It may not surprise you to hear that I’ve recently found myself reflecting on young driver development programmes – and McLaren’s young drivers in particular.
McLaren’s young driver development programme currently comprises Kevin Magnussen (21), Stoffel Vandoorne (21), Nyck de Vries (18) and Ben Barnicoat (16).
Kevin is the reigning World Series by Renault 3.5 champion, having won five races this year in dominant style. His only rival for that crown was Stoffel, who won four races with equal aplomb – a remarkable feat when you consider that 2013 was Stoffel’s rookie year in the powerful 3.5-litre cars, having won Renault’s 2.0-litre series outright in 2012.
Nyck competed in Renault’s 2.0-litre series this year, finishing fifth in that championship, with two wins.
Ben, who is still karting, currently races in the WSK Euro and Masters Series, as well as the CIK-FIA KF European and World Championships.
Stoffel tops the time sheets in GP2 test
But young driver development programmes – not that we called them that until relatively recently – are nothing new. In fact, at a stretch, McLaren’s can be traced right back to the incorporation of Bruce McLaren Motor Racing (BMMR) 50 long years ago.
Bruce, who was only 26 in the autumn of 1963, founded BMMR so that he could race a specially adapted and developed Cooper-Climax Formula 1 cars in the 1963-64 Tasman Championship, partnered by the 25-year-old Timmy Mayer (the younger brother of future McLaren team principal Teddy Mayer).
Although the two lads were very close in age, Bruce was the boss, the main man, and he had a gravitas about him most unusual in one so young.
Indeed, by 1963 he was already something of an F1 veteran, having made his grand prix debut at the tender age of 20, in 1958, at the formidable Nurburgring of all places, bringing his Cooper-Climax home in an impressive fifth place.
The following year, having just turned 22, he won the United States Grand Prix at Sebring, driving a Cooper-Climax again, becoming the then youngest ever winner of a grand prix in so doing.
Timmy had got started slightly later, and drove his first (and, as it would happen, last) grand prix at Watkins Glen (USA) in 1962, aged 24: he retired his Cooper-Climax after 31 laps, with ignition failure.
Just over a year later he was dead, at 26, killed during practice at Longford, the final round of the 1964 Tasman Series.
Bruce was devastated – but, young though he still was, already he had a way with words that men twice his age would struggle to match. What he said about Timmy at that time has now passed into racing legend, and rightly so, but it bears repetition here now: "The news that he’d died instantly was a terrible shock to all of us, but who’s to say that he hadn’t seen more, done more and learned more in his few years than many people do in a lifetime? To do something well is so worthwhile that to die trying to do it better cannot be foolhardy. It would be a waste of life to do nothing with one’s ability, for I feel that life is measured in achievement, not in years alone."
Jenson: The Junior Formulae
There was no doubt about Timmy’s ability – he had it in spades. His death cruelly swept from the F1 stage a shining new star who would surely one day have driven, and won, grands prix for McLaren.
In the 1950s and 1960s guys like Bruce and Timmy stood out as young. In those days most F1 drivers were in their 30s, quite a few were in their 40s, and some were even in their 50s. Louis Chiron drove his last grand prix at Monaco in 1958, and he was born in 1899. Luigi Fagioli drove his last grand prix at Reims (France) in 1951, and he was born in 1898. Philippe Etancelin drove his last grand prix at Rouen (also France) in 1952, and he was born in 1896. Do the math.
By contrast, seven young men have made their grand prix debuts in their teens – Ricardo Rodriguez (Monza 1961), Chris Amon (Monaco 1963), Mike Thackwell (Zandvoort 1980), Esteban Tuero (Melbourne 1998), Fernando Alonso (Melbourne 2001), Jaime Alguersuari (Budapest 2009) and, lest we forget, newly crowned four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel (Indianapolis 2007).
So good luck, I say, to young Kevin, to young Stoffel, to young Nyck and to young Ben. Fifty-year-old McLaren is guiding them well, I feel sure of that. The Greek philosopher Aristotle said, "Youth is easily deceived because it’s quick to hope”; but he also said, “Good habits formed at youth make all the difference."
Aristotle may not have known much about F1, but he was a very wise man.