Formula Ones Future May Look A Lot Like Carts Present Past
July 10, 2000 | 12:00 A.M. EST
Silly Season, the annual rumor mill of who goes where, seems to start earlier every year. And this year it started even before the season opener -- Australian Grand Prix -- thanks to Juan Pablo Montoya's stunning rookie season in CART, where he won the 1999 championship in convincing style. The rumors started immediately that Montoya would soon be in Formula One and, more specifically, in a Williams BMW.
Those rumors were still swirling at the recent French Grand Prix, which marked the midpoint of the 17-race 2000 Formula One season. The following exchange took place at a press conference that team owner Frank Williams attended during that weekend.
Journalist: "Frank, I understand you are already in the process of sorting out your second driver for next season. Can you bring us up to speed on that? What's happening with Montoya/Button?"
Williams: "I have said before that Juan-Pablo is under contract for a further year with Ganassi. So until Chip decides to release him early -- which I am sure he won't do -- there is nothing to help you."
Journalist: "But do you want Ganassi to release him?"
Williams: "I don't think there's a relevant answer to an irrelevant question."
Journalist: "I think it's a very relevant question, to be fair."
Williams: "Well ... when you run the team you can decide that."
Frank Williams can be, shall we say, economical with the truth when discussing drivers’ contracts. Or, to put it another way, as soon as Williams denied that Montoya would be driving in Formula One next season, the cynics in the Formula One paddock figured that the deal had already been done. All this, of course, is merely speculation.
Before going any further, here's a brief background on the Montoya saga.
Team Williams had the talented Montoya under contract as an F1 test driver as well as a member of their "junior" Formula 3000 team in 1998. Montoya won the F3000 championship that season and showed considerable speed testing an F1 car. Problem was, Williams had too many drivers because Ralf Schumacher was under a long-term contract and was about to hire Alex Zanardi, who had proven himself a winner in CART by winning the championship in 1997 and 1998.
It was all going to work out perfectly, it seemed, because Chip Ganassi and Mo Nunn had flown to Barcelona to watch Montoya test an F1 car and were convinced on the spot to hire him for their Champ Car team. Montoya, still under contract to Williams, was "loaned" to Ganassi's Target team for three years (1999-2001).
Then things started to go wrong. For reasons that are still a mystery to much of the F1 fraternity, Zanardi just couldn't find the speed he had shown in CART. As the 2000 F1 season approached, Williams and Zanardi parted ways, and Williams began to search for a replacement.
The team considered Montoya, but Ganassi was not about to let him go. Williams then held a shoot-out between rookies Jenson Button and Bruno Junqueira, and Button barely won that contest to get the drive for this season.
Button's contract, however, was only for one year with options on Williams's side to pick him up for further seasons.
A rumor swept the paddock at the recent French Grand Prix that Ganassi had told people in CART that Montoya would definitely not be in CART in 2001.
"Why," Frank Williams asked, "would Chip say that over in America without first consulting me?"
Williams had a valid point. Yet why, then, was Jenson Button's manager seen making the rounds of various teams in the paddock in France and inquiring about the possibilities of a drive in 2001? Button has acquitted himself well in his rookie season. But he has not shown the brilliance Ayrton Senna or Michael Schumacher did in their rookie F1 seasons. If he had, Williams would have snapped him up, Montoya or no Montoya.
Frank Williams has said that the only way Montoya can get out of his final year with Ganassi is if Chip decides to let him go: There is no buyout clause.
Why would Ganassi want to get rid of the fastest driver in CART? And why would Toyota want to let Montoya go?
Perhaps one reason is that Ganassi might fear that Montoya might grow restless in his final season in CART knowing that F1 awaited him. Another reason involves another CART champion -- Zanardi.
Ganassi always said that Zanardi would be welcomed back into his team. Nunn has offered Zanardi a ride in his new CART team. Knowing he is going to lose Montoya in a year or two, perhaps Ganassi wants to snap up Zanardi.
The bottom line is that only two people really know the answer to the question of Montoya's immediate future: Chip Ganassi and Frank Williams.
Montoya is growing tired of the question. Asked yet again about it all, he snapped: "I'm staying in CART, stop asking!"
Sorry, Juan, the racing world from Milwaukee to Monaco will keep asking.
So will RacingOne.Com, so keep an eye on RacingOne.Com for the latest on the Montoya Mystery.
Montoya and Zanardi are two of the CART winners involved in the Silly Season. The other two are not intertwined in the Williams/Ganassi saga but are in the news nonetheless: Jacques Villeneuve and Dario Franchitti.
Villeneuve is considered by many to be, along with Michael Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen, one of the three best drivers in the world. When McLaren announced that David Coulthard and Mika Hakkinen would be back with the team in 2001, one of Villeneuve's options for next season closed.
Ferrari was never really an option because Villeneuve has said he would never play No. 2 to Schumacher, who will be with the team for at least three more years.
Another option closed to Villeneuve is the team he won the 1997 World Championship for: Williams. With Montoya, Button and Ralf Schumacher on hand, the team has no need for Villeneuve even though they still have immense respect for him.
After two unproductive years with the new British American Racing team, Villeneuve has said openly that he wants to drive for a winning team. But his options are few: 1) Stay at BAR and hope that the team finally gets its act together? 2) Join Benetton and wait for the influence of new owner Renault to kick in? or 3) Go to Jordan which now has an equal works factory Honda engine deal alongside BAR in 2001.
The fourth and final CART winner in F1's Silly Season is Scot Dario Franchitti. Jaguar boss Neil Ressler admitted to RacingOne.com that he would like to give Franchitti a test in the Jaguar F1 car. Team founder Jackie Stewart has been a Franchitti supporter for years. Barry Green, owner of Team Kool Green, has said he wants to keep Franchitti in his CART