Richie Stanaway retires: a gifted, flawed racer vacates the motorsport world
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Racing drivers, particularly the really good ones, don't just land in Formula 1 at random. Often their paths through numerous junior feeder formulae are tracked for years and years by scouts, sponsors, team owners and the like before getting snapped up. Sure, plenty of them bring a big bag of money — but others are picked for scholarships, then development programmes, then fully fledged drives based on talent.
And about a decade ago, Kiwi Richie Stanaway was among those at the top of the list.
Photo / Getty Images
Late yesterday, the 28-year-old announced his retirement not just from the Supercars Championship but from motorsport as a whole. A career that began in motocross, speedway, and lovable little Formula Firsts (culminating in an NZ SpeedSport Scholarship win) ended up lasting 12 years. A short career, but one that took the Tauranga-born Stanaway all the way to Europe's peaking GT scene and almost all the way to the absolute pinnacle of the sport — Formula 1.
Those who have only recently wrapped their brain about Stanaway's existence will know him as a Sandown 500 winner, a hugely quick and promising Supercars Championship co-driver, and someone who ultimately failed to fire as a full-time driver over two seasons. One campaign with Tickford Racing and one with Garry Rogers Motorsport; netting a 24th and 25th placing in the points respectively.
But, those who have had Stanaway on their radar for a decade will be aware of a very different performance set. For a four-year stretch, he was seen by many as being New Zealand's next Bruce McLaren or Chris Amon. After claiming the New Zealand Formula Ford title at the beginning of 2009, he crossed the ditch where he was immediately on the pace of young hotshots Nick Percat, Mitch Evans, Scott Pye, and Chaz Mostert in Australian Formula Ford.
By 2010 he was laying waste in Europe. Eventual Formula 1 ace Pascal Wehrlein and a slew of eventual GT and DTM stars were among those he obliterated in the 2010 ADAC Formel Masterts and 2011 German Formula 3 seasons.
Photo / NZH file
Over the two seasons he won 25 times out of 36 starts. Managed initially by Martin Reiss — former representative for the likes of Philip Morris, Mercedes, Audi, IMG and current manager of F1 stars Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen among others — he eventually joined Gravity Sport Management and Eric Boullier (you might know him from his recent roles with McLaren's F1 team) to become a Lotus junior driver.
He was a junior motorsport super power, a name everyone in pit-lane had an eye on, and had the trajectory of a driver headed for Formula 1. In other words, he was worlds away from 24th place in Supercars.
Photo / NZH File
It was at a bitterly wet Spa-Francorchamps in 2012 where Stanaway was abruptly knocked off that trajectory, when he broke his back in a unique airborne crash. It was during his maiden Formula Renault 3.5 season, he was due to test with Lotus F1 later in the year, and he was competing against the very best of the best.
Kevin Magnussen, the late Jules Bianchi, Formula E dynamos Sam Bird and Antonio Felix da Costa, and Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi were among those sharing the grid with him that year. And had he competed for a second season, he'd have faced eventual F1 drivers Stoffel Vandoorne, Sergey Sirotkin, and Carlos Sainz Jr.
Whether a broken back pivoted Stanaway's career away from Formula 1 is beyond the point. It certainly took the wind of out his career sails, but there's no altering history, no magical time machine.
Photo / NZH File
Perhaps just as big a story was the way in which the Kiwi recovered; becoming hot property in the World Endurance Championship the following year after recovering. Winning a GP2 races at Monaco and Sochi in 2012, despite being lumped in a back-marker team. Earning a factory drive with Aston Martin, with flickers of similar brilliance. Testing in WEC with Audi's LMP1 team, at a time when the category was rivalling Formula 1 for depth and breadth of talent.
It's with all of these things in mind that those long-time followers the sport consider when watching Stanaway languish in Supercars. Neither of his respective V8 squads could consider themselves to be coated in glory over 2017 and 2018. One was later described by its former star driver as a toxic place to be, while the other was seemingly held to ransom over requests for regulatory changes that were never going to get approved in time.
Photo / Getty Images
In the middle of it all was Stanaway. Without doubt, there were points over the last two seasons where he handled things poorly (nothing says 'I'm not having fun' like an impromptu drift expression session in the middle of a race) and it's almost a given that there's more going on behind the scenes than punters like us know. But, Stanaway will still go down with many as one of the most naturally gifted Kiwi drivers from this side of the new millennium. And, the majority of those who hold that belief will be hoping for this announcement of retirement to be a temporary one.
You don't forget how to ride a bike. And you don't just forget how to race a car.