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Adam Cooper on Pedro de la Rosa

For most people Pedro de la Rosa was the unexpected star of the Bahrain GP, and his charging drive to an eventual fifth place provided some splendid action for TV viewers around the world - and proved overtaking is possible in F1

I have to make a confession here. I've long been a big fan of Pedro de la Rosa, but I had a nasty feeling before the Bahrain GP that he might find himself in a gravel trap in the first lap, or perhaps trailing back to the pits with his front wing hanging off.

In his Jaguar days he had an unfortunate knack of getting into first lap scrapes, although they were not always his fault. Knowing that this might be his only chance to ever race a decent car, I thought he might just try a little too hard on his first start in three years.

Try he certainly did, but he proved me wrong by bringing the car safely home. I felt a little guilty afterwards, but only until I discovered that the man himself had entertained exactly the same thoughts.

"Listen, I'm just surprised that the car is in one piece!," he said with a smile. "At one stage I thought this is a typical race where we end up in the gravel. My adrenaline was too high..."

De la Rosa's one-off appearance was very refreshing, and the unexpected bonus was well-deserved. He's a thoroughly decent bloke, very well-rounded and loyal to old friends. He's extremely serious and professional at the track, but a fun guy to be around away from it.

We've enjoyed a few beery nights in Tokyo over the years, and he even came to my wedding back in 2000, with his close pal and fellow party animal Tom Coronel. I don't know many drivers who would have made the effort on a rare weekend off.

He's also a highly underrated driver. It's all too easy to forget that five to six years ago he arrived on the F1 scene with a good reputation and a resume bolstered by outstanding success in Japan, where his rivals included the likes of Ralf Schumacher. A point on his first ever start with Arrows saw him off to a good start, but then he stumbled with an uncompetitive car.

After being dropped by Tom Walkinshaw he did well to subsequently land a seat and a lucrative contract at Jaguar, but for one reason or another, things didn't really gel with the Milton Keynes outfit. It's wasn't always easy being Eddie Irvine's teammate, and as ever the team was mired in political chaos.

By the time he was overlooked by Niki Lauda at the end of 2002 - effectively in favour of Antonio Pizzonia - he had been relegated to the role of an also-ran by the paddock. Nobody gave him a chance of ever landing a decent drive again.

To their credit, McLaren recognised something in de la Rosa and he did enough in a one-off test to convince them that he gave good feedback and had enough basic speed to make that feedback relevant. He's done a lot of miles over the past couple of years, but even he never dreamed that a chance to race the car might come, because Alex Wurz would inevitably have first call.

Unusual circumstances made it possible. Had Juan Pablo Montoya had his problem at any time after the first three races, it would have been too late, because Wurz would have been fitted in the MP4-20.

Nobody expected de la Rosa to achieve a great deal - stand-in drivers rarely do much except plod round to a finish - but the fact that he didn't really have to prove anything took a lot of pressure off. He had nothing to lose.

"I've had many days to think about it, that's the problem," he noted last Thursday. "I figured out I was going to be limited on Friday mileage, not knowing the track. I knew that qualifying one was going to be difficult. But at the end of the day I just said to myself, don't look at these little things, look at the big picture, you will be driving a McLaren! It's something I was not expecting, so let's not look into the small little potential problems."

Despite having to go out first in qualifying, on a particularly dusty track, he held on to ninth place on Saturday. He was 0.877s shy of pole, and more significantly only 0.131s behind his teammate. Running in a more favourable position on Sunday, he actually jumped ahead of Kimi, who made a mistake.

It was a great effort, and the race was to prove that he was carrying only one lap less of fuel than the Finn, and was heavier than most of those who qualified ahead. After that, the day only got better.

"On the first lap I was a little bit conservative into Turn One," he said. "I was very close to Kimi, so I just had to keep a little bit of space so that cost me a couple of places, and I paid a high price for that.

"After that I had the pace, the car was good, the rear tyres were very strong, but I just couldn't overtake. I was in traffic for so many laps, and the other guys were not making it easy at all. It was difficult. They didn't make it clean, but I also would have done the same."

A couple of things helped him. Firstly the McLaren was the quickest car through the speed traps, and secondly the guys he ended up fighting with hit problems. Both BAR drivers were struggling with their brakes, and later both Rubens Barrichello and Mark Webber found themselves struggling for grip. Nevertheless, he still had to get past them.

De la Rosa picked up speed as the race went on, despite flat spotting his tyres during one of his excursions across the run-off area. That left him with a vibration that was so bad he couldn't even see his pit board. He had a few close calls, but says that at no point did he feel like settling whatever points he had.

"No, I was just thinking, the car is so good, I need clean air - I was always saying I need clean air. I had to be alone, otherwise I could have been behind one car the whole race, and then I would have looked mediocre. I braked too late, went straight, said OK, new race, let's start again.

"Look, I felt very good. It's probably my last opportunity, or my only opportunity with McLaren. In a way I'm happy that I didn't fuck up. It's not easy, you have one opportunity and it's very easy to fuck it up, especially in qualifying being the first guy out.

"I really think in qualifying I lost four or five tenths. And if you look at the grid, that was a high fine to pay."

After the race he was in a bubbly mood, and he received a standing ovation when he returned to the McLaren hospitality. Norbert Haug gave him a big hug, pointing out how much TV coverage he'd received. Did he think that he'd proved a point?

"Well, especially I proved a point to Niki Lauda..."

His fastest lap has earned him a place in the record books. Not many drivers have achieved that distinction without so much as getting a podium in their careers, although the oddball list includes such as Bertrand Gachot, Satoru Nakajima, Brian Henton, Jonathan Palmer and Marc Surer.

De la Rosa did it on the level playing field of a dry race, when nobody had the advantage of pitting for new rubber.

So what's next? Montoya may well be fit for Imola, but if he's not, it seems certain that Wurz will get his chance. He too made his mark in Bahrain with his Friday pace, and after four and a bit years of loyal service, the team cannot deny him the opportunity. Even de la Rosa agrees that it's a logical solution.

"Look, if the team wants to give Alex a chance, fair enough, because he deserves it. He did as well as me. I've no hard feelings for him."

Longer term, who knows? He's certainly put himself into a much stronger position than he was in this time last week, but it won't be very easy to find an opening elsewhere.

He's already 34, and the Bahrain performance will soon fade from the memories of team bosses. But you're only as good as your last race, and if Bahrain turns out to be it for de la Rosa, he can be pretty satisfied.

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