Button's rising star sets poser for Williams

Briton's swift development raises questions on wisdom of proposed two-year release to Benetton
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The Independent Online

"Of course I am delighted because of the result," said Frank Williams, while it was his long-time partner Patrick Head who made specific reference to the achievement of their young driver: "A fourth position is a brilliant result for Jenson."

"Of course I am delighted because of the result," said Frank Williams, while it was his long-time partner Patrick Head who made specific reference to the achievement of their young driver: "A fourth position is a brilliant result for Jenson."

You can only wonder what is going through Williams' mind after another outstanding performance by Jenson Button, the 20-year-old British driver he is seemingly intent on releasing for the next couple of seasons.

Button, forced to start Sunday's German Grand Prix here at the back of the grid after his engine cut out, demonstrated excellent car control in the wet to finish fourth. Those three points hoisted him to eighth in the drivers' championship and consolidated Williams-BMW's third place in the constructors' standings.

An excited, yet patently bemused Button could not resist the ironic post-race comment: "And I'm getting the sack."

Williams will maintain he is getting no such thing, that he is merely being allowed to develop elsewhere. Williams has described Button as a future world champion and is adamant he will not release him from their long-termcontract.

If Button confirms his potential - and Benetton are understood to have secured his services for two years - he will be recalled by Williams. Come then, the team hope their car-engine combination will be good enough to compete for the championship.

There are those in the Formula One paddock who suspect Button will be ready to win races before then and question whether Juan Pablo Montoya, the Colombian due to replace him at Williams, is a better prospect. Jacques Villeneuve made the switch from CART to Formula One successfully, winning the title with Williams in 1997. Michael Andretti (to McLaren) and Alessandro Zanardi (to Williams) fared with less distinction.

Flavio Briatore, Benetton's team principal, denies a deal with Button is concluded, yet speaks enthusiastically about the youngster. "There are not many young drivers around with his talent," said the Italian who took Michael Schumacher to Benetton and provided him with the opportunity to become a double champion, in his first stint with the team.

"Jenson has been very impressive this year on circuits he does not know. Next year he will improve. He is not only quick, he is also intelligent. You see that he thinks about his racing. This is good, especially in a driver so young."

Briatore's thoughts will doubtless go back to the fledgling Schumacher. It is too early to suggest Button will emerge as a challenger to the German, but Briatore appears convinced he is worth a reported £5m or more over two years.

Salaries are "already crazy" Briatore protests. He also delivers a thinly veiled warning to Button and his advisors, saying: "Either a driver wants to drive to win or he wants to drive for money."

All part of the sparring, of course. Briatore, in common with most team principals, has done extremely well financially out of Formula One. He is a shrewd business operator and knows the market. But so, presumably, do Button's people, and Renault, who have bought Benetton, will consider his fee well spent if he is as good as many believe.

Briatore's public line is that his priority is to re-engage his Italian driver, Giancarlo Fisichella, then turn his attention to the future of his other driver, the hapless Austrian Alexander Wurz, and his possible replacement. It is understood that Briatore has Button's contract in place but cannot sign it until Williams have secured the release of Montoya from GanassiRacing.

There are those who suspect Williams might secretly be hoping a late hitch makes him pull out of negotiations with the American team. They point to Williams' propensity for parting company with some of their better drivers, even champions, such as Nelson Piquet, Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost and Damon Hill.

Villeneuve left two years after winning his title and his present team, BAR-Honda, have been Benetton's main rivals in the negotiations for Button. Their principal, Craig Pollock, admits to his alarm at the salary being sought for a driver with only 11 grands prix on his CV.

However, Dave Robertson, one of Button's managers, contends they are merely asking for what his driver is worth. "The money is certainly not our priority," he said. "First of all we want to make sure Jenson is with the right team, where he will have a competitive car and the right environment to develop.

"Flavio has the track record. He's a proven winner. The same goes for Renault. They have the resources and the will to be successful again.

"But of course the money has to be right as well. Jenson is going to be a star. Everyone in Formula One knows that. His value has gone up and we would be failing in our duty if we did not get him the best possible deal."

Button, believed to be earning £350,000 this year, may one day be bringing in the millions Schumacher generates, but right now the Ferrari driver will probably wish he could buy a win, a point, or even a finish.

His first-corner exit on Sunday was his second in consecutive races and put him out of a fourth grand prix in five. To his enormous relief, he is still leading the championship, if only by two points from the McLaren-Mercedes pair, David Coulthard and Mika Hakkinen, because his team-mate Rubens Barrichello claimed his maiden Formula One victory.

Much as Schumacher will have been frustrated at the sight of the Brazilian coping masterfully with the mixture of wet and dry conditions, thinking the 10 points would assuredly have been his but for Fisichella's intervention, he would have been encouraged by the performance of the Ferrari.

McLaren were not so dominant here as in Austria a fortnight earlier, and Schumacher must believe he has had his share of misfortune for one summer. He should be confident about his prospects in the Hungarian Grand Prix onSunday week.