Ferrari becomes central player in off-track manoeuvres

Who will drive for whom next season is motor racing's hot topic, says Derick Allsop
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The Independent Online
The journey down from Hockenheim has been a sobering experience for the Ferrari tifosi. Michael Schumacher's victory provided further evidence - if any were needed - that he is the one man worth breaking the bank for. To all Italy's dismay, however, their team's performance presented scant encouragement that they would lure the champion from Benetton- Renault.

While Benetton, and indeed Williams-Renault, have taken significant steps forward over the past three races, Ferrari have apparently stood still. They are prepared to pay Schumacher umpteen million pounds and want a decision by the middle of the month. Unless money is the prime consideration, he must surely reject their offer.

So then what for Ferrari, the spoilt child of this passionate nation? Sources inside Formula One contend that Jean Alesi's tempestuous love affair with Maranello is over, although that, of course, has been said before. Yet another reconciliation is certainly no less comprehensible than the suggestion that Nigel Mansell's name is now on the list of possible replacements.

But if Alesi does leave and Schumacher does not sign, options to meet their requirements are limited. Damon Hill has been mentioned, and while he will not have strengthened his cause with that early exit in Sunday's German Grand Prix he is a proven regular race winner.

The only others currently competing are Schumacher and Gerhard Berger, who looks increasingly more likely to stay at Ferrari. The Austrian has declared his willingness to partner Schumacher. He would doubtless be more content to have Hill on board and would relish the prospect of another crack at Mansell, his team-mate at Ferrari in 1989, but now almost 42.

The name of Mansell has been thrown up by the whirlwind of speculation that gathers momentum at this time. He still refuses to close the door on Formula One and will enjoy the conjecture, even if most in the sport feel this is one Ferrari fantasy too many.

The alternative Ferrari theory is that they might break with tradition and give Schumacher the absolute No 1 status afforded him at Benetton, and balance the books by appointing the current test driver, Nicola Larini, as his No 2.

Schumacher, however, has repeatedly stated his priority is a car and team capable of delivering another championship. Ferrari, like Ford, are scheduled to switch from a V12 to a V10 engine, and the process must be expected to incur problems.

The Renault V10 remains the outstanding power unit and the French manufacturers know that. "Why should Schumacher want to leave?" Patrick Faure, the head of Renault Sport, asks. "He is 26, he can have more championships than Fangio [who won five] and then maybe try Ferrari when he is 32."

Faure has also said he would like a Frenchman in one of Renault's four cars. Benetton have already indicated that they would wish to have Alesi should Schumacher defect. If the German stays put, Faure may try to manoeuvre his compatriot into a Williams. Peugeot are also keen on flying the tricolore, and Alesi was engaged in earnest discussions with his old mentor, Eddie Jordan - boss of the Jordan-Peugeot team - at Hockenheim.

Another Frenchman at the centre of paddock talk is the former world champion Alain Prost. He is to terminate his ambassadorial duties with Renault in October, and has been linked with a move to the McLaren-Mercedes organisation. He is adamant he will not contemplate a return to grand prix racing, but does not rule out the possibility of taking on some Formula One test driving and a number of touring car races.

Prost, once the arch adversary of Ayrton Senna, has watched the Schumacher- Hill escapades with interest this season and suggests both would have difficulty coming to terms with prominence. "When I was racing, there were more drivers competing at the top," he said. "I raced against Senna, Mansell, Piquet and Lauda, and all of us, except maybe Senna, were a long time gaining experience in the middle of the grid.

"Now you have Hill and Schumacher, relatively inexperienced, yet they are fighting at the top and maybe that is part of the problem. They don't have the experience so they tend to make more mistakes."

Prost believes, as most observers do, that Hill made another costly mistake on Sunday, but has sympathy for the Englishman. He explained: "Damon is a very good driver, but he's not in a perfect psychological situation because a lot of people do not like him and very often he is criticised. He is not helped often, also, inside his team, so it is difficult for him."

Hill can at least take heart from the fact that he is still the only genuine threat to Schumacher, although Alesi, for one, would no doubt welcome the opportunity to find out just how good the Williams is.