Feature: Race Hots Up for F1's Last Few Slots

What price a Formula One drive?

Feature: Race Hots Up for F1's Last Few Slots

What price a Formula One drive?

With no more than three vacant places remaining on the starting grid, the coming weeks will decide whether they go to those drivers bringing the most money or those with the most potential.

As ever, it all comes down to cash.

Jordan have yet to confirm their two drivers, although they hope one of them will be Germany's Nick Heidfeld, and are waiting to finalise the team's budget before deciding who to sign. If the various sponsorship deals that are in the pipeline come to fruition, then the Silverstone-based team say they will go for talent.

"It's my duty to talk to all the drivers available," said team owner Eddie Jordan on Thursday. "I've identified a number who could do a good job for Jordan and I have spoken to most of them now. I intend Jordan to have the best possible driver pairing to get results for 2004.

"When our sponsorship is finalised I will then take the decision on who our drivers will be."

Until then Heidfeld, who lacks the financial clout that some lesser-rated drivers can muster, will be on tenterhooks. Team sources said at least six drivers were under consideration - Ralph Firman, Allan McNish and Jos Verstappen known to be among them - and suggested that sponsorship negotiations were looking more promising than last year.

McNish Hopeful

Firman and McNish can hope to be favoured by cigarette brand Benson and Hedges, who have historically sought British drivers, but their continued sponsorship of the team has yet to be confirmed. McNish, a former Toyota driver and Renault tester, said on Thursday that he was talking to Jordan and "things are progressing."

"I've visited the factory and seen the car and the wind tunnel and I'm right up to speed with where the team is. There's been so much speculation recently over this seat with Jordan but that's only to be expected with only a few places left up for grabs," he said.

"However, with the new testing regulations it puts even more emphasis on an experienced driver."

Verstappen, "Jos the Boss" to his many fans in the Netherlands, has one of the biggest cash pots of those still looking for a drive now that Austrian Christian Klien has been signed by Jaguar.

He took it to Minardi this year but was less than impressed with a pointless season spent chugging around among the backmarkers. The internet was buzzing with reports of a meeting between Jordan and Verstappen's backers Trust in the Netherlands on Wednesday.

Minardi, who announced the signing of Italian rookie Gianmaria Bruni last week, need money and said last week that they would be keen to have Verstappen back. But since then they have announced that Hungarian Zsolt Baumgartner is close to doing a deal.

"His performance last year, when with very little notice he replaced (Ralph) Firman (at Jordan), impressed me greatly," Stoddart said on Wednesday. "We're all impatient to start the 2004 season with Zsolt."

Bottom Line

Baumgartner may indeed have caught the Australian's eye but his retirement in Hungary and 11th place at Monza, out of 12 cars running at the finish, probably had less to do with the decision than his portfolio of sponsors.

Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone, announced as a Minardi shareholder in Canada this year when the team were in danger of failing, is also promoter of the Hungarian Grand Prix. There are others who detect a ruse to flush out Verstappen and force him to make a decision.

Whatever, the bottom line is money. At the poorer end of the paddock, driver talent can do little to overcome commercial considerations. Stoddart admitted as much last week when he said that Briton Justin Wilson, who has lost his drive at Jaguar after making his debut with Minardi this year, would otherwise have been re-hired.

"If I were in the position where the drive was going to go to someone who didn't have a full budget, he'd be on top of my list," he said.

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