Focus - fifteen down, with five to go 10 Nov 2003
With little more than two weeks to go before Formula One testing resumes ahead of the 2004 season, a quarter of the 20 race seats for next year remain unconfirmed. Jordan and Minardi have yet to announce a driver, while Mark Webber is still to learn who his Jaguar team mate will be at the Australian Grand Prix in March.
Who will go where is always a favourite topic for the Formula One racing media over the off-season and this year is no exception. Countless names have been mentioned in connection with most of the seats, but who are the real contenders?
The most hotly-contested drive is without doubt at Jaguar. The Ford-owned squad had a much-improved campaign in 2003, scoring 18 points compared to eight the previous year, with Webber proving a revelation. Any new team mate will have his work cut out keeping pace with the Australian.
Justin Wilson gave it a pretty good shot in the final five races of 2003, despite being hampered by technical problems, though it was not enough to guarantee an automatic contract renewal. The team has, however, granted the Englishman a temporary extension to his deal, meaning he will get another chance to prove his worth in testing during November and December.
His key rival for the seat is thought to be McLaren test driver Alexander Wurz. The Austrian, who last raced with Benetton in 2000, is believed to have come close to landing the Jaguar drive earlier this year when the team parted company with Antonio Pizzonia and, according to reports, McLaren will not stand in his way if he seals a race contract for 2004.
Another experienced driver still looking for a race seat is Nick Heidfeld. The German's Sauber contract was not renewed at the end of this season, but the former McLaren tester has admitted he is desperate to stay on the grid for 2004. He has reportedly been in talks with Jordan, but his speed and experience are surely sufficient to be attractive to Jaguar too.
Jordan have lost their star driver Giancarlo Fisichella to Sauber for 2004 and have yet to reconfirm rookie Ralph Firman, who had a mixed debut season. The Heathrow Agreement meant that Eddie Jordan got to see several other drivers in action in his cars in the Friday morning test sessions this year, including Hungarian Zsolt Baumgartner, 2003 F3000 champion Bjorn Wirdheim and 2003 Formula Nippon series winner Satoshi Motoyama.
Indeed, if its purely fresh, raw driving talent Jordan is after then it's a buyers' market. However, as with all the available seats, experience and financial backing may be just as important as speed. Hence media speculation that Heinz-Harald Frentzen could be tempted back to the Jordan fold, or that the team could even give 19-year-old Russian driver Vitaly Petrov his Formula One break.
In fact, such is the number of variables that Jaguar, Jordan or Minardi might consider in signing a driver, predicting who will ultimately land the seats is something of a lottery. This is especially so at Minardi. Number-one driver in 2003, Jos Verstappen, is still highly rated by many in the paddock and few would be surprised if he landed a Jordan (or even a Jaguar) drive.
The Dutchman's destination could in turn affect the future of 2003 Minardi partner Nicolas Kiesa, who put in solid if unspectacular performances in his five races with the team this season. However, team boss Paul Stoddart was recently quoted as saying test driver Gianmaria Bruni was the closest to clinching a deal. Stoddart is also an ardent fan of Wilson and hasn't ruled out a return for his former employee, should he lose out at Jaguar.
In an ideal world all three teams would have a confirmed driver line-up in place before testing gets underway at the end of November. In reality, this is unlikely to happen and until all five available race contracts have been signed, guessing exactly who will be on the starting grid in Melbourne will remain just that - guesswork.