No matter the sport, being an elite athlete has one very clear inevitability in life. One day you will retire, one day you will leave behind the glory, the trophies, the challenges – you will hang up your boots/sticks/helmets – whatever the sport, you will eventually step away from the one thing that has consumed your life, and you will become a memory, or if you’re lucky, a legend of the sport.
But when is the right time to decide your time is up? Do you wait until your body decides it for you? Do you fade into the background, disappearing like a shadow in the night? Or do you jump the gun, and retire like Nico Rosberg, days after securing a World Championship title.
It’s a question that has followed Lewis Hamilton this season, at 36-years-old, with seven titles under his belt but seemingly still at the top of his game, when does an athlete like Hamilton decide enough is enough?
An interesting comparison is Valentino Rossi. He stormed to MotoGP fame as he blast onto the scene, finishing second in the championship in his first season in the sport, before back-to-back victories from 2001 onwards, stopped only by Nicky Hayden and Casey Stoner, before grabbing too more titles by the end of 2009.
After a tricky few seasons, marred by a broken leg and underperforming Ducati, it looked like his time was up in the championship, until his return to Yamaha.
The Italian then finished fourth in the standings in 2013, followed by three successive runner-up positions in 2014, 2015, and 2016.
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But a winless streak followed, and “The Doctor” went four-season without a race win before deciding only a few weeks ago to retire from the sport at the age of 42, with may suggesting maybe it was a few seasons too late, with Rossi at risk of fading into the background.
The commercial backing for Rossi was massive, as well as a huge fan base that followed the Italian around the world, MotoGP couldn’t afford to lose him at the start.
Chris Vermeulen, a former MotoGP race winner, who retired due to an injury-plagued career, told Rusty’s Garage podcast “I wouldn’t have known when to stop.”
“Putting that in perspective, some people say with Valentino Rossi, ‘Should he have stopped? Has he gone on too long?’
“I personally think he’s gone on too long but it’s hard when you’re the guy there and that’s all you know.
“Why should you stop? He can still get the bike, he can still race, he still finishes in the field, so I think I would have been a little bit the same and not known when to stop.
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“You’ve got to remember when you do this – and I’m sure any professional athlete’s the same – your whole world is that sport.”
And Formula One had a similar venture with Hamilton, that was until Netflix’s Drive to Survive, which immediately catapulted the drivers into a new level of fame, one that maybe only Hamilton and a handful of others on the grid had experienced before. A world where non-F1 fans know who you were.
So what can he take from Rossi’s career? He’s still seven years younger than the MotoGP rider but is currently the third-oldest driver on the grid behind Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso.
Speaking on the Formula for Success podcast, he said: “You’ve got to find what you’re passionate about and what you love doing, and me personally, in my journey, there was a point where it just got too serious.
“We only have one life. You have to enjoy what you’re doing. You’ve got to find happiness every day in what you are doing and I think that has been really important for me to be able to live in the moment.
“Yes, it’s a competitive space that I’m in, but when I get in that car and put down the visor, the team start up the car and I leave the garage, I have the biggest smile.
“Even today, after all these years of racing.”
So when does someone like Hamilton walk away? He’s now committed his future to the sport again, with this contract taking the Briton to one month shy of his 39th birthday, his ninth season with Mercedes. Apparently, when he stops smiling.
“If there’s ever a day that that doesn’t happen, I don’t get that smile, I know that it’s done and I need to move on to something else,” he said.