JANUARY 10, 2000

Button to Prost - or could it be Williams?

REPORTS that British Formula 3 star Jenson Button is to sign a long-term deal to test for Prost Grand Prix should be treated with caution.

REPORTS that British Formula 3 star Jenson Button is to sign a long-term deal to test for Prost Grand Prix should be treated with caution. The Somerset driver - who turns 20 later this month - tested for Prost in Barcelona in December and greatly impressed the team's engineers - getting down to competitive lap times after just a handful of laps. The French team is understood to be offering Button a long-term deal which most young drivers would sign without a second thought. The problem, however, is that it involves another season in the British Formula 3 series with the Promatecme team - using Renault engines. The problem is that Prost has already signed up two drivers to race in F1, an F1 tester and two Formula 3000 drivers. The compensation is understood to be an offer of F1 testing mileage during the 2000 season followed by a FormulaÊ3000 drive and the official testing role in 2001. It is not clear whether Prost is willing to offer anything for the 2002 season but the obvious move would be a position in the F1 team.

But while the French media seems to think that this deal is already done, there may be other offers in the pipeline for Button. Our spies tell us that Williams is increasingly interested in Button and we have heard recently from German sources that Button was in Munich a few days ago to visit BMW Motorsport boss Gerhard Berger.

Although the BMW Williams team is due to launch its new livery and sponsorship package today (Monday) in Munich we do not expect there to be any news about Ralf Schumacher's team-mate until later in the month and we expect the team to give Button a run before any decision is made. The other major candidate for the drive is believed to be Brazilian Bruno Junqueira, who is currently the Williams test driver.

The team is due to test again at Jerez at the end of this week (January 14-16) using the interim Williams-BMW FW21B and the new FW22 is not expected to appear until the Barcelona testing at the end of the month. The Jerez test would give the team the opportunity to make a decision about drivers before intensive testing with the new car begins.

The problem for Williams is that with Ralf Schumacher and Juan-Pablo Montoya both under long-term contract to the team, there is little to offer Button beyond the end of the year 2000. Having said that Button might agree to a deal which would allow him to race in F1 in 2000 and then return to the team in 2003 after a couple of years elsewhere. This would probably mean that Williams would have to place him elsewhere but the team has already shown that it is willing to do that, having arranged for Montoya to spend a couple of years with Target Chip Ganassi Racing in CART when it was unable to offer him a deal in F1 in 1999. A long-term deal with Button would also be attractive as the team would be able to secure an obvious talent at a cheap price.

Over the Christmas period there were suggestions that Alex Zanardi might be staying with the team for another season. These should be discounted. The Italian and the team are simply involved in a process of settling the separation between them.