Where are the next generation of British drivers?

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The Independent Online

Damon Hill's retirement from Formula One is already prompting worries over the dwindling British presence in motorsport's 'top flight'.

Damon Hill's retirement from Formula One is already prompting worries over the dwindling British presence in motorsport's 'top flight'.

The 1996 world champion brought the curtain down on his career at last week's season-ending Japanese Grand Prix and despite Eddie Irvine's brave but failed tilt at the title this year, questions are already being asked as to who will take over as Hill's successor in the hearts of the British public.

Irvine will be one of a trio of Brits lining up on the grid next season along with McLaren's David Coulthard and Johnny Herbert - who will be Irvine's team-mate at Jaguar, the re-badged Stewart Ford team.

But they are not getting any younger: Irvine is 34 next week, Herbert is 35 and Coulthard 28, and there is no-one immediately behind them to fly the Union Jack at the top of the podium.

So the British Racing Drivers' Club (BRDC) met in London to launch a new initiative aimed at producing and nurturing British talent for the future.

The scheme, grandly named PowerTour, is geared towards making British motorsport more accessible for the spectator and easier to break into for budding drivers.

The main aim is to attract new fans by reducing admission prices and increasing national television coverage of events, therefore attracting new corporate sponsorship to the sport.

The funds gained from this are to be used to boost prize money and abolish event entrance fees for competitors, making the various motor racing formulae and classes a more attractive package for all.

Former grand prix driver Martin Brundle, now a commentator with ITV and a director of the BRDC, believes the current crop of young British talent shows promising signs for the future, but insists more drivers need to be coming through the ranks.

He said: "The story today is that there's nobody ready to take over immediately from Damon Hill.

"We've got three or four young guys who are on the slightly distant horizon that could well cut the mustard - but we need more.

"We need a much wider range of drivers in all the formulae to put Britain where it has been in the past and where it should be."

The former Benetton driver and Le Mans winner reckons the incentive is a positive step towards creating the environment needed to discover the drivers of the future.

"It needs kick-starting and although there's a lot more that needs to be done, it's nice to see the BRDC pro-active on it, giving new stepping stones and foundations to move forward from," said Brundle.

"It's good for the fans as well, they're changing the package and making a shorter programme with defined race times and involving radio and TV more.

"So it's going to be a lot easier for the drivers to get the sponsorship and there's no doubt about it that when you go to a sponsor and start talking about guaranteed terrestrial TV coverage you're on to a winner."

Brundle acknowledges that the immediate future of British interest in F1 is quite healthy with all three of our drivers occupying seats in decent cars next year.

"Certainly the Stewart Ford team, which morphs into the Jaguar team over the winter, will be strong with Irvine and Herbert," he said.

"Coulthard is obviously in a great car next year in the McLaren so in Formula One we're looking good.

"But it's not many years ago I was one of six British grand prix drivers and now we've got three - two of whom are moving towards the end of their career and one of them that's at least mid-career."

Brundle thinks the drivers whose F1 ambitions may well see them break into the sport in the next couple of years could include British Formula Three champion Marc Hynes, who is 28, teenage prodigy Jenson Button, 19, who came third in the same championship, McLaren test driver Darren Turner, 25, and Japanese Formula Three champion Darren Manning, 24.

He added: "There's three or four of them really, but when the spotlight comes on in Formula One it's not always predictable who will wilt under that light and who's going to draw energy from it.

"They are out there and hopefully there's a way of putting them through F3000 (the springboard for F1) and getting them F1 test drives."