Motor Racing: Benetton hopeful of right formula

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The Independent Online
BENETTON-FORD declared their optimism that they could challenge Williams-Renault for this year's Formula One world championship when they announced their campaign strategy here yesterday.

An inhospitably wet, chilly afternoon could not dull the impact of the psychedelic metal roof over the Benetton Group's Italian HQ or the ambition of a racing team undeniably in the ascendancy.

Just how high Benetton and their drivers, Michael Schumacher and Riccardo Patrese, can rise this season will depend on how their performances compare with those of Williams. The defending champions are favourites again, but if anyone can threaten their pre-eminence it is probably Benetton.

Last year Benetton, whose racing operation is based in Britain, were third in the championship behind McLaren. This time McLaren, now also in partnership with Ford, may need time to regroup, while Benetton appear to have the greater momentum. Times in testing certainly indicate as much.

Their latest development car, the B193A, which will open the season in South Africa on Sunday week and be used in at least one further race, has active suspension and a semi-automatic gear box. The B193B will incorporate a new bodywork and aerodynamic package, a new monocoque, anti-lock braking and Ford's electronic throttle control, which is effectively a traction-control system. Mid-season, Cosworth are due to introduce Ford's new engine.

Tom Walkinshaw, Benetton's engineering director, said: 'I believe we can establish ourselves in the first two and have a chance of a real run at the world championship. It will be very close.'

Flavio Briatore, the team's flamboyant managing director, also talked about their prospects of building for and even winning the championship, but Schumacher deliberately presented a more sober appraisal.

The young German, who won a grand prix in his first full season, clearly does not intend to fuel expectations in his second. He said: 'It seems Riccardo and I have to go for it] We shall see. I believe, as Tom said, we can win some races this year. As for winning the championship, that is something else.'

Schumacher completes his pre- season testing at Silverstone today before flying out to South Africa to acclimatise. Once the racing is under way, Benetton will be more reliant on their three test drivers who include the Scot, Allan McNish.

Ayrton Senna, who has still not decided whether to race for McLaren, will have a test run in the team's new car at Silverstone tomorrow and Thursday.

Alain Prost yesterday denied making the comments that could cost him his driver's licence for a part of this year's world championship. The Williams driver faces a Fisa disciplinary panel on 18 March to answer for derogatory remarks he was said to have made about the world body and its president Max Mosley. 'There was nothing extraordinary in the comments I made,' he said. 'Others before me, Ayrton Senna in particular, have been more scathing about the world body.'