JANUARY 24, 2000

Button wows and wins Williams

AS we were closing for press, the BMW Williams F1 team was making a final decision as to who will be its second driver in 2000.

AS we were closing for press, the BMW Williams F1 team was making a final decision as to who will be its second driver in 2000. Our sources insist that British driver Jenson Button will get the drive although the decision has been delayed because technical problems in testing have meant that a comparison test between Button and Brazilian Bruno Junqueira has not allowed either driver to cover sufficient laps. Button's performance last Sunday at Jerez, however, startled and impressed the team. Jenson completed 36 laps and set a best time of 1m25.75s - just 1.5secs slower than David Coulthard's best lap in a McLaren.

"In view of the limited mileage we've achieved over the past three days, Jenson settled into the car very quickly," said BMW Williams F1 technical director Patrick Head - not a man to give compliments lightly. "He is remarkably mature for a 19-year-old and is definitely a star of the future."

Having covered so few laps in Jerez, it was decided that both men would continue to test in Barcelona but this test was also blighted by a string of BMW engine failures caused by a major oil problem. Button did only six laps in four days but recorded a best of 1m24.12s while Junqueira completed three laps with a best of 1m25.22s. The test was extended to Sunday when another new engine arrived from Munich. Button completed 20 laps and recorded a best time of 1m23.30s, while Junqueira completed 26 laps with a best of 1m23.52s.

The team's official launch is scheduled for Monday morning and it remains to be seen whether Button will be named as Alessandro Zanardi's replacement. If not his signing is expected to be confirmed later in the week - or as soon as team feels it has seen enough of both drivers.

This did not stop the German daily newspaper Bild from reporting that Button has already signed a deal to race for Williams with a two-year option. The team denied the reports. A three-year deal is not very likely as Williams will not want to run Button for a year and then let him go. The team already has Ralf Schumacher and Juan-Pablo Montoya under contract for 2001 and 2002 and it is more likely that if Button joins Williams it will be on an even longer deal. Jenson celebrated his 20th birthday last week so a long-term contract makes a great deal of sense. If Button does well in 2000 he could be retained in 2001 as Montoya has a contract with Target Chip Ganassi Racing in CART until the end of that season. Button could, in theory, switch jobs with the Colombian and spend a year in America before returning to Williams in 2003 - if Ralf Schumacher moved elsewhere when his contract ends.

The relationship between Williams and Ganassi is close and has been cemented by Montoya's success in CART. The signs are that Williams may do development engineering work for Ganassi as part of a plan to expand its specialist engineering work. Williams currently has low-key engineering deals with Panoz and with the Opel British Touring Car Championship team but is looking for more work as there is a large facility at Grove empty following the termination of the BMW Motorsport LeÊMans 24 Hours program.

As part of the company development Williams will also announce the appointment of Ian Collier as chief operating officer for the company. He has lengthy experience in the engineering business but not in motorsport.

If Button is confirmed as the second Williams driver he will in Melbourne become the fourth youngest Grand Prix driver of all time behind Mike Thackwell, Ricardo Rodriguez and Chris Amon (all of whom were 19). Jenson will tie with Eddie Cheever on 20 years and 53 days becoming the youngest British F1 driver. The record was previously held by Peter Collins who made his Grand Prix debut at 20 years, 192 days.

Ferrari driver Rubens Barrichello is the only current driver who raced in F1 at the age of 20, making his debut at the age of 20 years, 295 days.

It is worth noting, incidentally, that Button's longtime rival in karting and Formula Ford, Daniel Wheldon, has just landed one of the top drives in the US Toyota Atlantic Championship, replacing 1999 champion Anthony Lazzaro with PPI Motorsports.