With Michael Schumacher settled into retirement, Jacques Villeneuve and Juan Pablo Montoya exiled to America and the five remaining thirtysomething drivers clinging to the final years of their contracts, Formula One is undergoing a youth revolution. The world champion, Fernando Alonso, is only 25 and, in his wake, some of the most exciting young talent to enter the sport for ages has emerged.
Last season saw the arrival of two exciting 21-year-olds, BMW Sauber driver Robert Kubica of Poland, who scored a podium finish in only his third race, and Williams’s Nico Rosberg, son of 1982 world champion Keke Rosberg.
The trend will continue next season with Renault promoting its 25-year-old Finnish test driver Heikki Kovalainen to a race seat while Britain’s Lewis Hamilton was on Friday named McLaren’s second driver alongside Alonso.
They may be young but they are seasoned. Changes to karting rules in the late 1980s allowed children to start racing aged eight, whereas previously the minimum had been 11. Those eight-year-old kartists are now arriving in F1 and changing the sport.
Hamilton, 21, comes to F1 with an exceptional pedigree. In recent years he has dominated the European Formula Three championship and GP2, the feeder series for F1, which runs as a support event on grand prix weekends. Indeed so exciting were some of Hamilton’s performances in GP2 this year that many in the F1 paddock were calling for him to be introduced before the end of the season.
Since he was 11, Hamilton has been a protégé and personal project of McLaren team chief Ron Dennis, who, together with his partner Mercedes-Benz, has generously funded the youngster’s career and plotted it meticulously. At no stage has he encouraged Hamilton to run before he could walk.
Indeed, two years ago their relationship almost broke down as Hamilton, after a year in F3, wanted to move straight into GP2. But Dennis insisted that he must dominate the F3 championship before he could move on. Fifteen wins in 20 races against tough opposition gave Hamilton a surge of confidence, which carried him through to five GP2 victories and the title this season and now on to the threshold of F1 glory.
Unlike his adversary Frank Williams, Dennis has always shown an aversion to running rookies. The last true rookie he ran was Andrea de Cesaris back in 1981, Dennis’s first season in charge of McLaren. But then there were extenuating circumstances as de Cesaris’s father had high-level connections with Philip Morris, the team’s principal sponsor at the time.
Since then, only Michael Andretti in 1993 could be considered a rookie in the sense that he had never driven in F1 before but he was 31 and had been a vastly successful driver in the US.
Dennis had two options with Hamilton: either to feed him in slowly as the test driver, as Renault successfully did with Kovalainen and with Alonso before that, covering about 15,000 miles of testing behind the scenes before making a debut either later in the 2007 season or at the start of 2008. But he has opted to throw him in at the deep end, as team-mate to Alonso, a double world champion and the best driver in F1 at present.
Unlike Andretti, whose debut season was ruined by new rules for 1993 that restricted the amount of running the cars could do during grand prix practice sessions, Hamilton has timed his debut perfectly. Next year, rule changes mean that he will have three hours of unlimited practice on Fridays, with further running on Saturday mornings in which to learn about the car and the track. It is the ideal time to be an F1 rookie.
Hamilton, who becomes the first black F1 driver, has done only two F1 tests so far. Towards the end of the 2006 season, Dennis uncharacteristically flirted with the idea of giving him a grand prix debut at Shanghai but, following a cautious first test, the engineers decided that Hamilton needed more time.
Next week in Spain, Hamilton will be out again for the first of three test sessions before Christmas. There will be seven more before the season starts in Melbourne on March 18. In addition, he is undergoing an intensive preparation programme at McLaren’s headquarters in southern England, involving four hours of daily physical training, mental exercises and learning the rules of F1.
“I understand how tough the challenge is,” said Hamilton, “I’m just making sure I prepare everything for the first races. You have to make mistakes to learn and become a better driver.”
And what of the challenge of competing against Alonso?
“Having the strongest team-mate is such a big positive because there’s so much you’ll learn from them,” says Hamilton. “I’m not worried about it. He’ll do what he does, which is to drive well, and I will do the best I can and try eventually to compete with him at some point.”
Kovalainen also faces a stiff challenge as he is stepping into the Renault car that has won the past two world championships. Alonso overpowered his team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella, who is a very fast driver, and now the pressure is on Kovalainen to do the same.
With Alonso’s decision to join McLaren in 2007 coming very early, Renault were able to groom Kovalainen to replace him. The Finn has impressed the Renault engineers in testing but delivering consistent speed under the intense pressure of a grand prix weekend is notoriously difficult.
“There is always pressure, wherever you race. But I have never felt it has affected my driving,” says the Finn. “It is a great opportunity to be competitive in my first year, which very few drivers ever get.
“The team will be strong and the car will be quick. I need to stay calm and have a cool head. The first races will not be easy and my philosophy will be to prepare for the worst. Maybe there will be some bad races but I will focus on things one step at a time.”
Schumacher, one of the sport’s true greats, may have just retired, but the signs are that there are some exciting youngsters coming through with the desire, the preparation and the ability to follow in his tyre tracks.
James Allen is ITV Sport’s lead F1