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Is Paffett next in line at McLaren? 27 Jul 2006

Gary Paffett (GBR) Mclaren Mercedes Test Driver Formula 1 Testing, Silverstone, England, 25-27 April 2006. World ©  Bumstead/Sutton. Gary Paffett (GBR) McLaren test driver.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 11, French Grand Prix, Practice Day, Magny-Cours, France, 14 July 2006 Gary Paffett (GBR) Mclaren MP4/21 Formula 1 Testing, Day Three, Jerez, Spain. 21st July 2006. World ©  Patching/Sutton. Gary Paffett (GBR) Mclaren Mercedes Test Driver.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 11, French Grand Prix, Qualifying Day, Magny-Cours, France, 15 July 2006 Gary Paffett (GBR) McLaren Mercedes MP4/20 which has new livery for this test. Formula One Testing, Jerez, Spain, 11 January 2006. World ©  Patching/Sutton

The paddock has already decided that one of the closest races during the final stages of the 2006 season may well be conducted as much off the track as on it - the battle to succeed Juan Pablo Montoya at McLaren.

Test driver Pedro de la Rosa is currently deputising for the Colombian, who vacated his race seat after announcing his defection to NASCAR for next season. De la Rosa is doubtless hoping his performances will be enough to win him the drive full-time, but he also knows that he has only limited time in which to make an impression - McLaren haven't confirmed he'll even occupy the car until the end of the season, let alone next year, when fellow Spaniard Fernando Alonso arrives.

And behind the scenes other McLaren-linked drivers are also pressing their cases for consideration. GP2 ace and McLaren protege Lewis Hamilton is already widely considered a front-runner to step-up to Formula One racing next year after demonstrating a mixture of race pace and consistency that has got many comparing him to a young Alonso.

But what about McLaren's other test driver, Gary Paffett? The young Briton also possesses what looks like a very strong CV for the job, including plenty of experience of this season's MP4-21 car. And as McLaren's MD, Martin Whitmarsh, has already gone on record to say the team aren't actively seeking any external candidates, he knows that he's in with an excellent chance of graduating to the big league.

Despite being British, Paffett has spent a large part of his racing career to date in Germany. After starting out in England, and winning the coveted BRDC Silver Award in 2000, Paffett moved to Germany in 2001 at the age of 20. He made a big splash - winning the 2002 German F3 championship outright and maintaining his lead in the standings throughout the season, before moving into DTM touring cars the following year.

He finished the 2003 season in 11th place overall, driving for Keke Rosberg's Mercedes team. The following season he moved to the HWA team and finished the championship as runner-up, before winning it outright in 2005 with a dominant performance that saw him take five wins in the extremely close-fought series. He was announced as a full-time McLaren tester in December.

Although many people reckon that Hamilton's almost preternatural talent gives him an edge in any potential race for a full-time McLaren race seat next year, Paffett could be in with a chance of winning a couple of starts this year. Impress in those and it could just give him the leverage he needs to win the seat outright.

With McLaren’s 2006 constructors’ championship position looking pretty settled - they seem highly unlikely to finish anywhere other than their current third place - team boss Ron Dennis may be tempted to use some to the closing races to find out how his young drivers handle the pressure of a full Grand Prix weekend.

Hamilton would have to fit his GP2 commitments around any Formula One drive, meaning he'd be unable to take the second seat before the Chinese Grand Prix at the earliest - unless he was to secure the GP2 championship prior to its finale in Italy. Paffett therefore knows that, if the decision is taken to drop De la Rosa from the race seat, he's the man in pole position to inherit it - for now at least.