Tracks of fears behind the farewells

Formula One: Showmanship is indulged at Alesi's swansong as recession jitters start to fray nerves
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Farewells were in the air this weekend in Suzuka, with Jean Alesi facing the last grand prix of his largely unfulfilled career, and Mika Hakkinen heading off for his sabbatical amid rumours that he, too, might not be seen again in F1.

Those are the farewells that people here do not mind talking about, and those that most concern the highly enthusiastic and knowledgeable Japanese fans. But there is another farewell that insiders are less happy to acknowledge: F1's good times may be over as the world recession makes itself felt along the pit lane.

The BAR and McLaren team bosses, Craig Pollock and Ron Dennis, both admit that prospective sponsors have been reconsidering investment in the sport. Others concede the same thing.

"We've got sponsors who were on the brink of commitment and have pulled back and are re-evaluating where and how to spend their money, what they have of it," Dennis said. "So Formula One is going to be no different from any other business. It's going to be a tough time." So tough, it is predicted, that Eddie Jordan made another of his rambling appeals, this time for the top three teams – McLaren, Ferrari and Williams – to "guide us through this time because the people who will suffer least will be them because they are the successful ones". This was taken to mean that they should not spend so much money, so that the lesser teams can catch up.

Mildly amused, Dennis made the point that teams will spend what they have for that is always the way of things, unless significant economies are forced upon them. It is, of course, unlikely that Jordan would spend less to give Prost and Minardi the chance to catch up.

This was the jittery backdrop to a race on one of the greatest circuits left in the F1 calendar. The Honda-owned Suzuka Circuit International is a magical place where the best drivers can dig deep to squeeze something more from their machinery.

Alesi did just that on Friday, aided by a very low fuel load while others ran with more as they completed their race set-up preparations. Few begrudged the popular racer a last moment in the spotlight as he remained fastest to the end of the session. In the end-of-season atmosphere that prevailed here, even the hard-bitten world of F1 was happy to indulge this bit of sentimental showmanship. Alesi's career has never achieved its promise, going off the rails back in 1990 when he opted to follow his heart to Ferrari when a cooler head would have led him to Williams and the stunning FW14B that would make Nigel Mansell a world champion.

"Forza Alesi! – You are our hero", a fan's banner said, but next year the Japanese will have a driver of their own to cheer as the reigning British Formula Three champion Takuma Sato will take his seat at Jordan. Eddie Jordan maintains that his desperation to retain Honda's engines had nothing to do with the decision to hire Sato, who raced a Mugen Honda-engined Dallara for the Carling Motorsport team on his way to a record 12 Formula Three victories this year, and was a test driver for the BAR-Honda team. But few give his denials credence.

Hakkinen revealed after qualifying that his crash in the first race in Melbourne was an uncomfortable reminder of his near-fatal accident six years earlier in Adelaide and, while reminding him of the value of his family, first prompted him to consider retiring. "When you find something really special," he said, "you start to think that you will do anything not to lose it. Part of it is a matter of getting older – you look once left, once right before crossing the road. But now I'm aware I'm looking twice left, twice right."

Juan Pablo Montoya has also won hearts with his driving and his down-to-earth approach to both his racing and life in general. He did not take F1 by storm in terms of results initially, for a variety of reasons centring on mechanical ills for his fleet BMW Williams and a propensity for throwing the car at solid objects, but he has emerged as the most serious threat to Michael Schumacher.

On Thursday night he alone of the drivers turned up when Honda organised an evening of stomach-churning rollercoaster riding in the nearby Suzukaland fun park. Then on Friday and Saturday he learnt one of the toughest tracks in no time at all and entertained everyone with the breathtaking skill of his driving as he hovered near the top of the timesheets. His performance overshadowed his team-mate Ralf Schumacher, who has been in bad odour with his employers since the Belgian GP at Spa, where he criticised the team for failing to get him off the grid in time to take up his high position in time for the restart. His engineers had been obliged to examine his car carefully on this high-speed track after Montoya's had shown signs of rear-wing mounting fatigue. Schumacher Jnr, who snuck away secretly to marry his fiancée Cora after the US GP, has recently failed to give of his best, a fact that has not gone unnoticed by task-masters Sir Frank Williams or his partner, Patrick Head.

In the end, nobody had an answer to Michael's speed in the Ferrari in qualifying, but Montoya came closest. And a Schumacher-Montoya front row was surely a preview of the fight for the 2002 world championship.