Pedro de la Rosa, the Spanish driver, admitted Jaguar Racing needed a miracle if they were going to move into the respectable half of the grid for the British Grand Prix, but miracles have been in short supply at Silverstone this weekend.
When the deposed Ford chief executive Jac Nasser brought the Jaguar brand to Formula One in 2000, he said that he envisaged a sea of green caps in spectator enclosures, something to counter the red tide of supporters for Michael Schumacher and Ferrari. The Ferrari and Jaguar brand names still command more respect in sporting circles than most others. But it's been a tough road for the British manufacturer. In the last European Grand Prix of the old millennium, Johnny Herbert had turned the Stewart Ford team, who were to become Jaguar, into winners. Since then, successive changes of management have denied the team the stability that is essential for regular success, and the promise has been eroded.
The British Grand Prix represents a crucial crossroads, not just for Jaguar but possibly also for team principal Niki Lauda, who himself replaced American racer Bobby Rahal last year.
The pragmatic former world champion has made much in recent weeks of Jaguar's new aerodynamic package which is being run here for the first time. In qualifying, it disappointed.
Eddie Irvine, who faces the end of the road when the season ends, says that every time he has driven the Jaguar R3 he has complained that it has a serious handling problem and is unresponsive to changes. He has no doubt where the problem lies.
"Aerodynamics are everything in F1," Irvine explains. "Initially we had very badly flexing rear uprights but we fixed them and it didn't really make much difference. But aerodynamics are everything. The car oversteers like crazy on the entry, understeers mid-corner and then doesn't really have a lot of grip on the exit. Or you go in a bit slower and it's just stable on the entry and understeers like crazy in the mid-corner. There's no balance. We have a moving platform, that's our problem. I hate understeer, but at the same time I need to carry speed into the corner and with this car you can't do that."
The R3 was going to be the car to make the team respectable. Instead, it has been a disaster. "It's been difficult, because this is horrible," Irvine admits instantly, alluding to his situation. "I never envisaged it being this bad. We heard all these stories at the beginning of the season about an eight per cent gain in the wind tunnel, weight reduction etc, but only the weight reduction has been delivered, and weight isn't a significant part of it."
For the past three months the aerodynamics team have been flat out working on the new package. De la Rosa tried it in Spain last week, and was cautiously optimistic. "It's better," he said. "The car is less sensitive to pitch and handles better. It's more balanced and easier to drive, but it's not the miracle we need."
Lauda was cautious prior to the most important race of Jaguar's Formula One career. "We know we have made the car better," he said pragmatically. "But it depends how much better the other bastards have made their cars."
Friday's rain at Silverstone frustrated the drivers and denied anyone the answer they wanted. "The drivers have reported some encouraging feedback in certain areas but until we conduct a full programme, the results from the new package remain inconclusive," Lauda said.
On Saturday, De la Rosa's car suffered a coolant leak on its out lap and spent much of the session in the pits until he was forced to switch to the spare car with a quarter of an hour to go. After adjustments to convert it from Irvine's seating position, he qualified – 21st – with three seconds to spare.
Irvine, meanwhile, was 19th, and unhappy. "It's been a disappointment, frankly," he said. Not even the latest, more powerful engine from Cosworth could help.
"Regardless of how much effort we have put into this package, nobody else has been standing still either," a Jaguar team insider said. "We found maybe half a second. What we need is two."
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