A youth formula for better or Wurz

David Tremayne hails the new breed of drivers with verve and value for money
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Gerhard Berger and Jean Alesi can be thankful that their contracts with Benetton are water-tight, for the old guard is looking over its shoulder as Formula One is fast becoming the stamping ground of the latest breed of young cubs. Benetton's own test driver, Alexander Wurz, has signalled just how hungry they are with his performances in the past three races.

When Berger fell ill with a sinus problem before the Canadian Grand Prix, his fellow Austrian Wurz, 23, stepped into his place, and in last week's British GP at Silverstone he shadowed the infinitely more experienced Alesi all the way to the chequered flag to finish third in just his third grand prix.

Last year Wurz became the youngest winner of the Le Mans 24-hour race, and his past performances in Formula Three and touring car racing have marked him out, but his smooth and smart graduation to F1 has nevertheless surprised many. "I was looking for an opportunity when we were lapping slower cars," he said of his tactics in hounding Alesi at Silverstone. "But I decided to hold back because it would have been dangerous to have tried anything." There are no prizes for putting yourself and your team- mate in the dirt, after all.

The 33-year-old Frenchman, who himself swept into F1 in 1989 during the last big clearout of old talent, was again complimentary about his temporary team-mate last weekend. "Honestly, I was happy to be in front of him at the first corner," Alesi said, "because I know how capable he is." Yet for such old hands, Wurz's performance is a warning blast that can only have a detrimental effect on their value in what now, for anyone but Michael Schumacher, is firmly a buyer's market.

Nor is Wurz the only new boy making waves. When Damon Hill and Nigel Mansell turned him down for 1997, Eddie Jordan bit the bullet and invested in two inexperienced young chargers, Ralf Schumacher, 22, and Giancarlo Fisichella, 24. Schumacher's progress certainly has not been hampered by the prowess of his big brother Michael, while Fisichella showed class in his few 1996 outings for Minardi. All season they have pushed one another along, and just a smidgeon more experience could have seen Schumacher victorious in Argentina.

In the meantime, Jarno Trulli, who turned 23 on the day of the British GP, is still pinching himself. A young Italian named after the famed motorcycle racer Jarno Saarinen (killed at Monza in 1973), and who bears an uncanny facial resemblance to a youthful Ayrton Senna, Trulli was racing karts at World Championship level only two years ago. He was then snapped up for Formula Three by the Benetton team before jumping into the deep end, a mere 18 months later, with Minardi. When Olivier Panis broke his legs in Canada, it was Trulli who turned up in the Prost seat in France.

"I asked if it was possible to test Jarno because I was quite a big fan of his," Prost said. "He's a young driver but with a little bit of experience. When we tested him it was quite obvious that he was the best choice." It was any young racer's dream come true, despite the circumstances. Trulli qualified sixth in France but lost out when the team made an overly prudent tyre choice, while last weekend his Bridgestones again caused him headaches until the closing laps, when a third set allowed him to go as fast as the Benettons. Few doubt that he, too, stands on the threshold of a great future.

As part of Tom Walkinshaw's diatribe against Damon Hill at Silverstone, the Arrows team boss said: "There are plenty of good young drivers eager to learn and to win, and who would be a lot cheaper. So it's up to Damon to make sure they don't get the chance."

When Walkinshaw was at Benetton, he and his team boss Flavio Briatore rarely saw eye to eye. But like Frank Williams, Briatore has never been happy paying large driver retainers, and he agrees with Walkinshaw that the young bloods represent the best opportunities for the future. "If you think that 20 to 30 per cent of the budget of the team is represented by the salary of the drivers, I believe that you need to invest in young drivers," Briatore said. The design department will always make grateful use of any budgetary saving.

In 1991 Briatore helped give Michael Schumacher his big break, but missed out on management opportunities. Now Briatore is poised to leave Benetton at the end of the year to concentrate on managing Fisichella, Trulli and Wurz, and he is unlikely to lose out on such a lucrative chance second time around. But Briatore will have to be careful not to overprice his own stable.