Despite persistent rumours linking him to a seat at Jaguar Racing, McLaren has confirmed that Alex Wurz will remain with the team for the 2004 season.

The decision was the driver's, as Wurz announced that he would continue to play an integral part in McLaren's 2004 world championship challenge, together with David Coulthard, Kimi Raikkonen and Pedro de la Rosa. The Austrian expects to be developing the new McLaren-Mercedes MP4-19, which made its track debut on Tuesday in Valencia, in the coming weeks.

"I am pleased to announce that I have decided to stay with the West McLaren Mercedes team as its third driver," Wurz confirmed, "It is no secret that I have been on the shortlist for the second race seat at Jaguar Racing, which has been a privilege. However, with the McLaren-Mercedes' 2004 testing programme having already begun, I felt it necessary to take my future into my own hands to fully focus on the season's preparation. West McLaren Mercedes is a loyal and rewarding team to be part of and I believe they offer me the best future."

Wurz almost joined the Jaguar line-up earlier in 2003, when the Milton Keynes-based team first attempted to offload Antonio Pizzonia. When the Austrian's move fell through, Justin Wilson got the ride alongside Mark Webber, but Wurz remained a strong candidate for a return to racing in 2004.

He was touted as the favourite to join Webber in the Jaguar team throughout the build-up to winter testing - which began this past week - particularly as Austrian drinks brand Red Bull was also linked to a possible sponsorship deal.

A potential clash between the driver's personal sponsor Superfund and Jaguar backer HSBC was thought to have thrown a spanner in the works, however, as was Red Bull's stronger push behind F3 standout Christian Klien, who ran with Jaguar in Spain this week. Whether these factors played a part in influencing Wurz's decision to remain at McLaren may now never be known.

"Alex's contribution during the past three years has been immense and everybody in the team is pleased that our relationship will continue," said McLaren Racing MD Martin Whitmarsh, "We knew that there were opportunities for Alex to get back into racing and we would have supported him in whatever decision he made, but the fact that he will remain with the team is positive and will help to further emphasise our challenge for the 2004 world championships."

"We all had every understanding for Alex's ambitions to go back to racing in Formula One," echoed Mercedes Motorsport VP Norbert Haug, "The fact that he received offers from other teams clearly shows that he is seen as one of the drivers deserving a seat as a permanent Formula One racing driver.

"McLaren, as well as Mercedes-Benz, supported Alex in his plans to make his understandable wish come true. However, we all are very pleased that Alex has taken the decision to stay with West McLaren Mercedes. He has contributed a lot to our technical development in the past three years, and Mercedes-Benz is particularly happy to have in Alex a proven ambassador for our brand."

Wurz's decision will undoubtedly re-ignite speculation as to who will partner Webber at Jaguar next season, with Klien and Townsend Bell having tested with the team this week. End-of-season incumbent Wilson then clocked the fastest time by a Jaguar driver on his one and only day of action yesterday [Thursday], as he attempts to persuade the team to keep him on for a full campaign.

Jaguar has insisted that the outings for each driver do not comprise the beginnings of a shoot-out-out for the second seat, and claims that it may well test other drivers with a view to giving them F1 experience.

 

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