Atlas F1

Young Guns & Old Dogs

Rob Paterson, Canada

You can probably expect a bit of a shakeup in the ranks of Formula One's top teams next season. Neither Villenueve nor Frentzen are confirmed at Williams next season. Both Benetton drivers' contracts are up, and McLaren's Ron Dennis looks set to replace at least one of his drivers. Two emerging teams, Jordan and Prost, also have an uncertain future with regard to their driver line-ups. Eddie Jordan would probably love to keep both of his young guns, but realistically that may not be possible. Prost's engine deal with Peugoet comes without any strings attached, unlike his current Mugen deal, that string of course being Shinji Nakano. Rather than a reshuffling of the deck, which is fairly common every second year among the top teams, we could see the emergence of even more young talent in competitive machinery next year.

We can probably thank Frank Williams, in part, for this trend toward younger drivers. Williams' domination of the World Championship in the last few years has had teams scratching their collective heads at how to compete with the Grove team's technical excellence. As the teams get new engine packages, and design teams sorted out, the last piece of the puzzle is the driver. As there is only one current driver that can compete with the Williams team in an inferior car, the other teams should all be searching for the next Michael Schumacher.

It seems the best way to compete with Williams, has been the way Benetton has; make sure the car is maybe 90% right and hope you have an excellent driver to make up the difference. Flavio Briatore's problems began the minute he replaced Schumacher with Berger and Alesi, thus he's been dissatisfied with his two current drivers since the beginning. It has long been speculated that neither current driver will be back at Benetton. It's not a really a stretch to think that all the old line drivers haven't been effective in competing against Williams, so why not try a younger less proven driver? To that end, Briatore has done his best to sign up as many talented young drivers as possible. At this point he has 3 top young talents, Giancarlo Fisichella, Jarno Trulli, and Alexander Wurz under contract.

On Saturday, Alexander Wurz out-qualified his Benetton teammate Jean Alesi. It's strange for Alesi, who was once considered a young, 'up and coming' talent himself, to be the out-qualified veteran. It doesn't seem that long ago that he was dueling with Ayrton Senna for the lead in the 1990 U.S. Grand Prix. Alesi's strong performances early in his career for Tyrrell lead to him getting his Ferrari ride, which he had for 4 seasons. Could Alex be on the verge of doing something similar? At least Benetton is willing to find out.

Ron Dennis too has been trying hard to keep up with Williams. McLaren has 'inked' an engine deal with Mercedes, perhaps one the best engines in F1 today. Hiring Adrian Newey will no doubt improve the package for next season, but it's still unclear whether that will be enough to unseat Williams as the perennial title favorite. Mercedes boss Norbert Haug is said to be very interested in putting a German driver in a McLaren seat. If he can't shake Michael Schumacher free from his Ferrari contract, perhaps his younger brother would do. Ralf has proven that he can run near the front; it wouldn't be far fetched to think that he could drive for a top four team.

Alain Prost has also helped to further the cause of young driver with his signing of Jarno Trulli to replace his fallen lead driver Olivier Panis. It would have been very easy for Prost to give the seat to veteran driver-turned-commentator Martin Brundle. Martin has a history with the team, and has been around the circuit as it were, but Prost opted to test younger drivers. Although his name was mentioned by the media, Brundle wasn't even in the frame. Prost only tested Emanuelle Collard and Trulli. The fact that he's hired an Italian driver eliminated any possibility that a national bias had anything to do with who Prost hired. So, obviously he must have been impressed with his talent. After qualifying on the third row of the grid for the French GP, I'd have to say that I'm impressed as well.

Eddie Jordan is said to be thrilled with his dynamic duo of Giancarlo Fisichella and Ralf Schumacher. At the beginning of the season, he stated that the Jordan team has had some of it's best success with young drivers. It's hard to argue with that kind of logic when you consider his knack for spotting young talented drivers. Eddie is responsible for bringing the likes of Michael Schumacher, Ralf Schumacher, Rubens Barrichello, Eddie Irvine and Alessandro Zanardi into Formula One. It's a very impressive track record. And with the Jordan team coming into it's own this season, Eddie's current young hot shots are reaping the benefit. Perhaps his success is showing more conservative team bosses that taking a flyer of a young driver might well pay off in the long run.

For whatever reason in the past, if there was a seat to be filled, team bosses would look for a veteran ex-F1 driver. Mark Blundell (McLaren '95), Gabriel Tarquinni (Tyrrell '95), or Andrea deCesaris (Sauber '94) all come to mind as recent examples of this. When you think that they achieved mediocre results at best, it's little wonder that teams are passing on the veterans and giving their test drivers a serious look. The next time a young driver comes in and places a car of the quality of a Jordan 191 seventh on the grid, maybe we'll know that we have something special on our hands.

Rob Paterson
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