Motor Racing: Benetton unveil their new range: Boost for Schumacher

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The Independent Online
BENETTON-FORD announced their 'dynamic' package for the coming Formula One season yesterday and declared their determination to launch a world championship challenge from day one.

Last season, when Williams-Renault dominated from the start, Benetton were slow off the mark and they have learned their lesson. They confirmed that the Finnish driver, J J Lehto, will partner Michael Schumacher and surprised many of their rivals by introducing the sport's latest hot shot, the Dutchman Jos Verstappen, who is the German Formula Three champion, as their test driver. This trio represents one of the brightest and youngest combinations in Formula One.

Lehto, who came into grand prix racing in 1989, has won the right to join Schumacher after an impressive series of tests during the winter. The all-new package - Mild Seven are the new sponsors and Ford have developed the Zetec R engine for this season - is ready for immediate testing and Benetton hope that two months of intensive preparation will equip them to compete for victory at the opening race, the Brazilian Grand Prix, on 27 March.

Flavio Briatore, Benetton's managing director, said: 'This year we hope to challenge Williams for the championship. We believe we can at least be one of the top two teams. We have a fantastic package with three excellent drivers.'

Schumacher, recovering from knee surgery, is eager to go to work next week. He said: 'I can't wait to start testing. In the two years I've been here I and the team have got better and better and I think we have the most exciting team in Formula One. This year, with a new car and new engine, our prospects look very good but we should not forget other contenders are very good. Our goal is to try to beat the Williams but we must do it step by step.'

Lehto, a former British Formula Three champion, said: 'I'm very thrilled to have this opportunity of driving in a top team. I'll have to follow Michael at the beginning because he has the experience.'

Schumacher added: 'It is important to have trust in the team and I'm sure I can trust J J. He is very quick and two good drivers are better than one in a team. We will work together for the good of the team and go for the championships.'

Steve Parker, head of Ford's racing operation, said: 'This is the best Formula One engine we have ever produced. It already has more power than the previous engine and there's still great potential for development. We are looking forward to an excellent season.'

Benetton, Ford's works team, have exclusive use of the Zetec R; Footwork, Minardi, Larrousse and the new Simtek organisation will be supplied by HB engines. The units are built at Cosworth's Northampton base, and Ford's aspirations are reflected by the success of the IndyCar engine, which powered Nigel Mansell's Newman-Haas Lola to the series title last season. Mansell has flexed his muscles for the new campaign with record-breaking times in testing at the Phoenix Oval this week. Ford Cosworth now provide 60 per cent of the American grid.

Ford are optimistic they can emulate their IndyCar achievement in the world rally championship and the British touring car championship. The Escort demonstrated its capabilities last season in rallying and the Mondeo, entered midway through the year, emerged as the car to beat among the saloons.