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Franchitti poised for Jaguar drive

JENSON BUTTON's hopes of clinching a front line formula one drive next season were fading here yesterday after it emerged that US Champcar star Dario Franchitti is being tipped to replace Johnny Herbert in the Jaguar team next season. Jaguar was one of the team's targeted by Button's management as a home for their 20-year-old protege if, as expected, he is replaced in the Williams-BMW team by the reigning CART champion Juan Montoya.

This comes as a double blow to the young British driver now that it is clear that there is no potential seat available to him at Jordan which yesterday announced a works Honda engine supply deal to start in 2001. Eddie Jordan is determined to retain his current pairing of Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Jarno Trulli.

Frank Williams continues to cast doubt over whether or not Montoya will be released from his current contract with the Indianapolis-based Ganassi team for whom he is in the second year of a three year deal. Yet formula one insiders believe that Button is already out and the deal with Montoya is as good as done.

Jaguar's interest in Franchitti is easy to understand. Last year he dead-heated on points with Montoya in the CART title chase, the championship only going to the Colombian on the basis of more wins than his rival.

The 26-year-old Scot is also a protege of former Jaguar racing chairman Jackie Stewart driving for his team in the 1994 British formula three championship.

Given Stewart's rounded polish, it is no surprise that Franchitti projects the same commercially attractive, spick and span public image which is shared by fellow Stewart pupil David Coulthard. Jaguar chairman Neil Ressler confirmed here yesterday that he will definitely test one of the current Jaguar R1 grand prix challengers later this summer, possibly at Silverstone.

Earlier this season he suffered a fractured left hip and pelvis, plus severe concussion, when he crashed his CART Reynard-Honda into the retaining wall at Florida's Homestead oval circuit during pre-race testing. He has now made a full recovery and regained his competitive pace.

"If Dario is going to make the move to formula one, it's got to be next year," said one Jaguar team insider. "It will be interesting to see how it goes, taking into account his speed when he was racing Montoya."

This apparent influx of new talent leaves Button poised on the edge of an unpredictable driver transfer maelstrom which has started to swirl around the paddock much earlier than usual. On the face of it, there seems to be an impending shortage of talent sufficiently experienced to handle an 800 horsepower formula one car so it is no surprise that some teams are turning towards the US Champcar scene to recruit promising names.

"I expect to have my future plans sorted within the next two or three weeks," said Button yesterday.

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