AUGUST 18, 2000

Montoya signs for Williams

IT does not take a genius to work out that Frank Williams's decision to release Jenson Button to sign for Benetton - as exclusively predicted by INSIDE F1 on July 3 - means that Williams has reached agreement to have Colombian Juan-Pablo Montoya as Ralf Schumacher's team mate at Williams in 2001 and 2002. Williams may come in for some criticism from the British media for releasing Button but his decision to do so is based on the fact Williams whas invested heavily in Montoya since it signed him on a five-year deal at the end of 1997. The 1988 season was spent in Formula 3000 with Williams paying the SuperNova team to run Juan-Pablo. That resulted in five race wins and the Formula 3000 title. Williams thought very hard about signing Montoya to partner Ralf Schumacher in 1999 but decided instead to hire Alex Zanardi. We believe that Williams agreed to pay for Montoya to take over from Zanardi at Target Chip Ganassi Racing.

It was a spectacular deal for Ganassi as Montoya swept to seven victories and the CART title at his first attempt but the deal did not work out as well for Williams. Zanardi was a huge disappointment in F1 and left Williams in search of a driver. Montoya was committed to CART, Olivier Panis turned down the seat having agreed to act as test driver to McLaren and so Williams took a risk on Button and found that he had a new star on his hands. Button has not eclipsed Ralf Schumacher but he has been putting the German driver under pressure and there are clear signs that he would be beating Ralf if he stayed at Williams next year.

The team believes that Montoya has now developed into an even better package than Button although Button may turn out to be better than Montoya in the long term. Whatever the case, Williams has no shortage of bright young drivers - a rare thing for the team which is not known for its skills in driver management.

In all probability, the team's current test driver Bruno Junqueira will now go to America to replace Montoya at Target Chip Ganassi Racing which means that the job of Williams test driver will become available once again. This is a job worth having because Ralf Schumacher's contract runs until the end of 2002 - the same moment at which Montoya's contract runs out. Button is talking about going back to Williams for the 2003 season but it is quite possible that one way or another there could be a vacancy alongside him. A youngster getting in early and doing two years of testing - perhaps combined with a Formula 3000 program - would be well placed to get a drive.