The BMW-Williams team owner Sir Frank Williams was battening down the hatches and preparing for a court battle last night after taking the Formula One world - and BAR-Honda team principal David Richards in particular - by surprise with the announcement that he has signed Jenson Button to lead his team in 2005.
It was Williams, back in 2000, who gave 20 year-old Button his big break by signing him to replace Alex Zanardi as team-mate to Ralf Schumacher. As the season progressed Button out-qualified the German on the three most challenging tracks - Spa, Monza and Suzuka - but was released because the team had a long-term agreement with Juan Pablo Montoya and an ongoing contract with Schumacher. Many still believe that Williams should have kept him and dumped Schumacher, but instead Button endured two unhappy seasons with Renault before his career was rescued by David Richards and the BAR-Honda team, with whom he signed a long-term contract. Button's defection is a body blow to BAR, and an incensed Richards has vowed to do everything in his power to block his move.
Earlier in the season, when the possibility of returning to Williams was raised, Button insisted he wanted to stay with BAR, a "family" team in which he felt comfortable. "We are a pretty open team, we are very open with each other and we say what we think, which really works. So, yeah, I am very happy at BAR," he said. "One of the crucial things is being really wanted. I had a difficult situation at Renault, and maybe it helps that we are a British team. Understanding how people are, their emotions. You can't keep chopping and changing. Continuity is very important within a team, and for the drivers. I'm very happy here."
Now, however, the situation has changed even though BAR-Honda are outrunning BMW-Williams with third place in the constructors' league, and Button is chasing Rubens Barrichello for second place behind Michael Schumacher in the drivers' championship thanks to a slew of podium finishes in a remarkable year. However, that does not appear to have been enough for the ambitious Englishman, now 24, who believes more than ever that he can be world champion and follow in the wheel-tracks of past Williams title-winners Alan Jones, Keke Rosberg, Nelson Piquet, Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost, Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve. His deal to partner Australian Mark Webber will certainly have been sweetened by engine partner BMW.
"Jenson's experience counts for a lot and he makes very few mistakes," said Williams, who has always retained an affection for his protégé. "His driving looks effortless and that is the mark of a true champion."
It is unusual for Williams, who places great store by protocol, to poach another team's driver, but a Williams insider revealed that "a window of contractual opportunity" opened for a very brief moment, and Williams, who once said that Formula One is a sport for two hours on a Sunday afternoon and a business for the rest of the time, jumped in to exploit it.