Button's 'sense of balance' may solve Williams driver dilemma

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The Independent Online

Sir Frank Williams' face would never be the first to crack in a poker game. Yesterday the man who merely smiled when one of his cars won him his first grand prix, 25 years ago this July, resolutely stonewalled questions about driver choice for 2005 and growing rumours that Jenson Button could return to his team.

Four years ago, Williams took a chance and plucked the then 20-year-old racer from Somerset from the sidelines. They only let him go for the 2001 season because Ralf Schumacher was already under contract and the team had made a huge investment in the incoming Colombian, Juan Pablo Montoya.

Now that Montoya is headed for McLaren in 2005, Button is Williams' first choice, though you wouldn't know it to listen to Williams talk.

"There is a list of people we are looking at, and there is no rush. I really cannot comment about Jenson," he said.

But Williams did pay telling tribute to the Briton's potential when he added: "He has it coming - in the nicest possible way! He dealt with Jacques Villeneuve [a previous Williams champion] well in 2003. He has always been quick but he has matured nicely in other areas."

Williams' technical director, Patrick Head, said: "We have always had a high regard for Jenson's talent. He has a very natural sense of balance in the car, and qualifying third at Spa, as a rookie, isn't something an inadequate driver would do."

The Williams team's original contract with Button actually only runs out at the end of this season, but for 2005 Button can only get out of his present long-term contract with BAR-Honda if that team are not in fifth place or higher in the world championship for constructors on 1 July. On current testing form, they look likely to achieve that.

Meanwhile, two sons of former world champions, Nelson Piquet Jnr and Nico Rosberg, have both tested twice recently for Williams without, it seems, making a sufficiently great impression. Williams recently confirmed that the Jaguar refugee Antonio Pizzonia would be their second test driver in 2004, alongside the Spaniard Marc Gene. Running the quick Brazilian will also be a useful means of quantifying his former Jaguar team-mate Mark Webber, in whom Williams continues to show interest as an alternative to Button.

"Nelson and Nico will both end up in Formula One in due course," Williams said of the pair. "Both are very quick, but they are not yet ready for an F1 ride this year. Mark is very good and a great charger, a bit like Nigel Mansell. We were surprised initially by his performance in 2003, but then we got used to it."

In an ideal world Williams would like to retain the services of Ralf Schumacher for 2005 for the sake of continuity, but only payment breakdown details are said to be holding up the German's signature on a $15m (£8m) 2005 deal with Toyota, which could see Williams losing both of their drivers at the end of 2004.

Jordan took a step closer to signing the promising F3000 race-winner Giorgio Pantano when bank letters of confirmation were prepared yesterday ahead of an official announcement today.

Pantano, 25, was the German F3 champion in 2000 and has tested for McLaren, Williams and Benetton in the past but lacked sufficient sponsorship to secure a race seat.