Motoracing: Who's who for the new era?

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JOHNNY HERBERT turned 35 a few days ago. Eddie Irvine is 33, David Coulthard 28. Just as surely as it does for each fast lap, the clock is ticking on the careers of the three British drivers who still see a future for themselves at racing's highest level. But as Damon Hill prepares to bow out, where will the next generation of British racers spring from?

In the US ChampCar series, the 23-year-old Scot Dario Franchitti is challenging for the title, but despite interest from Stewart and BAR last year he has clear views on his future. "My focus right now is winning ChampCars, though of course I want to do F1. But it's so difficult you can only do it with the right team, at the right time."

Justin Wilson, Oliver Gavin, Jamie Davies and Kevin McGarrity are all competing in F3000, the rung on the ladder below F1. Wilson, 20, is the first graduate of the former F1 racer Jonathan Palmer's innovative Formula Palmer Audi championship, and has already impressed after winning the prize drive by clinching the FPA title last year.

Gavin, 26, is a former British F3 champion who has experience of leading GPs as safety car driver. His career was temporarily grounded just as he was about to graduate to F1 in 1994 with the ill-fated Pacific team, but now he is back with European Edenbridge Racing.

Davies, 25, is a past McLaren Autosport BRDC Young Driver, and partners Gavin at EER. He's an accomplished F3000 racer whose past form includes devastating speed in a McLaren F1 test at Jerez a couple of years back. New to car and formula, he aced David Coulthard's times at the Spanish venue. McGarrity, 25, led at Imola in May before finishing second, and signed a three-year deal with German sponsor Telepassport.

The British F3 Championship traditionally breeds F1 racers. In his second season, the 21-year-old former Vauxhall Opel Junior champion Marc Hynes heads the title chase for Manor Motorsport after winning the opening two rounds. Matt Davies, 22, is a former kart star who went the French F3 route in 1998.

Jenson Button, still only 19, is an F3 winner in his debut season after parlaying a brilliant karting career into the British Formula Ford championship last year. The winner of the McLaren Autosport BRDC Young Driver Award, he perhaps has the greatest potential of them all. "If he carries on his progress," the McLaren chief Ron Dennis says, "he could be in F1 within four years."

Then there's Westley Barber, 18, who last year demolished his opposition in the Elf Fastrack championship in France, and is continuing that form in the junior category of the French F3 Championship. Barber, like Button, has an impressive pedigree in karting, but without the fanfare that has been a part of the Somerset driver's graduation.

Nothing typifies better the difficulty facing British drivers' search for backing than the plight of the Geordie F3 star Warren Hughes, who used to have Jacques Villeneuve for breakfast but now races only MGF sportscars.

Hill himself offers this advice: "Always drive to your limit, and never turn down opportunities. Getting to F1 is all about commitment. When I got my race drive with Frank Williams, I got it because I never stopped telling him that I was the man he needed."