When Sebastian Vettel crossed the line at Abu Dhabi, he became the youngest Formula 1 World Champion ever at the age of 23 years, 133 days. That's 168 days younger than the previous holder of that record, Lewis Hamilton, who stood in the record books for just two years. Hamilton's reign, in turn, was just a year longer than the previous youngest-ever champ's, Fernando Alonso (2005). Detect a trend?
Although progressive improvements in safety have made it possible for drivers to enjoy longer careers – indeed, longer lives – a counter-intuitive effect has been in evidence in F1's modern era as the racers seem to be getting younger all the time. It was not that long ago that Formula 1 was dominated by 30-something veterans, while “kids” under 25 were a rarity usually confined to the makeweight teams at the back of the grid. Now, though, the reverse is true, as illustrated by the fact that of the 10 oldest World Champions, only one – Michael Schumacher, who was 35 years and 239 days old when he won his seventh world title in 2004 – dates from the last 25 seasons. And he's the youngest of the 10.
In any era, of course, championships are a matter of talent aligning with opportunity, and that was key to Emerson Fittipaldi's upsetting of the giants of his era to become World Champion in 1972 at the then-unprecedented age of 25. Fittipaldi, who had won his first auto racing championship in his native Brazil in Formula Vee just four years earlier, moved to F3 in Europe the following spring – and was in the right place at the right time to have his talent noticed by Lotus boss Colin Chapman.
Advancing to F1 as the third driver at Lotus, he soon was thrust into the role of team leader after Jochen Rindt's tragic death and the departure of his number two, John Miles. In just his second full season of grand prix racing, Emmo and his JPS Lotus 72 rose to the challenge by racing into F1 history with a four-win season that dethroned reigning champion Jackie Stewart.
The impact of Fittipaldi's championship is underscored by the fact that his status as the sport's youngest champion – a record he took from Jim Clark, crowned in '63 at 27 – stood until Alonso's first title a third of a century later. Why now, then, is youth being served so much more often?
Perhaps the wealth of engineering talent available to race teams has reduced the perceived value of a driver's experience, encouraging teams to count on youthful aggression to bring them success. Surely at least as significant, however, is the earlier start drivers are making. Vettel, for example, was racing karts by age 10 – and Bryan Herta's son Colton already has a pair of national karting titles at the same age (see page 12).
Vettel's rise through the ranks was sped up further by the grooming of Red Bull's driver development program, and the German made his F1 debut as a Friday practice driver with BMW Sauber at the age of 19 years and 53 days – another record for precociousness. He made his first grand prix start with the same team a year later, filling in for the injured Robert Kubica at Indianapolis, and duly became the youngest driver to score points in a grand prix. He went on to become F1's youngest pole and race winner, too, with his astonishing flag-to-flag victory for the before-and-since winless Scuderia Toro Rosso team at a wet Monza in 2008. His championship crown, then, completes a clean sweep of age-related records.
How long will they stand, though? The transition of kids to karts – and on to racecars – figures to keep getting shorter as the opportunities (and potential rewards) keep growing. Red Bull's current two protégés at Toro Rosso, Sebastien Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari, are both younger than Vettel, and the latter registered his own youngest-ever record when he took part in his first F1 race at the age of 19 years and 125 days. Given Red Bull's penchant for international talent spotting, more such young talents are surely in the pipeline.
An ironic twist in all this comes in the fact that the Red Bull teammate Vettel narrowly bested this year, Mark Webber, remains well-positioned to put an end to the recent run of 20-somethings as World Champions. Perhaps next year he can buck the trend and join the ranks of oldest World Champions at age 35.