F1 Silly Season Becoming A Bit Clearer
August 16, 2000 | 12:00 A.M. EST
BUDAPEST, Hungary -- "Frank, they want to know who my teammate will be next year," Ralf Schumacher called out.
Team owner Frank Williams raised his arms and smiled. No answer.
"They" were a group of journalists, including RacingOne.com's Formula One correspondent, who were sitting around a table outside the Williams BMW motor home at the Hungarian Grand Prix and interviewing the younger Schumacher. Williams sat in his wheelchair off to one side. He knows who will partner Schumacher in the Williams next year but is not about to say. Despite all the rumors, Juan-Pablo Montoya still has yet to be confirmed as a Williams F1 driver for 2001.
Current Williams driver Jenson Button isn't waiting around to find out. He is on the verge of signing a deal with Benetton for next season.
Meanwhile, RacingOne.com has learned that Bruno Junqueira has a contract to drive for Chip Ganassi's CART team in his briefcase. Junqueira, the Brazilian who narrowly lost the Williams ride to Button at the start of the season, should clinch the FIA International Formula 3000 championship in the next and final race. He won the F3000 event held on the Saturday before the Hungarian Grand Prix.
The Montoya/Williams deal was only one of the Silly Season rumors making the rounds during the Hungarian Grand Prix weekend. It was during that weekend that one further piece of the who-goes-where puzzle was settled when Benetton announced it had taken up Giancarlo Fisichella's option for 2001 and had an option on the talented Italian for 2002, too.
The second Benetton seat remains open. Alexander Wurz will not be invited back, and Brazil Formula 3 driver Antonio Pizzonia is a possibility to replace him.
"I am looking for someone to do the job," Benetton boss Flavio Briatore said. "We want somebody who will take points in the championship, somebody who can motivate the other driver and somebody who can build up the team again. At this moment our situation is quite on the boundary.
"I don't know what has happened with Wurz. It is very clear to everybody that he is in a very difficult moment. From now to the end of the season we would like to help him in the best way possible, because I believe he needs the team to get together with him. We will try. But for next season we need to find somebody else. There is the option of a young driver, and at the moment we are looking for whatever will be best for our team."
Briatore, who earlier this season said Benetton would not try to sign Jacques Villeneuve for 2001 because the car would not be competitive, has now admitted that the Canadian was his No. 1 choice all along.
Meanwhile, the Scottish driver with the Italian name may not be quite so high on Jaguar's list as many people thought. Word in the pitlane is that the Jaguar team was only mildly impressed with Dario Franchitti's F1 test at Silverstone last month.
Like Frank Williams, Jag boss Neil Ressler is remaining tight-lipped about who will partner Eddie Irvine next year.
"We are not yet ready to talk about who we are going to sign," Ressler said. "We have tested Dario (Franchitti), although that was mainly because we wanted to follow up on some commitments that had been made to him a year or two ago. I expect we'll have something to say (about drivers) within a small number of weeks."
Paul Stewart Racing Formula 3 drivers Tomas Scheckter of South Africa and Narain Karthikeyan of India both got the chance to test the F1 Jaguars at Silverstone after the Hungarian Grand Prix. This test, however, was part of the Formula 3 driver's contracts rather than a showdown for the F1 ride next season.
Jaguar was interested in Heinz-Harald Frentzen but he will stay on at Jordan. Jean Alesi's name has been mentioned as a possible Jaguar driver, but it now seems that the team's test driver, Luciano Burti, has the best chance at the ride.
Meanwhile, British American Racing is expected to announce soon that Olivier Panis will replace Ricardo Zonta next season. Zonta has struggled at BAR due in part to the team putting so much emphasis on Jacques Villeneuve and because Zonta has had four major accidents caused by car failures. His chances of staying at BAR came to an end when he knocked Villeneuve into a spin at the recent German Grand Prix.
Panis, a veteran of 91 GP starts and winner in the 1996 Monaco Grand Prix, has worked as McLaren's test driver this year.
Zonta could end up at Sauber, where he would replace Pedro Diniz. Junqueira is also talking to Sauber, which is why he hasn't yet taken up the deal offered by Ganassi.
Meanwhile, in other F1 news from Hungary, Alain Prost may get customer Ferrari engines next season. Prost and Peugeot announced their split earlier this season. It would cost his team about $15 million a year to lease the one-year-old Ferrari V10s. Sauber has a similar deal in place with Ferrari, and the Malaysian petroleum firm Petronas pays for the engines and puts its name on the valve covers.
Several key management figures from Coca Cola were seen wandering around the paddock in Hungary, which lends support to the story that Coke has more than $30 million to spend on F1 sponsorship next season.
The Silly Season and the Formula One season resume on Aug. 27 with the Belgian Grand Prix on the challenging and daunting Spa-Francorchamps circuit.