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Don't even look at the Constructors' Championship points table

Michael Schumacher, San Marino GP 2002

Michael Schumacher, San Marino GP 2002 

 © The Cahier Archive

Doesn't time fly when you're having fun? Give or take a few percentage points, Imola marked the one-quarter distance point in the battle for the 2002 FIA Formula One World Championship and already there must be some team principals who must be approaching the point of despair. Their only consolation can be to take refuge in the obvious point that nothing lasts for ever and Ferrari's run of domination is probably not going to endure for more than another five years. So they seek succor from that. Just my little joke, you understand.

Nothing lasts forever, as I say. It's just that Michael Schumacher's domination of F1 has endured, on and off, for the best part of a decade. Since he joined Ferrari at the start of the 1986 season, although Williams-Renault and McLaren-Mercedes have muscled in on the World Championship winning act, Schumacher has been the man who has defined the Formula 1 business. One F1 team principal told me this year that Michael was "on an exit strategy." My reaction - although I kept it to myself - was split between (a) do me a favor or (b) well, for somebody on an exit strategy, he's still driving pretty quickly.

However, if we accept that this is the case, then one is bound to cast around to look for his long-term successor. Who will it be? The most obvious candidate is Juan Pablo Montoya. He is one tough customer, very quick, says what he thinks and isn't intimidated by what other people might think of him. In many ways, he has all the qualities which marked out Michael as being so special from the outset of his career.

What I'm talking about here is somebody who is going to win twenty, possibly thirty Grands Prix during their career. So who will it be? In this context Barrichello, Fisichella or even Ralf Schumacher. History tells us that if they're going to be super-special, like Michael, then they've got to be up and winning during their first year in F1. And remember, the best drivers inevitably find their ways into the best cars.

OK, there are exceptions, but I'm talking about general rules. So far Montoya is on course. Like Michael, he won his first Grand Prix during his first full season in F1. And like Michael, we will be expecting another win this season. Next year, if he's adhering to the template, he'll need to challenge for the World Championship from the word go.

So who else? Kimi Raikkonen and Jenson Button have obviously huge potential and could both well win races this season. In neither case would this come as a surprise. But whether they move on to become truly consistent F1 front runners is a matter of fascination for all of us watching from the touchlines. It's possible - although it's equally possible that the next crop of really great F1 talent has yet to show its head in the sport's senior category.

Of course, you can take this all with a pinch of salt. I never reckoned Nigel Mansell would ever win a Grand Prix. He took five years before winning his first - and then added another thirty victories for good measure over the next decade. All of which gave me considerable food for thought.

So if I was David Coulthard, I would be pointing out that my best may well yet be to come. David is in his eighth year of F1 at present, a point at which Mansell's World Championship title was still four seasons away. So hang on in there DC. And prove me oh-so-wrong. Or right, depending on how you interpret the foregoing paragraphs.

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