Benetton's battle to restore power

MOTOR RACING: Proven driving and engineering skills have not added up to a force in Formula One. Derick Allsop considers why
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The Independent Online
If life after Michael Schumacher has been a chastening experience for Benetton-Renault, it has been an unrelenting ordeal for their current drivers, Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger.

Two of the more talented and experienced men in Formula One, they have unwittingly enhanced Schumacher's reputation by failing to emulate the performances which made the German world champion for the previous two seasons and brought the team the constructors' title last autumn.

Alesi and Berger made way for Schumacher at Ferrari and both harboured the belief they might at last be heading in the direction of the championship. Instead they struggled and were hounded by stories of discontent within the team. There have been rumours Berger would retire but Alesi would be replaced.

Flavio Briatore, Benetton's phlegmatic leader, insists the team needs stability and continuity rather than further change, and that his drivers will serve their two-year contracts.

The drivers, for their part, contend they are coming to terms with a different environment and car, and Alesi, at least, has enjoyed better fortune of late. But the Benetton no longer challenges the Williams and the prospect of being outclassed again in Sunday's British Grand Prix at Silverstone compounds the dismay in the ranks of the Cotswolds-based team.

Alesi can offer little realistic hope of success this weekend, but he does maintain the future holds out more promise.

"I have started to feel more comfortable in the team and to reach my high level again. I now understand much better the way they work, what they want and what they need," the 32-year-old Frenchman said. "After five years at Ferrari, it is very difficult to come to another team. I grew up with a team that had a different mentality, a different everything.

"It was difficult both ways - for the team as well as for me. But they had proved they could win so I had to change some things. For instance, I am not thinking so much now about individual lap times as the whole grand prix."

During Alesi's early, traumatic learning period at Benetton, the gossip line claimed his Japanese girlfriend had been banned from accompanying him at races because she constituted a distraction. The notoriously explosive Alesi laughed that off as typical Formula One fabrication. "It does not make me upset because I am not a young driver, new to all this, so I understand everything, even things like that. It is not worth an answer. It is like... putting sugar on pasta. It does not make sense."

Alesi had more pressing concerns trying to handle the car. "I don't think anybody can have expected the problem we had with it," he said. "Because of that I was not able to give 100 per cent. I was always uncertain. You cannot come to a team just for one year and what I've done this year will help me next year. But this championship is not finished yet. I'm not saying I can win the championship, but from now on I can only go upwards."

Berger, the most experienced driver in the present Formula One line-up, has also abandoned dreams of the title this season after encountering difficulties with a car developed from Schumacher's. "Everybody has his own way of driving and Michael has a very different way of driving to the way I drive," the 36-year-old Austrian said. "I couldn't get what I needed and I couldn't give the team what they deserved.

"We both know we are worth more than the 10 points I have from nine races. We have had a lot of small technical failures, which is very surprising for Benetton, and they keep shaking their heads, saying 'this is the first time in four years we have had a problem like this'. It's quite funny but on the other hand it has stopped me several times in very good positions."

Berger, like Alesi, accepted he had to compromise his own working pattern to fit in to Benetton's. "If you win races and championships, you don't like to move away from the way you work, and I agree with that. I prefer to change if it means the possibility to win the championship. I am happy in the team and like the way they work. They work so much harder than any other team I've worked with. I see the same thing at Williams, perhaps even harder, and these are the best two teams in Formula One.

"I never seem to be at home. It is racing, testing, racing, testing. And really hard testing. If the circuit opens at nine o'clock they push you out of the truck at five to nine to get into the car. At five to nine in Ferrari you pick up another espresso.

"I would like to give the team the results they deserve for working that hard. We need to build up early for next year because one of our problems this year was that we started too late. For the rest of this season I want to finish races, even if I have to be third or fourth. My motivation is so high I laugh when I go out in the car. Honestly!"

Murdoch eyes Formula One, page 21

Benetton's season

Australia: Alesi ret, 9th lap; Berger, 4th, 1min 57.037sec behind winner

Brazil: Alesi, 2nd, at 17.982sec; Berger ret, 26th

Argentina: Alesi, 3rd, at 14.754sec; Berger, ret, 56th

Europe: Alesi, ret, 1st; Berger, 9th, at 1:21.6

San Marino: Alesi, 6th, at 1 lap; Berger, 3rd, at 46.891sec

Monaco: Alesi, ret, 60th; Berger, ret, 9th

Spain: Alesi, 2nd, at 45.302sec; Berger, ret, 44th

Canada: Alesi, 3rd, at 54.656sec; Berger, ret, 42nd

France: Alesi, 3rd, at 46.442sec; Berger, 4th, at 46.859sec