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Button hopes raised as Villeneuve stays

JENSON BUTTON'S prospects of sustaining the momentum of his F1 career after he leaves Williams have brightened considerably after Jacques Villeneuve wrong-footed the grand prix community by signing a 40 million pound, three year extension to his current contract with British American racing.

Villeneuve's shock decision leaves Button strongly tipped as a possible candidate for the Benetton team if, as expected, he is replaced by CART champion Juan Montoya next season. Although currently struggling, Benetton will be transformed into the official factory Renault formula one team in 2002 and is set to benefit from the arrival of the highly regarded former Jordan technical director Mike Gascoyne next season.

Benetton managing director Flavio Briatore had hoped to secure Villeneuve's services for 2001 and, while it seemed as though the Canadian ace might have hedged his bets and stayed with BAR for one more season, it was certainly hoped that Jacques would make the switch in 2002.

However, it is now clear that his opposite number at BAR Craig Pollock - who was for many years Villeneuve's personal manager - has done a brilliant sales job on his protege. Although BAR's first season in 1999 was disastrous, this year's new Honda-engined car has improved dramatically to the point where it is now regarded as best of the rest behind McLaren and Ferrari.

"We are absolutely delighted with Jacques's decision and the fact that he has registered a significant vote of confidence in British American Racing," said Pollock yesterday.

"Jacques has been an integral part of the team since its formation two years ago, and his commitment to stay indicates that he shares our belief that this is an organization with which he can win races and, ultimately, the world championship."

However, while Button has other options including a possible Jaguar drive and even the second BAR seat alongside Villeneuve, Benetton also have other options. In the short-term, it is expected that Alexander Wurz will lose his drive with the team after Sunday's German Grand Prix.

Favorite to take his place, for the moment at least, is the 19-year old Brazilian Antonio Pizzonia who currently leads the British F3 championship by 30 points. Pizzonia has tested for Benetton on several occasions this year and has impressed their engineers with his mature and focused approach.

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