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When Do F1 Drivers Retire?

Not many drivers make it to the level of Formula One, and fewer still are able to stay around for several seasons. Here, we look at the data of experienced F1 drivers and when they stop in Formula One. What age of retirement is typical? Is there a certain level of experience that’s a good indicator of retirement? And does a driver’s form drop off before they call it quits? Find out here.

  1. What Age Do F1 Drivers Retire?
  2. At What Experience Level Do F1 Drivers Retire?
  3. Do Key Retirement Stats Vary Over Time?
  4. Do F1 Drivers Perform Worse Before Retirement?
  5. Conclusions

What Age Do F1 Drivers Retire?

This question comes with caveats, given that almost all F1 drivers continue racing after they’re done with Formula One. In addition, the majority of F1 drivers do not leave the sport by choice, and it’s questionable whether that should really count as a “retirement”.

Here, we have included all drivers with more than 10 years experience in F1, and who either left the sport for a period of at least 2 years, or formally announced their retirement since the year 2000. This means Schumacher and Alonso’s first “retirements” are included (but highlighted as green dots in graph data for reference). Vettel’s and retirement is also included, but Ricciardo’s absence on the 2023 grid is not included.

Two borderline cases that we have omitted are Räikkönen’s career break (2010-2011, which is not included as he was not experienced enough at the time) and Massa’s retirement announcement in 2016 (also not included, as he was back racing before the start of the next season).

There’s no attempt to qualify the reason behind a driver’s retirement, as it is difficult to properly quantify in simple terms.

Overall, there are 19 drivers that make the cut. The selection criteria causes a heavy bias towards success, with all but one being race winners (Nick Heidfeld being the exception) and almost half of them being world champions.

First let’s see the how old the included drivers were at the time of their last grand prix:

Over half of drivers looked at retired at age 36-37, with other ages between 30 and 43 having a fairly even spread.

This shows an obvious trend, with a large spike concentrated on the age of 37. Vettel’s recent retirement was seen by some as premature, and his current age of 35 is indeed slightly before the expected age.

Schumacher and Räikkönen are the 2 drivers who retired when in their 40s, whilst Alonso is the only current driver racing into their fifth decade. Interestingly, all 3 of them had career breaks of at least 2 years, indicating that this may help drivers stay in F1 in their later years. Hamilton, meanwhile, just turned 38 at the start of 2023. Whilst he could probably stay in F1 for at least another 5 years if he wanted to, the data from other drivers suggest that a retirement in the next year or two is more likely.

At What Experience Level Do F1 Drivers Retire?

Let’s look at some other ways of measuring the time of retirement: The number of GPs entered and the seasons completed in the sport.

Retirements happen after a range of GP starts, with n obvious trend.
Retirements happen after different numbers of seasons in F1. Although the peak is 10 years (the cut off for inclusion), after this there is a relatively even spread.

These two do not show a clear trend, suggesting that whilst age is an indicator of when a driver may stop racing, Grand Prix starts or seasons in F1 are generally not.

Do Key Retirement Stats Vary Over Time?

We can also see how these two variables have changed over time. One might expect that drivers who retired a couple of decades ago will have generally driven in fewer races, a there were fewer Grand Prix in a season. This correlation is indeed seen:

There's a positive correlation between a driver's year of retirement and the number of GPs they started.

However, the number of GPs per season is only a partial explanation, because it appears as though the number of seasons drivers complete before retirement is also inching upwards over time.

There is also a (weaker) positive correlation between the year of retirement and the number of seasons completed.

The correlation is not as strong as that for number of GPs completed, but it’s clearly still present. Two potential explanations for this is that drivers start their careers at younger ages, or that they are extending their careers further than previously. We can work out which it is by looking at starting and ending ages of these drivers:

The data indicates that driver’s retirements are not generally getting older over time, with the typical retirement age of 36-37 present throughout and no obvious trend in other numbers. Meanwhile, there was a trend of F1 drivers getting younger over time. This would probably not surprise long term followers of the sport.

In 2015 much was said over whether Verstappen was too young for the sport. However, similar questions were asked when Kimi Räikkönen and Jenson Button , despite them both being significantly older than Verstappen was when they debuted in the sport. (Of course concerns are often due to a lack of racing experience, rather than specifically their age, but quotations have regularly mentioned both as a factor.)

This trend has probably ended now that there is a lower limit for F1 drivers at 18. One last thing to mention is that all these graphs are looking at just a portion of the F1 grid: the drivers that survived for a decade or so. We haven’t looked at whether these trends exist across all drivers.

Do F1 Drivers Perform Worse Before Retirement?

As ever, there are many ways of measuring this. Let’s start by looking at the driver’s performance scores for the 3 years before they retire. Do their scores begin to decrease? This is a difficult thing to objectively measure, but thankfully the mathematical model can help. We can therefore compare a real result with the expected result versus a driver’s teammate in a given year.

The model already accounts for variations in age, so the question being looked at here is not whether a driver is performing worse than average across their career when they approach retirement. It is instead whether they are performing worse than average given their previous career and their current age.

Here we have taken each counting driver’s result and combined them into 3 boxplots for their 3 years before retirement. The results are expressed as a percentage of their expected points if they were given a highly competitive car. A score of 0 means that they are performing as expected. We have also presented an average season for all drivers over the period (2000-2022) to show what a typical distribution should look like.

Boxplots showing changes in the expected scores of the last 3 years of a driver’s career.

As you might expect, there is a lot of variation in the results. However, there are a few conclusions that can be drawn:

All 3 years prior to retirement have medians below zero. However, it should be noted how small this effect this, with an average drop off of just a couple of percent. This is much smaller than a drop off as a driver begins to age, and it also smaller than a driver’s typical variance year-to-year. It equates to Verstappen scoring perhaps 10 points fewer than expected in 2022, a totally negligible amount. In short, there’s not much to suggest an average driver’s form will drop off relative to retirement, given their age and experience.

Much more significant is the drop off in the first quartile’s results for the final year (highlighted in a red circle below). This suggests that there are more drivers that significantly under perform in their final year. Why is this? Two examples that stand out are Jacques Villeneuve and Nick Heidfeld, both of whom were replaced mid-season to bring lengthy careers to an anticlimactic end.

Other examples include Felipe Massa (who, as alluded to, had his arm twisted not to retire earlier), Mika Häkkinen, David Coulthard and Mark Webber. Although it’s hard to draw definite conclusions on the reasons driver’s retire, it’s probable that a declining form is part of the explanation in some cases.

Graph as above, with the zero point and the drop off in some driver’s final year noted.
Graph as above, with the expected level (red line), disappointing finals years (red circle) highlighted.

Finally, we have highlighted in green above that the most unexpectedly impressive year occurred in a driver’s penultimate year. This corresponds to Jenson Button in 2015 outscoring Fernando Alonso, and is highlighted just to demonstrate how a single result can be unrepresentative of an overall trend.

Conclusions

  • An experienced F1 driver is much more likely to retire at 37 than any other age.
  • Drivers who continue into their 40s typically have breaks away from F1.
  • There’s no obvious correlation betweena driver’s Grand Prix competed in and retirement time.
  • There’s also no obvious correlation for seasons in F1 and retirement time.
  • There is a positive correlation between a driver’s retirement year and how many Grand Prix they competed in.
  • This correlation is partly due to do the increased number of Grand Prix in a season, but more recent drivers also typically start at a younger age.
  • There’s no correlation between retirement year and age of retirement.
  • On average, drivers don’t perform notably worse than expected in the years leading up to retirement.
  • However, there are several examples of drivers form dropping significantly in their retirement year (although they’re still in the minority).

Thanks for reading!

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