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Who hits the F1 big time next?

So Mika Hakkinen might be toying with retirement. Even if he doesn't decide to quit after this, the most disappointing season of his F1 career so far, he surely can't be too far away from calling it a day.

In my view, every racing driver has a finite reservoir of talent on which he can draw throughout the course of a professional career. Hakkinen's fastest time in the race morning warm-up at Magny-Cours proves that there is still something left in the tank, but one's bound to speculate whether the yellow warning light has been flashing ominously under heavy cornering. It's been a miserable year for the Finn who only has a feeble nine points in the title stakes after 10 of the season's 17 races.

The next question, of course, is who's next? Not to retire, but to move forward into the F1 front line. And, in particular, at the wheel of a McLaren. Kimi Raikkonen is an obvious emergent star, but with Ferrari supplying Sauber with their engines - and the possibility that a bright young thing might be needed to succeed Rubens Barrichello in 2003 - there's zero chance that Maranello will allow the Finnish prodigy to vanish from the orbit of the Prancing Horse.

So who could McLaren target as a possible long-term candidate to replace Hakkinen. Jacques Villeneuve? Perhaps past his best and now insisting that his preferred aim is to stay with BAR if he can't get a drive with Ferrari. Which has no vacancies.

Olivier Panis? A fine driver, but not quite established as sufficient of a star brand for McLaren taste. Alexander Wurz? A good man, an efficient tester, but perhaps not ultimately quick. It all makes you wonder.

Bobby Rahal, Jaguar's F1 racing boss, believes that we might have to think laterally if we're going to tap a fresh vein of F1 talent. In other words, think CART.

Everybody sniggered when Alex Zanardi returned to F1 after dominating the US series for three seasons. He bombed spectacularly with Williams and was bought out of his contract. Those critics are laughing on the other side of their face thanks to the efforts this season of Juan Pablo Montoya, the charismatic Bruiser from Bogota.

Rahal thinks it might be no bad thing to try out talented Brazilian Helio Castroneves who won this year's Indy 500 for Roger Penske's team. Or indeed, Dario Franchitti, who scored his first CART victory for two seasons at Cleveland last weekend.

In 1999 Franchitti dead-heated on points for the CART Championship, losing it only to his key rival on the number of wins scored. That rival was Juan Pablo Montoya.

As I said, think laterally. It might be the best way of resolving a potentially knotty problem. Perhaps CART shouldn't be sniggered at by the F1 glitterati after all.

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