BAR denies swap for Button

BIRMINGHAM, England -- British American Racing is totally confident Jacques Villeneuve will start the Formula One season in its car, team chief David Richards has said.

Richards replaced the Canadian former world champion's close friend and mentor Craig Pollock as BAR team principal last month, a surprise move that raised a question mark over Villeneuve's future.

British newspapers this week picked up on speculation that the French speaker, who won the drivers' title with Renault- powered Williams in 1997, could trade places with young Briton Jenson Button at Renault.

They also quoted Villeneuve as saying that "anything can happen" when asked whether he felt he would still be in the BAR at the season-ending Japanese Grand Prix.

But on Friday Richards ruled out a move for Villeneuve.

"It has not even been discussed and is not foreseen contractually either," he told Reuters at the annual Autosport show in Birmingham. "I have a team of drivers that I am very happy with today.

"Nor have any changes been discussed whatsoever. Creating conjecture fills column inches I am sure but it's not something that I am wasting any effort on at all."

Richards said he was "totally confident" Villeneuve would be in the BAR in Melbourne on March 3 for the season-opening Australian Grand Prix.

Villeneuve, whose teammate is Frenchman Olivier Panis, tested for BAR in Barcelona this week and sounded upbeat afterwards.

"Jacques tested the car this Wednesday, was very encouraged and came away from the test in a positive frame of mind, saying that as far as he was concerned we had made major steps forward, the car was basically sound," Richards said.

Button was also in Barcelona this week but was not talking to reporters. Renault, appearing under their own name this season after buying Benetton, is due to launch its new car in two weeks in Paris.

Richards, who also runs the world rally championship and was briefly a Benetton team principal, added that BAR still had not got Honda's new engine and was likely to be working with a development version for another month.

He brushed aside a report that Villeneuve, who left Barcelona after his one-day test for a ski weekend in Switzerland, had not been in touch with the team since the pre-Christmas launch.

"That's what happened in January last year so it's no exception," he said. "I wouldn't read anything into the body language of the first month.

"You pick your moments and you don't rush in until the dust settles," said Richards of his own actions. He will attend a BAR test in Valencia at the end of next week.

"It's no good me concerning myself with what's going on behind the scenes.

"We have a job to do, I have a job to do to lead the team to produce the best car in our ability and that's the most significant thing that I can do to influence Jacques."