Young Men In a Hurry

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Schoolboy lewis hamilton is a dutiful student. His grades in maths and English have always been high, and this year the 15-year-old from Hertfordshire, England, expects an A in French. Typical of many boys, Lewis dreams of becoming a Formula One driver; he has a collection of Grand Prix videos and reads car racing magazines. In Hamilton's case, however, these are just as much study guides as his algebra and language textbooks. In 1998 Hamilton, a champion racer of tiny, motorcycle-engined go-karts, signed a contract with Formula One powerhouse McLaren to shape and develop his racing career. He has been headed for the 340-km/h world of Formula One since he was just 13.

Hamilton is among the youngest of a battalion of youthful speedsters who are charging at F1's gates. Some have already burst through: this Sunday in Melbourne, Australia, 19-year-old Fernando Alonso will compete in an F1 Grand Prix race for the first time, alongside 21-year-olds Jenson Button and Kimi Raikkonen, and Enrique Bernoldi, 22. The sport has seen young drivers before, but never in such numbers or depth. "They've livened it up, haven't they?" says Jim Warren, whose junior formula cars have been piloted in British races by Raikkonen and Button. While F1 teams queue to throw money at the best of the new talent-BMW-Williams contracted Button for $660,000 before he'd driven the first race in his debut season last year-some senior F1 figures fear the "baby racers" may liven up the sport too much. "When there is a major accident caused by the presence of very inexperienced drivers in F1," complained Max Mosley, president of F1's ruling body, the Fèdèration Internationale de l'Automobile, "I'm the one who will have to explain it to the media."

Mosley's main worry leading up to the Australian Grand Prix is Raikkonen, a former kart champ with only 18 months' experience racing cars. Swiss F1 team Sauber signed Raikkonen for the 2001 season after noting the Finn's astonishing speed in junior racing, but the FIA-citing rules that require demonstrated expertise in lesser cars-balked at awarding a permit (called a superlicense) that would allow Raikkonen to compete. In December, Raikkonen drove flat out for hours at Spain's Jerez circuit while 25 members of the FIA commission, made up of F1 teams, sponsors, manufacturers, promoters and tire makers, looked on. His superlicense was granted by a vote of 24 to 1. The only "no" vote came from Mosley, who told the London Times the decision was "irresponsible and potentially dangerous."

The FIA president isn't alone in his concerns. Jaguar driver Eddie Irvine was dismissive of Raikkonen's test, and of subsequent rapid times the Finn set during practice in fine weather. "It's all well testing in sunshine," he said. Button, after competing in only 17 F1 races himself, surprised F1 observers by saying the Finn "may have difficulties competing on a packed grid. It is a big step up and he will have to be careful." Even schoolboy Hamilton is dubious. Raikkonen, he says, "is making a big mistake."

Raikkonen's learning curve looks more like a sheer ascent. Last year he drove a Formula Renault powered by a puny four-cylinder, 170-horsepower engine. This year he'll drive a Sauber propelled by a 10-cylinder Ferrari engine that produces more than 800 hp. and is slowed by crushingly effective carbon-fiber brakes; the 160-kg vehicle can catapult from zero to 160 km/h and back to zero in four frantic seconds. The gigantic forces generated during races chew through a complete set of tires every 100 km and maul drivers. Raikkonen may be talented, says former F1 driver Chris Amon, but his "pretty minimal" racing background simply can't prepare him for the ordeal of controlling an F1 car in close company.

In 1963, when Amon was one month short of his 20th birthday, he became the youngest man ever to race in F1 (there have since been three younger, including Alonso). Then, F1 cars struggled to generate 200 hp. "They were pathetic, really," Amon remembers. "A major yawn." On a straight track, perhaps, but minimal safety equipment and what Amon describes as "bicycle tires" meant F1 cars of that era required sublime cornering and tactical skills if a driver were merely to survive, much less win. Those skills-known as "racecraft" to F1 followers, and distinct from outright speed-have historically been allowed to mature (Amon and other tyros excepted) for years, sometimes decades, before being displayed in F1. Juan Manuel Fangio, the only driver to win five world titles, was 36 years old before he even raced outside his native Argentina. That pattern remained for several generations; Damon Hill, the 1996 champion, didn't reach F1 until his 32nd year.

Age and guile no longer cut it for F1 teams driven by enormous commercial need -large outfits such as Ferrari and McLaren run on $500 million annual budgets-to unearth the next new star. "Young and sexy are great for marketing," says Graham Jones, communications manager for Italian-based F1 team European-Minardi, for which Spanish teenager Alonso will drive this year. In coming years, he says, drivers as young as 16 or 17 may compete in Grands Prix: "Young drivers can help a team's profile and attract new sponsors. They tend to be quick. And, if you're lucky, they won't be accident prone."

They're increasingly unlikely to get hurt, argues BMW-Williams F1 team technical director Patrick Head, because up-and-comers begin their careers at ever younger ages: "These boys learn a hell of a lot quicker then we used to," he said last year. "They come through karting, and they have to learn quickly how to cope with the pressures." Brazilian Arrows driver Bernoldi and Button (now driving for Benetton) both began racing karts at nine. At the same age, Damon Hill was still 10 years away from his first contest on any racing circuit. Junior team owner Warren, almost all of whose drivers are graduates of karting, says simply: "These kids can drive. The speed is all there."

The FIA is hedging its bets on at least one "kid." Raikkonen's superlicense is valid for only four races, after which it will be reviewed. Tim Schenken, clerk of course for the Australian Grand Prix, says a review and license revocation may come sooner: "It is extremely unlikely, but if Raikkonen spun several times or had accidents [in Melbourne], it could be over for him after one practice session."

Last year, Button-whose level of experience was only slightly higher than Raikkonen's-provoked similar alarm. Dual world champion Mika Hakkinen predicted that the newcomer was in for a "nightmare four or five years" while he adapted to F1; ex-driver turned commentator Martin Brundle said Button had joined F1 at least two years too early. By the end of the season, however, Button was regularly qualifying ahead of established stars, and is now tipped to one day become a title winner. Many observers of Raikkonen's brief career deliver equally glowing predictions.

In Hertfordshire, the hype over youthful F1 contenders hasn't led to panic. "My ambition isn't to get to F1 early," says Lewis Hamilton. "It's just to get there." And he's prepared to bide his time. According to Hamilton, he might not be ready for F1 until he is 22 or 23. There is such a thing in racing as moving too fast.