MAY 4, 1998
A waiting game on the driver market
IT is still very early in the Formula 1 season for there to be much movement on the driver market for 1999 but there is no doubt that West McLaren Mercedes will be making a bid at some point for Michael Schumacher. While the team says that it is quite happy with the drivers it currently employs there is no doubt that Mercedes and West have to try to get Schumacher in the team. At the moment McLaren is keeping Schumacher out of the limelight in Germany and this does not make much sense from a marketing point of view as Schumacher is still a hugely-popular star in Germany. The only way to solve that problem is to hire Michael.
This is not an idea which will appeal to F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone because having Michael in the McLaren-Mercedes would probably produce a year of very dull racing, which is no good at all for the F1 television viewing statistics. The fact that Ecclestone would be opposed to such a move is one reason why it could happen because, after their battles in recent years, there is no love lost between Bernie and McLaren boss Ron Dennis and signing Schumacher would be a good way for Dennis to annoy Ecclestone.
Ferrari needs to keep Michael because the minute he departs the team is likely to come apart as the team has been constructed around him and it would take a driver of considerable skill and character to hold it together, particularly if Luca di Montezemolo and Jean Todt took the opportunity to depart, which they might be wise to do.
The battle for Schumacher's services is likely to be intense, therefore, with Michael in no hurry to make up his mind. If he wins the World Championship this year for Ferrari it would be logical to stay but we will not know if that is very likely until we have seen a few more races this year.
If Schumacher is lured away from Ferrari to join McLaren, the most likely replacement remains Jacques Villeneuve and it would be mad for Jacques to commit himself to Williams just yet. He is not very happy with the Williams team at the moment and knows that in all probability the team will slip further back next year while waiting for the arrival of BMW engines in the year 2000. It is too early for him to consider moving to one of the new teams being planned such as British American Racing or Honda and so Williams is still a good choice unless a Ferrari offer comes up. A Villeneuve in a Ferrari is big box office - and Jacques is smart enough to know it.
The risk is that Villeneuve will wait too long and that Frank Williams will drop him in favour of a younger and cheaper driver like Juan-Pablo Montoya. Some rumors suggest that this deal is already done for 1999. Williams has often made such moves before and they make a great deal of sense for the team which has always preferred to invest in research and development rather than buying star drivers.
All this would not seem to leave much opportunity for Alexander Wurz at Ferrari - as the rumors suggest - although Wurz could, in theory at least, move to Maranello to partner Schumacher or Villeneuve. Wurz is very good and has done an impressive job to date in his drives for Benetton.
Wurz began last season as the Benetton test driver having previously done a test with Sauber in the summer of 1996. That same year he won the Le Mans 24 Hours, becoming the youngest ever winner of the classic French sportscar race.
He stood in for Berger in Canada, France and Britain last year and finished third at Silverstone and so far this year he has outshined the more experienced Giancarlo Fisichella with two fourth places in the South American races.
He is under a long-term contract to Benetton - the word is that this lasts for four years - and as Benetton boss David Richards is building up a new structure at Benetton and Wurz is clearly part of the package, he might not be prepared to sell his driver.
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