Atlas F1

F1: The Next Generation

by Matthew Reading, England
This year's crop of Formula One drivers has a relatively large number of promising new rookies in their first season of Grand Prix racing. Ralf Schumacher, Giancarlo Fisichella and Jarno Trulli are the outstanding drivers who, in the right team, could be future champions. But what about next year's new boys? Where are they now and where will they be in a few years time? In this article, I'm going to scour the premier feeder catagories for F1 to find the future World Champions.

The "official" feeder category for F1 is the FIA International F3000 Championship, the training ground for reigning World Champion Damon Hill, David Coulthard, Johnny Herbert and Pedro Diniz. Olivier Panis and Jean Alesi are both ex- F3000 champs who have done very well for themselves in F1. The current leader in the F3000 Championship is Tom Kristensen, a 29 year old Dane. He is obviously very fast, but has tended to be short of a budget, which may hamper him when it comes to trying to break into the often closed F1 world. He has recently received a career boost by winning the Le Mans 24hrs in a Joest run TWR-Porsche prototype. This is not necessarily proof of his speed, but it looks good on a CV and shows he can be trusted not to stuff a car into the barriers.

The winner of the F3000 round at Helsinki was Frenchman Soheil Ayari. He dominated the French Formula 3 Championship last year and has shown himself to be extremely fast, if a little erratic. At the first round at Silverstone, he collided with another car, spinning himself out of the race. He is another who went to Le Mans this year, but ended up writing off his Chrysler Viper while leading his GT2 class comfortably. However, his is considerably younger than Kristensen, and perhaps in time he will mature. If he does, he will be formidable.

Other drivers that impress in F3000 are Ricardo Zonta of Brazil and Juan-Pable Montoya of Colombia. Zonta impressed me greatly at Silverstone by his consistency and patience. While Montoya speed off in the wet conditions, Zonta held back and found his feet before attacking. Montoya subsequently succumbed to the pressure, dumping his car in the gravel. The last driver I shall mention from this catagory is Craig Lowndes, an Australian with the considerable weight of Tom Walkinshaw behind him. What price an Arrows test drive?

Another form of F3000 is Formula Nippon in Japan, and this has produced many current F1 stars such as the Schumachers, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Eddie Irvine, Mika Salo and Shinji Nakano. Pedro de la Rosa is the current Championship leader, and he has serious hoped of becoming a successful Spanish Grand Prix driver, a rarity indeed. British F3 Champ Ralph Firman is there also, and although early results have not been that good, he will shine in the future. My tip for the top in this category is Toranosuke Takagi. He has already got a foot in the door with a Tyrrell test drive and, with the support of Satoru Nakajima who is heavily involved with the team, he is hot favourite for a race drive next year if, as expected, Salo jumps ship to a team higher up. In Japan, Takagi has proved freakishly fast, but somewhat erratic and hotheaded. If you can imagine a Japanese version of Jean Alesi, only faster, that's Toranosuke Takagi. He will hopefully mature sooner than Alesi has (or will?).

Jaques Villeneuve, of course, never touched F3000. He came from the other side of the pond in IndyCars. A number of drivers from European racing have gone to this catagory as an F1 seat was not available, such as Gil de Ferran and Max Papis. They previously harboured F1 ambitions, but have become very comfortable, thank you very much, in America and show no signs of moving. De Ferran was approached by Ligier a while ago, but it came to nought. The most positive F1 prospect is the Scot with the Italian name, Dario Franchitti. After two years racing with a roof over his head in ITC, he has revelled in tasting the flies in a single-seater again, and has been setting the Indycar world alight. He led until a few laps to go on an oval in St. Louis until his car broke. Dario has further impressed with his speed. The Americans adore him, and there is a danger (for us in Europe) that he will become too comfortable in America and stay for good. I, for one, hope not. He still has F1 ambitions, and has the backing of the mighty Mercedes-Benz corporation, so he has a good chance if he wants it.

World Championship leader Michael Schumacher came from a good grounding in Mercedes sportscars and there are others threatening to do the same. Alexander Wurz drives a Merc CLK GTR in the new FIA GT Championship and got his chance in Canada when he subbed for Gerhard Berger. He is another winner of Le Mans (last year) and has shown great maturity and speed. He has out-qualified Alesi in the past two races and was only 0.4s off Alesi in his first race with Benetton in Montreal. One to watch, indeed.

A good route into F1 in recent years has been that of Test Driver. Some say you become forgotten if you are just test and don't race, but it didn't do Damon Hill harm, did it?

I have already mentioned Wurz (Benetton) and Takagi (Tyrrell) so, I shall not remind you of them. The reigning International F3000 Champ is German Jorg Muller. The German invasion of F1 continues as Muller has his foot in the door with an Arrows test drive. A full time drive next year looks on the cards. Now that he has the backing of TWR, his previously limited budget will not matter anymore. At Williams Jean- Christophe "Jules" Boullion is currently residing test driver, but shows no signs of getting a full time drive. He was singularly unimpressive in his few races against Frentzen at Sauber in '95, but he is an ex-F3000 champ, so don't forget him. At Minardi, Brazilian Tarso Marques is tester. He impressed on his pair of outings last year and, with Minardi's penchant for wanting to help young talent (Fisichella, Trulli), he is in a good place.

The only other place future F1 stars could come from in the next couple of years is Formula 3. Jos Verstappen and Jarno Trulli have proved that it is still possible to jump from F3 to F1, so who's the best here. The overwhelming favourite to get to F1 first is German (notice a pattern here?) Nick Heidfeld. He has massive backing from Mercedes and has been winning with a freakish regularty in F3, including the Monaco support race classic. He has already tested several times for McLaren and impressed them greatly with his speed and intelligence. He plans to do F3000 with money from Stuttgart, but don't bet against F1 next year. Remember his name.

Well, that's about as much as I can think of. All of the drivers I have mentioned will (barring disasters) make it into F1 with varying success. My tips for future World Champions (with the right team) are Franchitti, Ayari, Zonta and Heidfeld. I would also tip Takagi to become the first Japanese to win a Grand Prix. The only other question is, "how long". You can expect to see some of them next year.

Only time will tell. I can't wait.


Matthew Reading

Matthew is, as he puts it, a 15 year old "fanatical F1 fan" from England. His first Atlas F1 article appeared in our Canadian issue. Some may say both contributions are great (maybe even required) reading for those wanting intelligent insight from a refreshing perspective.

Send comments to: matthewreading@dial.pipex.com