Gerhard Berger yesterday rejected a supporting role to Michael Schumacher, announcing a two-year contract with Benetton-Renault and leaving two British drivers in contention for his place at Ferrari.
The Austrian, 36 last Sunday, returns to one of his former teams to partner his present team-mate, Jean Alesi, who had already made way for Schumacher. As expected, Britain's Johnny Herbert is to be released by Benetton at the end of the season.
David Coulthard and Martin Brundle, along with the likes of Brazil's Rubens Barrichello and Ferrari's Italian test driver, Nicola Larini, will now compete for the job Berger did not want.
It is understood Berger is taking a substantial pay cut at Benetton but preferred the package on offer in the Cotswolds to a lucrative life in the world champion's shadow at Maranello. Berger has also made it clear he has little time for the German.
Brundle and Coulthard are on better terms with Schumacher and both would be keen on a move to Ferrari. Brundle partnered Schumacher at Benetton three seasons ago and the pair have spoken about the possibility of their joining forces again.
Coulthard is believed to have a chance of joining McLaren-Mercedes, but the possible return of Alain Prost to racing could stifle his ambitions there. A guarantee at Ferrari, even as No 2 to Schumacher, might seem a more attractive proposition.
Berger, who also chose yesterday to marry his Portuguese girlfriend in Monte Carlo, registered his, and Benetton's first, grand prix win six years ago.
He said: "It was not an easy decision to part with Ferrari after the good times I've had at Maranello. However, Benetton has shown incredible performance during the last few years and has offered me the most competitive package, which I believe will allow me to win races next season. I am also looking forward to the relaxed approach which everyone enjoys at Benetton and to teaming up again with my friend Jean."
Herbert said he was informed of Berger's signing yesterday morning but he had already resigned himself to being released a second time by Benetton. Although he achieved his maiden Formula One success earlier this summer, in the British Grand Prix, he has had a generally disappointing season, lamenting a lack of testing opportunities. He said: "I feel frustrated rather than bitter, but then I knew what to expect. You've got to have the full backing of the team, as Michael has, to win the championship. All I can say to his next team-mate is `good luck'."
Herbert has already been linked with the Sauber-Ford team, but could be a candidate for Jordan-Peugeot if Barrichello moves.Reuse content