AUGUST 6, 2004
BAR - now what?
The loss of Jenson Button is going to be a massive blow to BAR-Honda ambitions and the team atmosphere in the team is obviously not going to be very good for the rest of the year. What is needed is a positive response so that potential sponsors will be convinced to sign on the dotted line and the morale of the team will continue on an upward path. Fighting for Button is an option but the relationship is never likely to be as good as it was and so it might be better for the team to cut its losses and look elsewhere.
David Richards clearly feels that the team has been betrayed by Button although in Formula 1 such behaviour is not unusual with many of the great champions having problems at some point or other in their early careers as they have worked their way into the top teams. It happened with the young Alain Prost when he switched from McLaren to Renault in 1981; it happened with Ayrton Senna when he switched from Toleman to Team Lotus in 1985 and it happened when Michael Schumacher decided to move from Jordan to Benetton after just one race in 1991. In recent years the FIA Contract Recognition Board has reduced such activities.
The problem for BAR-Honda is that they need a top driver to lead the team. Takuma Sato has shown himself to be very competitive on occasion but at the moment he is still making mistakes and still lacks the polish and maturity which has been seen from Button. In this respect there is not a real replacement for Button as most of the other choices have flaws. The obvious choice would be Jarno Trulli but while he can be brilliant on occasion, he has lacked consistency. David Coulthard is available and would be a safe pair of hands and perhaps would finally emerge as a strong World Championship challenger. He has shown weakness on occasion in qualifying but generally he races strongly. Olivier Panis is another safe pair of hands looking for a job and he is well known to the team.
A trick would be for the team to sign up Mika Hakkinen, if the former World Champion wants to come back to Formula 1. The Finn needed very careful handling when he was at McLaren but David Richards is just the kind of team boss who would be able to get the most out of the double World Champion, a man who is also known to Honda from his days at Team Lotus.
Given the past relationship between David Richards and Jacques Villeneuve it is hard to see that partnership being rekindled which means that the team will need to look further down the lists of F1 drivers or perhaps even look outside Grand Prix racing.
The team could, of course, promote its test driver Anthony Davidson, which would provide a seamless change but Davidson has not raced single-seaters since the summer of 2002 when did a couple of races with Minardi. Prior to that he has not raced single-seaters since his Formula 3 days with Carlin Motorsport in 2001.
Scanning the Drivers' Championship results for this year, the next available drivers would be Cristiano da Matta, Nick Heidfeld and Antonio Pizzonia. All have shown promise on occasion and might benefit from being in a top seat in F1.
The other option would be to go for an exceptional younger driver as Williams did when it originally signed Button in 2000. The outstanding option at the moment is Formula 3000 frontrunner Vitantonio Liuzzi. He has very limited Formula 1 experience but he might be worth a risk given not only his impressive results in Formula 3000 but also the way he has been winning. This has caused Ferrari to look seriously at him.
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