Relief for Jordan as sponsorship underpins technical progress

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The Independent Online

While the McLaren team principal, Ron Dennis, is singing the praises of David Coulthard and Jenson Button, both of whom he believes could win the world championship, other British Formula One drivers are crossing their fingers in the hope of joining them on the 2004 grid.

Gallaher Group plc's continuing role as a major sponsor of the Jordan-Ford team is good news for the Scotsman Allan McNish, and the Englishmen Ralph Firman and Justin Wilson, all of whom are vying for the last place in the team's line-up. Their Benson & Hedges brand has been on Jordan cars in all four of their victories - a 1-2 with Damon Hill and Ralf Schumacher in Belgium in 1998; in France and Italy with Heinz-Harald Frenzten in 1999; and in Brazil last year with Giancarlo Fisichella - and they favour a British driver.

This week Jordan unveiled their latest challenger, the EJ14, and surprised the Dutch driver Jos Verstappen by signing the German Nick Heidfeld as leader in place of the Italian Giancarlo Fisichella, who has taken Heidfeld's old seat at Sauber-Petronas. Jordan categorically denied that he had signed Verstappen last night and that a deadline to sign Verstappen expired at 8pm last night, but admitted that besides Verstappen, McNish and Firman, the Italian Formula 3,000 driver Giorgio Pantano was also a contender.

Negotiations between Jordan, and Verstappen and his manager, Michel Perridon, continue. Verstappen has $12m of sponsorship to bring to the team, but Pantano can also bring Italian money.

Meanwhile, the decision to opt for Heidfeld, who showed himself to be very quick as a McLaren test driver and again when Kimi Raikkonen was his team-mate at Sauber-Petronas in 2001, may be part of Jordan's forward thinking. Money is marginally easier to find in Germany, and though talks eventually broke down in 2003 for Jordan to run a McLaren MP4/17D with Mercedes engine in 2004, badged as a Jordan, Mercedes-Benz might still figure in the team's future.

Jordan has long championed the need for a £5.5m customer engine in Formula One, and the Stuttgart manufacturer might be in a better position to provide that. In the meantime, however, the latest car which Heidfeld is shaking down at Silverstone will use the same Ford Cosworth V10 engine as Jaguar's this season.

"Jaguar's Cosworth V10 made some great performance strides at the end of 2003 and we will have the same unit as them, which will be a huge benefit for us," Jordan said. "We'll have a big power increase."

The identity of the second driver will be revealed shortly, but Jordan said: "It's not necessary to do it quickly. My priority is maximising our income first. It's a bit like wind tunnel testing right up until the last moment: we'll choose a second driver as late as we can to get the very best combination possible.

"The EJ14 has seen the biggest improvement in aerodynamics we have ever seen from one year's car to another. Time will tell whether we will be able to catch up with the guys who were ahead of us last year."

* The Sauber driver Felipe Massa was airlifted to hospital after a crash during testing at Barcelona yesterday. The Brazilian lost control on the approach to turn one after an apparent failure on the front end of the car. He hit the barriers hard and reportedly lost consciousness briefly.