Age is just a number: older drivers who proved they weren't past it yet
Motorsport may be a young person's game, but that doesn't mean the older drivers can't pull out some surprises!
Motorsport is a young person’s game. Well, you’d think that at least given the understandably strong preference towards younger drivers. People do sometimes forget though that elder statesmen in motorsport can still get some brilliant results, even when they’re well past their prime. I’ve put together a list of some of the most impressive late-career performances from drivers in all sorts of different motorsports, ranging from Formula 1 to IndyCar to Super GT and even rallying! If you didn’t know some of these already, you might just learn something really cool about one or more of your favourite drivers from back in the day.
I’ll start with the most recent one on the list whilst it’s still fresh in everyone’s memory. Amid all the chaos of 2020, 43-year old former F1 driver Takuma Sato managed to win the Indy 500 for the second time in his career. Yes, it was won under caution and that caused a lot of controversy for some IndyCar fans, but a win is a win and it’s an especially impressive win considering Sato’s age. It was also incredibly welcome to see a very obviously non-white and non-American driver beat the confirmed MAGA enthusiast Santino Ferruci fair and square on an oval! Sato’s first Indy 500 victory in 2017 was also won in his 40s and he also got a podium at the event in 2019, coming in 3rd place. His general IndyCar career hasn’t been quite so fruitful as his success at the legendary 500 mile race, although he was a consistent podium scorer and race winner in 2019.
Everyone (including myself) who thought that Sato never got a proper chance in F1 was definitely happy that he got such an important victory in one of the most prestigious motor races in the world as an elder statesman, even if it did mean that Fernando Alonso (who Sato raced against in F1, let’s not forget!) ran a pretty much anonymous race in Indianapolis this year. Could Sato win the Indy 500 again in the future? I wouldn’t exactly rule it out!
No introduction is really needed when talking about the fantastic racing career that Nigel Mansell has had. He’s a perennially beloved figure in motorsport, especially in the UK. Whilst I could be here all day talking about his racing achievements, his most impressive one is something that came right near the end of his F1 career in 1994. Mansell had been brought back to drive for Williams for the final three races of 1994 as a fill-in following the tragic death of Ayrton Senna (David Coulthard, who was Williams’ test driver at the time, had taken Senna’s seat during the other post-Imola races). Whilst the now 41-year old driver needed to take a bit of time to find his pace again, he ended up taking pole position at and winning the Australian Grand Prix in Adelaide, outqualifying both his teammate Damon Hill and future 7-time world champion Michael Schumacher in the process!
His F1 victory in 1994 isn’t even the only impressive late-career result Mansell had either. His incredible IndyCar run where he won the PPG IndyCar World Series overall as well as winning rookie of the year and coming third in the 1993 Indy 500 has to be mentioned here too as it took place only a year before his Adelaide victory. When he returned to racing in 1998 during the legendary Super Touring era of the BTCC (the then 44-year old(!) Mansell drove a Ford Mondeo for three rounds), he ended up finishing in 5th place at Brands Hatch and even led the race for several laps. This was all despite him starting the feature race in 19th place after retiring from the sprint race 3 laps in!
As late-career achievements go, I think we can all agree that Mansell’s have been some of the most impressive out of anyone on this list.
One of the greatest Formula 1 drivers of all time, Alain Prost’s rivalry with Ayrton Senna is very fondly remembered by anyone who watched the sport during that era. Those who watched during that era will also remember his incredibly dominant season with Williams in 1993 where, thanks to him having the most technologically-advanced F1 car ever made in the form of the legendary Williams FW15C, he secured his 4th and final drivers championship. What a lot of people may not remember though is that he secured that championship at the age of 38!
Whilst that may be a relatively young age when you consider the other talent on this list, it’s still absolutely nothing to be sniffed at. How much you think he was aided by the FW15C being so damn good that the FIA decided it was 100% illegal to use basically any of the tech on the car for the 1994 season is up to your personal opinion, but there is still no way Prost wouldn’t have been able to achieve such a brilliant late-career season without his famed driving ability still being intact.
The Iceman may be seen pootling around the lower half of the grid these days in a decidedly uncompetitive Alfa Romeo, but it was only a couple of years ago when he pulled out an absolutely blistering late-career season. Somehow a fire got lit under the usually cool and collected Raikkonen in 2018 and he finished 3rd in the drivers’ championship, picking up a brilliant win in the US Grand Prix that could very well be the final win of his F1 career in the process. This is something he achieved at the age of 39! Whilst it doesn’t need explaining how great Raikkonen is when he’s got a competitive car, the fact that he was able to do a consistently great season that included a surprise race win when he was very much pushing 40 says it all.
Raikkonen looks set to vacate his F1 seat at the end of this year and whilst we don’t know what kind of racing he’ll be doing next, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s something that ends up getting him some more impressive late-career performances!
Whilst he’s much better known for his F1 career during the 00s and 10s (some of which he spent as a teammate of the aforementioned Takuma Sato!), Button did have a rather surprising career resurgence in 2018 after transitioning from F1 to the Super GT Championship in Japan. Button ended up winning the 2018 Super GT season with Team Kunimitsu aged 38, becoming the first rookie driver to win the series since Toranosuke Takagi managed the feat in 2005. This included a win at Sugo and podiums at Okayama, Suzuka and Motegi. Partnered with Super GT veteran Naoki Yamamoto (chosen by the team for Button because he could speak English), Button adapted to the very different culture and racing style of Super GT really well. Whilst his 2019 season wasn’t so good and he ended up finishing 8th overall, he still managed to get two podiums.
Outside of his Super GT achievements, Button also managed a podium finish at the 2018 6 Hours of Shanghai, something that’s definitely worth mentioning even though he only drove a few races during the 2018-19 World Endurance Championship and didn’t manage to finish the 2018 24 Hours of Le Mans.
With Button not being explicitly retired and some rumours floating around about him having a strong interest in entering IndyCar, you’ve got to ask the question of whether the now F1 legend will end up adding even more wins and podiums to his later career. It’s something that I could definitely see happening if everything lined up!
Carlos Sainz Sr.
Whilst all the attention now might be on Carlos Sainz Sr.’s Formula 1 driver son, the father of the “smooth operator” is definitely no slouch himself. Sainz Sr. is rightfully regarded as the greatest rally driver of all time, putting him alongside names such as Colin McRae (who he was teammates with multiple times) and Richard Burns. Even though his rally heyday has passed since he left Citroen in 2005, he is still a very active racing driver and has some of the most impressive, if not the most impressive, late-career wins on this list. Just this year at the age of 57 years old Sainz Sr. won the Dakar Rally for the 3rd time in his career, the other two times winning it in 2010 and 2018 at the ages of 47 and 55 respectively. He also won the Central European Rally that replaced the cancelled Dakar Rally in 2008 at the age of 45 and came third in the 2011 Dakar Rally as a 48-year old, winning an impressive 7 stages in the process!
It’s very rare for racing drivers to be genuinely competitive past the age of 40, let alone the age of 50. Carlos Sainz Sr., however, is no ordinary racing driver. The man clearly has godlike levels of talent. Whilst it’s unknown where the future of Sainz Sr.’s racing career will go, he could retire tomorrow and be more than happy about how amazing his career has been.
Andretti seems to have an absolutely superhuman talent for racing. An incredible driver across multiple motorsport disciplines, the Italian-American has proved multiple times that whilst he may be a very old man in motorsport terms his ability and instincts as a driver have far from left him. After initially having a very successful F1 career during the 70s, Andretti fell off as the ground effect era came in due to him being unable to adapt to the new driving style those cars required. He did make a return to F1 with Wiliams in 1982 after Carlos Reutemann’s shock exit and then subbed in for the injured Didier Peroni at Ferrari later on in the same season. Whilst the majority of his performances that season were nothing to write home about and he ended up retiring from the last race of the season due to suspension failure, he did manage to take pole position at Monza and eventually finished 3rd. This netted Andretti a podium finish at the age of 42!
That wasn’t the end of Andretti’s near-terrifying levels of success as an elder statesman either. He was a regular podium finisher and race winner in IndyCar until 1994 when he was well into his 50s and scored his final IndyCar race win at the age of 53 in 1993 at Phoenix. He also won the Indy 500 in 1987. After IndyCar, he came first in class and second overall at the 1995 24 Hours of Le Mans, an event which he also came third in class and third overall in 1983 and third in class and thirteenth overall in 1996. This made him one of the only people ever to win the triple crown.
Whilst Andretti is very much retired from racing, he made a brief yet brilliant return to going very fast round a banked oval in a virtual Indy 500. Whilst he unfortunately got caught up in a massive crash that put him a lap behind pace-setters Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso who battled hard right until the very final corner, before the incident he was actually able to keep pace with the two younger F1 legends! Whilst that took place entirely within a virtual world, it’s absolute proof that Andretti’s late-career performance was absolutely no fluke.
The Michael’s return to Formula 1 from 2010-2012 where he partnered future world champion Nico Rosberg in the then-fledgeling Mercedes team wasn’t anywhere near as good his first run in the sport was. That didn’t stop him from surprising everyone though in the brilliantly chaotic race that was the 2012 European Grand Prix in Valencia, grabbing himself the final podium of his career at the age of 43. This was the same race where Fernando Alonso managed to fight his way through the pack to win the whole thing after starting in 12th place, Timo Glock didn’t even qualify thanks to an unlucky bout of food poisoning over the weekend leading to him not being allowed to start the race (the 107% rule had been reintroduced earlier in the decade thanks to HRT being a total embarrassment to the sport) and Lewis Hamilton came a cropper at the hands of Pastor Maldonado, so that shows you exactly how mental that race was!
Schumacher also managed to take his 69th pole position at the 2012 Monaco Grand Prix with Rosberg coming in behind him in second place, although he ended up being given a five-place grid penalty thanks to some typical Schumacher behaviour. That latest example of typical Schumacher antics was causing an avoidable collision with Bruno Senna during the Spanish Grand Prix, something which is often forgotten about because that was the race where Maldonado won one of the most surprising F1 victories of all time (was the 2012 season really that mental?!?). Because Michael will still be Michael, he ended up handing the pole position to his teammate who eventually finished second behind Mark Webber (yes, the 2012 season really was that mental).
Whilst Schumacher was well past his prime even in 2010 let alone 2012, it was really lovely to see him stand on the podium one last time alongside another two other legends of the sport in Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen. He also deserves a lot of credit for not getting caught up in the overall carnage that happened at Valencia that weekend. Schumacher’s 2010-2012 run is often overlooked, but it really shouldn’t be when the final season of that run produced some tiny little glimpses of the Schumacher we all knew and loved before his horrific skiing accident left him in the condition he’s still in today.
Niki Lauda - whilst it doesn’t quite qualify for this list due to his relatively low age, Lauda’s final Formula 1 victory came at the age of 35 at the 1985 Dutch Grand Prix. The man was an absolute legend with three world championships to his name, so it only seems fair that he is mentioned somewhere in here.
Nelson Piquet - Whilst his final years in F1 weren’t particularly great, Piquet did manage to get a consolation in getting his final F1 win at the age of 38 and his final F1 podium at the age of 39. Whilst it wasn’t the greatest end to a fantastic driver’s career, it’s still good that he got another couple of turns on the podium before bowing out.
Carlos Reutemann - Reutemann managed to win the drivers championship at the age of 37, but his season defending the title ended up becoming a shambles. He initially wanted to retire at the end of that shambolic season, but he was persuaded by Williams to sign on for one more year. In the end, he retired two races into the extra season he hadn’t wanted to do at the age of 38. Whilst this is probably suitable for the main list, I felt like Reutemann’s poor performance that eventually led to him checking himself out meant that it was better left to being just an honourable mention.
Rubens Barrichello - Barrichello's post-F1 career hasn't been much to write home about from a results standpoint, but he did manage to win the 2014 Stock Car Brasil series and come 2nd in the same racing series in 2016.