Just under seven weeks away from the curtain-raising Bahrain Grand Prix, USF1 has finally confirmed the identity of the first of its two drivers who will lead the North Carolina-based operation into its maiden campaign of F1 competition in 2010 - and it will come as no surprise to many that the driver in question is Jos? Mar?a L?pez.

Towards the latter end of last year, L?pez announced that he was on the verge of sealing a deal with the much-maligned, Peter Windsor and Ken Anderson-led outfit, whose presence in Sakhir has been the subject of considerable doubt and debate in recent weeks. However, the first all-American team to enter F1 in more than four decades has repeatedly insisted that not only will it be there, but moreover that it is entirely serious about its endeavour - and Windsor contends that the recruitment of L?pez is yet another clear indication of that intent.

"Securing 'Pechito' L?pez for our debut season has been a goal of ours for a long time," enthused the USF1 co-founder and team principal in a statement. "We've been following his career since he dominated the Renault V6 Championship in 2003, and we're thrilled to have him on-board as we return America to Formula 1.

"You can nail every step along the way, but if you don't have the right guys in the seats, everything else is for naught. With Jos? Mar?a, we have further positioned ourselves for a successful 2010 debut campaign. There are a lot of stories in the press these days, but we know when the car must be ready and we are working towards that date. The hardest part is to convince people to follow you. We have done that. Now comes the fun part; we're going to take this step-by-step.

"Jos? Mar?a is a consummate professional and born leader. The most revealing thing about his character was how he handled the disappointment of not racing for Renault after three years of testing with them in F1. Instead of moping around and feeling sorry for himself, he returned to Argentina and totally dominated the local scene, winning 38 races and three championships. I believe he has won more races in these three years than any other driver in the world. He became a major star as a result and, in-turn, the Argentine nation - a country where F1 is second only to soccer - has got behind him."

That last remark alludes to the fact that L?pez has not actually driven a single-seater of any kind since departing the GP2 Series at the end of 2006, following a brace of moderately successful campaigns in the F1 feeder category with DAMS and Super Nova that yielded a victory and five further rostrum finishes as he developed something of a reputation as a strong qualifier but rather more inconsistent racer. He also spent three years on the Renault Driver Development (RDD) programme from 2004 to 2006, and served as test driver for the Enstone-based concern in the final one of those seasons, covering some 6,000 testing miles over that period.

However, when the money ran out, the South American - who memorably led Lewis Hamilton in the 2000 Karting World Cup in Japan before his chain came off, and defeated Robert Kubica to the Italian Formula Renault Championship laurels in 2002 - was left to return to his homeland, where he has since plied his trade in tin-tops in TC 2000 and Top Race V6, becoming the Argentine Touring Car Champion two years in a row in 2008 and 2009 against the likes of countrymen and former F1 drivers Norberto Fontana and Esteban Tuero. Now, he is back.

"This is a truly memorable day for me, for my family and for the people of Argentina," confessed the 26-year-old Cordoba native, who has been training in Europe in recent weeks. "Some time ago it seemed a bit crazy to think an Argentine driver could race again in F1, but with the effort and help of many people we are in that position today.

"We know USF1 is a new team starting from zero and facing its debut in Formula 1 differently, intelligently. Of course a new F1 team faces many challenges, but our goal is to improve with each race and build a foundation that will eventually see this team competing for wins and championships. This is a great team and we are working in a fantastic way.

"Objectives are important and you have to have them because they act as goals, but we must know which objectives we put to ourselves. We must be ahead of the other new teams in the category, then go improving race-by-race. You have to know where you stand and be self-critical, since an ambitious objective can lead you into mistakes. On a personal level, the main thing is to get out of my car knowing I gave 100 per cent effort, no matter what the result."

L?pez will be the 24th of his compatriots to compete in the top flight and the first since Gaston Mazzacane at Prost Grand Prix in 2001, and it is understood that he has brought with him some $8 million to secure the USF1 drive. National companies are believed to have stumped up $6 million of that total, with the remaining quarter coming from the Argentine government's tourism secretary, with the press conference in Buenos Aires that confirmed his signing being held at the Casa Rosada (Government House).

The country's president Cristina Fern?ndez de Kirchner revealed in a statement that 'the Argentine government is very happy to get behind this exciting new project, and we wish Jos? Mar?a and the team all the best for the 2010 season'.

The lengthy negotiations were also aided by former F1 World Championship runner-up Carlos Reutemann, a close friend of Windsor's from their time spent together at Williams in the early 1980s and now an influential player in the Argentine political field as a senator.

Aside from the mercurial and enigmatic 'Lole', the only other great Argentine driver to have raced in F1 is the legendary four-time world champion Juan-Manuel Fangio back in the 1950s, whilst 'The Pampas Bull' Jos? Froil?n Gonz?lez triumphed twice for Ferrari early on in the same decade, on both occasions at Silverstone. In more recent times, however, few drivers have made the grade, and those that have - the likes of Fontana at Sauber-Petronas in 1997, Tuero at Minardi the following year and Mazzacane - have all failed to make an impact.

USF1's Cosworth-powered 'Type 1' challenger is not expected to run until 25 February at Barber Motorsport Park in Birmingham, Alabama, making the Charlotte concern the last of the 13 teams to hit the test track ahead of the season start. L?pez's arrival reduces the number of drives available for F1 2010 to just three, and Windsor has hinted that the second successful candidate is also likely to have to bring along sponsorship to secure the seat.


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