|ATLAS F1 Volume 6, Issue 34||Email to Friend Printable Version|
|The 2000 Silly|
|by Roger Horton, England|
With the long expected announcement that Jenson Button has signed to drive for the Benetton team for the next two seasons, freeing his seat for the expected arrival of Juan Pablo Montoya from America, nearly all the major teams have now finalised their drivers' line up for next year. Only the vacancy alongside Eddie Irvine at Jaguar remains to be filled, and unsurprisingly there is not a long line of established drivers vying for the job of replacing the departing Johnny Herbert.
Last year, Mika Salo did everyone a favour; in only his second race for Ferrari at Hockenheim, he showed just how easy it is to go from mid-field battler to a race-winning driver in one move. Ok, he finished second in the end, but only because he was forced to allow his teammate Eddie Irvine through to win, to aid the latter's championship ambitions.
In modern Formula One the lesson is clear: any serious driver who wants to win needs to be strapping himself into a car built by any one of the five, or maybe six top teams. This means the two that are currently winning - McLaren or Ferrari - or the four others that have a realistic chance of doing so within the next few years - Williams, Jordan, Benetton or Jaguar, and in that order. Drive for any other team and you may have an outside chance of a lucky win, but you're not going to win on a regular basis.
The F1 driver market is one of the purest examples of supply-and-demand economics there is. Driving skill, and the ability to harness it, explains why Michael Schumacher is able to command an annual salary of some $30-million, and to have the oldest and most famous team in the pitlane build itself around him. At the other end of the scale, the out-of favour Alexander Wurz is forced to contemplate a future with perennial strugglers Sauber or Minardi.
Ron Dennis at McLaren was the first off the mark this season, confirming at Magny-Cours that David Coulthard would be retained for a sixth straight year. If it isn't broken, why bother trying to fix it, seems to be his policy. Dennis may have his detractors, but the results his team have achieved in recent years speak for themselves. McLaren may be more than a little 'grey' - their drivers well drilled in toeing the company line to the point of tedium - but they complement each other well and the combination sure has a knack of winning races and championships.
For David Coulthard, the decision to stay at McLaren was easy; who would ever voluntarily leave the best team in the pitlane?
Ferrari were never in the frame to make changes for next season anyway. With Michael Schumacher's services secured until the end of the 2002 season, it was always going to be a case of more of the same, and Rubens Barrichello is still in the first year of what is be a two-year deal at Maranello.
Jacques Villeneuve's decision to stay at BAR for a further three years, rather than opt for a move to Benetton, surprised many, and appears likely to be a continued waste of the Canadian's considerable abilities.
Despite some recent improvements in form, the ability of the team to satisfy Villeneuve's stated desire to "challenge for championships" has to be in serious doubt. BAR only have a firm engine supply contract until the end of 2001, its main sponsorship contract expires a year later, and there are clear signs that the suits involved at BAT are re-assessing the wisdom of continuing to pour money into an operation where results have been so thin on the ground.
Benetton, by contrast, have no such concerns. They are owned and bankrolled by Renault, with a proven race winning technical chief in Mike Gascoyne, soon to step aboard, and the pedigree of championships won in the mid nineties. Logic would dictate that if any mid-field outfit is going to challenge the big two, then the boys from Enstone will have as good a chance as any.
Villeneuve's decision appears to owe more to BAR's willingness to satisfy his financial demands and perhaps to some misplaced loyalty towards his old mentor and now team boss, Craig Pollock, than it does to cold, hard logic. Drivers are mostly remembered in F1 for the races they win and for the select few, the championships titles that are forever attached to their name. Talk of performance clauses allowing Villeneuve to leave the team next year are nothing more than a sure-fire guarantee of yet more team-destabilising speculation next year, if the results don't come.
For some reason, Jacques Villeneuve appears to have dealt himself a losing hand. His loss, however, appears to be Jenson Button's gain. Benetton team boss Flavio Briatore was quick to re-sign his long-serving driver Giancarlo Fisichella once his overtures to Villeneuve were rejected, and he then lost little time in adding Button to his driver strength for the next two years. Button may not have set the world alight with his qualifying performances in his debut year, but his calm, almost surreal progress in the races has impressed those that matter in the F1 paddock.
The duration of the young Brit's 'lease' to Benetton also shows the shrewdness of Frank Williams' thinking. Two years on, both Williams and Benetton are likely to be challenging for titles, and by retaining the option of returning Button to his Formula One roots, he not only potentially strengthens his own team, but also weakens one of his main rivals at a single stroke. Little wonder Williams is reported to have turned down an offer in the region of some $45-million to relinquish his contractual hold on Button; Frank Williams has seen enough of Button at close quarters to fully appreciate his worth.
This appears to be one of those rare deals in F1 where everyone wins except, perhaps, for Button's management team, and those with a financial stake resting on the money his driving skills earn. For Button himself, the move is clearly a disappointment. The Williams programme is further advanced than Benetton's, and who would bet against the best team of the nineties becoming regular winners again soon.
Button's departure for Benetton opens the door for the return to the Williams team of Juan Montoya, who was the team's test driver in 1998. The old 'Michael Andretti' factor, reinforced by the more recent poor season of Alex Zanardi, are often trotted out as reasons to be cautious about the impact Montoya might make in Formula One. It should not be forgotten, though, that Montoya spent the entire '98 season as the Williams test driver, driving the new generation of narrow cars with the grooved tyres that have made the cars so nervous to drive, and which caused Zanardi so many problems.
Montoya was consistently fast testing for Williams, whilst taking the F3000 title in dominant fashion, and his form in American racing has been nothing less than breathtaking. It's true that many have flattered before arriving in F1, only to struggle to fulfil their potential at the highest level once they got there, but it will be a major surprise if Montoya is not competitive in Grand Prix racing, and many established stars are likely to be casting a wary eye on the Colombian newcomer come Australia next March.
Given the current performance and reliability being shown by Jaguar, it is not surprising that they still have a vacancy alongside Eddie Irvine. Both Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Fisichella preferred to stay put with their current teams, rather than join what is currently a rather troubled outfit. Given their teams' current standing in the pecking order, this makes good sense.
The arrival of full works engines from Honda has been enough to convince Frentzen to stay at Jordan for another year. Jarno Trulli had his option taken up by team chief Eddie Jordan earlier in the season, and the Italian has shown that he only needs a little more luck to become a Grand Prix winner. Both these decisions make a lot of sense, because if this team is ever going to really establish itself as a natural winner, it has to be in the next few years.
Olivier Panis's move from his role as test driver for McLaren to BAR is an interesting one. Much has been made of the Frenchman's role in extending McLaren's winning form, and it could well be that other teams will now follow McLaren's lead in hiring more experienced test drivers. For his part, Panis must be hoping that he doesn't have to endure the same sequence of high-speed testing accidents that so frayed Ricardo Zonta's nerves.
BAR could well benefit from the more structured and better-organised testing regime that Panis can bring with him after his McLaren experience, but being number two in "Villeneuve's team" is never going to be an easy slot to fill. Given his options, this move is probably the best he could manage, but the closest he is likely to get to the cars of his former employers is when they come by to lap him.
Just why Pedro de la Rosa isn't in more demand is one of the mysteries of the year. He has driven brilliantly at times in a car that has shown surprising pace, but the 'fashion contest' element, so common in many F1 driver selection decisions, appears to be working against the talented Spaniard, and he looks likely to stay another year with Arrows. No disrespect to them, but this could turn into a terrible waste of a richly talented driver, unless the team can continue its upward progression.
For Prost, Sauber, and Minardi, the task now is to do the best they can with the pool of drivers that remain, just another problem for the lesser lights struggling to stay afloat in the sport's toughest arena.
And lastly, Mika Salo is still mulling over an offer from F1 newcomers Toyota to be their full-time test driver next season, ahead of the German-based team's entry in Formula One, in 2002. The long-term nature of their offer, and the possibility that it could include a few well-located Toyota dealerships, may well make it an offer too good to refuse: there is still, after all, a life to be lived after the glamour of F1 is over.
|Roger Horton||© 2000 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.|
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