Richards set for legal action in bid to stop Button switch

Sir Frank Williams was unrepentant yesterday about luring Jenson Button from the BAR-Honda team.

Hours after the news broke, David Richards, Button's current employer, said angrily: "Jenson is under contract with BAR for 2005, since we took up an option on his services only last month. At no time has Jenson expressed anything other than his desire to continue working with BAR to achieve our collective goal of winning the World Championship."

But Williams argued: "The BAR option was invalid and not exercised properly. It all happened a few days before the German Grand Prix. Until then we had assumed that it was out of the question. It was an opportunity and we went for it. We have a contract with Jenson and we are of the opinion that BAR lost its opportunity to retain him. One fact is incontestable: Jenson wants and expects to drive for BMW Williams in 2005 and 2006."

Williams has had a form of option on Button lodged with the FIA's Contract Recognition Board since late 2000. It was subsidiary to the BAR option but gave Williams first option if Button were to leave BAR.

Williams said he called Richards five minutes after getting a letter from Button's manager, John Byfield. "He was very disappointed. It was a big shock but we wanted to do it all behind closed doors. We would like to resolve this amicably but we were pre-empted." He denied that money was the motivating factor, adding: "The hand fitted the glove nicely."

Richards said: "Honda's record of 11 F1 World Championships clearly places them in an outstanding position to provide the resources to take the team and Jenson to the very top. It is our intention to enforce our current contractual position with Jenson. My duty is to the 400-strong workforce which has worked tirelessly over the past two seasons to give Jenson the car he has today; and to our partners, whose unfailing support and commitment to the team has contributed to the solid structure we now have in place."

Williams will not have acted without carefully weighing up the legal ramifications. If Button's new contract is binding, Richards will have to look elsewhere for a partner for Takuma Sato. David Coulthard is an obvious candidate, but Olivier Panis, Cristiano da Matta or Alexander Wurz may be less attractive. Alternatively he might opt for Anthony Davidson, the team's test driver, or the F3000 star Vitantonio Liuzzi. Richards has been closely following the Italian's dominant performances via his links with Arden International Motorsport, for whom he races.

Yesterday, however as the argument headed for the Geneva-based Contract Recognition Board, which was set up to stop the poaching that saw Benetton steal Michael Schumacher from Jordan in 1991, Richards said: "This is a matter for the lawyers, and I have every confidence that the legal process will confirm that yesterday's announcement has not only been premature but also invalid."

Hot seats the 2005 F1 line-up

Ferrari

Confirmed: Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello

Renault

Confirmed: Fernando Alonso and Giancarlo Fisichella

Williams

Confirmed: Mark Webber and Jenson Button

McLaren

Confirmed: Kimi Raikkonen and Juan Pablo Montoya

Toyota

Confirmed: Ralf Schumacher

Likely: Jarno Trulli

BAR

Likely: Takuma Sato

Contenders: Anthony Davidson, David Coulthard, Jarno Trulli

Sauber

Likely: Felipe Massa

Contenders: Anthony Davidson, Gary Paffett, David Coulthard

Jaguar

Likely: Christian Klien

Contenders: David Coulthard, Vitantonio Liuzzi, Bjorn Wirdheim

Jordan

Contenders: Ryan Briscoe, Nick Heidfeld, Christijan Albers

Minardi

Contenders: Bas Leinders, Zsolt Baumgertner

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