Some of sporting history’s all-time greats left a lasting impression during their time in the sport. Sachin Tendulkar, Xavi Hernandez, Khabib Nurmagomedov, and many more had already acquired legendary status after deciding to retire from their respective sports. The careers they had left behind spoke for themselves – they were absolutely illustrious.
Among Formula 1’s current grid, you can spot greatness in spades. Some of these drivers are currently at the top of their game (Lewis Hamilton), while others are former world champions vying for one last shot at glory (Sebastian Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen and the now-returned Fernando Alonso).
It’s obvious to the blind that ever since the hybrid era, F1 has been a one-horse race, two at best if you want to count intermittent stints of Ferrari and Red Bull.
So in a sport like this, where the aforementioned Vettel, Raikkonen and Alonso drive cars that just do not have the pace to compete, does it make sense for these legends to continue racing when they have next to no chance of winning?
Athletes like Tendulkar, Xavi and Khabib have one thing in common, aside from the obvious greatness and many parallels in their careers. They hung up their boots at a time when their star was still shining bright. As a result, their careers ended with a ton of great stats and wins, for the most part.
Looking at drivers like Raikkonen and Alonso, there is no doubt they have had stellar careers. But you can’t help but wonder if they would be remembered more fondly had they retired a little earlier.
And by early, your writer doesn’t mean like Nico Rosberg, who was the F1 equivalent of an online noob scrapping a narrow victory against you and never accepting your invitation to play again!
Early here refers to the twilight of their careers, not where they are right now.
Kimi has been class for the last few years. You could even say he has been overachieving at Alfa Romeo, which is one of the slowest constructors on the grid. Yet, this isn’t the degree to which a former world champion regresses.
It’s saddening and perhaps should not be a thing, but people will inevitably use the argument of the Finn having a shorter time at the top while comparing him to someone like Jenson Button. The latter retired at McLaren, a top team where although he wasn’t the more competitive driver, he was putting up respectable numbers.
Yes, Prime Kimi is considered to be better than Prime Button, but once Raikkonen retires, some people may look at his longevity and say Button, who opted to wind up his career at a high level, was the better driver overall.
It’s a bit like the footballing world not considering Wayne Rooney in the conversation for football’s all-time greats. Prime Rooney was a monster, perhaps even on the same level as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in terms of the impact he brought for his team on the pitch.
The same thing goes for Fernando Alonso. The Spaniard is considered to be one of the greatest drivers in F1 history, and he’s got the silverware to show for it.
But, his difficult seasons at Ferrari and McLaren after that put a dent in his status as a potential F1 G.O.A.T. Had Alonso chosen to call time on his career before things got sour at Ferrari, his stats and his accomplishments till then would challenge for the podium of all-time legendary F1 drivers.
We all know Alonso has the talent, but talent is nothing if you don’t have a decent car to prove it. None of the top teams would offer the legend a chance, which leaves him at Alpine currently.
And even then, Alonso hasn’t bagged a podium since his P2 in Hungary in 2014. Judging by his start to the current season, you wouldn’t bet on him ending that dry spell, either. Age does slow you down, quite literally in this case.
It’s one thing to continue your stay in sport, but to do so when you are long past your prime serves to tarnish your legacy more than adding to it. While you can heap praise on Kimi being as fast and likeable as he is behind the wheel of an Alfa Romeo, you can also point out that had he chosen to retire while he was still a force to be reckoned with, he would be held in greater esteem.
Fernando, on the other hand, won the prestigious Le Mans twice after his hiatus from F1. There, he backed his talent and delivered with his exceedingly fast Toyota TS050 Hybrid. Perhaps he should have ended his glorious F1 career while he was a contender, so when one looks at his accomplishments, there is hardly a blemish results-wise.
There is a fine line between fan service and overstaying your welcome as a sporting legend. The second you spend more time competing than you should be, fans will inevitably draw comparisons to your prime and also to other athletes.
While we are all for wishing legends never retire, they should call time on their legendary careers at the right time. Failure to do so only diminishes their status, and we don’t want that for our heroes.