Race Blog
Italy 2014

"If you're old enough"

16 – young, isn’t it?

2014 and we live in a brave new world. A world where mid-teenage boys are signed to race in the most glamorous, highly pressurised racing series on the planet.

Just think about that for a second or two. What were you like at 16 years old? Could you have walked into the piranha pool that is the Formula 1 paddock and be at the centre of a media storm? Have a barrage of questions fired at you from heard-it-all-before hacks and seen-it-all-before snappers, answering their questions and posing for their photos with calm and measured replies in multiple languages?

Thought not.

At Spa a few weeks ago that’s exactly what Red Bull’s latest racing protégé did. Way more impressive than some of his older soon-to-be colleagues in dealing with the media, Max Verstappen seemed born to it.

Now of course, not everyone is pleased that Toro Rosso’s newly announced driver will be practicing at this year’s United States Grand Prix.

Thinning of hair, scruffy in appearance and bitter in mien, the media’s favourite moaner Jacques Villeneuve was predictable in his ire.

Dismissing the young Dutchman as just another example of where the sport –which served him so well – is apparently going so wrong.

Fact is, Villeneuve and his like can bitch and moan all they desire – it’s a pathetic and predictable thing for an occasional sportsman way past his prime to do. “It’s not what it was back in my day” is a soundbite oft repeated by those living in the past, extolling how hard it was for them relative to how easy it is in the here and now, all in a desperate attempt to remain relevant.   

I’m afraid – all you pinguid, thinning-of-hair ex-drivers – the world has changed, 16-year-old professional sportsmen are not what they were.

Sure Verstappen has much to learn, but professional sports are now the preserve of those way younger than most of the audience watching – and certainly the press reporting. In F1’s case it’s been coming for a while, actually a lot longer while than you may think. Back in the day, back in 1961, the 19-year-old Mexican Ricardo Rodriguez raced at the Italian Grand Prix. His ‘youngest ever’ record was subsequently broken by Mike Thackwell and Jaime Alguersuari (both also 19) in 1980 and 2009.

Verstappen, who will be 17 this month, will of course smash the F1 age barrier but our sport is merely reflecting the way of the world.

Youth is where it’s at. 

F1 – at last in 2014 – is a sport forging ahead on the technology front with awesome hybrid machines leading the way in the automotive world, but, when the wheels aren’t turning, the sport is a lifetime away from where it should be. The teams try hard, attempting to engage with the fans in a number of ways, but are continually hamstrung by an all-powerful and restrictive regime stuck in the distant past.

In my post-Austrian Grand Prix blog I wrote of the frustration felt by so many within the sport at the complete lack of a progressive attitude on the part of those running and ‘promoting’ Formula 1; but some responsibility to engage with the audience has to fall on those competing.

Race day morning at the Autodromo Internazionale di Monza is a special place to be. The apprehensive atmosphere is electric in its charge, the anticipation of an afternoon’s flat-out racing palpable in the air.

At the F1 paddock entrance last Sunday morning the usual fervent throng of Tifosi jostled this way and that, packed in tight, squished and squashed, all struggling for a front-row position so as to meet their idols.

The door of a gleaming silver Ferrari opened wide and Fernando Alonso egressed.

Cool, calm, smiling and friendly the Scuderia’s numero uno is a consummate pro when it comes to dealing with his fans. Taking time to sign just about every programme, cap, photo, t-shirt, model, helmet and hand thrust his way, Fernando finally departed with a cheery wave leaving everyone happy including grown men crying with emotion.

The buzz in the air did not abate. Whistles screeched, Tifosi shouted, the crowd-controllers struggled to maintain ‘order’. The distinctive deep-throated roar of an Italian V-twin cracked the air.

Enter Lewis astride his new Ducati Monster, carbon-shrouded Termignoni exhausts pinging with the heat.   

Climbing off his ride, Hamilton walked into a nearby office, removed his helmet, tweaked his hair, donned a cap, slid on his sunglasses, composed himself and stepped back into the sunshine. Pandemonium ensued.

The predominantly Italian crowd went nuts. Photographers, TV crews, fans, security, they all pushed this way and that. At the eye of the storm our man from Stevenage remained calm, dealing expertly with the melee that surrounded him.

Of course, Hamilton and Alonso have been in F1 a long time and have certainly – in Lewis’s case markedly so – got better at what I describe. It is after all essential that every sportsman treats their fans to a little ‘special time’.

So imagine my surprise, and the disappointment of the crowd, when a number of the ‘younger’ drivers shuffled quickly past their fans, heads down, looking embarrassed, with no attempt to engage.

Now I understand that not everyone may want to be as famous as Lewis and Fernando, but seriously, if you don’t want the world to know who you are, if you don’t want fans to ask for a signature… Don’t be an F1 driver.

All the hours of effort and toil by the marketers in every team is wasted the second one of their drivers dismisses the target market as nothing more than an annoyance.

Sure Kimi Raikkonen has always had that attitude, and because of his ‘brand image’ got away with it. But the Finn’s style – like his 2014 season – is wretched in both its appeal and relevance to the here and now.

I may be wrong but I’m guessing, at next year’s Italian Grand Prix, that young Max Verstappen will eschew the ‘sod the fans’ Raikkonen approach and be firmly in the appreciative, engaging and wholly healthy Lewis and Fernando camp.

The youth of our sport engaging with the youth who watch it is essential. How on earth are we going to get new fans to appreciate the wonderful world of Formula 1 if they don’t?

Please now take a few minutes to enjoy my pictures from the 2014 Italian Grand Prix by clicking here.

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