US F1 have confirmed their first driver for 2010 and it isn’t a rising American star or an experienced F1 hand – it’s 26-year-old Jose Maria Lopez, who last drove a single-seater in 2006.
Lopez – often referred to by his nickname ‘Pechito’ – has won various domestic championships in his native Argentina since then. But his lack of recent experience in open-wheel racing raises questions about whether he should get an F1 drive.
US F1 vice president Peter Windsor refuted suggestions that Lopez’s inexperience would be a problem:
We’ve been following his career since he dominated the Renault V6 Championship in 2003 and we’re thrilled to have him on board as we return America to Formula One.
Lopez is a consummate professional and born leader. The most revealing thing about his character was how he handled the disappointment of not racing for Renault after three years of testing with them in F1. Instead of moping around and feeling sorry for himself, he returned to Argentina and totally dominated the local scene, winning 38 races and three championships. He became a major star as a result and, in turn, the Argentine nation – a country where F1 is second only to soccer – has got behind him.
But the fact that the deal was announced by the president of Argentina, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, shows Lopez has his political connections to thank for the drive as much as his talent behind the wheel.
Lopez’s deal has been rumoured for several months and with that has come speculation he is bringing a major sponsor to the team, or the deal has political backing (see this comment from Prisoner Monkeys for more).
But US F1′s management clearly believes Lopez has untapped potential and it’s worth considering why.
He was formerly part of the Renault Driver Development programme. His last season in GP2 in 2006 featured an especially competitive field: Lewis Hamilton won the championship, Nelson Piquet Jnr impressed with a string of wins and Timo Glock enjoyed a breakthrough performance for iSport. Lopez often qualified well but tended to fade in the races.
The crucial question now is who US F1 pair him up with. An experienced hand in the second seat will bolster their credibility and would present Lopez’s presence as an opportunity for him to learn from an established star.
Argentina has had great F1 drivers in the past including one of the greatest of them all, Juan Manuel Fangio, and the bright yet mercurial talent of Carlos Reutemann.
But the recent record of Argentinian drivers in F1 is not good. Gaston Mazzacane was dropped by Prost after just four races in 2001 having been miles off the pace. The young Esteban Tuero had a forgettable 1998 for Minardi and mysteriously disappeared despite having a drive in place for the next season.
And Norberto Fontana is best remembered for holding up Jacques Villeneuve in the 1997 season finale under orders to help Michael Schumacher win the championship.
I hope Lopez fares better than those three – I’m just not confident he will. But I’ll say this again – if this gets us a race at Potrero de los Funes than it’s not all bad.
Do you think Jose Maria Lopez deserves a shot at F1? Who do you think US F1 should put in their second car? Have your say below.
Video: Jose Maria Lopez’s F1 tests
This video (with Spanish narration) shows footage from two of Lopez’s previous F1 tests for Minardi and Renault:
Jose Maria Lopez joins US F1 for 2010