Thursday June 7th, 2001
By Alan Baldwin
Twenty one years ago, the youngest driver ever to enter a Formula One race waited on the grid in Montreal at the wheel of a Tyrrell. New Zealander Mike Thackwell was just 19 years five months and 29 days old when he made his debut in that 1980 race and wrote his entry in the record books.
What followed was a disappointment, with the race interrupted at the end of the first lap due to a pile up just after the start. Thackwell did not make the re-start. This Sunday another 19-year-old, Spaniard Fernando Alonso in a Minardi, will be at the Gilles Villeneuve circuit preparing to do his best in the eighth race of his Grand Prix career.
But Alonso is just one of a new young breed in Formula One drivers to have emerged in the last year and can expect little attention unless he miraculously finishes in the points. The backdrop to this year's race, the talk of the last two weeks in so far as it refers to drivers, has been more to do with experience.
The main controversy at the last race in Monaco was provided by 22-year-old Brazilian Enrique Bernoldi, the Arrows novice who held up McLaren's experienced title challenger David Coulthard and was rounded on afterwards by McLaren's Ron Dennis.
That incident aside, Monte Carlo could be seen as a clear triumph for the old guard over the newcomers. For the first time in years, every points scorer in the race was a previous Grand Prix winner.
And all, with the sole exception of Ferrari's 29-year-old Brazilian Rubens Barrichello who came second to teammate Michael Schumacher, were the wrong side of 30. Two of them, Briton Eddie Irvine taking third place for Jaguar and Frenchman Jean Alesi sixth in a Prost, were at 35 and 36 respectively the oldest men on the grid.
For Alesi, who had not scored a point since 1999 and turns 37 next Monday, it was the perfect riposte to the ever-present speculation about retirement and his plans for the future. His car had been uncompetitive all season but he loves Monaco's street circuit and nursed the Prost home as unreliability and mistakes took care of others.
Irvine has his critics yet showed on a treacherous track that has long sorted out the men from the boys, that he still has what it takes. The irony, of course, is that a decade or two ago neither Alesi nor Irvine would have been seen as particularly old.
Briton Nigel Mansell won the title in 1992 at the age of 39 while Alain Prost was 38 when he took his fourth crown. Damon Hill was a champion for Williams at 36 while his father Graham won at 39 and was still racing at 44. Even Italian Vittorio Brambilla, who died of a heart attack just before Monaco, won in 1975 at 37 and continued until he was 42.
The trend now, with the exception of Toyota who are expected to make their debut next season with a veteran lineup, is on youth. Williams technical director Patrick Head commented on that this week in an interview with British weekly Motorsport News. Ralf Schumacher, who won in Imola, and Colombian newcomer Juan Pablo Montoya both failed to finish in Monaco.
"In terms of speed they compare very well with our previous partnerships," said Head of the 25-year-olds. "But I wouldn't say they rank with the likes of (Brazilian Nelson) Piquet and Mansell or (Australian Alan) Jones and (Argentine Carlos) Reutemann in terms of wisdom.
"Generally I wouldn't say that its a mature partnership. I suppose 10 or 20 years ago the drivers were in their mid-thirties, but either they're younger now or so protected from the ways of the world that they don't become as wise so quickly."
Briton Jenson Button last season became the youngest points scorer in Formula One history when he came sixth in Brazil in a Williams at the age of 20 and finished eighth overall in the Championship. This season, Sauber's 21-year-old Finn Kimi Raikkonen scored on his debut in Australia after just 23 single seater car races in his career.
Alonso worked his way into Formula One through the familiar channel of F3000 but for him and the other youngsters this season is as much about getting laps under their belts as anything. All would admit they still have a lot to learn.