the unpredictability of Formula One. But I will admit there have been a couple of moments this year when I wavered. One was after qualifying at the season-opener in Melbourne. Hakkinen was half a second faster than Coulthard and 1.3sec faster than everyone else, and the prospect of 16 monotonous McLaren processions stretched ahead. The other was that Sunday afternoon at Silverstone, when the news of the extent of Michael Schumacher's injuries filtered in and I reckoned they might as well save time by giving Hakkinen the World title there and then.

Oh me of little faith. This has been one of the most exciting, and surprising, Fl seasons for many years. One reason has been the next generation of drivers coming through, with some promising young talents maturing into strong challengers. This is as it should be. Accompanied by the gradual reshuffling of the teams as they move up and down the pit lane according to their fortunes in the Constructors Championship, it is an indicator of the essential health of Fl. That wonderfully exciting European Grand Prix at the Niirburgring was all about the latest generation. HeinzHarald Frentzen may be the veteran of 95 Grands Prix, but after only a single victory for Williams in 1997 he still qualifies as new talent, and it is only this year, in the motivating

atmosphere ofjordan, that his career has come alive. If his wet Magny C,ours win was one of clever tyre strategy by the team, Monza was a pure driver's victory. His pole at the Niirburgring was inspired Mika Hakkinen, who was fractionally delayed by traffic, admitted that even with a clear run he couldn't have equalled it that day. And in the race, in the wet on dry-weather tyres, he was confidently out-pacing the McLarens until an electronic glitch robbed him of victory.

There was heartbreak for others as well as Frentzen. Hakkinen's brief, much publicised display of remorse at Monza was as nothing beside the sight of Luca Badoer slumped sobbing over his Minardi's cockpit after the engine failed when he was fourth. It would have been his first points ever, and Minardi's first for four years: but his retirement helped promote his team-mate Marc Gene, so Minardi did make their point in the end. Jacques Villeneuve was fifth when his car died five laps from the end, and those two points would have been truly precious to BAR, who are still on zero with two races to run. And the Benetton Crew were almost in tears when Giancarlo Rsichella, one of five drivers to lead this extraordinary race, spun off the track. For so long one of the Top Four, Benetton have scored just two points in the second half of the season, and have slipped down the rankings to sixth constructor.

But in Formula One, for every heartbreak there is also joy. With Stewarts becoming Jaguars next year, Jackie Stewart believed he would never see a car carrying his name win a Grand Prix, and when he did he was on his personal rev-limiter with delight. The last time Jackie took a Grand Prix win was also at the Niirburgring, his 27th and final win as a driver. The most memorable of his three German victories came in torrentially wet conditions in 1968 when, using the latest Dunlop wetweather tyres, he beat runner-up Graham Hill byfour minutes.

And how heart-warming to see Johnny Herbert, that most honest, unaffected and right-thinking of Fl drivers, take the race. So often his luck has been terrible, but he didn't simply luck into this win: the timing of his tyre choice, decided by watching the cloud movements as he raced on, was highly intelligent. And as Jackie was the first to point out afterwards his driving through all the treacherous changes of conditions was confident, error-free, and very quick. And what of Ralf Schumacher, the man who, with Frentzen, deserved victory in this race. In fact Frentzen's retirement robbed us of a marvellous battle between the two Germans which could have gone either way, and the seven laps when they ran first and second before Ralfs first stop was stirring stuff. Earlier, he went wheel

to wheel in the wet with Coulthard and finally muscled past, making some of the best racing we've seen this season. That puncture put a cruel end to what should have been Ralfs first win, and Williams' first in 32 races.

Ralf'sday will come. Over breakfast on race morning a senior Fl team member not at Williams told me that in his view Rallis potentially the fastest thing in the paddock, and also that he is yet more intelligent than his brother. If that assessment is correct, his first victory won't be far away: as soon as the BMW engine is giving decent reliable power, in fact.

Talking to Ralf at Monza, he made the intriguing point that down the years, drivers' nationalities have always gone in cycles: we've had an Italian period, a British period, a Brazilian period, a French period, and now we're going into a German period. Which is absolutely true. In the

pre-war Mercedes/Auto Union days, of course, there was a plethora of fine German drivers, headed by the truly great Caracciola and Rosemeyer. And in 1961 Wolfgang von Trips would surely have been Germany's first World Champion had he not tragically died at Monza. Thereafter Germany was not well represented, apart from Mass, Stuck. Stommelen and the promising Stefan Bellof, another to die before his ability had matured. But in 2000, with the addition of F3000 champion Nick Heidfeld, we will have four Germans in Fl, three ofthem in the top four teams. When the championship began in the 1950swith the notable exception of a couple of Argentinians Italian drivers like Ascari, Farina, Villoresi and Taruffi ruled the roost. But the British influence was coming and Hawthorn, Moss and Collins were precursors of an era when Ft became

almost a British preserve. In 1962, English was the mother tongue of every driver in the Top Ten of the drivers' championship: four Britons, an Australian, a New Zealander, a South African, and three Americans.

The colonial invasion was an everpresent ingredient. In 1960 Aussie Bnibham and Kiwi McLaren finished 1-2 in the championship, and in 1979 came the first South African World Champion, with a Canadian and an Australian completing the top three. Nowadays in Fl only a French-speaking Canadian represents the bits that used to be pink in my school atlas.

There was the French period, with Alan Proses unbeaten SI Grand Prix wins and a host of' other French names, product of a well-sponsored national scholarship system. Next year there may only be Jean Alesi, appropriately driving the all-French Frost-Peugeot, though Pans hopes to be at Arrows.

Sometimes a small country will develop an Fl tradition out of all proportion to its size. Austria came through Rindt and Lauda to Gerhard Berger and now Alex Wurz. Sweden gave us Ronnie Peterson and Gunnar Nilsson. After Keke Rosberg, Finland has this year supplied a driver to each of the top two teams.

A whole country may be gripped by a passion for the sport and throw up prodigious talent as a result like Brazil. Emerson Fittipaldi arrived in Fl in 1970, and won his first world title two years later. Then came Nelson Piquet, and Ayrton Senna. Over a 20-year span eight world titles were won by three Brazilians.

These days, sponsors may be keen to put their money behind drivers from specific countries for marketing reasons. Many would like to witness an American driver tackle Fl again: Michael Andretti's disastrous sojourn at McLaren in 1993 has been the only American ingredient in F I since the 1980s. Then we had Eddie Cheever and Danny Sullivan, but the great days of Hill P and Daniel Sexton Gurney seem long gone. But with the return of the American Grand Prix at Indianapolis in 2000, backing for a talented driver should not be hard to find. Money always talks, and in Fl it talks louder.

But talent talks, too, and talent is nurtured by grass-roots motorsport and a strong national heritage. In which case Britain should be in a stronger position than almost any other country to throw up good new talent. It's just that money is harder to find in the UK. My bet is the next Brit in Fl will be Champ car hero Dario Franchitti, a Scot with an Italian name, but he's a Brit.

While on this patriotic theme, I find it pleasing that, despite fag packet logos and the United Colours of Benetton, the traditional national hues are creeping back on the cars themselves. The Ferraris have always been red: the Prosts are blue, the McLarenMercedes are predominantly silver. Now, if Ford can find a shade that their boffins decide can be clearly visible on the all-important TV screens, the Jaguars will be green. So jaguar will start its Fl career as the only team where car, engine and both drivers come from the same country... even Wit is Detroit dollars that make the wheels go round. CI