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F1 Hot News
By Andrew Maitland
January 13, 2003
1


Renault Deny Friday Disadvantage
Flavio Briatore has fended off claims that Friday test restrictions will compromise Renault's ability to develop the new R23.

With struggling privateers Jordan and Minardi, fourth-placed 2002 outfit Renault, based in Enstone, has agreed to limit its in-season test program to just ten days.

The upside, however, is that drivers Jarno Trulli, Fernando Alonso, and new-boy developer Allan McNish, will be free to drive the race and spare cars for a special, two hour Friday session at every Grand Prix venue.

Briatore, the flamboyant Italian chief, admits that there are downsides to the novel scheme implemented particularly to cut costs.

'Yes of course,' he admits. 'You can't have your cake and eat it too! The downside can be that some of the longer term development projects are more difficult, although not impossible, to organize.'

But he denies the interpretation that Renault will be significantly affected when it comes to developing Michelin tires and other aspects of the all-new R23.

He says: 'We feel the opposite may be true in that we can now evaluate tires on circuits where we were not able to do so before.

'This will give us both a short term gain for that weekends race and a longer term gain in that we can obtain information that will be useful to us in future years.'

The Italian insists that most performance improvements are found in the wind tunnel, dynamometer and simulators - not from endless track miles.

'These developments are in no way effected, and in fact can be enhanced, by a reduction in circuit testing.'

Nonetheless, big-three outfits Ferrari, Williams and McLaren - as well as Toyota, Jaguar, BAR and Sauber - will stay focused on the so-called Suzuka Agreement on unlimited testing.







Wilson Confident Of Shares Scheme
Minardi rookie Justin Wilson is talking down rising media reports that worry of his dire financial affairs.

The 24-year-old rose to the Faenza-based Minardi seat, promising boss Paul Stoddart more than $3 million, off the back of a novel scheme to sell shares in his future earnings.

But the British press mused last week that not a single shining penny had yet materialized in the project labeled 'brave' and 'bold' by observers.

Furthermore, some observers noted that father Keith Wilson had put his petrol-station and Solvents company up as collateral in the event that the shares-money is unforthcoming.

Fending off the claims, Justin said: 'It's going quite well. There's been a bit in the press recently about the deal not looking so solid but that's not true at all.'

He adds: 'We have five people underwriting the investment and we are trying to set up the investment system which Jonathan Palmer, my manager, is working on.

'I'm hoping that's going to be completed in the next couple of weeks, in which case people can then start to invest.'

He called Dad's promise to sell the $2 million garage a 'back-up plan', but insists that a heartening amount of interest will see him through.

'We're confident,' he continues. 'We've got people who want to be involved.'

A scheme will be launched soon to give his racing fans the opportunity to buy shares of as little as $160.







Brundle: Unanimity Unlikely At Meeting
Keen TV pundit and ex-Grand Prix driver Martin Brundle has backed the efforts of FIA President Max Mosley to shake up the Sporting Regulations.

This week, Max, F1 impresario Bernie Ecclestone and the ten team bosses will meet in London as the FIA chief tries to push through additional emergency cost-cutting plans for 2003.

Brundle, former McLaren, Jordan and Tyrrell driver, says: 'I'm hoping we are going to see some fireworks on January 15, when Max Mosley forces on them some aspects of trying to cut some costs and even slow the cars up a little bit.'

It is believed that the re-banning of traction-control, power steering, automatic gearboxes and sophisticated telemetry systems are all on the agenda - and ready for the chop.

But it requires unanimity - and Martin Brundle explains why this is unlikely.

'If you were Frank Williams or Ron Dennis and you need to find $300 million to run your team, you're winning championships, why would you happily give that up to a midfield team?

'Particularly a team boss that has not invested, not run his team so well and is not as competitive. I can understand that. Why would they give up their competitive advantage, they are competitive people.'

Max Mosley, though, is known to have individually met with several team bosses in the lead-up to this week's landmark forum - including Ferrari's Jean Todt - to try and get a mandate to make the changes he deems necessary.

Formula One embraced change through the Sporting Code in October when the F1 Commission voted in proposals including shoot-out qualifying, points reform and new tire regulations.

Brundle is thought to have failed in negotiations to land the newly-vacant Jaguar team boss role, in Niki Lauda's wake.







Franck Montagny Thrilled With F1 Power
According to Franck Montagny, 'nothing can prepare you' for the power of a Formula One car.

The Frenchman spoke enthusiastically in the days after his signing as a new young test driver for the Enstone-based Renault F1 team.

'It was exactly how I imagined it,' the youngster explains of his recent evaluation in the R202 contender at Jerez de la Frontera.

He adds: 'Amazing! Acceleration, braking, grip - F1 is just a different world. It takes a little time to get used to, and to find new reference points, but I enjoyed driving the car immensely.

'But nothing can prepare you for the moment when that much horsepower is unleashed right behind you. There's nothing better!'

Montagny will head Renault's restricted in-season development program this year, after the French-owned manufacturer signed up for the ten-day, Friday-session Heathrow Agreement.

He took to the wheel for the first time at Jerez before Christmas: 'I concentrated on not spinning, not doing anything stupid, and explaining each detail of the car's behavior to the team.'

Franck adds: 'That evening, I had no complaints at all about the job I had done - I didn't make any big mistakes.'

For the moment, a limited Renault testing program is the former F3 and F3000 driver's only commitment for the New Year of racing: 'Nothing is definite,' he explains.

'But I should compete in a championship in 2003 - I need to stay sharp in race situations as well.'

Renault's development line-up, complimenting race pilots Trulli and Alonso, is completed by Toyota refugee Allan McNish, of Scotland.







American Stars Line Up Formula One
A couple of hopeful Americans have their focus set firmly on a future at the pinnacle of motorsports.

Bryan Herta, former CART and sportscar ace, said a 'small chance' exists for a year spent testing in Formula One, probably with Minardi.

He first tried the 800-horsepower PS01 at last year's Donington extravaganza, but now lines up an appearance at the United States Grand Prix in September as the Faenza team go Friday testing.

Minardi boss Paul Stoddart has confirmed that the new Heathrow Agreement, allowing teams to run an extra session on the Friday at each Grand Prix, will be used as a 'straight commercial transaction' with young national hopefuls.

Herta said: 'There is still a small chance to possibly do some testing or something in Formula One next year which would be good,' said the American.

'Paul Stoddart did give me my first chance to drive in Formula One,' the Californian continues.

'He did make me an offer to drive in the series this year but it wasn't a financial package that I could put together in the US unfortunately.'

Meanwhile, another American ace, British Formula Three youngster Richard Antinucci, revealed that he was also in line to become his home nation's first F1 representative since Michael Andretti in the Nineties.

'It's very important to have an American driver racing at an American track, it's home-soil and the fans need someone to represent them in the race,' he told fans at the Autosport International Show.

'The sooner it happens the better, and I hope I'm the one.'







New Race Engineer For Ralf Schumacher
Gordon Day will assume the mantle as Williams star Ralf Schumacher's race engineer in 2003.

The Grove-based team formally announced the news after Craig Wilson, departing for a stint at British American Racing alongside Jenson Button, left the team.

A statement read: 'Day, who has been with WilliamsF1 since 1999, formerly held a position as a data engineer with the team, and has worked as Ralf's race engineer during recent testing activities.'

Sir Frank Williams and his hopeful Grove team have penciled the final day of January as the provisional date for the FW25 package launch.

The date, to be confirmed early in the New Year, will see a revolutionary new BMW-powered challenger have its wraps taken off at the Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona.

This year, en route to a distant runner-up in the Constructors' chase, Williams managed just one victory to Ferrari's fifteen, while the race-day deficit stood somewhere in the region of a second per lap.

And those facts, says former Ferrari, McLaren and Benetton driver Gerhard Berger, will not be trampled on overnight.

Berger, now joint Motorsport Director at BMW, says: 'We must draw even with Ferrari from the beginning of this season. I don't believe, however, that we'll be able to overtake and beat Ferrari.

'In any case, we want to challenge them more than last year.'







'Real Buzz' At Rejuvenated Jaguar Team
There is a 'real buzz' about the rejuvenated Jaguar Racing team as it contemplates a new racing season.

This time last year, the Milton-Keynes outfit unveiled the horrendous R3 challenger; flawed technically and left languishing as Jaguar embarked on a thorough restructuring.

But although not a wheel has turned in anger since the pre-Christmas test at Jerez, work on the all-new R4 has been continuing around the clock with a motivated outfit.

According to race team manager David Stubbs, Jaguar learned a great deal about the brand-new R4 at Jerez, despite teething problems - and new pilots Mark Webber and Antonio Pizzonia are raring to go.

'The R3C didn't achieve as high a mileage as we would have liked, owing to various problems with the new engine,' said Stubbs of the hybrid machine fitted with new, 90-degree Cosworth engine.

'Nonetheless, we learned a great deal about it and were able to feed what we discovered into the development program in time for the next test in early January.'

Stubbs adds: 'We ran for the duration of the three test sessions using an 02-spec R3 and a hybrid R3C - the 02 car fitted with the 03-spec 90-degree V10 Cosworth engine.'

So while he says it is 'way too early' to draw early conclusions about Jaguar's '03 form, he reveals that both young drivers have settled in very quickly and are 'very enthusiastic' about the task ahead.

Mark Webber, 26, was voted Rookie of the Year at the weekend's F1 'Bernie' Awards whilst Pizzonia, of Brazil, lands in the R4 seat from F3000 and an impressive stint as Williams tester.

Stubbs continues: 'They work well together and have been very well received by everyone at Jaguar Racing, Cosworth Racing and Pi Electronics.'

In the wake of boss Niki Lauda's firing, Jaguar head into the final seven weeks of pre-season 2003 without a team principal or technical director.







Crucial Time Of Year For BMW
Seven weeks prior to the Formula One season-opener is the 'most important time of the year,' according to BMW Motorsport Director Mario Theissen.

With chassis partner Williams, the Munich-based engine builder ended up second in the Constructors' chase last year, albeit trailing champions Ferrari by some fourteen race victories.

Behind the scenes, though, BMW is a hive of activity in preparation for a championship assault in 2003: 'We have been working on the P83, the new Formula One engine, for a long time now,' Theissen said.

'At the moment everybody is working at full steam at the test stand,' he added. 'People in the factory are working non-stop.

'For our test engineers, this is the most important time of the year.'

Meanwhile, whilst Williams admit they failed to make the most of the best engine in pitlane last year, Sam Michael, Chief Operations Engineer, is hoping that gains in the wind-tunnel will make the FW25 a substantial step forward.

'Our main weakness is at the rear end of the car,' the 30-year-old Australian admits, 'And aerodynamics in general.'

Most experts note that the Williams chassis was, last year, overly brutal for the rear Michelin tires, often leading to increased wear.

'It remains to be seen what gains can be made on our package for this year, but rest assured that every effort is now devoted to that on-track deficit.'

Will we see a 'radical' Williams contender next year, then? 'There is a fine line between a revolutionary step and a misguided, untried or experimental step,' he said.

'We will walk that line.'

Sir Frank Williams similarly worries that last year's racer was too conservative an evolution on the work of 2001; the team boss now promising that his Grove outfit will not make the same mistake two years in succession.

In 2003, he says, its all or nothing: 'This year we won't repeat the mistake of not risking enough,' said the 60-year-old chief.

'We'll prove our technological boldness and present a revolutionary FW25,' he says.







Mosley To Enforce Change On Wednesday
Max Mosley will try to force through a portfolio of radical change at this Wednesday's meeting of Formula One team bosses.

The FIA President met privately with men like Ron Dennis, Frank Williams and Jean Todt in recent weeks in an attempt to obtain a mandate to make the changes he deems necessary for the sport.

In the past twelve months, two outfits - Prost and Arrows - have succumbed to Formula One's rising costs and a couple more look likely to follow if appropriate changes are not seen.

'Max was very disappointed the teams did not try harder to find their own ideas for change,' an FIA source told British media.

The teams effectively shelved reform of the Technical Regulations until 2005 at a recent meeting.

The source adds: 'They know how serious things are and he expected them to make an attempt. He will be going into Wednesday's meeting looking for positive changes that will happen right now.

'It is not an option to try to postpone things as the teams did, hoping it will all go away.'

Traction control, telemetry, automatic gearboxes and even power steering could get the chop at Wednesday's meeting, but only with the unanimous consent of the team principals.

Sam Michael, Williams technical boss at the track, believes a ban on traction control would, for example, save some costs: 'It might save some at the factory,' he said, 'because of vehicle dynamics support.'

But Mosley and his cohorts like F1 impresario Bernie Ecclestone will also be looking at changes to spice up the waning track spectacle.

Ferrari won fifteen of the seventeen races last year, precipitating a decline of up to 20 percent in television audiences.







Davidson Still In The Jordan Hunt
Anthony Davidson has refused to rule himself out of the running for the last racing seat in Formula One this year - at Jordan.

Just weeks after the 23-year-old Briton insisted he was not about to become the sport's newest pay-driver, he told a captive audience at the Autosport International show that he resides a 'good position' for the EJ13 seat.

In a sponsorship corner, Jordan is turning to the British-driver demands of Benson & Hedges as it contemplates a return to the title-backer role.

And Davidson, coming cheaper than outspoken alternative Eddie Irvine, is a logical choice: 'The Jordan drive is still up for grabs,' Davidson, from Hemel Hempstead, adds.

'I actually stand in quite a good position. Benson & Hedges are obviously looking for a British driver, and there's not many around at the moment.'

But Jordan, in the wake of Deutsche Post World Net's departure, it actively looking for a pay-driver able to bring up to $15 million in sponsorship to the spare seat.

And while young 'Ant' is unlikely to fulfill that criteria, he does fit B & H's bill as a hard-charging, prominent and popular Briton.

'We haven't got any money, but Eddie Jordan has got his back to the wall,' said Davidson. 'That puts us in a good position.

'At the moment it does need a little bit of money to get the drive, but Eddie's in a situation where he also needs a British driver. Since no British driver has any money to throw around he's in a difficult position.

'If he can find extra sponsorship then basically we're in.'

Davidson, who debuted last year at Minardi, always has a long-term contract with British American Racing - as a tester - to fall back on.

He continued to tell the audience in Birmingham: 'I'm pretty sure Honda are going to have a really strong engine for this season, and the new car looks really good.

'I'll be driving a quick car whatever happens this year.'

Felipe Massa, with Ford of Brazil cash, and Enrique Bernoldi, complete with Red Bull sponsorship, are next in line for the yellow berth.







Schumacher, Fisichella, Webber Honored
An absent Michael Schumacher was named 'Best Driver of 2002' as the F1 Awards, better known as the Bernies, got into full swing in Birmingham on the weekend.

Taking the award on the five times world champion's behalf, former pilot Damon Hill said: 'I finally got something that Michael won!'

The pair scrapped famously in the late Nineties, Hill eventually taking the championship from Michael in 1996 after epic battles - and several collisions - years earlier.

But it was Roman driver Giancarlo Fisichella who got the longest applause as he became the first recipient of the 'Driver's Driver' award, voted by his on-track rivals.

Australian ace Mark Webber, debuting for Minardi last year but staring into a new challenge with Jaguar, took the plaudits as 'Best Newcomer' from Nigel Mansell and 2003 rookie Justin Wilson, who has taken his seat at Minardi.

'It's certainly great for me to receive a 'Bernie' Award, because after all, he's the guy who has made F1 what it is and I'd like to thank everyone on the voting panel,' said the 26-year-old.

'2002 was a highly memorable season for me and I'm sure the Melbourne result helped to earn this award, as a lot of people were genuinely happy to see one of the smaller teams get lucky.'

Race Director and Safety Delegate Charlie Whiting took home the 'Outstanding Contribution in 2002' award from legend Murray Walker, whilst David Coulthard gave his McLaren boss Ron Dennis the coveted 'Lifetime Achievement Award'.

In other awards, Melbourne's Albert Park was named best circuit while Schumacher's F2002 took the prize for a predictable best car award.

Webber, an Aussie, added: 'I was really pleased to see Melbourne named circuit of the year, not only because it's my home event, but because I believe it's second to none in terms of organization and facilities.

'And, who better to receive the award on behalf of the AGPC than [Minardi boss] Paul [Stoddart] - a Melbourne boy.'

The 'Bernies', held at Birmingham's NEC, is run in conjunction with a fund-raising party for Professor Sid Watkins' Brain and Spine Foundation.

It was well attended in 2003, names including Cristiano da Matta, Olivier Panis, Ricardo Zonta, Antonio Pizzonia, Justin Wilson and Anthony Davidson all on the guest-list.







Ross Brawn: Jaguar Would Be A Challenge
Ross Brawn would approach a new role with Jaguar Racing as a challenge worth contemplating, the lauded Ferrari Technical Director has revealed.

But fear not, Ferrari lovers - the burly Englishman has no intention of giving up his berth at the Prancing Horse on the back of four consecutive Constructors' and three Drivers' championships.

The 48-year-old said: 'Jaguar really could become the British Ferrari.

'They have the history. They do their own engine. They do their own car. Maybe one day a team like theirs would be a new challenge.'

Brawn has a contract with the Scuderia until the end of season 2004, and urges that 'I don't feel that I need that challenge at the moment. I am very fulfilled here at Ferrari.'

'Living in Italy is very nice! I'm proud that there is a little part of Britain, a little part of England, working in Maranello. Its great and I've not tired of it.'

And for those waiting for Ferrari to falter, Brawn insists that the all-new F2003 is set to prove only an enhancement of the fourteen-race winning F2002 that conquered last year.

He adds: 'The objectives are clear; you want to make things lighter and lower, you want to reduce the inertia of the car and its drag. You also want to increase stiffness and downforce. All those things are straightforward.

'You simply need to do better then the year before.'

Ross Brawn says the new scarlet contender makes a good step forward in several areas, whilst development is specifically targeted in the area of Bridgestone tires.

'I am sure we can go forward by a decent amount,' he adds.

The Englishman, then, scotches claims that the gap to Williams and McLaren will logically decrease this year, merely because Ferrari's their scope for improvement is less.

In fact, he thinks 2003 could prove an even more scarlet year than the unrivaled dominance of 2002.

'I think improvement comes from the effort you're making,' he insists. 'I would be surprised if our performance improvement from '02 to '03 is not bigger then it was from '01 to '02.

'So even within the same regulations, the improvement does level off after a while - but we've found a substantial amount of improvement for next year's car.'







Jordan Optimistic For Crucial Meeting
Eddie Jordan has described the pinnacle of motorsport's spiraling costs as a 'cancer on Formula One.'

The Silverstone-based team chief worries for the future of Grand Prix independents like himself, Minardi and Sauber as a Wednesday meeting with team bosses and FIA President Max Mosley looms.

The Irishman, for one, hopes that significant cost-cutting reforms, such as the banning of traction control and telemetry systems, find their way into the regulations for 2003 before more teams collapse.

Jordan, heading into '03 with an expensive new Cosworth engine program and no title sponsor, warns that Wednesday needs to produce more than just 'tinkering at the edges of the rules.'

The FIA, rumored to have drafted a proposal for unprecedented rules reform for Wednesday, are refusing to reveal anything of its contents. 'This is a very important and sensitive meeting,' said a spokesman.

He continued: 'So we are being very cautious. On this occasion we just can't discuss it in advance.'

Eddie Jordan continues that the privateer outfits cannot compete with the works-backed constructors who benefit from free engine programs.

The eponymous team chief says the matter is worsened as Arrows, Minardi, Prost - and even Jordan - are forced to turn to customer engine suppliers demanding anything up to and including $25 million.

'I fear for them because it must be like being on death row,' he says of the declining number of privateer teams. 'As a team, you just can't meet these costs.'

With so much riding on the Wednesday meeting, though, Eddie Jordan is ever the optimist and confident that there will be 'unification of the teams.'

Mr Jordan says: 'Mosley is a highly qualified barrister. He would not risk his reputation if he did not think he could pull it off. He's cunning and has plenty of guile.'

He adds that if no agreement is reached on Wednesday, 'we're a bunch of buffoons'.







Coulthard: Never Been Hungrier For Title
David Coulthard has seldom approached a new season of Grand Prix racing with more determination to succeed.

The McLaren-driving Scot, set to put eight years of Formula One experience to the test in 2003, is fending off claims that he'll never soar to the ultimate jewel of racing success.

'I've been open to some criticism and there are those who don't believe I have the ability to win the championship but the only way that will ever change is if I actually do,' said the 31-year-old.

'What's important is that I believe I can and that belief is based on facts.'

He says a career spent racing wheel-to-wheel with the world's best pilot, Michael Schumacher - plus taking home 'difficult' wins including Monaco last year and Brazil in the rain (2001) - proves he is championship material.

Coulthard, from Twynholm, adds: 'After all, Monaco isn't a race you win by accident. It's a very challenging circuit and I have been lucky enough to stand on the podium there twice.'

With the title still unclenched, then, maintaining motivation is the least of Coulthard's worries: 'It's not difficult to stay motivated because the goal doesn't change.'

Last year, McLaren failed to finish either first or second in the championships for the first time since 1997.

But the ultimate inspiration, for David, simply comes from pushing the limits of human achievement - and having fun in a grand Prix car: 'It's an absolute blast racing one of these cars,' he continued to tell the Birmingham audience.

'It is the best thing I can imagine.'

Coulthard will again be pitted against the ever-rising talents of McLaren teammate Kimi Raikkonen in 2003.







Cristiano Turns To JPM For Advice
Cristiano Da Matta has turned to a man with a similar career chronology for advice on his new Grand Prix challenge - Juan Pablo Montoya.

In 1999 and 2000, Colombian-ace Montoya dominated the CART tracks before hitting the pinnacle of motorsports, and winning a race in his first season, with Williams.

This year, fellow South American Da Matta - from Brazil - hits the F1 circuit with Toyota having soared to the Champcar title with seven wins and seven poles in 2002.

'I talked to Montoya about what the differences are or what was more difficult to get used to,' Da Matta said, 'and the main differences on the way to drive the car.

'But I didn't talk about why he succeeded or not.'

In 2003, Da Matta will grapple with new regulations governing the qualifying spectacle, limiting each driver's campaign for a grid-slot from four or more laps to just one.

If Juan Pablo's advice had a theme, then, it was this - use your time very, very efficiently, Cristiano: 'He told me that the most difficult thing is that you have a very short time to adapt to a lot of things,' he said.

Cristiano, affectionately known by family members as Kiki, adds: 'He says get the maximum out of every test and every time you are in the car, and when you are with the team try to learn as much as you can.

'It's been a very, very intense preseason.'

In 2002, two hours of practice time on Fridays led into a similar double-pronged preparedness for Saturday qualifying with another 90 minutes of free practice.

This year, though, Cristiano will have one-hour before the initial Friday shoot-out session to learn new tracks like Melbourne, Sepang, Interlagos - and the rest.

'It is definitely not easy, but it is one challenge, too,' Da Matta says. 'If I am very used to the car, I feel like one hour is enough to learn the track.

He adds: 'When you are not used to car, maybe one hour is not enough time, but with the amount of testing we are planning to do this year, hopefully I am going to be well acclimatized by Melbourne.'

Cristiano's teammate for this year is the rated veteran from France, Olivier Panis.

The pair were testing in Le Castellet last week after the launch of the sparkling new Toyota contender, TF103.







Money Not Only Factor, Says Stoddart
Paul Stoddart has rejected the claim that saving - and making - money was his only motivation behind signing up to the new Heathrow testing Agreement.

Otherwise known as Friday Testing, the cost-cutting initiative will see three teams field spare cars and test drivers during an extra, two-hour, track testing session on the first morning of a GP meet.

In return, the participating teams will limit their in-season track programs to just ten days - potentially saving them several millions of dollars in a season.

But as Renault boss Flavio Briatore explained late last week, money was not the only factor: 'Everybody thinks that the reason we went for Friday testing was financial,' says Stoddart, Minardi boss.

Renault and Jordan are the other two Friday participants.

Stoddart adds: 'It was, but money wasn't the only reason. The reason I went for it is that we will not have to make our tire choice until after those two hours.'

The Australian entrepreneur, struggling to keep his Faenza-based team afloat, will also use the initiative to make money by fielding local, one-off pay-drivers at the venues.

In Melbourne, for example, the 47-year-old intends to run local boy James Courtney, for a small fee. And for the US Grand Prix, Bryan Herta and Townsend Bell might be in the frame.

He adds: 'We'll be doing real live testing on the circuit in the weather conditions, sometimes on a circuit where nobody can ever test on, getting two hours of invaluable time before we have to hit the ground running.'

Stoddart thinks the Heathrow Agreement has a future, and will not disappear after just one season.

The Minardi boss says: 'I think there will be more than three teams, in a way I hope not, but I think more people will sign up for the session.'







Fisichella Next-Best To M Schumacher
Giancarlo Fisichella has never looked better poised for an imminent graduation to Formula One's exclusive winner's list.

'If the Jordan is very competitive this year then I have one more year with Jordan,' he said, tuxedoed and bright-eyed at the F1 Awards in Birmingham on Saturday night.

'But obviously if I have the opportunity to drive for one of the best teams like Ferrari, McLaren or Williams then it would be a good chance.'

The Roman's boosted confidence comes after he, aged 30, took the inaugural Drivers' Driver accolade at the annual Bernie awards - voted by the Formula One field of pilots.

So while Michael Schumacher took home Driver of the Year for the third consecutive time, Fisichella is rated amongst the best by none other than his pitlane cohorts.

A nice line on Giancarlo's curriculum vitae, in any estimation.

He said: 'The new car looks good and the target for me is to win my first race in Formula One and be really competitive.'

Former F1 commentator, the legendary voice of motor-racing Murray Walker, put Giancarlo a close second-best to five times world champion Schumacher as he handed the Italian his award.

'Giancarlo is one of the top three and I would say even top two drivers these days,' said the 79-year-old.

Eddie Jordan, Giancarlo's Irish team boss, was also on hand to pass over the award to his rated Italian charge. 'He's a great guy and certainly one of the very top drivers in F1,' he said at Birmingham's NEC.

'I think this award shows that even his rivals think so too! I am very happy for him.'

A Special Safety Award went to the new-for-2003 HANS Device, while rock star entertainment came in the form of Cheeky Girls, Mis-Teeq, and Eddie Jordan's band V10 with the Irish chief at the drum-kit.

'It was great to have a night of rock and roll with so many friends and people from F1,' said EJ afterwards. 'The band was on top form and we really enjoyed ourselves.'







Prost Boys Prepare For Racing Return
Alain Prost is poised for a spectacular return to the Grand Prix racing wheel.

The four-times Formula One champion, whose Grand Prix team succumbed to debts in late 2001, will be back on track for the famous Andros Trophy in 2003.

To be staged this weekend at Lans-en-Vercors in the French Alps, Serre-Chevalier in late January, Super Besse in February and Noeux-les-Mines, Prost said: 'The passion rules me once again.

'I need to have fun,' the 48-year-old, known for his meticulous driving style as The Professor, adds.

'I am going to start a new challenge in a series I know nothing about. It's like I was 18 again.'







Brief: Birthdays, Speedways And Skis
Veteran ex-racers Bobby Rahal and Eddie Cheever celebrated birthdays on Friday.

Both Americans, Cheever - now 45 - spent a long but relatively unsuccessful career in grand prix racing until he switched to Indycars in the early Nineties - without a major change in fortune.

Today, the former Hesketh, Tyrrell, Renault and Arrows driver leads his own Indy Racing League team in the oval-predominated series.

Rahal, turning 50 and recent boss of Jaguar Racing for a short stint, contested two grands prix - both in North America in the Seventies - before turning solely to US-based Champcars; winning the Indy 500 in 1986.

Still in America, the rejuvenating CART series will return to Europe with races in Germany and the United Kingdom this year, at Lausitzring and Brands Hatch respectively.

After a year's absence caused by financial problems and the tragic accident of Alex Zanardi in its inaugural race, the Lausitzring oval track returns to CART just out of Berlin.

'With its two-mile superspeedway, EuroSpeedway Lausitz is one of the most impressive and modern motor-racing circuits in the world,' said CART CEO Chris Pook.

The event will take place in May: 'When we didn't return in 2002, the drivers and teams lamented the fact we did not go back to such a spectacular facility,' Pook adds.

Back to Formula One, grand prix returnee Jos Verstappen spent a frosty New Year's Holiday in freezing Norway, with world champion buddy Michael Schumacher and their families.

But while Ferrari ace Michael, Jos and wife Sophie enjoyed their time on skis, Verstappen's children Max and Victoria quickly found a deeper affection for sledging.

Max Verstappen said: 'A sledge is much faster and is not as difficult as skiing'.

In other news, Craig Pollock, BAR team founder and manager of 1997 world champion Jacques Villeneuve, is reportedly poised to run his own CART team after scheduling a news conference with Chris Pook this week.

Pollock said in a statement that he was to announce a 'major development' after news emerged that he had purchased the ailing PWR team and its Indianapolis headquarters.







Brief: Sepang, Bourdais, Dakar And Paffett
Sepang International, the circuit staging the annual Malaysian Grand Prix, has targeted a crowd of 100,000 and a re-clinching of the coveted award for Best Race in 2003.

The track, just out of Kuala-Lumpur, took the Best Organizer honor in 1999 but has since struggled to fill its grandstands and provide a full weekend of entertainment.

'We will do everything possible this year to win it again. Everyone has agreed to do it,' said national press officer Azhar Ghazali.

'We are aiming for a 100,000-strong crowd that Sunday,' he said after a coordinating committee meeting at the Sepang F1 Circuit, chaired by SIC chairman Tan Sri Basir Ismail.

Meanwhile, 2003 F3000 champion Sebastien Bourdais has, in the absence of the Renault testing role, turned to Champcars for a future in world motorsport.

The 21-year-old Frenchman tested with the Newman/Haas team at Sebring last week and reportedly impressed team bosses with his performance.

'The team was concentrating on putting as many miles on the car as possible and we were able to accomplish that,' he said.

In tragic news, a French co-driver was killed in an accident on Saturday during the Dakar Rally's tenth stage.

Bruno Cauvy, 48, died immediately on the scene after the car went out of control in sand dunes.

In other, Formula One news, British hopeful Gary Paffett announced at the Autosport International Show on Sunday that he is targeting a full-time job as the second McLaren tester.

The German F3 champion tested for the Woking-based squad at Barcelona last month: 'At the moment we are talking with McLaren to trying to get something sorted,' he said.

'They are still interested in me and I hope we might be able to arrange something over the next few weeks. My link with McLaren goes back to karts, when they backed the Champions of the Future series.

'A test deal with them would be ideal for me.'

He has also been in contact with Jordan regarding the final racing seat on the 2003 Grand Prix grid: 'It seems like you will need a couple of million to race with them, which we haven't got,' he added.

'But we've got good links with Ford, so we'll see.'







McNish Signed For Technical Expertise
Renault boss Flavio Briatore has explained the signing of Toyota refugee Allan McNish as due to his experience and technical expertise.

The 32-year-old rookie, McNish, found himself ousted by Toyota at the end of last year but will line up in the spare Renault R23 on all Grand Prix tracks in 2003, in a Friday-testing capacity.

'It was necessary to have a driver with suitable experience for the running that takes place on Friday,' Italian boss Briatore explains.

'It will be his job to work alongside the race drivers, as all three cars will be running during this session, to carry out whatever tasks the engineers need done.'

Briatore describes the Dumfries-born pilot's job at Toyota last year as 'professional,' whilst lauding his 'experience and technical ability.'

He adds: 'These qualities will enhance the efforts of our race drivers.'

With the exclusive Friday test sessions, governed under the so-called Heathrow Agreement, Renault will use the remaining ten test days to run a developing young driver - Frenchman Franck Montagny.

'We decided that Frank Montagny is ideally suited to back up our testing effort and provide some relief to our race drivers,' Briatore said.

Renault, based in Enstone, England, surprised the racing world with its decision to join the motley Friday crew as it was originally thought that only privateer teams with limited budgets would find a benefit.

Briatore, however, reserves his right to re-assess the decision after 2003.

He adds: We believe that this is the best option for us for 2003 but who knows how things may have changed by the time we have to commit to a decision for 2004.'







Wilson Hopes For January PS03 Debut
Justin Wilson hopes to climb into the all-new Minardi challenger before the first month of 2003 is out.

The Yorkshireman, standing at six foot three, flew to Italy last night for a week-long seat fitting and to catch up on progress with the new car, dubbed PS03.

'I will spend a week in Faenza so will know more once I am out there and see how far the car is along,' said the Englishman.

He continues: 'I hope the car will be out before the end of the month - but we'll see what happens.'

Rising from an International F3000 title in 2001, Wilson secured the drive after compiling a $3 million pay-drive purse in the form of shares in his future earnings.

But while he hopes to hit the track before long, Justin is outwardly expecting to head down-under for his Grand Prix debut without sampling the Cosworth-powered contender.

'I am working on the worst possible scenario that I won't get to drive the car until Melbourne,' he said.

'I don't expect that to happen, but if I work on that then anything else is a plus.'

Wilson, from Sheffield, will line up alongside Formula One veteran Jos Verstappen in the 2003 Minardi.







New MP4-17 A Step Forward, Says DC
David Coulthard has warned his rivals that the 2002-spec, MP4-17 has taken bold steps forward since the season-ending Japanese Grand Prix.

The silver-clad McLaren outfit will roll out the 'old' chassis package for the first flyaway races of 2003 before a radical MP4-18 hits the track, well-developed, at Imola.

But dispelling fears that the so-called 17D will struggle to match the pace of a progressing grand prix field characterized by new machines, Coulthard says it has taken a 'significant step forward.'

Addressing the Birmingham audience for the Autosport International Show, the 31-year-old Scot said: 'There is a feeling that we haven't got the maximum out of the old car.

'What we found through December testing was that the developments we built during the year that we weren't sure were reliable enough to take into the grands prix made a substantial difference.

'We have now started running those fulltime and the car has taken a significant step forward.'

That said, Coulthard assures his legion of fans that the 2003-spec MP4-17 will easily outpace the similar, old challenger as it embarks on a limited program for Australia, Malaysia and Brazil.

'I'm really optimistic that we can be significantly quicker in Melbourne than we were with the same car last year,' he said.

'It also gives the team more time to keep developing the car in the wind tunnel and Mercedes more time to develop the engine.'

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