Modern times

Now's the time for people who noticed Fernando Alonso's prowess in his first grand prix, in Australia with Minardi back in 2001, to say they told us so. He was 19 then, and he qualified an impressive 19th ahead of a Jaguar, a Prost and the other Minardi, finishing a sturdy 12th in front of the troubled Benettons. With Juan Pablo Montoya and Kimi Raikkonen both making their F1 debuts the same day (Enrique Bernoldi, too), the chubbyfaced lad in black-and-white overalls didn't make a big blip on most people's radar. But interestingly Jenson Button, by then a one-season veteran, was quoted as saying he thought Alonso the most promising of the four rookies.

Now, less than 18 months later, Montoya and Raikkonen are harrying Michael Schumacher in the world championship standings, Bemoldi has sunk without trace, while Alonso, having spent 2002 as a test driver and thus with only 30 grands prix under his belt, is being spoken of as the next Ayrton Senna. In Hungary his Renault was so far in the lead after nine laps that he asked over the radio, "Where are the others?" The others were 16 seconds down the road, queueing behind Mark Webber's Jaguar. But even when the pitstops opened up the order, Alonso was still comfortably controlling the race, which he effectively led from start to finish. He kept up a blinding pace, made not the slightest error in the entire distance, and by the end he'd lapped Michael Schumacher's Ferrari.

The comparisons with Senna come from those who work with Fernando. They point to his confidence, his focused concentration on every detail of the job, his ability to deal with pressure, and the way he files away in his mind everything that happens, in case he can benefit from it in races to come. Then there's his speed, of course, and his determination: remember how he held his ground against that aggressive chop from Schumacher at Silverstone. What is most different to Senna is his relaxed, cheery disposition at races. His management relationship with Flavio Briatore means he will certainly stay with Renault for now, but — along with the other two youngsters on the Hungary podium, Raikkonen and Montoya — he is very much one of a new generation which represents the future of F1.

Hungary was a great race for the statisticians: it was the first F1 grand prix victory for a Spaniard (Fon de Portago's best result was second at Silverstone in 1956); it was the first win for Renault as a chassis manufacturer for over 20 years, and the first for six years for Flavio Briatore's ex-Benetton team; and, of course, it made Alonso the youngest driver in history to win a world championship grand prix. Already the youngest to earn an F1 pole (Malaysia in March), he'd had his 22nd birthday just 26 days before Hungary, and so he beat Bruce McLaren's record from the 1959 US Grand Prix by 78 days.

In fact, age was very much a talking point after Hungary. The average age of the three drivers on the podium was 24 years 7 months, also a record. Apart from Schumacher, everyone in the top five in the current championship points table is under 29. Michael, at 34, is the third-oldest man on the grid, after Panis and Frentzen, and the oldest winner this year. Coulthard and Villeneuve, both at 32, come next: Villeneuve may not find another berth in F1 next year, and Coulthard's new contact only gives him one more year at McLaren.

Everybody is younger these days — the policemen, the politicians, the musicians, the teachers, the company directors, the sporting heroes. In 1953, when a young Mike Hawthorn beat Fangio to win the French Grand Prix at Reims, it caused a major sensation, and he was already 24.

In 1950, the all-conquering Alfa Romeo team of Farina, Fangio and Fagioli, who finished 1-2-3 in the world championship, had a combined age of 135 years. Fangio's epic drive at the Nurburgring in '57 came at the age of 46, and Jack Brabham won a grand prix at 43. More recently, Nigel Mansell was 41 when he won for Williams in Australia in '94. Emerson Fittipaldi won the world championship at 25 — which remains a record — but he was still racing successfully in Indycars in his late 40s.

Today, drivers arrive in the lower single-seater formulae in their mid-teens, already schooled in car control and aggression after several seasons of karting. With the right talent, the right backing and, in particular, the right management to steer them through the piranha-infested waters to Formula One, they can be veterans of 40 grands prix, and millionaires, by the time normal people are just leaving university. In fact, the really successful drivers make so much money so quickly that their appetite for the peripatetic life of an F1 person tends to be sated by the time they reach their early 30s — either that, or by then the younger men are starting to show them up and take all the good seats.

But equally, a lot of good talent is destined not to find that vital backing and management. For these men the F1 chance never comes, and instead they make a career in American racing, or in sportscars, or get out altogether and do something else.

Twenty years ago the process was very different, and somewhat more haphazard. The man who is still the youngest to get onto an F1 grid, New Zealander Mike Thackwell, was just under 19 years and 6 months when he took the aborted start for the 1980 Canadian GP. He undoubtedly had plenty of raw talent, but he had no manager, no mentor, no-one to advise him. His four F1 chances produced one crash, two DNQs and a retirement. He returned to Formula Two, where he dominated the championship, and was fast but unlucky in the early days of Formula 3000 before turning his back on racing. Now in his 40s and living the simple life, he has no regrets: but he says that he had no idea what was happening to him when F1 came knocking. For him, it just all happened too early.

Today, any F1 newcomer has to make his debut in a glare of publicity. When Anthony Davidson had his first race for Minardi in Hungary last year, not much was expected, but even so it was a big story for the British media. Ralph Firman's practice accident in Hungary this year gave Zsolt Baumgartner his own chance to get into the history books as the first Hungarian driver in F1 — although not the first in grand prix racing: Ferenc Szisz won the first grand prix of all for Renault in 1906, and in the race control tower at the Hungaroring there is a plaque commemorating his exploit But in neither Davidson nor Baumgartner are we likely to find another Alonso.

As I write, there are three races to go in this enthralling season, and a new row is brewing. Bridgestone thinks that Michelin's tyres may be the legally permitted width at the start of each stint, but by the end it reckons they've worn wider. The FIA has issued a stern letter saying it will now measure tyre width after the race as well as before, and it may be that Michelin will be forced to change its tyres' specification before Monza. Its tremendously effective rubber has certainly caught Bridgestone napping in recent races, and Ferrari's woes have been more due to lack of tyre competitiveness than anything else.

But for Monza, whatever Michelin does, the Japanese firm is preparing something new, even to the extent of taking risks with the specification. At this stage of the season, says technical manager Hisao Suganuma, "It makes no sense to be conservative." He is probably also doing a rain dance, because Bridgestone's wet-weather tyres arguably have an advantage over Michelin's. Rain is not likely at Monza and Indianapolis, but it is at Suzuka.

It's to be hoped that any argument off-track about tyre regulations will not compromise the entertainment on-track, for we are currently enjoying the closest world championship battle in along, long time. Going into Monza, just two points cover the top three. McLaren, having abandoned all intentions of racing its new car this season, is hanging some of its bits on the current one, and Ron Dennis believes Kimi can win the title. Montoya is probably most people's favourite to become champion, but you can never, ever, reckon without Michael Schumacher.

One odd feature of the last three races is that each has been totally dominated by one driver, and each time it's been a different one, in a different car. Barrichello's Ferrari was in a class of its own at Silverstone; Montoya's Williams ran away and hid at Hodcenheim; Alonso's Renault was untouchable at the Hungaroring. Last year Formula One was in the doldrums because it was so predictable. You can't call it predictable now.