JULY 3, 2000

Villeneuve and Button at Benetton?

OUR spies in the F1 paddock suggest that Flavio Briatore is planning to shock the F1 world by announcing that he has signed JacquesĂŠVilleneuve and Jenson Button to drive for the Enstone team in 2001 and 2002. The duo would please the team's new owners Renault while also being attractive as Briatore tries to improve the technical staff at Benetton. As part of the deal we would expect Jock Clear, Villeneuve's engineer at British American Racing, to join Jacques at Benetton and rumors suggest that Pat Fry, David Coulthard's race engineer at McLaren is also being courted by Benetton. It is worth noting that Fry and Clear worked together at Benetton in the early 1990s before going their separate ways. In addition we hear that Benetton has won the struggle over the services of Ford's Martin Whitaker who is expected to join the team as sporting director next season.

Villeneuve has been tipped as a possible Benetton driver for some time but the announcement that Honda is to supply factory engines to Jordan next year appears to have been the final straw and Jacques has either signed or is about to sign a long-term deal to race for Benetton. The team will become the Renault factory team for the 2002 season.

Button will move to the team if Juan-Pablo Montoya joins Ralf Schumacher at BMW Williams next year. The Williams team has been very impressed by Jenson's performance this year but the plan had always been to use Montoya in the longer term and Williams has invested heavily in his career.

Williams would like to keep Button but as Ralf Schumacher is under contract until the end of the 2002 season and Williams does not want to miss the chance of running Montoya, who some people in the team believe is the next Formula 1 superstar, the only real course of action is to farm Button out for a couple of years and see how he develops, while retaining an option on his services until the end of 2004. If Montoya is a disappointment or Ralf Schumacher decides to move elsewhere in 2003, Button could return to Williams, a much more experienced and stronger driver. At 20 years of age Button has plenty of time to develop while Montoya needs to get into F1 now if he is to be successful.

Ganassi has the possibility of running Alex Zanardi in place of Montoya next year as Alex is rumored to be keen to go back to US racing having failed to make an impact in F1. He won two CART titles with Ganassi and could easily slot back into the team, although he is also understood to be in demand with Mo Nunn Racing. Williams is also in a position to offer Ganassi its test driver and Formula 3000 championship leader Bruno Junqueira, who looks unlikely to get the offer of a decent drive in F1 next year.

Button will remain under option to Williams until the end of the 2004 season but the team will loan him out to another F1 team on the understanding that he can rejoin Williams whenever they need him. We hear that Button already has an option to go to Benetton if Williams decides not to keep him next year. This makes sense for Renault which will have one of the hottest young properties in F1 and may, if he goes well, be able to buy his contract from Williams if the relationship works well. A switch to Benetton makes a great deal of sense for Button although the team may not be fully up to speed until the start of 2002 when Renault officially takes over the team.