Work this one out. My mum’s birthday was recent, on 8th August. She shares a birthday with Nigel Mansell. When I was a young know-it-all F1 fan I used to like pointing out to her that she was exactly two years older than him. Yet these days she is exactly one year older than him. Despite the occasional rumour to the contrary, I’m pretty sure my mother ages in real time.
Coy about how old you are
It has a simple explanation though. For much of his F1 career Our Nige lied about his age, claiming to be a year younger than he actually was. You probably can guess the reasons why too, that even then there was genuine fear of being dismissed as too old. No doubt exacerbating matters, Nigel’s career rather epitomised the late bloomer – he didn’t commit to motorsport full-time until he was 22 (today some F1 careers are over by then); didn’t debut in F1 until he was 27; didn’t win until he was 32; didn’t get his world championship until he was 39. To add context, F1’s current oldest pilot is Kimi Raikkonen who’s 35.
I’m not sure at what point Nigel ‘fessed up either. I don’t recall a fanfare at that moment of disclosure. A skim of his autobiography doesn’t shed light. The best that I can come up with is that Autocourse from 1981 right through to 1992 when his main F1 career ended lists his year of birth as 1954 (having listed it curiously as its actually 1953 in his debut season of 1980); only upon his brief return post-Indycar in 1994 is it shifted subtly to 1953. One can only imagine the fallout today if a decorated driver was to reveal at the end of it all “by the way, I was lying to you all this time…”.
Nige wasn’t the only one. Gilles Villeneuve throughout his F1 time knocked two years off his age and for the explicit reason that he worried – debuting in F1 like Mansell actually at 27 – that otherwise he’d be considered too old to get a chance.
Modern matters are more acute
And today F1’s attitude to youth has gone from a preference to an infatuation – and it’s one of my pet hates. Kimi we’ve mentioned and you hear absurd retirement chat associated with the likes of Jenson Button, Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso (respective ages 35, 34 and 34) when a generation ago drivers of that sort of vintage were considered merely middle-aged. It wasn’t always this way. Jacques Laffite who went on to equal the record for most Grand Prix starts made his debut just a few months short of turning 31. Juan Manuel Fangio didn’t arrive in Europe until he was 37.
Even after Mansell’s time we had Damon Hill who didn’t make his F1 bow until he was 31. But today anyone 30 plus, or even 25 plus, getting a freshman chance is near-impossible. Of those currently operating, only Pastor Maldonado had breached 25 when he made his debut. Andre Lotterer was 32 when he made his one-off appearance for Caterham last year but it’s very much an outlier. And the ages of the sport’s five (full-time) debutants for this season read 24, 23, 22, 20 and…17.
But then again, who’s to say none of the current crop are doing a Nigel? The motives for doing so are at least as acute as they’ve ever been. Plus if it transpired that Max Verstappen actually is 37 then it’d explain a lot…