The Grand Prix Masters: would it work better now?
Would the short-lived series based on the success of the tennis and golf seniors tours be more successful if it had been held in the 2020s?
If you haven't heard of the Grand Prix Masters series before, I honestly wouldn't be surprised. It was a very short-lived racing series that had a simple yet very intriguing concept. Modelled on the incredibly lucrative seniors tours that you often see in golf and tennis, the organisers of the Grand Prix Masters had the idea of bringing old F1 drivers out of retirement for a 'seniors' racing series of sorts. These drivers would race in identical open-wheel cars built by Delta Motorsport that weren't too far off the pace of the F1 cars of the mid-00s. The requirements were that drivers had to have retired from all forms of open-wheel racing (including F1), had competed in F1 for at least 2 complete seasons, had passed a medical examination to make sure they were fit to drive the cars and be more than 45 years old. The first race took part at Kyalami in South Africa in 2005 and, thankfully for all of us, somebody has actually uploaded the proper broadcast footage of that race on YouTube!
You'll no doubt recognise a lot of the names here. F1 legends Nigel Mansell and Emerson Fittipaldi headed up the front row of proceedings, whilst other recognisable names like Riccardo Patrese, Derek Warwick, Andrea De Cesaris, Hans-Joachim Stuck, Eddie Cheever and Jacques Laffite. If you didn't think that amount of nostalgia was enough, you can also hear the distinctive tones of Murray Walker on commentary! Interestingly, the race started with an Indycar-style rolling start instead of an F1 style formation lap leading to a standing start. This is probably something that gave Indycar veterans like Mansell and Fittipaldi a huge advantage!
Watching this initial race, I was genuinely surprised at how good the overall quality of the racing was. You'd maybe expect a bunch of elder statesmen to not have a lot of pace or fight in them but it seems like the older drivers are genuinely having a load of fun with these near-F1 level cars, as well as a lot of surprisingly close racing. I guess that fun is what matters more than anything else really for these drivers as they're pretty much retired (yes, I know you can hear Kimi Raikkonen's infamous Drive to Survive quote in your head right now...). There was even a spin, a safety car and a mechanical retirement, so in some ways you could probably argue that this race has been more entertaining than quite a few F1 races in recent years!
Unfortunately, the series didn't pan out how the organisers hoped. Whilst plans had been put in place to have races run until the end of 2007, everything collapsed 2 races into the 2006 season as financial difficulties crept in. But, here's the thing. What if the Grand Prix Masters series was actually really ahead of its time? What if the series would have worked better if it had been started now instead of in 2005? Hear me out on this, because I think I've got a point here...
We've all seen the explosion in popularity of eSports during the worst stages of the COVID-19 lockdown. A lot of those eSports races have featured older drivers such as the aforementioned Fittipaldi, Johnny Herbert, Mario Andretti, Jenson Button, Fernando Alonso, Dario Franchitti, Nico Rosberg and several others from all sorts of different motorsport disciplines. In fact, the races that involved the 'legends' were some of the most popular and most well-received races! Yes, this happened entirely in a virtual setting, but if you ask me this is absolute concrete proof that a market is there for a senior series in open-wheel racing like the Grand Prix Masters attempted to create back in the mid-00s. Of course, the number of drivers who would be medically healthy enough to do a real-life 'legends' racing series like this would be much smaller than a virtual 'legends' racing series like the one TheRace held, but I do genuinely think the potential is there.
Of course, there is an argument that something like this could just be held virtually. There's a bit of a problem with that though in my opinion. Yes, virtual racing is great and the emotions are just as real as real racing in many ways. The problem is, a lot of the fans of these drivers are older and probably aren't so enthusiastic about watching eSports. Some of the older drivers may not also be very enthusiastic about doing eSports either! So, if they're fit enough to do it, why not have them race around real-life circuits in cars that have near-Formula 1 levels of performance? It just makes sense.
Another point that we need to take into consideration that applied to the original Grand Prix Masters series is that quite a few of the drivers that took part in the original 2005 and 2006 races weren't used to the high g-forces that are generated by modern single-seater open-wheel cars like the Delta Motorsport car that was used for the series. Whilst drivers like Mansell and Fittipaldi could handle them well, drivers who had previously raced in F1 in the 1980s or maybe even earlier found having to take up to 4.0+ Gs in the corners something that they had to get used to. This is something that would have definitely had an effect on their eventual race pace. Drivers who have raced in more modern eras of F1 wouldn't have this issue though, as cars from the 90s, 00s and 2010s are G-force creating machines in terms of their aerodynamics. A driver like Jenson Button, Fernando Alonso, Rubens Barrichello or Jacques Villeneuve would feel totally comfortable in something like the car that was used for the Grand Prix Masters.
Would the Grand Prix Masters series work better today? I absolutely believe so. We're on the verge of saying goodbye to the F1 careers of drivers like Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso isn't going to have a long second run in the sport either after he comes back next year. There are plenty of retired F1 drivers who are still around who raced back in the golden V10 era (Juan Pablo Montoya, David Coulthard, Mark Webber and Jenson Button to name but a few) who would likely be able to have a go at it at some point and there's always the potential of expanding the talent pool into ex-drivers across other forms of motorsport such as rallying, rallycross, stock car racing, Indycar and V8 Supercars, provided they were deemed fit and good enough to compete. Whilst in 2005 the Grand Prix Masters seemed absolutely laughable as an idea, in 2020 perhaps it seems like something that's not so ridiculous after all...