We knew that, next to our rookie Lance, we needed an experienced driver. We also had a special situation with our sponsor Martini.”

∼ Claire Williams

This left Williams in a tricky situation…

“The problem is that most of the available drivers in Formula 1 were not 25. So it meant six hectic weeks for us.”

∼ Claire Williams

By December, the top/better drivers were all under contract for the upcoming season and Williams knew, in a season that will oversee massive changes for the sport, they couldn’t partner Stroll with an inexperienced driver. They needed a driver who knew what he was doing and how Williams operated. Of course, there was one driver, who was always open to staying with Williams, who was now available. Felipe Massa.

Mercedes decided they didn’t want to announce a new driver until the new year, and so Williams, reportedly, struck a deal with Massa that, should Mercedes pluck Bottas from Williams, that he would come out of retirement.

Bottas, eventually, did join Mercedes though Williams made sure they put Mercedes through “a little bit of pain” in the process, paving the way for Massa to complete his retirement u-turn.

“…I know there’s a lot of talk out there ‘let the guy retire, leave him alone’ – he wants to come back. Little-known to me, I didn’t actually realise that he didn’t really want to retire and so I think Felipe is going to do a good job this year.”

∼ Claire Williams

So, now that Felipe is back, how long can we expect him to stick around? More than likely just the one season, unfortunately. Williams will have not only much more time to find a replacement but they’ll also have a much more open driver market with which to work with. Kimi Raikkonen, Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso are technically  — as of this moment — on the drivers market for 2018, but all of those options seem unlikely, considering where all of those drivers are at in their careers. The much more acquirable drivers — as such — would probably include Sergio Pérez (who probably has his sights set on Ferrari), Valterri Bottas (who did sign just for the one year with Mercedes), Romain Grosjean and (the driver I think they should be gunning for) Carlos Sainz Jr.

While it’ll probably be just one more season for Felipe, it’s just great that he’s going to be around at all.

Fernando Alonso is a driver who can leave F1 on his own terms and his terms only, something that neither Raikkonen nor Massa can boast. Alonso showed time and time again that he is truly one of the best drivers on this entire gird (and one of best ever), pulling rabbits out of paper hats week in and week out with a car that had no right to finish where he placed it. Stunning drives at Russia, Monaco, Spa, Singapore and Brazil (which no one noticed because of the Max Verstappen show), just to name a few, reminded everyone why he’s one of the best to ever do it. It’s truly a shame he doesn’t have the machinery to compete for a title…

Not only did Alonso out-perform his machinery but also his World Champion teammate Jenson Button, out-scoring Button 54-21. Alonso also out-qualified Button 15-5. 15-5. Button is no slouch by any means and for Alonso to out-perform him like that isn’t so much a matter of Button just getting over the hill but a testament to Alonso’s sheer skill and speed even at age 35.

But Alonso has been cut a frustrated figure. Not so much with his team as much as the sport itself. Fernando is old school. Like Kimi and Felipe, he raced in the V10 era and an era — fuel stops etc. — where you could always push the car near its limit at all times, or at least when you wanted to. Now, it’s all about saving. Saving the tyres, saving fuel, saving battery and this greatly frustrates Fernando.

This era of F1 goes against what Fernando loves about racing. Alonso described it as going against the “instinct” of a driver and, perhaps, the only thing that is keeping him in the sport is his contract (obviously) and the possibility that the overhaul in regulations will allow drivers to push the car near to the limit again. From a motorsport.com feature in August:

“I think that my biggest question is how I enjoy driving next year’s car; if the rules stay as they are now, and I have to save fuel, I have to save tyres, I have to drive 90 per cent and I cannot push in any of the laps, then next year will be my last year.” 

“Not because I’m not competitive, even if I win the championship next year, I stop because I prefer other things more.

“It’s not about what results I have next year, or how competitive McLaren is. It’s about how the Formula 1 car goes, in which direction.”

∼ Fernando Alonso

Alonso has also hinted that if the changes for 2017 do not satisfy him that he will leave the sport and pursue a path in the World Endurance Championship, similar to what his good friend Mark Webber did. Speaking in a video tribute to Webber:

“You’ve had a fantastic career and now all your success with Porsche. You didn’t wait for me there, it could have been nice but I think you will still be around and I will ask you many things when I join your adventure. A really great man and from my heart all the best.”

∼ Fernando Alonso

Alonso’s future in F1 rests not on whether his car is quick enough to win but rather the regulation changes and whether or not they allow drivers to push the car further. Or, to put it simply, if  he finds the sport is fun again.

Personally, I’m not sure that these changes in regulations will give Alonso what he wants this season but with the Liberty Media Group now calling the shots in F1, maybe they’ll introduce/reintroduce regulations that will give Alonso the thrill he has been seeking…

So, enjoy watching Kimi Raikkonen, Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso while you can because it’s very conceivable that when we prepare for F1 2018, we could do so without Raikkonen, Massa or Alonso…

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