It's been a pretty lousy weekend so far for Jenson Button, who qualified his Renault in 13th place, but at least he can afford to relax after his oft-denied deal with BAR-Honda was finally made official last Monday. And had he eavesdropped a conversation in the BAR motor home on Friday, when team principal David Richards explained why he chose him and how he beat Jaguar and Sauber despite offering a lot less money than was being offered by the other teams, it would have been balm for an ego bruised by Renault's extraordinary decision to drop him.
"I have to look to the long-term," Richards explained. "Jenson is paid appropriate to his role in the team, because that's not an area where you should skimp." His remuneration is believed to be $4.5m for the first year, rising to $6.5m in 2004. The deal is for two years, with options in two successive years on BAR's side. "There is nothing to stop Jenson being here forever," Richards remarked. "I was attracted by his age and, strangely enough, his experience. When drivers are so young, their three formative years in F1 are when you take the biggest risk. However good [Fernando] Alonso has been in testing, he's a risk. Jenson learnt so much with Benetton-Renault last year. That really is a young driver's critical period. We need youth and long-term planning, but we cannot afford to take big risks."
This is the a serious dilemma for many rising stars, among then Britain's Anthony Davidson who has been testing regularly for BAR-Honda but now seems more likely to get a drive in America's CART single-seater series than to graduate to F1 full time. "Anthony has been very good indeed," Richards observes, "but again he falls into that bracket of a driver facing his first three years in F1. I'm not sure we could afford to take that sort of risk right now, but on the other hand we needed a new driver. That's one reason why Jenson appealed, because he's got through that stage. But I think that Anthony will do a very good job if he gets a chance in CART."
There was another factor in the choice of Button. "I asked Jacques [Villeneuve] who he would want as a team-mate, who he would want to drive against. Michael [Schumacher] was top, but Jenson was second." Richards told how he and Villeneuve watched the end of the French GP at Magny-Cours, where Kimi Raikkonen missed his first grand prix victory only after sliding wide on oil with five laps to run. "Jacques looked at Raikkonen and said: 'These young guys are all over the place.' Then he added: 'Except for Jenson.'"
So while Renault remains convinced that its World Championship aspirations will best be served by booting out Button and taking Alonso (when more logical assessment might have suggested dropping [Jarno] Trulli instead), Richards is very happy with his choice. And with outgoing BAR racer Olivier Panis seventh on the grid and Villeneuve 11th (not to mention the Honda-user Giancarlo Fisichella giving Jordan its best qualifying position of the year in sixth), it augurs well for Honda's prospects in 2003.
Such things mattered this weekend, as a curiously laissez-faire atmosphere pervaded the paddock following Michael Schumacher's 61st GP victory the previous week had settled the World Championship in record time. In Hockenheim, the German fans, of course, applauded his every move and sounded their air horns at the slightest provocation. And, true to the script, he delivered exactly what they wanted. Along the way he ran wide and missed the first corner on one occasion, but soon made amends in a qualifying session that lacked the electricity of recent races. This was due in part to Juan-Pablo Montoya's failure to get his BMW-Williams to handle the way he likes so that he was unable to record a sixth consecutive pole position, and Rubens Barrichello's challenge just falling short. To the further delight of the locals, then, Ralf Schumacher was the man who gave his brother the hardest time, and it was Ralf that Michael had to beat on his last run. On his home ground the younger Schumacher got his act together rather better than he has of late, and held the pole with 1min 14.570sec until big brother took it away from him with 1min 14.389sec in the dying moments. Barrichello and Montoya wound up third and fourth, ahead of Magny-Cours sensation Raikkonen, who continues to show all the flair once associated with fellow countryman Mika Hakkinen, who confirmed this weekend that he will stay in retirement. With Fisichella bouncing back quite remarkably from the accident that sidelined him in France to take sixth place, David Coulthard was left an unhappy ninth in his McLaren-Mercedes.
"It's my dream to get my first Hockenheim pole and hopefully also the win tomorrow," Schumacher said. "I am more excited about this and I would like to transform today's performance into victory in the race."
Hockenheim remains one of the few circuits on which he hasn't won for Ferrari, so the symmetry of rectifying that shortfall while equalling his and Nigel Mansell's record of nine wins in a season remain irresistible motivations to keep the only man to equal Juan Manuel Fangio's record of five championship crowns pushing harder than ever long after the 2002 title has already been won.
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