BAR's progress has Button talking of world titles

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The Independent Online

Jenson Button believes his BAR-Honda team have made so much progress this winter that they could challenge for the world title in 2005. At least, that's what the 24-year-old Englishman said yesterday while doing an honourable job of stonewalling questions about his possible future with BMW-Williams, and remaining loyal to his current employer.

"Things have changed in the team. There's been a natural progression. Last year Jacques [Villeneuve] was very opinionated, as we all know, and I'd just sit back. Now I have learned that I need to push really hard even when there aren't any problems. I'm much harder now."

Button was drawn to admit that he believes the team could be a title contender next season. Most might consider that fanciful, but finding himself between a rock and a hard place, he soldiered on: "The car is strong and stable, which gives me confidence. I hope we will be closer this year to the top teams. It's not been one big step, but lots of little ones. We'll be strong, and the top teams will be watching us when we are allowed to run three cars on Fridays."

He added: "I don't know whether BAR will be a Williams or not in the future. Ask me in six or eight races and I'll have a better idea. I want to win the world championship, and it doesn't matter to me how. But I'd rather do it at BAR, with a team I have helped to build around me."

From today, as teams from fifth-placed BAR downwards have the option to run three cars in practice on Fridays, Button will be helped by former karting rival and fellow Englishman Anthony Davidson. "We are lucky we've got him," Button said. "He'll do a lot of miles so Takuma Sato and I can save our engines under the new single-engine rule. Anthony's quick, his feedback is very good, and he'll definitely be the most useful of the Friday drivers."

Juan Pablo Montoya, whose departure to McLaren in 2005 has created the potential opportunity for Button to return to the team that launched his F1 career in 2000, will be monitoring BAR's speed. Modern drivers are often accused of being anodyne robots. Not so Montoya, to whom a spade thankfully remains a spade. If he had had one to hand on Wednesday he might have applied it to the heads of the two comedians hired by BMW-Williams' sponsor, Allianz, to liven up their press conference at Sandown, close to Melbourne's Albert Park.

The insurance company's "joke" backfired when, bored by the comedians' puerile questioning, Montoya announced that he had had enough and walked out, leaving racers Geoff Brabham and Allan Moffat to ferry guests on hot laps round the track in a BMW M3. Yesterday Montoya was unrepentant.

"It was a day for the sponsor so it was my job to be professional," the Colombian said, "but when they stopped being professional there was no need for me to be there. It was supposed to be funny, but I didn't find funny the idea of playing golf with this guy's grandmother. I decided that I didn't need to be there, so I got up and left. Frank [Williams] was OK with it."

Montoya admitted that there was some friction behind closed doors with Williams's marketing people, but he is hardly a stranger to confrontation within the team that he will leave at the end of the season.

The much-hyped event got the season off to a high-profile start, and Montoya made it clear that he intends to stir up trouble on the track, too.

"I've covered 7,000km of testing and we have focused on reliability," he said. "Our car was very driveable from day one, and it just keeps going and going. It's a lot quicker than last year's car and hopefully it will be a winner. We gave away both titles last year because we scored badly in the opening races. Now the atmosphere in the team is good.

"Me, I don't have problems with anybody, really. I want to win, and it would be nice to win the world championship before I leave. I'm here to race and win. If I have a chance, I'm not going to give it away this time."