Despite eternally youthful good looks, which defy both his age and experience, it is ten years since McLaren test driver Pedro de la Rosa made his Formula One debut at the 1999 Australian Grand Prix.

Driving an Arrows A20 fitted with a three-litre Hart V10, the Spaniard started his first grand prix from 18th and finished sixth among 22 runners, becoming one of only 57 drivers to score a point on his debut in the top flight. After a stint at Jaguar Racing, 'the Barcelona Bullet' joined McLaren-Mercedes in 2003 and has since become an integral part of the operation, even though his race career never really took off after moving to Woking.

"I remember every detail [of my F1 debut] as if it were yesterday - coming out of the pit-lane and selecting second, third, fourth into turn one," he reflected, "It was my first grand prix and the trip to Australia was like an adventure.

"I stayed calm for the race because it was my first grand prix and I was not expected to score a point, but I enjoyed that grand prix massively - I will always remember having Michael Schumacher in my mirrors for a few laps. That was a good feeling!

"The team were so happy [with the race], they were delighted. Possibly the least happy person was me because I'd only scored one point! When you first get to F1, you're so used to winning almost every race that it's a bit of a shock to find yourself towards the bottom of the timesheets. Then your mentality changes a little because you start to lose that killer instinct - it's just something that happens. Looking back now, sixth wasn't too bad - but I wanted to be on the podium so badly. And everybody knows that that didn't happen until 2006, so I learned the hard way."

de la Rosa also admits to being a little disappointed with the way his future in F1 worked out, although he is not unhappy with the role he has played at McLaren.

"My career started off very well and I thought, if we started developing the car, we would be able to score points more consistently - but, obviously, that didn't happen and we didn't finish in the points again. I learned quickly just how tough F1 could be; how essential it is to develop a car over the course of a season and how critical reliability can be. I learnt a lot - and I did it the hard way - but everything I learnt back then is still incredibly important to the work I do today, so they were all good lessons."

A multiple champion in other categories - winning the 1997 Japanese F3000 and Super GT titles, as well as the '95 Japanese F3 crown to add to the 1992 British and European FRenault championships - de la Rosa has driven in 71 grands prix - scoring 29 points, one podium with second in Budapest 2006, and one fastest lap (Bahrain 2005), but has made only nine competitive outings for McLaren.

Instead, he has proven to be an invaluable asset when it comes to refining and developing the team's cars into race- and championship-winners. Unafraid of hard work, his efforts have kept McLaren at the front and set new benchmarks for development - in 2006 alone, he drove at six circuits over the course of 54 days and recorded a staggering 4958 laps...

"If you are looking for an example of a modern F1 driver who works tirelessly to ensure that no stone is left unturned in the quest for additional performance, then you need look no further than Pedro," new team principal Martin Whitmarsh said in tribute to the Spaniard, "There is absolutely no denying that his considerable abilities have had a direct impact on our performance.

"In particular, his relentless support and guidance during the seasonal development of last year's MP4-23 helped maintain it at the competitive vanguard until the crucial final race in Brazil. He is not only the best test driver in the business, he is also a fantastic bloke and an essential and much-loved part of our team."

Mercedes' Norbert Haug believes that de la Rosa is 'arguably the man with the biggest technical background behind an F1 steering wheel', while Lewis Hamilton, the driver who benefited most from his input last season, claims that the Spaniard provided more than just technical assistance.

"I've known Pedro since he joined the team in 2003," the reigning world champion commented, "His approach, outlook and positivity were an inspiration to me as I prepared to make my F1 debut, and his efforts over the years have lifted this team to some phenomenal heights. I am proud of what Pedro has done - and continues to do - for Vodafone McLaren Mercedes. The guy is a legend."

 

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