Benetton burdened by great expectation

Motor racing
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The Independent Online
A quarter of the season completed, Williams in command, Ferrari on the up, McLaren, too, showing signs of improvement. Much as might have been expected. There is, however, one significant variation on this predicted theme - the form of the champion team, Benetton.

Their campaign, already in danger of being submerged in mediocrity, plunged to new depths of ignominy in Sunday's European Grand Prix here. Gerhard Berger finished a troubled race a distant ninth and Jean Alesi survived just one lap before colliding with Mika Salo's Tyrrell and careering into the gravel.

To compound personal and corporate misery, Alesi was fined $2,500 (pounds 1,700) for running across the track after abandoning his stricken car and a further $10,000 for leaving the circuit "without approval".

Only last autumn, the Anglo-Italian organisation was celebrating their maiden const- ructors' success and their No 1 driver his second consecutive title. When Michael Schumacher departed for Ferrari, the team declared optimism that Alesi and Berger, recruited from Maranello, would adequately fill the void. It was to be a new challenge for the camp and an opportunity to prove they were not a one-man show. Four races this season suggest otherwise.

Berger's fourth place in Australia and Alesi's second in Brazil and third in Argentina brought them to Germany trailing way behind Williams. Through practice here, it was apparent the drivers were no nearer giving their engineers any clear direction, and events in the race confirmed the team's fears.

Much has been said about the influence of Schumacher behind the pit wall as well as on the track and some may have thought it mere rhetoric. Patently, it was not. The German's second place in the Ferrari, behind Jacques Ville- neuve's Williams, reminded Benetton what they had lost. A buoyant mood has become sullen, disenchantment hanging heavy where once there was symbolically upbeat music.

Alesi and Berger, for all their talent and experience, are still prone to fundamental errors, their lack of self-discipline undermining the very strength of Benetton during the recent past. Problems are magnified, solutions seemingly beyond them.

Luca di Montezemelo, the president of Ferrari, recognises a driver now has a more important role to play than for some time, hence the fortune he lavished in return for Schumacher's services. But investment is beginning to yield dividends, and come next year, may well give the Italian team their first driver's title since 1979.

Schumacher, who from the outset has been at pains to douse the flames of expectation in Italy, still insists his maiden victory for Ferrari is not imminent. He contends Imola, scene of next Sunday's San Marino Grand Prix, will not suit his car. In other words, the Italian fans should not generate too much pressure.

Certainly Williams should be favourites again this weekend and Damon Hill, having slipped up on Sunday yet still recouped three useful points, ought to extend his championship advantage over his team-mate, Villeneuve.

The Englishman was distinctly the quicker of the two here and although the Canadian has clocked up high test mileage at the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari and will be bolstered by his first Formula One win, all logic points to the senior partner regaining control.