There is a lot of talk doing the rounds today that Jose Maria “Pechito” Lopez has signed a contract to race with USF1 in 2010. If true, it will mark an incredible turnaround in the Argentine’s career and will bring to the sport a hugely likable character.
J-Lo’s single-seater career began in 2001 with an assault on Formula Renault 2.0, winning the Italian championship in 2002. In 2003 he moved up to Formula Renault V6 with DAMS and again stormed to the title. In 2004 the Argentine continued his association with DAMS, driving again in FRV6, making a one-off run in the FIA GT championship and moving up to Formula 3000 with CMS.
His DAMS association saw him move up to the new GP2 Series with the team in 2005, finishing on the podium in the first ever race at Imola and taking a win in only the second weekend of the inaugural season in Barcelona. He struggled with consistency after that point however, and scored only one further podium for the season eventually finishing ninth in the championship chase.
For 2006 Lopez moved to Super Nova and again struggled for consistency. As with 2005 he took three podiums but this time finished the season 10th. Perhaps the most telling moment of his season came at the Nurburgring. He was leading the Sunday race by a country mile and was completely unchallenged, until Timo Glock, who had recently switched teams from BCN to iSport began cutting down the gap to the race leader. With two laps to go the gap was still relatively healthy… a good few seconds. Lopez had it in the bag.
But then, on the last lap, Timo Glock flew past a half asleep Lopez, took the win, relegated Lopez to second and pretty much anihilated the Argentine’s reputation at the same time. Super Nova was unimpressed and dropped him for 2007. Nobody else wanted him either. Not in GP2. And certainly not in F1.
The 2006 season also saw the end of his deal with Renault. He’d been brought in as one of the earliest RDD boys, alongside the likes of Kovalainen and Kubica and despite his huge experience testing F1 cars for Renault and three seasons in an F1 feeder category, his inconsistency had dropped him out of favour and his F1 dream appeared at an end.
While fellow RDD boys Montagny, Kubica and Kovalainen all made it to F1, Lopez was thrust into ALMS and eventually the Argentine Touring Car championship, of which he was crowned champion last season.
But now, it seems, he will finally get his dream and his shot at F1. J-Lo is understood to have signed for USF1 with a downpayment of around 80% of the budget the team need from him to secure his seat. It is understood there is no time limit on him finding the remainder of the cash, as his credentials are bona fide thanks in no small part to his backing from former F1 star turned Argentine politican Carlos Reutemann, and his money is well-backed from high profile Argentine companies.
The question still rests over his consistency at the highest levels of competition however. Personally I like the guy. Always have. And I think he’s quick, too.
His performances in GP2 might not have been outstanding, but he was saddled with the comparative competitive deadweight of Fairuz Fauzy as his team-mate for both 2005 and 2006. That said, when he was in a good position, all too often he didn’t make the most of it – that ultimate example of losing the win in Germany the one that still stands out as completely unforgivable.
On his day he was bloody fast though, and held the GP2 lap record at Circuit Paul Ricard for a good few years. Considering that the championship conducts about 75% of its testing at the track, the fact that his time stood for so long evidenced just how speedy he could be… when it all came together.
It’s just that it didn’t come together all that often.
Renault however really have marked themselves out for not maximising the talent they had at their disposal through the RDD. They threw away Montagny and haven’t won a championship since dumping him as their development driver. They binned Kovalainen after a season in which Flavio had crushed him. They let Kubica go and have only just got him back. And then there’s Lucas di Grassi, for so long on the RDD books only to be continually overlooked.
So is Lopez another one of the great talents that Renault churlishly let go? Time will tell.
Pechito is a cracking guy, and if he does end up in Formula 1 next season it will be fantastic for him and for the sport. He’ll give it his all, and given the diligence and speed he showed in his F1 testing duties with Renault he could be a great addition.
He’s been out of competitive single-seater action for three seasons though, and one has to question the ultimate sense of USF1 taking such a gamble in its debut season.
But, as i said… time will tell.