AUGUST 5, 2000
The driver market after Montoya and Button
THE impending announcements that Juan-Pablo Montoya is to join Williams and that Jenson Button will move to Benetton next year mean that the chief interest on the driver market in Formula 1 is who will drive the second cars for Benetton, Jaguar and British American Racing.
One man who is going to figure somewhere in this equation is Giancarlo Fisichella who, along with Olivier Panis, is top of the list of good available drivers. Benetton will probably keep Fisichella although his $4m salary is probably rather more than Flavio Briatore wants to pay as he has to part with $3m for Button, which is double what Alexander Wurz is getting this year. Thus the team will probably want to knock down Fisichella's salary and the Italian is not going to be happy with that idea. This would suggest that Olivier Panis is probably a better bet as his salary is unlikely to be more than $1m, which means that Briatore could save $1.5m next year on salaries and still end up with a strong driver line-up. It must be tempting. It helps that Panis is French-speaking because now that Renault has failed to grab Villeneuve there has to be some pressure for a Frenchman in the team. If Panis joins the team there is also the potential that French sponsors could be lured to Benetton, particularly as Prost has hardly impressed this year. The obvious source of income will be a deal with fuel company TotalFinaElf, which was associated with Peugeot but is unlikely to feel tied to the new Asian owners of Peugeot Sport. If Panis and Fisichella cannot agree terms with Benetton there is an outside chance that the drive could go to Australian Mark Webber if he tests well with the team. He will be cheap and will fit in the with the dynamic image the team is trying to promote. It is unlikely that the team will touch Antonio Pizzonia and Giorgio Pantano as both need more experience.
Fisichella has the advantage that Jaguar is keen to hire him as Johnny Herbert's replacement. This will means that the Ford-owned team will have to increase its salary bill - Eddie Irvine is currently being paid $10m - and it may be that the team will conclude that there are better things on which to spend its budget. There is not doubt that there are one or two people in the team who are questioning the logic of paying Irvine so much money, given that he has not really done much better than Herbert but it may be hard for that deal to be unstitched as Irvine is not going to be fired without making a fuss and that is the last thing that Jaguar needs now. One option which might help the team out would be to do a deal with Alexander Wurz. Although not ostensibly a pay-driver, Wurz is associated with a pile of sponsorship, notably from D2 Mannesmann. The team has been looking for a Germanic driver to help sell Jaguars in Germany and Wurz is not a bad compromise. There might be problems fitting his D2 backing in with Jaguar's current MCI Worldcom deal but it might be an idea for Jaguar to offset the cost of Irvine with Wurz's money. It is hard to imagine Panis being very interested in Jaguar but he would be a cheap option and he is a former Grand Prix winner, which is important for sponsors. Nick Heidfeld has not really impressed this year with Prost but he is German and he is cheap so Jaguar might look at him. The team might also look at its test driver Luciano Burti.
The second BAR drive is not one that is going to be attractive to any serious contenders unless there is nothing else available. Our understanding is that anyone talking to BAR is told very early on in the negotiations that BAR is Jacques Villeneuve's team and their job will be to be his second driver. This means that Panis, Fisichella and Alesi and even Pedro de la Rosa are unlikely to consider such a move. It might work out nicely for Pedro Diniz because Sauber is not enchanted by the Brazilian's performance, nor he with the car and BAR would be very happy to get hold of Diniz's Parmalat money to fill the $12m hole left by the departure of Teleglobe. The deal was supposed to be for five years and it may be that Teleglobe has had to pay BAR to depart but extra money from Diniz would help BAR's finances and Diniz is unlikely to be much of a threat to Villeneuve.