When Jean Alesi led the pack into the first corner at Estoril, the interruption to Formula One's established order - defined as any permutation of Alain Prost, Damon Hill, Michael Schumacher and Ayrton Senna - made a welcome change in a sport where the prolonged dominance of one or two teams and three or four drivers is an ever-present threat to the box-office. And the appearance of the McLaren debutant Mika Hakkinen in third place on those same laps, separating the two men who between them have won seven of the past nine world championships, compounded the feeling that we might just be watching a changing of the guard.
There were other signs: Prost's eve-of-race retirement speech; Schumacher's fine victory; Damon Hill's drive through the field from 26th to third place, after his hat- trick of grand prix wins in the preceding weeks. You might even add to the list Nigel Mansell's signing of a new two-year contract with the Newman-Haas Indycar team, a reaffirmation of his commitment to ending his career in the US.
Alesi, who is 29, Hakkinen, who turned 25 this week, Schumacher, 24, and Hill, aged 33 but still acquiring experience, are among the men who will be expected to make the pace in the post-Prost, post- post-Mansell era. For at least part of its length, last Sunday's race at Estoril looked like a pre-echo of what we might be seeing in 1994.
Prost, 38, has two more races left before retirement. Almost certainly going with him will be Derek Warwick and Riccardo Patrese, both 39, Michele Alboreto, 36, and perhaps Andrea De Cesaris, 34. These are all massively experienced men: each of them has competed in more grands prix than Alesi, Hakkinen, Schumacher and Hill combined, from Warwick's 145 to Patrese's 254. When they are gone, the ranks of the senior pros will effectively be reduced to three men: Ayrton Senna, who is only six months older than Hill, but has competed in 140 more grands prix; and Gerhard Berger and Martin Brundle, both aged 34. All three complete 10 years in grand prix racing at the end of this season.
No doubt the changing of the guard will suit Bernie Ecclestone, the impresario of modern Formula One racing, whose critical remarks about the older generation of current grand prix drivers were widely reported last week. Ecclestone is certainly entitled to a view. Over the years, he has turned the world championship series from a simple sporting event into an international television spectacular, an achievement demanding a combination of diplomacy and an instinctive willingness to abandon the velvet glove in favour of the brass knuckles.
Everybody knows Bernie's game, which is to hold costs down while keeping the TV money rolling in. This time, though, it was the way he said it that offended people. The assertion that Prost had 'used' grand prix racing as if it were a 'public convenience' was one thing, as was the attempt to wind up Senna by suggesting that he might be 'going off a bit'. But it was something else for him to make airy references to the days when 'we used to have a sort of natural culling of drivers - we used to lose one or two a year, and if Prost or Mansell had been killed, it would have been forgotten after a couple of races'.
Who were these people 'forgotten after a couple of races'? Did he mean Alberto Ascari? Or Peter Collins? Jim Clark? Jochen Rindt? Ronnie Peterson? Gilles Villeneuve? Ecclestone's attempt to disguise an economic argument in tough-guy rhetoric was simply embarrassing - and an insult to his own great friend Stuart Lewis- Evans, the third driver (behind Stirling Moss and Tony Brooks) in the brilliant Vanwall team of 1958, who died from burns inflicted in the Moroccan Grand Prix that year. Has Ecclestone 'forgotten' Lewis-Evans? Of course not; nor have many others. Adding 'Thank goodness that doesn't happen any more' was by no means enough to undo the impression he'd created.
Nevertheless, Ecclestone is right to welcome the rise of a new generation, with its own characters and plot-lines: the raw honesty of Alesi, the intelligence of Schumacher, the sheer speed of Hakkinen and the persistence of Hill will soon come into sharper focus for the broad TV audience, to be tested and measured - for a season or two, anyway - against the known genius of Senna.
Who else will join the cast? With a very few exceptions - Alesi and Berger staying at Ferrari, Wendlinger and Lehto at Sauber, Herbert at Lotus - next season's dispositions are utterly unclear. Getting a conjunction of chassis, engine, sponsor and driver is what counts. Take Olivier Panis, a 27-year-old Frenchman who has won the last three Formula 3000 races. ELF, the French petrol company, would like him alongside Senna in the second Williams, which would please Renault; but that would mean the expulsion of Hill, which the Williams engineers wouldn't like. So perhaps Panis will go to Benetton, Ligier or Larrousse, all ELF-users.
But nobody even knows which engines those three teams will be using next year. Are Benetton really happy with their Ford V8, or will they become the second Renault team, at Ligier's expense? Will Larrousse become the guinea-pig team for Peugeot, before the new V10 goes to a more potent set-up - probably McLaren or Benetton - for 1995? Come to that, will McLaren's current Chrysler-funded development work on the Lamborghini engine become a full partnership?
A very small number of drivers - Senna and Schumacher, to be precise - can name their own price. The likes of Alesi and Brundle are well rewarded. But the rest had better bring money - like Pedro Lamy, the Portuguese driver who made his debut in a Lotus last week - or perhaps the promise of free engines, like Paul Stewart, who is said to have access to a certain number of Ford HB units, which might interest someone like the newly combined Scuderia-Italia-Minardi set-up.
We may be seeing more of those two, or not. The hot tip for stardom, though, is the 21-year- old Dutchman, Jos Verstappen, a Formula Three driver who was given a test run with the Footwork team in Estoril last week and in only a dozen laps got within a tenth of a second of Derek Warwick's best qualifying time of the previous week. Maybe, of this winter's crop of hopefuls, he's the one who'll earn the ultimate accolade: the word from Bernie Ecclestone that he's all washed up, and that nobody ever cared about him anyway. Good luck, Jos.
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