Champion changes allegiance

Motor Racing
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Motor Racing


Formula One's orchestrated announcements of major driver signings were duly delivered yesterday, adding not only a refreshing element to next season's world championship but also a potentially intriguing twist to this.

As predicted, Michael Schumacher switches from Benetton-Renault to Ferrari on a two-year contract said to be worth $50m (pounds 30m), Jean Alesi moves in the opposite direction for the same period if not the same salary, and Jacques Villeneuve joins Damon Hill at Williams-Renault.

In the wake of Schumacher's defection, observers of the sport across Europe are questioning whether it could have any subsequent effect on his current title campaign. Should he successfully defend his crown, he will take the prized No 1, as well as his talent, to Ferrari. That would be a considerable blow to both Benetton and Renault.

Unlike Benetton, however, Renault have another contender for the championship, Hill, and it is logical to assume they would now prefer the Englishman to be champion.

No one, of course, is suggesting Renault would be less than 100 per cent scrupulous in their dealings with Schumacher for the rest of the season, but it may be fair to expect the Williams half of the Renault operation will be charged to make an extra effort in the seven races remaining.

Hill's victory and Schumacher's retirement in Hungary last Sunday reduced the gap between them to 11 points. Hill, the Williams camp and his Renault crew are buoyed again following the mishaps of Silverstone and Hockenheim.

Whatever the outcome of the 1995 campaign, Hill will have the momentum to take into '96. He is an experienced driver, a proven winner and is familiar with the Williams environment.

Schumacher, undoubtedly the outstanding driver in the world, may eventually galvanise Ferrari into a championship-winning team, but it could be asking too much, even of the German, to achieve that in his first season at Maranello.

Speaking on German television, Schumacher said: "I talked to a lot of teams, but I chose Ferrari in the end because I was looking for a new challenge.

"Sitting in the best car would have meant getting into a Williams, but I wanted to build something up together with Ferrari that should lead to a world championship."

Ferrari are planning a change from their tradition V12 engine to a V10, which Renault have demonstrated to be ideal for modern Formula One.

For all their resources, ambition and the leadership of Schumacher, however, they may encounter too many teething problems to enable them to sustain a championship bid. Over dinner in Budapest last week, the 26-year-old driver acknowledged that possibility, although his manager, Willi Weber, contended it would be a relatively simple process. Make of that what you will.

Certainly, though, Schumacher is about to become a phenomenally wealthy man (Weber, too, will be quite comfortable, thank you) and Formula One has the shuffle it needed. Alesi, yet another to leave Ferrari disillusioned if not broken, will be intent on showing his is the better deal, irrespective of the money.

The Sicilian-Frenchman will be smothered in attention and encouragement by Benetton's Italian managing director, Flavio Briatore, and he will respond with unflinching commitment.

Briatore said: "The combination of Jean's outstanding talent and our team's unique expertise will provide a new challenge for everybody at Benetton next year."

It remains to be seen what Villeneuve will bring. He may not have quite the aura of his late father, Gilles, but some are convinced he will become a genuine force in Formula One. He is also North American and that, like a winning Ferrari, is deemed important to the grand prix racing show.

Partners for Schumacher and Alesi have yet to be named. The former's demands for outright No 1 status may mean Gerhard Berger moves on, perhaps finding sanctuary at his former team, McLaren-Mercedes, alongside Mika Hakkinen.

Johnny Herbert and their test driver, Jos Verstappen, are expected to be overlooked by Benetton. Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Rubens Barrichello are thought to be the leading candidates there. Frentzen has also been linked with McLaren. So too has David Coulthard, the 24-year-old Scot about to leave Williams. Another seat Coulthard is trying for is the one next to Schumacher, although Ferrari may prefer to promote their test driver, Nicola Larini.