Motor racing: Zanardi in line for pounds 4m pay-off from Williams

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WILLIAMS BATTENED down the hatches as speculation over Alessandro Zanardi's future intensified yesterday, merely reinforcing the belief that the team are intent on replacing the hapless Italian for next season.

The Formula One grapevine suggests Williams are prepared to pay Zanardi pounds 4m in compensation rather than risk a repeat of this past year, when he failed to score a championship point. Williams concede they did not equip him with the most reliable car, but their other driver, Ralf Schumacher, managed 35 points and sixth place in the championship, statistics many feel put Zanardi's performance into context.

The obvious preferred target for Williams would be Jacques Villeneuve, who won the world title with them in 1997 and left to join the new British American Racing team last year. A spokeswoman for Williams maintained that the team had no desire to respond to speculation and stated: "Alex Zanardi is contracted to us for next season."

The issue, of course, is whether he will be at the wheel in Melbourne in March. Increasingly, the signs are that he will not. The magazine Autosport, which broke the story, was also first with the news that Williams were dropping Damon Hill after the 1996 season. The team vehemently denied they would do any such thing, yet did.

Patrick Head, Williams' technical director, said: "We're well aware that the reliability on his [Zanardi's] car was poorer than on Ralf's but we're pretty disappointed. It's sort of still in discussion. A contract exists, so it has to be a joint decision. If we wanted to stop and he wanted to carry on, he would be able to carry on."

Zanardi, who returned to Formula One from America with consecutive CART series wins and boundless enthusiasm, only to become a tormented soul may welcome an escape. Especially if it is lucrative. Villeneuve is also under contract and has said he would not leave BAR. But it may be possible for Williams to negotiate an exchange deal especially if Craig Pollock, the Canadian's former teacher, is unseated as chairman.

Other potential candidates are Colombia's Juan Pablo Montoya, the current CART champion, Olivier Panis, the Frenchman who has joined McLaren-Mercedes as a test driver, the Dutchman Jos Verstappen, Denmark's Tom Kristensen, who has tested with Williams, and the German, Jorg Muller, the official test driver for BMW, Williams' new engine partners.

n Italy's Minardi Formula One team said yesterday they were talking to Ford about a possible engine deal for next season.