As the season started, Renault announced their intentions for the future, and the purchase of Benetton. There was little immediate impact – give or take the return of Flavio Briatore to team manager status – in the paddock, except for Arrows immediate resignation to finding a new engine supplier as soon as possible. Failing to close a Renault works supply frustrated the team, particularly as it ensured they would not be getting the same engines as Benetton for the remainder of the year. Of course, it also set in motion a key element of the move to bring in AMT, who bought out Peugeot, for 2001.
Of course, this led to any number of rumours concerning future power supply at Prost, with a Mercedes customer unit being favourite until near the end of the season. Supertec and Ford also featured strongly, but little mention was made of Ferrari as a potential supplier until reports of Pedro Diniz's interest in the team took hold. The Brazilian was less than discrete with Prost's plans, allowing the information out ahead of the planned press release.
Peugeot's withdrawal had been anticipated for some time: indeed, many were surprised the plug had not been pulled a year earlier, when Prost was complaining bitterly about the disadvantages of the unit. Selling the division to AMT, including all buildings and personnel, gave the team a complete and definite break. However, the sale was made sufficiently late in the year that AMT would – if building conventional engines – not be expected to produce anything interesting until the middle of next season. AMT, however, seem to think they have a new approach that no-one has tried yet, so there is plenty of anticpation that something interesting could be around for the start of next year. Arrows certainly hope so, anyway.
Adding fuel to the engine manufacturer fire, Honda's mid-season announcement of works support for Jordan from 2001 came as a surprise to half of the paddock. The other half had heard the Grapevine noises of discontent with BAR's performance, and expected something along those lines. It was well known that Eddie Jordan had spent the tail end of 1999 running backwards and forwards to Japan, meeting with Mugen and Honda. It had been thought the deal was related only to maintaining the customer supply: however, it can be considered the coup of the season to pull Honda works engines out of the hat, especially in the middle of a relatively poor season, and whilst openly looking to bring Audi or VW in as a works partner.
Rumours that Tora Takagi was on the Toyota driver shopping list started back at the San Marino Grand Prix. As it happens, the Grapevine was accurate, and the driver is now in a Toyota-run CART team for 2001. If the new Formula One car is up to scratch, he is expected to be in line for a drive alongside Mika Salo in 2002. Dominating Formula Nippon this year appears to have fired the Japanese driver up again, and he is expected to do well in CART next year...
This was not a season for car designers in Formula One. Mike Gascoyne's resignation from Jordan, pending a move to Renault, led to Honda being concerned he would take confidential information with him. Accordingly, Gascoyne spent half the season sitting at home, working on his farm, instead of helping Jordan iron out the problems with the car. Similarly, Alain Prost sacked Alan Jenkins at the behest of his technical staff, on the basis they didn't get on very well. He is still lacking a name designer, which essentially leaves the team reliant on the men who penned the 1994 Ligier doing a better job in 2001. Having said which, Ferrari engines should help the cause.
After some fairly spectacular mid-season testing accidents – Zonta and Fisichella being on the receiving end of the most impressive – and significant pressure from sponsors to improve the spectator value of the sport (by increasing the overtaking opportunities), the Technical Working Committee finally agreed to changes for 2001. Essentially, they amount to increased stresses for roll-hoop and side-impact tests to cover the safety improvements, whilst raising the front wing 50mm and restricting the rear wing to three elements...
Most of this season's Silly Season centred on Jacques Villeneuve and his plans beyond 2001. The Montoya cat was out of the bag – in all but fact, at least – from very early on, so attempting to identify who Renault would bring on board for their big entry as a chassis manufacturer was the order of the day. As it transpired, despite encouraging the paddock gossip, Villeneuve was simply renegotiating with BAR to stay another couple of seasons. The team's progress this season appears to show he made the right decision...
Otherwise, Button's future remained a secret – give or take the knowledge he was leaving Williams – until barely a week ahead of signing for Renualt. His opening season silenced many critics, who thought that missing out on more F3 and F3000 experience would be a career killer: accordingly, he had a wide selection of seats to choose from. Benetton and Flavio Briatore made the most attractive offer, as they were keen to dump an ailing Wurz. Rumours of the Austrian's premature end to the season proved illfounded, however, and he rewarded the team with a strong performance in Malaysia – the first time he was given equal treatment all season, he claimed.
Mika Salo was tied to Toyota months ahead of his official signing: news of a letter of intent was pretty widespread, whilst dissatisfaction with Pedro Diniz's expensive driving ensured Sauber were looking for an all new driver lineup. Heidfeld's move from Prost surprised most of the paddock – though they blamed his car for poor performances this year, still few rated him too highly. Ensuring a lower profile than usual for the year, McLaren indicated very early on that both Hakkinen and Coulthard would be invited to renew their contracts... though that did not stop the rumours of the Flying Finn's pending retirement.
Interest from CART was not limited to Montoya: Dario Franchitti test drove with Jaguar, before returning to the US in distress. He did not like the Formula One car at all – far too tail happy – and the team were similarly underwhelmed by the lack of pace the Scot mustered. Similarly unhappy, Ricardo Zonta was always expected to be shown the door at BAR: Olivier Panis as replacement was viewed as good reward for a tough year testing at McLaren: his pace matched or exceeded the regular drivers all season, and his experience was critical in developing the car.
As the season drew to a close, the FIA reviewed their calendar, swapping the British Grand Prix with the Austrian event, yielding each country a better timeslot for the expected weather. The FIA are considering how to get Kyalami in South Africa in the 2002 season, whilst rumours of potential events in Croatia, Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Libya are doing the rounds. As the number of races in a season is not going to be increased, there is much fear at European circuits over which events will get the chop as the calendar broadens to keep the increasing Middle and Far East-aware sponsors happy. The emerging markets are coming under increasing scrutiny, and their importance is now second only to Europe for development, now the circus has returned to the US.