Briatore in race for recognition

Derick Allsop finds the Benetton boss in a combative mood as the teams gear up for Sunday's Brazilian Grand Prix
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They may have the world champion driver and may have pushed Williams all the way for the constructors' title last season, but Benetton embark upon a new campaign at Interlagos on Sunday still having to prove themselves to a sceptical world.

The unsatisfactory climax to 1994, when Michael Schumacher collected the crown after a collision with Damon Hill, at Adelaide, was in keeping with a contentious and highly charged year. Benetton, at the centre of the suspicions and controversy, felt victimised, that their genuine achievements had been undermined. They now seek the recognition as well as the team award they were denied.

Flavio Briatore, their Italian managing director, has had his fill of pain and aggravation. Still recovering from a slipped disc, he is looking forward to a quiet sporting life. What is more, he maintains, there is a spirit of reconciliation throughout the sport, from Max Mosley, president of the sport's governing body, the FIA, and Bernie Ecclestone, president of the Formula One Constructors' Association, to the teams and drivers.

Briatore said: "At one point last season I was tired. Anyone would have been in my position. I don't want that again, but I never wanted to walk away from Formula One. I had to think of all the team, everybody at the factory, not just my own situation.

"We have 200 people, working day and night, and we had to go on. Life is always ups and downs, and you have to be strong when you are down. We got up again and all that is in the past now. I like to forget the past. I prefer to look to the future.

"I am optimistic for Benetton and for the sport. I believe everybody - Max, Bernie, the team managers, drivers - wants and expects a championship that will be good for the reputation of Formula One.

"We want Formula One to be doing what it is capable of doing - putting on fantastic entertainment for the spectators and viewers. To do that we want the sport, the racing, to be the focus of attention. We all need that.

"At Benetton we try every year to go better than the year before, but when you get to the top it is harder to stay there. McLaren and Williams know what it is like."

To confirm Benetton's position at the top, Briatore takes the popular view that they will again find Williams in their path.

Benetton now have, like Williams, Renault engines, though the switch from Ford has entailed inevitable teething problems. Williams, with Hill and David Coulthard, appear better prepared this time and Briatore concedes his pair, Schumacher and Johnny Herbert, may have to come from behind.

Briatore said: "I don't worry too much about the winter testing. It is not necessarily a serious indicator. There could be one or two surprise teams at the start, but eventually I think you will see the same big teams come through, Benetton and Williams, and maybe McLaren- Mercedes.

"For two or three races we may not be at our best, but I don't see why Michael should not win back-to-back championships. Sure, there is more pressure on him. For the first time he starts the season as No. 1.

"Last year Ayrton Senna started in this situation. Now the challenge is to Michael. But Michael can be even better than he is. His passport says he is young, 26, but in racing and in business he is very mature. He is very strong, mentally and physically.

"Damon is very good, and he has a lot more confidence after those two wonderful races in Japan and Australia at the end of last year. I believe he will be the No 1 protagonist for Michael. We need a good fight between Schumacher and Hill, and between Benetton and Williams."

Herbert may feel he would like a greater say, but Briatore preached pragmatism. He sees the 30-year-old Englishman as the strong No 2 he has lacked for the past two seasons, a driver who needs to establish himself among the front runners before aspiring to championships.

"This is a big chance for Johnny," Briatore said, "and he will be good for the team. I hope he has regular podium finishes and wins some races. But you have to be realistic, not a dreamer. We believe in having one team leader. That way you avoid the antagonism. Michael is very strong and Johnny can have many more years in Formula One."

Briatore is conscious of course, that the other top teams covet Schumacher, and the German has long been linked with a return to the Mercedes fold.

"The best thing we can do to keep Michael here is to show him we are the best team," Briatore acknowledged. "He is happy with us and we are not thinking about next year. We will talk about that situation at the end of this year."

There is also speculation - fuelled, it has to be said, by Briatore's own past comments - that the Cotswolds team's managing director, who is a businessman rather than a Formula One freak, may pursue new challenges in the not too distant future.

"For this year I am thinking only of Formula One", he said. "It depends on a few things. We will have to see."

It would seem that much is riding on this year.