The young lions
The young lions
Hall of Fame driver and BMW Team RLL leader Bobby Rahal recalls a time when older, veteran drivers were especially valuable as they provided the only means of communicating to a crew just what a race car was doing on the track.
The development of data recorders, telemetry, simulators and even video games has dramatically changed that model.
So too have training programs, coaches, development series and increased manufacturer scouting for talent. The result is many more opportunities for drivers to earn prime rides much earlier in their careers.
The prowess of the ‘young lions’ was on full global display this past June as Porsche’s Earl Bamber (now 25) (pictured right), Nick Tandy (30) and F1’s Nico HÃ¼lkenberg (28) celebrated atop the podium as the overall winners of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Tandy had contested the event once before, but for his co-drivers, the overall race win came in their first entry at Le Mans.
Joining them on the Le Mans podium was their teammate Brendon Hartley of New Zealand, age 25, who finished second overall aboard a Porsche 919 co-driving with former F1 ace Mark Webber.
At Road America in August, Bamber was given his first opportunity to qualify the Porsche North America 911 RSR at a TUDOR United SportsCar Championship event.
Rain washed out most of the Friday practice, giving Bamber just four laps in the dry on Saturday morning before heading out to qualify.
Two laps later he was on the GTLM class pole having broken the track class record by 1.4 seconds on a track he had never previously seen.
Entrusting million dollar cars and entire programs to a young driver was once unthinkable, but rather than thrashing around in old, uncompetitive equipment to gain experience, today’s promising young drivers find top rides.
The TUDOR Championship has an especially impressive group of talented young shoes already winning races, championships and setting records.
Florida based Wayne Taylor Racing’s Jordan Taylor (24) won the 2013 GRAND–AM Rolex Series Prototype Championship.
He and older brother Ricky Taylor (26) were the TUDOR Championship runners-up last year.
At Action Express, Georgia’s Dane Cameron (26) (pictured above) won the 2014 GTD TUDOR Championship. He moved up to the Whelen Engineering car in the Prototype class for 2015 to team with Eric Curran. They already have a pair of race wins.
Cincinnati’s John Edwards (24) (pictured right) has climbed the ladder from the Star Mazda championship in 2008, to the Formula Atlantic title in 2009. He has a BMW Team RLL factory drive and a pair of TUDOR Championship GTLM class wins already in his pocket.
Texan Colin Braun, of CORE autosport (pictured left), is already a four time IMSA Series champion and co-drives with team owner Jon Bennett in the PC class. Braun, who now lives in Charlotte, turns 27 next week.
How did these young drivers get to be so good, so fast? Drivers start sooner in organized karting or video gaming. They get seat time in progressively faster cars and there are more good cars available.
Where in Rahal’s early years the drivers were the human data recorders, modern cars are so heavily instrumented that it takes teams days after a race to analyze all the data. Bamber and Tandy’s Le Mans winning Porsche transmitted 13.5 gigabytes of data to the pits during the race.
The priority is on pure speed, the ability to trust and help the engineers, and to be mature enough to keep bringing the car back intact for the engineers to sort.
Drivers must be able to deal with traffic, increasingly complex displays and steering wheels that look and, and in some ways are, like video game consoles loaded with the multiple electronic features and programs.
Nissan has filled several seats, including factory prototypes, with drivers whose careers started in video games. In fact, Nissan has established a formal program called the Nissan GT Academy to identify and develop top gamers and put them into various cars. The most promising is Jann “The Mann” Mardenborough (pictured right), a winner of GT Academy. He marked his 24th birthday last week.
Youth in sports cars is no longer wasted on the young.