THE YOUTH OF TODAY

And next week: a yellow car

With a gigantic sigh of relief Jaguar Racing did the decent thing and ended a winter of rumors, deals, testing times, driver line-ups and hyperbole. In a few short weeks all this tedium will be as a bad dream from which we will have awoken to get on with the business at hand: motor racing. That was the overriding feeling as Messrs. Irvine and Burti peeled away the cloth from their new Jaguar R2 in front of the world's media. Oddly, therefore, there was no palpable air of anticipation, no admiring gasp and barely a ripple of appreciative murmuring.

Having put in so much work in so little time given the rude interruption of Yuletide, and treated us all to so cheerful a reception (doubtless induced by a euphoria of exhaustion), you could have wept for the guys and gals at Jaguar.

After an epileptic's nightmare of images flashed up on a big screen to induce memories of the big cat's glorious past the block rocking beat gave way to a few embarrassed words about the 2000 season. Then came the moment for which we were all gathered, and the Jaguar R2 was revealed to be… virtually identical to its predecessor.

Hmmm. This sensation (or lack thereof) promises to be the main feature of all the launches to follow. As Jaguar's Chief Aerodynamicist, Mark Handford, pointed out the regulations are ‘clear and well written… a three-dimensional jigsaw'. And of course, as everyone who's ever done a jigsaw will know, there's only one way to solve it.

Trying to add a bit of individuality is a fruitless task; you must conform to the basic pattern of the pieces or end up with a rather large mess on your hands. The same sentiment, it seems, applies to the design of Formula 1 cars.

There is a case, of course, to say that ‘twas ever thus. After the Formule Libre fun of Grand Prix racing's early days the design of choice from the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s had the engine in front, the fuel tank behind and the driver sitting on the transmission.

But there was still room enough in the regulations for Doctor Porsche's rear-engined Auto Union, Jano's pannier-tanked Lancia, streamlined Mercedes' and a bewildering array of engine sizes and layouts for everyone to play with.

The next generation ended up with universal rear engined monocoques - but still there was room for four-wheel-drive, ever more bizarre engine layouts, turbines, aerodynamics, six-wheelers, ground effect, fan cars, turbo charging and carbon fiber (in no particular order).

Schoolboys and scientists alike always had something to drool over, but recent regulations have corralled designers into the relentless tweaking of endplates and suspension geometry as their partners in the noisy end fuss and fiddle over the jigsaw of the 3-liter V10.

What will make the difference between an Jaguar R2 and a McLaren MP4/16 this season? Well one will be green and the other silver, and one will be a good half-second faster than the other. How? Nobody knows, because nobody wants you to know. It makes Grands Prix a little bit like watching eleven teams race to finish their Rubic's Cube.

If I were a Jaguar exec I'd be a little miffed about that. After all, it sells its XJRs and S-Types on the fact that you can spot the breeding from several miles off, just like a rival Mercedes-Benz. It says what sort of car you are buying and what sort of person you are.

The same goes for BMW, whose Mini will do exactly what a Toyota Yaris does, but in cutie-pie retro clothes whilst its rival is a work of modern functionalism. Paint all their flagship F1 cars the same, however, and you'll end up… confused.

Rumor has it that V10 engines are getting so small and light that they'll soon be able to fit in sideways, and then the designers' party can begin again. Until then I leave you with the big news from Coventry that AT&T has joined Jaguar Racing as a major sponsor.

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