Felipe Massa’s announcement at last weekend’s Italian Grand Prix that he would bring down the curtain on his Formula 1 career at the end of the season was equally greeted with sadness and yet widely praised.
His retirement will come at his 250th Grand Prix and almost 15 years to the day since he first sampled a Formula 1 car after winning the 2001 Euro F3000 Championship. Having spent the past three seasons at Williams. his arrival helped the Grove squad drag itself out of an uncompetitive period, while also serving as a home to rebuild the career of a driver whose reputation had taken something of a hammering in his final years in Ferrari colours.
His third year with the squad has seen his and the team’s form suffer, slipping from being a potential Mercedes challenger to having to look in its mirrors for chasing Force Indias and McLarens.
Massa is now 35 years old and undoubtedly in the autumn of a lengthy and illustrious career. With 11 wins, 16 pole positions and nearly a World Champion in his own right in 2008, his current circumstances mean he is unlikely to add to his already impressive record. The Brazilian recognised this and – coupled with Williams’ own pronouncements that it needs to shake up its driver line-up – he has seen the light at bowed out with his dignity and reputation intact.
Unfortunately there are a number of Massa’s peers who cannot boast the same level of insight. While age should not be a barrier – indeed, there are many F1 drivers who proved competitive at a much older age than Massa – there does come a time when a Formula 1 driver needs to recognise that his glory days are over and it’s time to hang up the keys.
Here are ten drivers who resolutely failed in this respect…
10. Michael Schumacher
The jury will forever be at odds over the wisdom of Michael Schumacher to attempt a comeback to Formula 1, at the age of 41, some four years after deciding to call time on a career that will forever be unequalled.
A seven-time World Champion with 91 Grand Prix victories, 68 pole positions, 76 fastest laps to count among a seemingly limitless list of accolades, what on earth did he have to prove by racing against drivers half his age in machinery that had evolved significantly since he left the sport?
There were those who argued that he retired too early at the end of 2006, and the buzz of competition proved too much of a temptation while sitting on the sidelines. He nearly made a stand-in comeback for Ferrari in 2009 after Felipe Massa’s season-ending crash in Hungary, but concerns over a neck injury from a club level motorbike race kept him sidelined.
The return of Mercedes as a full works team in 2010 proved to be too much to refuse. Schumacher had raced for the marque in his pre-F1 sports car days, and decided to don the race suit once again for the Silver Arrows long-awaited return.
Often out-raced by teammate Nico Rosberg, his race rustiness showed with the odd accident – a trait rarely seen during his more illustrious former glory days. Frequently canny enough to finish in the points, Schumacher genuinely looked to be enjoying being back behind the wheel, even if his machinery never really proved to be up to the task. After calling time for good at the end of this third year in his comeback, the team finally unlocked the form that has seen it become almost unbeatable in recent years.
9. Al Pease
While we have argued that age should not be a barometer for success in Formula 1, there are of course a few exceptions. Enter Al Pease, the British-born Canadian who finally donned a race helmet for the first time in his thirties while enjoying a burgeoning career as a graphic artist.
Through the early-to-mid 1960s he raced a variety of different cars – among a handful of open-wheel outings – and by 1967 he had secured sponsorship from Castrol’s Canadian arm.
The oil giant acquired an uncompetitive year-old Eagle T1G Climax and asked Pease to run it at the inaugural 1967 Canadian Grand Prix at Mosport. The car refused to start in the rain-sodden conditions and the race was some six laps old before it finally fired up. He later spun and stalled, and after being unable to restart the engine, he ran back to the pits to collect and fit a new battery. He rejoined the race and finished 43 laps down on the winner.
He returned for the 1968 race, but failed to make the start after engine troubles in the warm-up session.
Back once more in 1969 in the now-ancient Eagle and less than four weeks shy of his 48th birthday, Pease proved to be nothing but a dangerous mobile chicane in the race. After a number of close calls being lapped by much faster frontrunners, he became the first driver to be black-flagged from a Grand Prix for being too slow.
It was the last time Pease would ever grace the Formula 1 grid in anger – many felt he should never have been allowed in the first place – and he retired in 1970 as his business interests took off once again.
8. Jarno Trulli
Much was expected of Jarno Trulli when he made his Formula 1 debut in 1997 by those who knew his speed and skill in karting where he had claimed the Italian, European and World Championship titles.
Joining the top echelon having also won the German F3 title in his first full-time season of open-wheel racing, Trulli debuted with Minardi before being poached to Prost midway through 1997 to substitute for the injured Olivier Panis. He led half of the Austrian Grand Prix and looked on course to win until his engine let go. A star was born.
In a career that incredibly spanned a further 240 Grands Prix, the mercurial Italian would rarely live up to that same promise. Stints with Prost and Jordan – both teams on the wane – yielded more frustration than joy, and he moved to Renault in 2002 in an effort to revive his flagging career. It was a further two frustrating years before he finally broke through to claim what would be his sole Grand Prix victory in 2004 with a superb performance on the streets of Monaco.
Yet his form just as rapidly deserted him and he found out that Renault would not renew his contract beyond the end of the season. No results of note followed for the rest of the season, and he jumped ship to his new employers, Toyota, before the year was out.
Five seasons spent with the Japanese team produced more of the same mixed bag of blindingly quick and utterly anonymous performances before the team finally pulled the pin at the end of 2009 after eight extremely expensive and ultimately winless years in Formula 1.
Trulli could have quietly disappeared to tend to his growing winery, but instead threw his lot in with the hastily-formed Team Lotus outfit for 2010 where his considerable experience was touted as an asset for such a new team. What a shock it must have been to find himself in a team mired near the back of the field, and a demotivated Trulli found himself resolutely unable to transcend the performances of the car.
It didn’t get any better in 2011, and he complained endlessly about the car’s power steering to anyone who would listen. It was beyond anyone’s belief that he was re-signed for a third season, but eventually sanity – and the huge sponsorship dollars from Vitaly Petrov’s backers – prevailed to finally bring down the curtain on a truly tragic final act.
7. Philippe Alliot
A well-to-do French driver whose entire stint in F1 was almost exclusively spent with mid-grid French-run or supported outfits, Philippe started competitive motor racing only once he had finished his national service, and it took him several seasons apiece to graduate through the ranks of karting, Formula Renault and Formula 3.
His Formula 1 debut came at the rather late age of 30 with the hapless Skoal Bandit RAM outfit, with whom he spent two underwhelming seasons and finished just four races.
It was Jacques Laffite’s career-ending accident in mid-1986 that saw Philippe join Ligier, picking up a point before signing full-time with the new Larrousse concern in 1987. He stayed there for three seasons, proving decidedly erratic, discourteous when being lapped, and capable of some truly enormous accidents. Things didn’t improve with another stint at Ligier in 1990.
A period spent sports car racing saw Philippe return to F1 in 1993, again with Larrousse, before he became Peugeot’s test driver with McLaren in 1994, subbing for the banned Mika Häkkinen at the Hungarian Grand Prix a few weeks after his 41st birthday. He competed in one more race – he was loaned out to the cash-strapped Larrousse concern and looked likely to continue with the outfit into 1995 before it collapsed during the off-season.
Finally realising that his best days were well behind him, Philippe quit dying his grey hairs and left F1 for good.
6. Rubens Barrichello
With a record-topping 323 Grand Prix starts to his name, Rubens Barrichello’s Formula 1 career has been a testament of the Brazilian’s endurance. He joined the sport with Jordan in 1993 as a shy 20-year-old winner of the 1992 British F3 title, staying with the team four four seasons before joining the brand new Stewart outfit in 1997.
The coveted maiden Grand Prix win never came in three seasons with the team, and so he jumped ship to Ferrari as Michael Schumacher’s number-two, where the breakthrough victory finally came at his 123rd attempt at the Hockenheimring. Five further seasons were spent with the Scuderia, largely as Schumacher’s whipping boy, before Barrichello decided he’d had enough living in the German’s shadow and joined Honda’s works team for 2006.
Overshadowed by teammate Jenson Button in all three seasons – with 2007-8 being blighted by two of the worst cars designs to possibly grace an F1 grid – Barrichello could have quietly exited the sport, but he stayed on in the wake of Honda’s withdrawal while team principal Ross Brawn salvaged a rescue deal for the team.
The Mercedes-powered Brawn GP team ran for just one season and helped Button to a famous World Championship crown, while Barrichello once again played second fiddle. The team’s ownership passed to Mercedes and Barrichello was left out in the cold, joining Williams in 2010 and defying his vintage years with nine points-scoring races.
The following season saw Barrichello well off form and he could only manage a pair of ninth places. The team’s finances were getting shaky and he was squeezed out at the end of the season to make way for two pay drivers. Refusing to accept that his F1 career was over, he reluctantly joined the IndyCar Series while still continuing to covet a return to Formula 1.
His switch to the United States didn’t exactly turn heads, and no one in F1 was showing interest in a washed up Brazilian on the wrong side of forty. Still refusing to give up on his F1 ambitions, he signed to contest the final three Grands Prix of the 2014 season with Caterham, but the team went into administration before the deal could be realised.
5. Jacques Villeneuve
After winning the World Championship title at his second attempt, Jacques Villeneuve’s Formula 1 career looked to be finished before the end of 2003 after he quit the BAR team (which he co-founded with his manager Craig Pollock in 1999) before he was sacked by the team’s new management.
He hadn’t won a race since 1997 and had barely visited the podium since, but he was brought back from the wilderness by Renault to replace Jarno Trulli for the final three races of 2004. In an unfamiliar car and far from race fit, his performances weren’t anything special, and that perhaps should have served as a warning sign for the Sauber team which had already signed him on for a full-time comeback in 2005.
Despite persistent rumours that his two-year deal would be torn up before the first year was out, he remained on board for the full campaign and grabbed a handful of points – truthfully, however, he was a shadow of his former championship-winning self.
Kept on for 2006 when BMW bought out Sauber (in spite of rumoured reluctance on the BMW board’s part), Villeneuve matched the pace of much younger teammate Nick Heidfeld throughout the season. After crashing out of the German Grand Prix and complaining of headaches in the days that followed, he was replaced for the Hungarian Grand Prix by a young Polish driver called Robert Kubica.
The team had found its new star and was reluctant to part with the youngster, and so Jacques opted to walk away nearly a decade after claiming his last Grand Prix win.
Incredibly, he was named as the frontline driver in the so-called Formula 1 team, Stefan GP, being put together in Serbia, proving that even he was still deluded enough to think he would be competitive.
The team never materialised, and subsequent appearances in a range of championships – from NASCARs, V8 Supercars, RallyCross and Formula E – have all failed to remotely come close to his former championship-winning days.
4. Alan Jones
Having left Williams and F1 in 1981 whilst many still felt he was at his peak, the 1980 World Champion spent a year at home in Australia before being lured to the Arrows team early in 1983.
Team boss Jackie Oliver was full of excitement, but as things turned out, Jones’ stay was all too brief. At Long Beach he qualified twelfth before retiring from exhaustion. Never the fittest of drivers, he clearly was not up to the rigours of F1, and left the team after that solo outing.
Amazingly, although nowhere near fit enough, he made another comeback barely two years later with the new Carl Haas-run Beatrice Lola team after negotiating an enormous retainer.
He drove several races in 1985 in a rubbish car before doing a full season in 1986, scoring just 4 points. At this point he was too old, grey and significantly portly to be F1 material any more. Eventually Jones saw the light as well, and went back to Australia to race touring cars at the end of the year.
3. René Arnoux
A fast and fearless little Frenchman, René Arnoux was – at his peak – as good a driver as his compatriots Didier Pironi, Jacques Laffite and Alain Prost. After winning the coveted Formula 2 Championship in 1977, Arnoux was a frontrunner with Renault and a multiple race-winner by 1980. After moving to Ferrari in 1983, he very nearly became France’s first World Champion, falling an agonising ten points shy of eventual winner Nelson Piquet.
Just a year later, however, his performances became increasingly inconsistent and he was sacked by Ferrari just one race into the 1985 season. He joined the Ligier team in 1986, and Les Bleus would remain his home for the next four seasons.
His complaints about the team’s new Alfa Romeo engine saw the Italian firm tear up its contract in the 1987 pre-season, spelling the start of a terminal decline for the once-famous French outfit. Approaching his forties, Arnoux continued on, blithely driving as though he were still a championship contender even though neither his machinery nor his skills were up to the task.
His track manners had completely given way to a desperate hunt for a top-six finish to keep the team out of pre-qualifying each season, and the queue of frustrated drivers grew in his wake while he repeatedly forgot how to use his mirrors. By the time he eventually bowed out of the sport at the end of 1989, his peak performances of the early 1980s were but a distant memory.
2. Damon Hill
Being the son of a former World Champion, earning a multi-million-dollar wage and driving for the best team on the grid, big things were expected of Damon Hill by the time the 1996 season roared into life. Narrowly beaten to the 1994 title by Michael Schumacher, the following year saw him squander the best car in the field with a number of errors.
The 1996 season would mark his best shot at becoming Formula 1’s first second-generation World Champion. His major rivals had jumped to other teams and he was joined by a rookie teammate in the form of Jacques Villeneuve – there were simply no excuses to fail and nowhere to hide if he did. With eight wins out of the year’s sixteen races, the stats suggest he dominated, but it still took until the final round before he secured the title.
By that stage, Damon had been fired by Williams and with no other top line drives on offer, he took his #1 mantle to join Arrows, now under the ownership of Tom Walkinshaw. Amid much brave talk of winning races, the combination of a poor chassis, Bridgestone tyres and a gutless Yamaha engine meant Damon was only ever going to make up the numbers – save for a fleeting near-win at the Hungaroring.
His fading motivation was reignited by a huge retainer from Eddie Jordan to join the Irishman’s eponymous team. Mugen-Honda engines promised plenty, but the project looked troubled until a major engineering shake-up in the mid-season. A run of points’ finishes preceded that famous wet Belgian Grand Prix, where Hill and Jordan finally realised the team’s maiden win.
He could – and should – have retired at the end of the season, but Damon milked a bigger salary from Jordan for 1999 thanks to interest from McLaren. Paired with a reinvigorated Heinz-Harald Frentzen, his motivation tanked and he contemplated immediately quitting after a disastrous showing in France. Quite why he bothered to see out the season – retiring a perfectly healthy car in a number of Grands Prix – remains a mystery, and his reputation suffered immensely.
1. Nigel Mansell
It could be safely argued that there are no bigger egomaniacs in F1 than Nigel Mansell. This was the man who thrashed all comers in the 1992 F1 season in what was clearly the most superior car on the grid, and then proceeded to moan every which way that his title victory was difficult. The man who couldn’t handle Prost as a team-mate at Ferrari, and blamed him for unsettling the dynamics of the team. The man who got jack of IndyCars (no doubt due to the fact he was no longer winning) and came back to F1 in 1994 as a stand-in driver at Williams, boasting he could beat every driver, and then didn’t.
With Williams not having a seat available for him in 1995, Mansell, now 41, moved to McLaren in the hope that its pedigree and Mercedes powerplant would give the Williams and Benetton teams a challenge.
The signs were bad from the start: Mansell was too fat to fit in the car! The team rebuilt a larger monocoque for Nigel, and he returned for the third round at Imola, finishing tenth and a lap down (team-mate Mika Häkkinen hauled the recalcitrant MP4/10 into fifth place). He raced again at Spain and ran anonymously in the midfield before skating through the gravel trap and pulling into the pits to retire for good.
The ego came out again when he attacked the team for producing a poor car; team boss Ron Dennis returned serve and called Nigel “unmotivated”. It was a messy end to his career, and showed he should have hung up the keys much earlier.
Incredibly, it wasn’t the end of it, for in the lead-up to 1997 there were serious talks that Mansell would race for the Jordan team. Mercifully, the deal never came to fruition – perhaps team owner Eddie Jordan was the only one to realise that the glory of ‘Red 5′ had well and truly burned its last.
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