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F1 rookies a rare breed in 2004

Pinpointing Formula One's 2003 rookie of the year ultimately proved only marginally more challenging than naming Ferrari's top driver or Italy's favourite team.

The task could be even easier in 2004.

The way the driver market is shaping up, there may not be more than one genuine newcomer starting the season -- if that.

Toyota's Cristiano Da Matta must take this year's rookie accolade, if only as the sole member of the class of 2003 to have done enough to be sure of a drive in 2004.

The Brazilian scored more points than the rest -- 10 compared to one each for Britons Justin Wilson and Ralph Firman -- and qualified far higher up the starting grid (third in Japan).

Wilson, who moved to Jaguar from Minardi for the last five grands prix and now has an uncertain future, could have made it more of a contest if he had not retired from his first three races with the Ford-owned team.

Likewise Brazilian Antonio Pizzonia, a highly rated test driver at Williams but replaced by Wilson after failing to make much of an impression.

Of the rest, Firman missed two races after a crash in Hungary that allowed Zsolt Baumgartner to make his debut at Jordan while Wilson's departure from Minardi opened the door to Denmark's Nicolas Kiesa.

They made up the numbers, if nothing else.


But nobody need be too concerned. As the 2003 championship has shown, the find of the year does not have to be a rookie.

Da Matta, the 2002 CART champion, is no novice and, at almost 30 years old, no young gun either.

The real revelation of the season was Spain's Fernando Alonso.

The Renault driver could not be classed as a rookie after competing in 2001 for Minardi but he still lined up in Melbourne without a point to his name and as the youngest driver on the grid.

Those who wondered whether the French carmaker had got it right in replacing Briton Jenson Button with the 21-year-old were soon silenced.

Alonso emerged as the youngest grand prix winner in Formula One history, triumphant in Hungary after taking pole in Malaysia and pushing Ferrari's Michael Schumacher hard in Spain.

With such remarkable young talent as Alonso and McLaren's Kimi Raikkonen, Formula One need not worry too much about the future.

Mark Webber at Jaguar has also been an eye-opener and the next month should reveal who will partner the Australian. Whoever gets the job is unlikely to be a debutant, however.

Far more likely, if Wilson is not retained, would be an experienced pair of hands like McLaren's Austrian tester Alexander Wurz.

With Germany's Nick Heidfeld and Heinz-Harald Frentzen seeking employment along with Canadian former champion Jacques Villeneuve and Briton Allan McNish, there is plenty of expertise available.

Firman is hoping to stay at Jordan, who have reportedly made Frentzen an offer.

Minardi, whose Dutch driver Jos Verstappen is also eying the Jaguar seat, could ultimately be the only opening for newcomers but money will do much of the talking.

Promising Italian Giammaria Bruni, Minardi's current tester, has a chance there -- particularly if Italian investors rumoured to be interested in the team step forward.

Whatever the outcome, the return of Japan's Takuma Sato at BAR and Brazilian Felipe Massa at Sauber will add some spice to the championship.

They will not be rookies but, with the rough edges smoothed off after a year of testing following their debuts in 2002, either could be the revelation of 2004.

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