Wednesday April 25th, 2001
Pedro de la Rosa can claim a surprising record at his home Spanish Grand Prix on Sunday even if he fails to finish. It may be little more than a minor footnote for those obsessed with statistics but the 30-year-old de la Rosa's first race for Jaguar will also mark him down as the most experienced Spanish driver since Formula One started half a century ago.
At present, De la Rosa and Marc Gene are level on 33 starts -- the most by any drivers from a country that first hosted a Grand Prix in Barcelona in 1951 yet has produced no winners and precious few points scorers. The tally looks feeble compared to that of other drivers such as Frenchman Jean Alesi, with 188 starts, and shows just how rarely Spanish drivers have figured.
"When they told me I was the Spanish driver with the most GPs, and I am 27 years old, then I realised there was something wrong with Spain in the past," said Williams test driver Gene, who had two seasons with Minardi.
The facts speak for themselves -- only nine Spaniards have competed in Formula One, compared to 136 Britons. Five have scored points but none of them in a home Grand Prix. Britain's Jenson Button, in his first season in Formula One last year as a 20-year-old, scored almost as many points (12) as all the Spanish drivers put together (15).
The greatest name to conjure with was Alfonso de Portago, a champion jockey who raced twice in the British Grand National and was also a top swimmer and bobsleigh racer. De Portago finished second in the 1956 British Grand Prix in a works Ferrari but was then killed with his co-driver and ten spectators when he crashed into the crowd in the 1957 Mille Miglia race in Italy.
Francisco Godia, who completed 13 Grands Prix for Maserati, scored six points in 1956. That remains the best points tally to date by any Spanish driver.
Tide is Turning
But there have been positive moves in recent years and Gene is confident the tide is turning.
"For the last three years we have everything in Spain -- the circuits, good television coverage, Spanish drivers," he said.
The turnout at Barcelona has been overshadowed in the past by the massive crowds at Spanish motorcycle Grands Prix where home riders have won races. In 1999, the 500cc title went to Spain's Alex Criville. Gene, still hoping for a race seat next year, said Formula One had not yet exploded in Spain in the same way as motorbikes but the economic support was there and success would come.
"For people on the streets motorbikes are still ahead ... but the potential is much bigger for Formula One. Bikes have reached their top level, a world championship in 500cc is the highest they can go," he said.
The important thing for Spain would be getting a driver in a leading team with a chance of winning.
"I think next year the chances of Spain having three drivers in Formula One are high," said Gene, who has kept up contacts with other teams. "I would take a mid-field drive rather than another year as test driver. I have learned what I had to learn."
He will have to be just a spectator in Barcelona however while De la Rosa and the 19-year-old Fernando Alonso, Minardi's Spanish newcomer, provide the local interest.
The new Jaguar driver scored a point in his very first Grand Prix for Arrows in 1999 and impressed sufficiently to have Jaguar and Prost fighting for his signature after he lost his seat before the start of the season. De la Rosa, who was test driver at Ford-owned Jaguar during the first four races, replaced Luciano Burti last week after the Brazilian moved to Prost.
The team have yet to score in 2001 but if De la Rosa can outqualify team mate Eddie Irvine, something Burti failed to do, he will have shown what he is capable of.
Fernando Alonso, on loan from Renault-owned Benetton, is unlikely to score but he has got himself noticed already by outqualifying Benettons and Prosts as well as his Brazilian team mate Tarso Marques.
"It will be special racing at home in Formula One but for us, for Minardi, it will be difficult," said Alonso, who did some winter testing with Benetton at the Barcelona track. In Spain, motorcycling and rallying are bigger because Formula One is not very important at the moment.
"Spanish drivers have always been in modest teams ... so their results in Spain never come. But I hope in the future to be in a top team."
De la Rosa has plenty of resources behind him at a manufacturer-owned team but was wary last week of false expectations that might be aroused by his return in Barcelona. Gene recalled what it was like for him at Minardi and what it might be like for Alonso on Sunday as he raced in front of the Spanish and Catalan flags but at the back of the field.
"Motorsport fans will be behind him," he said. "But many, when they see him start 19th and finish 14th, which is the best you can hope for, may well say our drivers are not doing so well."