OCTOBER 19, 2002
Is Castroneves the missing link?
For some time Formula 1 observers have been trying to work out what is holding up movement on the driver market. It is common knowledge that Mark Webber is expected to be confirmed as a Jaguar Racing driver but the deal has not been confirmed. There is also much talk of Cristiano da Matta joining Olivier Panis at Toyota - but the deal has not been announced.
The two things appear to be somehow related but to date no-one has been able to explain why. Now that Toyota refugee Allan McNish has popped up in California, testing for the Penske IRL team (for which Castroneves drives), there have been suggestions that the Toyota people might be in the process of pulling a fast one and trying to get Castroneves instead of Da Matta. Castroneves wants to be a Formula 1 driver and when he flew to Europe recently to test for Toyota he really did impress the team with his speed. That test may well have swayed Toyota's opinions and it certainly had an effect at Ford, where a move was made to get Castroneves to sign for Jaguar Racing. The team did not want to know (for reasons which are not entirely clear) and the story appeared to have died. But did it?
The McNish test has created a number of new questions. Penske Racing was thought to have both Gil de Ferran and Castroneves under contract for next year. If this is the case, why does the team need to test another driver? If McNish was a youngster it might be understandable: Penske needs to keep an eye on young talent but McNish needs a drive for next year and so doing the test with Penske would seem to suggest that McNish thinks there is a chance for him to drive with the team. And if that is the case, which of the current drivers is going to be on the move?
Castroneves is quick but his real value to big companies such as Toyota and Jaguar is that he has a lot of profile in the United States. Having won the last two Indianapolis 500s, the Brazilian is as big a name as there is in open-wheeled racing in the United States. Both Toyota and Jaguar want to sell more cars in the US and so using Castroneves makes a lot of sense.
Could it be that Castroneves has now replaced Da Matta as the man that Toyota would most like to see in F1? If there was a deal in place with da Matta there would have been a perfect opportunity for an announcement in a Toyota press conference immediately before the Japanese GP. But nothing was said. Logically this would suggest that there is no solid deal with da Matta and after several months of negotiation it would be odd that no deal had been hammered out. It is always possible that the whole thing is being held up by Carl Haas refusing to release da Matta from his contract. Initially there was talk of a Toyota deal for Haas in IRL but that has still not been confirmed. So maybe Toyota has moved on to Castroneves...
And maybe (just maybe) Ford is still sniffing around as well.
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