Features - News Feature

MARCH 1, 1989

The new kids on the F1 block


The French have a marvellous expression: "There is no such thing as a pretty good omelette." It is a similar story of drivers in Formula 1. There is no such thing as a pretty good driver in F1. They are all exceptional but, contrary to the belief of some in the pitlane, Grand Prix racing does not have a monopoly on talent. There is always room for the next new star although in recent years very few new boys have been admitted into this exclusive society of Formula 1.

The French have a marvellous expression: "There is no such thing as a pretty good omelette." It is a similar story of drivers in Formula 1. There is no such thing as a pretty good driver in F1. They are all exceptional but, contrary to the belief of some in the pitlane, Grand Prix racing does not have a monopoly on talent. There is always room for the next new star although in recent years very few new boys have been admitted into this exclusive society of Formula 1.

The likes of Ayrton Senna and Gerhard Berger had sufficient 'extra' to bludgeon their way to the top, but otherwise the supporting cast remained, with only the occasional change and the annual round of musical chairs. The survivors did not damage cars and produced the occasional good performance. They might even bring some money to help the team along.

This year that has changed. As the winter months grind on towards a new season, many of the names which have been integral to Formula 1 are finding themselves having to look elsewhere for future employment. A new broom is sweeping through Grand Prix racing.

Why? Is this a particularly good new generation? Is it the effect of the McLaren-Honda domination, forcing team managements to take more risks in their choice of drivers. Has F1 tired of its safe choices? Or is it that, in the topsy-turvy world behind the multi-cylinder cars, a greater number of young drivers have had the opportunity to show what they can do? One weekend a man will run in the top 10, the next he will fail to qualify.

Formula 1 is now gaining more and more children of the sixties. Ayrton Senna has been the most precocious. The Brazilian is the first to be born in the sixties to have won a race, the first to have won the World Championship. No other driver from the sixties has yet done either.

But the signs are that in the next year, the old order will become ever more threatened. The turbocharged days, when young careers were sacrificed in favour of the old guard have gone.

In 1989 that change was more noticeable than ever.

Not all the 'new boys' of 1989 were actually new, but they had never before been able to show off their pace.

We have had Ivan Capelli and Yannick Dalmas showing their potential since 1987, but in 1989 a new wave arrived.

The vanguard of the 1989 generation made their presence felt in Rio de Janeiro.

Mauricio Gugelmin (Born 20 April 1963), finishing third in the Brazilian GP, after a solid first season with March in 1988. But it was GP debutant Johnny Herbert (Born 25 June 1964) who truly stole the thunder.

The young Englishman could scarcely walk, yet this pale, pained, figure outqualified his more experienced Benetton team mate Alessandro Nannini and went on to finish fourth.

On the same day Ligier's Olivier Grouillard put in a solid performance to finish ninth on his F1 debut, completely overshading the vastly experienced Rene Arnoux.

At San Marino others began to emerge from the shadows: Scuderia Italia's Alex Caffi (Born 18 March 1964) and AGS's Gabriele Tarquini (Born 2 March 1963) both marked their cards for future stardom.

At Monaco it was the turn of Stefano Modena (Born 12 May 1963), emerging from an awful debut year with the hopeless EuroBrun team to take his Brabham to third place. Caffi was fourth, and Tarquini had run fifth before retiring.

Capelli (Born 24 May 1963) was fourth on the grid in Mexico and Tarquini came home sixth. In Phoenix Caffi ran second and Herbert struggled home in fifth. In Montreal Nicola Larini (Born 19 March 1964) took an Osella to run third in the wet. Caffi was sixth.

But the new boys were merely warming up, all but Herbert and Grouillard had some previous experience in F1.

By the French GP, Herbert was gone from F1, the victim of his injured legs and the political exploitation of his unfortunate position. But there were others to take up the torch.

On 9 July 1989, F1 crossed a new frontier. It was an important day for it marked the F1 debuts of Jean Alesi (Born 11 June 1964), Eric Bernard (24 August 1964), Martin Donnelly (26 March 1964), Bertrand Gachot (22 December 1962) and Emanuele Pirro (12 January 1962).

Alesi ran second and finished fourth, Grouillard scored his first point in sixth. The others all impressed.

The young bloods already in F1 responded. At the British GP Pierluigi Martini (Born 23 April 1961) showed flashes of the talent everyone knew he had.

And so it went on. In Germany, Pirro ran in third; in Hungary Caffi qualified third; in Italy Alesi was in the points; in Portugal Martini led the race for half a lap and finished fifth, in Spain Alesi was fourth and JJ Lehto (31 January 1966) showed well for Onyx.

But what did it all mean? Why, suddenly, were the youngsters begining to figure?

The older men argued that it was a technical point. The new men were allused to the 3-litre Formula 3000 cars, with their rock-hard suspensions and twitchy characteristics. The older generation had to 're-learn' how to drive without turbocharging. There was probably some truth to that.

The youngsters were able to show well because, being both hungry for success and desperate to make a good impression, they were willing to take more risks on qualifying tyres -- a phenomenon which had been absent from F1 for a couple of years.

Generally, with the new generation arriving all at the same time, there was a edge of desperation among the youngsters that had been lacking in F1 for some time.

There were plenty of theories as to the whys and wherefores, but no real evidence to give a definitive answer.

Perhaps it was purely the march of time. The young men had to arrive at some point. It just all happened in 1989.

The question most people wanted an answer for was: Which of these young heroes was the best?

For some years the Italians have been sitting on a very bright heap of talent. Those who followed the 1986 Italian F3 series knew that there were four young men who would all make it to F1: Larini (the champion), Alex Caffi, Stefano Modena and Marco Apicella (Born 7 October 1965).

The first three have succeeded, the fourth, with a little luck, will eventually join them.

In 1987 Formula 3000 highlighted Modena's considerable talents as he swept to the championship.

But who was the best? Which of the Italians would lead his generation? And how does these drivers compare with the French newcomers? Was Alesi better than Bernard? And what about Gachot? Similarly there is no clear-cut answer. Bernard, Alesi and Gachot first met in the finals of the Paul Ricard Elf Winfield racing school. That was in November 1983. The three finalists fought it out -- Bernard won.

Two seasons later Bernard had won the French Formule Renault title. Alesi was fifth. Two years on and the rivals fought over the French F3 title -- Alesi won. In 1989 it was F3000 and Alesi did it again.

And what about those trained in the rough-and-tumble world of British club racing?

How did Gachot compare to Herbert or Donnelly?

Of course, there are no answers. A driver is only as good as his car. To compare talents is a risky game -- but one which everyone in F1 has to play if they are to snap up THE hotshot.

Memories are short and already the new generation has had victims. Careers have been blighted by a poor year here, or a bad decision there.

Dalmas, hailed as a future champion a couple of seasons past, seemed to lose his way in 1989; Capelli, very much the hero of 1988, had little to show for his 1989 season. In F1 you are only as good as your last race.

Herbert's F1 future is by no means certain, although he is under contract to return to Benetton in 1991. Larini is under option to Ferrari until 1993.

Others are not so lucky. Pirro lost his seat at Benetton to Nelson Piquet, Emanuele's vast experience as a McLaren test driver seemingly not being taken into account.

Bernd Schneider (20 July 1964), Volker Weidler (18 March 1962), Joachim Winkelhock (24 October 1960), Gregor Foitek (27 March 1965), Pierre-Henri Raphanel (27 May 1961), Aguri Suzuki (21 March 1960) and Enrico Bertaggia (19 September 1964) all struggled in pre-qualifying.

Yet even for the new young men life in F1 will not get any easier, the arrival of new blood may mean the older F1 men have to look over their shoulders, but the new drivers too have little in the way of security. The volatile skills of the new men mean mistakes are made, there are hirings and firings. And, more than ever, there are more youngsters queuing up for a place in F1: Apicella, Erik Comas (28 September 1963), Mark Blundell (8 April 1966), Allan McNish, David Brabham and Gianni Morbidelli. It will not be long before the men of the sixties become established figures, looking over their shoulders at those born in the seventies...

It is hard to explain the phenomenon of the 1989 explosion of youth, but it is certainly an unusual thing.

Luckily, it is also extremely exciting to watch such talents flowering.

Which one is the best?

Ah, only time will tell...