Briatore seeks a balance

Andrew Baker talks to the man helping Benetton cope with life after Schumacher
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The Independent Online
BENETTON built a team around one man, and now that man has gone. Michael Schumacher was the still centre about which the team revolved, the constant star at the top of the bill above an ever-changing cast of supporting players. But now he's gone, lured by a bulging bag of lire to Ferrari, and one question has dominated Benetton's preparations for the new season: can they win without Schumacher?

"It's a very interesting question," Flavio Briatore, Benetton's flamboyant boss, said last week in an interval between meetings at the team's secluded headquarters in the Cotswolds. "The team exists, it is strong. All we are changing is the two drivers. Michael was here for five years, and it is true that we built the team around him - but this is quite normal. Williams have built around Damon [Hill]. You have a basic car, you make the modifications that the guy asks for. Now we will do the same with Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger."

The situation is not unprecedented, but you have to go back a long way to find a top team changing both of its drivers at once, so prized is continuity in motor racing. When Ayrton Senna left McLaren for Williams at the end of 1993, Mika Hakkinen, who replaced him, had already driven three grands prix for the team. Indeed, the last time a championship-winning team changed both of its drivers in the close season was 1973, when Tyrrell had to replace Jackie Stewart, who had retired, and Francois Cevert, who had been groomed to succeed the Scot but was killed in practice for the final race of 1973.

Briatore is acutely aware of the importance of his selections. "We have 220 people working here," he said. "The drivers keep jobs for these people." Briatore's task at the end of last year was to replace the irreplaceable. Schumacher combined tremendous speed with deep technical knowledge in a way that no other racing driver could match. So Briatore has selected two drivers who each have one of Schumacher's attributes: Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger. And he plans to improve them, to add some of Schumacher's weaponry to their armouries.

"Jean is a good friend of mine," Briatore said. "We go on vacation together, I know his family. He is very, very quick. And he is very emotional. At Ferrari he was in a very emotional team. But now he is in a racing team, not an emotional team." For example, Briatore explained, when testing Alesi always used to insist on "making a time", going for a quick lap with a low fuel load - just for the hell of it, or to steal a headline or two. At Benetton, he won't be given the chance. "We will not allow him to make the time. We always test with fuel on board." Schumacher's professionalism is to be grafted on to Alesi's passion. "Jean is very fit, as well," Briatore reported. "We have had him working with the same guy as Schumacher."

The other side of the equation is technical knowledge, and the ability to work well with the team's backroom staff in testing and developing the car. For those qualities, Briatore approached Alesi's erstwhile Ferrari team-mate, the veteran Austrian Gerhard Berger. "When you lose a guy like Schumacher," he explained, "you lose a base. Gerhard has a lot of experience. He has this base. He is a great communicator with the engineering people."

But Berger is also 36 years old. Does he still have the hunger to compete? Ross Brawn, Benetton's technical director, is confident that he does. "He has joined Benetton because he wants to try to win," he said. "He had a much more lucrative deal available at Ferrari, but he's joined us."

Benetton are bound to sound delighted with their new signings. But has Briatore done as well as he thinks? "Well, he has lost the best driver in the world," Andrew Benson, the grand prix editor of Autosport, pointed out. "But he has done as well as he possibly could in replacing him. And don't be fooled by Briatore's line that Berger is there for his technical knowledge. He is every bit as quick as Alesi, and can be quicker." Benson also observed that one of the key elements in Schumacher's campaign last year was pit-stop strategy. "Those were decisions made by the team," he said. "That expertise will carry over to Alesi and Berger."

But the question still remains to be answered. Can Benetton win without Schumacher? "Last year we won two championships," Briatore said. "So you see it is impossible to do better than we did. I hope we win races. To win the championship is complicated. You need many things. You need luck. But I hope to be fighting."

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