BAR retain leading driver

Jacques Villeneuve, the former world champion, has signed a three-year contract extension with British American Racing.

Jacques Villeneuve, the former world champion, has signed a three-year contract extension with British American Racing.

There had been rumours that the Canadian was going to make a £20m switch to Benetton, but he has ended the speculation by keeping faith with the Honda-powered team. Villeneuve, world champion with the Williams team in 1997, had hinted he was ready to leave BAR in order to challenge for a second title.

Villeneuve could be joined at BAR next season by Jenson Button as Williams are expected soon to confirm that the young Briton is being replaced by Juan Pablo Montoya who drives on one of the two American Indy Car series.

Villeneuve's new deal - reputedly worth £25m - is a boost to the Brackley-based team which failed to score a point in its debut season last year. "It was a difficult decision, but I am happy to stay with the team after two years of hard work," said the 1997 champion, who has finished fourth in the last two races. "It is rewarding to see progress. I would like to continue with the team and to continue with that progress."

Craig Pollock, the managing director, said: "We are absolutely delighted with Jacques' decision and the fact he has registered a significant vote of confidence in British American Racing. Jacques has been an integral part of the team since its formation two years ago, and his commitment indicates that he shares our belief that this is an organisation with which he can win races, and ultimately the World Championship."

Villeneuve's recent fourth-place finishes - at the Austrian and French grands prix - has helped the team to move up to fifth in the manufacturers' championship this season with 12 points, one point ahead of Jordan - who will also be powered by Honda next year.

However, BAR, which is funded by around £40m a year by British American Tobacco, did not confirm Ricardo Zonta as their second driver for 2001 last night.

The Brazilian could be released - Arrows are one of the favourites for his signature - with Button being lined up as a replacement. Button's other options will be Benetton - who are set to ditch the Austrian Alexander Wurz, who has struggled this season - and Jordan, if they lose Jarno Trulli to Benetton.

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