The signing of Ralf Schumacher

SIR FRANK WILLIAMS last week signed Ralf Schumacher on a two-year, $15m a year, contract with BMW Williams. It is one of the biggest salaries that the team has ever agreed to pay and, in some respects goes against the Williams theory of having the best car and so not having to pay top dollar for the drivers. But the Williams is not yet quite there. Next year it may be the dominant force in Formula 1 but at the moment it is still only there or thereabouts and Juan Pablo Montoya has yet to show that he has the kind of steel and consistency needed to become a World Champion. Ralf Schumacher does, or at least that is what Williams thinks. He has a great deal more experience in F1 than Montoya and that is what is currently making the difference. In the longer-term Montoya might develop into a better package but for 2002 Ralf is going to be the man Williams will have to reply upon.

Montoya has a contract until the end of 2003 and if he does well enough he will then be re-signed while Williams's other driver Jenson Button (currently serving a two-year sentence with Benetton) still has a couple of years after that to run on his Williams deal. The word at the moment is that Jaguar Racing would like to sign Jenson for 2003. Frank Williams would probably welcome that. If Jenson develops as everyone hopes he will he will be ready for a top drive by 2004 or 2005. Williams is in a position to keep his options open because while it is currently in vogue to knock down Button, one must never forget that as a rookie last year he hassled Ralf Schumacher on several occasions at the end of the year - so he clearly has enough ability if he can be correctly directed. Life at Benetton has not been fun but once Jenson knows the team a little better we would expect him to be more on a par with Giancarlo Fisichella.

The other reason for Williams to have signed Schumacher II is to avoid him falling into the hands of a rival team. Ralf was not very likely to go to Ferrari but with both McLaren drivers still to be confirmed for 2002 there was a danger that McLaren would pounce (Mika Hakkinen is going to have to retire one day) and Ralf is so obvious a choice that it is startling. Ralf is a front-running German - which is more than can be said for Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Nick Heidfeld. Heidfeld looked good at the start of the year but more recently has been made to look rather average by Kimi Raikkonen and Frentzen's star is very definitely on the wane. The whispers at the Nurburgring were that Heinz would cash in and take up the offer of a huge pile of Toyota cash but these resulted in a press release from Jordan insisting that he is staying. Whatever the case, Trulli has outrun Frentzen this year.

Shutting Ralf Schumacher out of the driver market until the end of 2004 means that McLaren is either going to have to stick with its current men or try to find someone capable of winning World Championships. And it is not just about speed, it is about consistency and maturity. Ralf has it now.

McLaren might be wise to make a play for Olivier Panis for 2003 as he is clearly in the same sort of mold as Ralf at the moment. Beyond that the market of potential World Champions is pretty thin. Barrichello might do the job if Hakkinen goes but it is fairly clear that while Rubens can almost match Michael Schumacher in qualifying, he is no threat in a race. Fisichella has had plenty of chances in his career and has thrown them all away, Jacques Villeneuve has been shown up by Panis (who also has a much better attitude towards the public relations side of the job of being an F1 driver). Trulli could be good but he continues to show bursts of Latin temperament when things do not go well. Jos Verstappen is Jos Verstappen, Eddie Irvine is Eddie Irvine and Jean Alesi is wonderful but he's never going to win the World title.

So holding on to Ralf for another two years was a very good idea - and one which BMW obviously appreciated. And if Williams has been really clever he will have organized the deal so that Compaq or BMW has paid the big salary rather than the team itself.

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