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JUNE 30, 2004

How Williams could get Webber?

Ralf Schumacher is out of action for around three months and that means that Williams now needs to look again at its driver line-up for the rest of the 2004 season. Even if Ralf is 100% fit by the start of October there really is no logic in The German coming back for a couple of races at the end of the year when it is already known (although not actually official) that he is leaving the team at the end of the year to start a new career at Panasonic Toyota Racing. Thus it is best that Williams look elsewhere for a permanent replacement for Schumacher and the obvious move, on a number of different levels, is to try to get Mark Webber to join the team six months before he is due to become a Williams driver. Although no deals have necessarily been inked the Webber and Williams relationship is going to happen in 2005 and there is now nothing to stop it happening. Webber has a Jaguar contract for 2005 but the team is not going to fulfill the performance clause in his contract and so he is free to go at the end of this year. Renault has a contract to supply Webber with a car in 2005 but as the Enstone-based team is about to announce that it has re-signed Jarno Trulli and Fernando Alonso, there is no place left for Mark and there is no equivalent drive available, except for the Williams.

Webber has a personal management contract with Flavio Briatore but that will not be a restriction as Briatore will be only too happy to take his share of the Australian's earnings. That will not affect Williams as it will pay Webber and he can divide up the money however he sees fit or is contracted to do.

The only contract therefore that is binding at the moment is Webber's deal to finish the current season with Jaguar Racing.

Money can however be a very powerful weapon in Formula 1 racing and we have heard many times in recent months the one thing that Jaguar Racing needs at the moment is money. Budgets may already be in place for next year but a decent windfall could easily convince the Jaguar Racing management that releasing Webber makes a lot of sense, particularly if the team knows that Mark will, no matter what happens, have to be replaced at the end of the year. It actually makes sense for the Milton Keynes team to pick a replacement as early as possible as this would give the replacement half a season to get used to F1 in preparation for a more competitive year in 2005. Jaguar is unlikely to use any money raised to buy a star driver because more will be achieved if the money is invested in the team and in the new car. The current Jaguar is quick but it has been horribly unreliable. It might be nice to have Webber score some more points but that is going to be tough and the potential financial gain is not comparable to a guaranteed pay-off from Williams. The best thing that Jaguar Racing can do is to design and build a better car and work out how to make sure that this is reliable from the start of next season. That could transform the team into a force to be reckoned with next year, just as a few small tweaks at BAR made a really big difference this year. In that case Jaguar Racing needs to have a driver who can deliver the goods: Christian Klien may be able to rise to the task after a somewhat shaky start in F1 but the team has nothing to lose and a great deal to gain by looking elsewhere. The obvious candidates are Bjorn Wirdheim, the team's test driver, and Red Bull-funded Formula 3000 driver Tonio Liuzzi. The BAR test driver Anthony Davidson might also fit the bill. When all things are considered, however, there is no doubt that Liuzzi offers the best opportunities. He is clearly a very talented driver (and Jaguar Racing boss Tony Purnell is already a fan). He has won three of the four Formula 3000 races this year) but at the same time he must look super-attractive to the team because he has backing from Red Bull. Jaguar has sponsorship from the Austrian drinks company and is already hard at work trying to significantly increase that deal next season. Taking on Liuzzi would secure a good young (and cheap) driver, and if the Jaguar management is clever provide additional cash this year in addition to the pay-off that would come from Williams. It would also help to increase the Red Bull backing in 2005.

Williams is in a position to pay serious money for Webber because it will no longer have to pay Ralf Schumacher's salary as this will be taken care of by insurance claims. When one considers that Ralf is getting $1m a race, a lump sum which Williams has already budgeted for, there is going to be a big chunk of money available to help persuade Jaguar Racing to sign over Mark's contract to Williams and if Williams can negotiate cleverly could provide extra budget for the team's research and development programme.

When one takes all of this into consideration it is possible to see why we may see a switch around of drivers within the next few weeks. Everyone has something to gain - unless you happen to be an insurance man and no-one has much sympathy for them given the premiums that drivers and teams have to pay these days.