FEBRUARY 21, 2001
Why Pedro de la Rosa switched teams
THE announcement that Pedro de la Rosa has switched from being the Prost Grand Prix test driver to being the number three driver at Jaguar Racing is a bit of a surprise, not least for Alain Prost who thought he had the Spanish driver under contract for two years.
After the announcement the Prost team issued a statement saying it disapproved strongly of de la Rosa's decision and said that it intends to "exercise our rights against him as well as against his representatives and agents and, if necessary, against our competitor."
The problem is that test driver contracts are not covered by the Contract Recognition Board and so contract-breaking is still possible with regard to test drivers.
Jaguar's need for de la Rosa is obvious. The team has two inexperienced young drivers in Luciano Burti and Tomas Scheckter and an uneasy relationship with lead driver Eddie Irvine. The Ulsterman is not know for his ability to keep quiet and as the new Jaguar R2 is obviously not a sensationally fast car he is already beginning to talk about its lack of performance. This may give the Jaguar Racing management the opportunity to kick Irvine out without having to pay off his contract, which runs for another two seasons (2001 and 2002) and is believed to be worth something in the region of $25m. The problem up to now has been that the team did not an alternative lead driver to Irvine. With de la Rosa on board there is a good incentive for Irvine to stop talking and get on with the job of developing the car.
It will also be a good incentive to Burti to prove that he has the speed necessary to be taken seriously in F1. What is clear is that Jaguar must have offered de la Rosa a solid drive for 2002 (which is bad news for Burti when one considers that Irvine is under contract).
Then other possible implication of the switch is that de la Rosa tested the Prost and must therefore know how competitive it is going to be. If it was going to be a frontrunner de la Rosa would have had little incentive to switch teams because he is a lot faster than Gaston Mazzacane and could have taken over from the Argentine pay-driver fairly easily if the car was good enough. Thus it must throw some doubt on whether or not the Prost really is as quick as it has appeared in testing to date.
The Jaguar situation is further complicated by the fact that another of Jakobi's clients - CART driver Dario Franchitti - has made no secret of his desire to get into F1 in 2002. The Scottish driver tested for Jaguar last year and then signed only a one-year deal with Team Kool Green in CART, his intention clearly being to move to F1 in 2002. It may be that there is a long term understanding between Jaguar and Franchitti which has not been announced.
For the moment, however, there is no official change in the current driver line-up but friction is building up at Jaguar and we expect there to be an explosion after a few races if the car or the drivers are not performing. With a completely new management to that which signed Irvine and Burti the team could be on the verge of major changes.