Button set for move as teams jostle for drivers

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The Independent Online

Formula One packed its bags here for a rare summer break, sure of its champion but still puzzling over some significant driver appointments. Michael Schumacher edged closer to a fourth title, despite his enforced retirement in Sunday's German Grand Prix. His only challenger, David Coulthard, also failed to finish a race won by Ralf Schumacher in the irresistible Williams-BMW.

The season resumes in Hungary, a fortnight on Sunday, on a circuit where the elder Schumacher will feel his Ferrari can win. If it does, the championship issue will be settled, even should Coulthard come second. They would be separated by 41 points with only 40 to compete for. The German will then seek an outright record of 52 Formula One victories in Belgium, scene of his debut, 10 years ago.

Confirmation of Schumacher's championship success, like the new landmark, has long been a matter of when rather than if. Coulthard, of course, will not concede until the mathematics deem his quest is over, but the McLaren-Mercedes looked ominously impotent here and the Scot's body language was dejected.

Most paddock interest revolves around the remaining seats to be allocated for next season. The sacking of Germany's Heinz-Harald Frentzen by Jordan-Honda just four days before his home race created an improbable opening. The Brazilian, Ricardo Zonta, did little to enhance his claims. The feeling here was that Jordan have lined up Jean Alesi, the Frenchman who earned a valuable point for the financially troubled Prost team. Such a move would doubtless appeal to Alesi, and Alain Prost, the team principal, appears powerless to hold him. Alesi may well be driving for Jordan in Budapest.

Prost could even have difficulty retaining control of the team. Essential sponsorship deals have not been forthcoming and his assets could be seized if he fails to settle debts soon. Pedro Diniz, already a part-owner of the team, is ready to take over should the four-times world champion throw in the towel.

Benetton also profited from others' misfortune here, Giancarlo Fisichella taking fourth place and Jenson Button fifth. The Englishman's first points of the season could scarcely have been better timed. Button, given rave reviews in his first season of Formula One with Williams, has struggled to maintain the momentum at Benetton. The car has been poor, but Button has not matched the pace of his Italian team-mate. Whether this result appeases the team principal, Flavio Briatore, remains to be seen.

Briatore is the manager of the Italian, Jarno Trulli, said to be unhappy at Jordan, and the highly rated young Spaniard, Fernando Alonso, who will not be left indefinitely at Minardi. Button has been linked with Jaguar, but they are adamant they have no vacancy for next season. Prost, too, has been suggested as a possible destination for the Briton.

Arrows, having signed an engine deal with Cosworth, will now focus their attention on finding a partner for the Dutchman, Jos Verstappen, who is confirmed for next year.

The Scotsman, Dario Franchitti, hoped to revive his Formula One prospects by taking the lead in the CART Series in Chicago on Sunday. Instead, he was 15th and slipped to third in the standings. His countryman, back here in Formula One, knows about that kind of frustration.

LEADING DRIVERS' STANDINGS: 1 M Schumacher (Ger) 84pts; 2 D Coulthard (GB) 47; 3 R Schumacher (Ger) 41; 4 R Barrichello (Bra) 40; 5 M Hakkinen (Fin) 19; 6 J P Montoya (Col) 15; 7 J Villeneuve (Can) 11; 8 N Heidfeld (Ger) 10; 9= J Trulli (It), K Raikkonen (Fin) 9.

CONSTRUCTORS' CHAMPIONSHIP: 1 Ferrari 124 points, 2 McLaren-Mercedes 66, 3 BMW-Williams 56, 4 Sauber-Petronas 19, 5 BAR-Honda 16, 6 Jordan-Honda 15, 7 Benetton-Renault 6, 8 Prost-Acer 4, 9 Arrows-Asiatech 1.