Motor Racing: Briatore builds dream: Benetton chief backs Schumacher to trouble Senna. Derick Allsop reports

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FLAVIO BRIATORE, self-appointed purveyor of 'the Formula One dream', offered his vision of the coming world championship: a showdown between Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher.

Genuine prospect or pure fantasy? A few weeks ago not many would have envisaged a serious threat to Senna and the Williams-Renault. In winter testing, however, Schumacher, Briatore's No 1 driver at Benetton-Ford, has encouraged the hope that a contest may, after all, be at hand.

Briatore, the team's managing director, perched himself on the arm of a sofa at his opulent London apartment and said: 'I see this season as being very good and believe it will be a good fight between Schumacher and Senna. This is what the people are looking for.

'We have the second-best engine, and Ford assure me they will sort out any problems for the first race of the season. We have one of the best chassis and we had our new car ready before Williams, so maybe we will be better prepared. We have the team, we have the 200 fantastic people who do the job at the factory. And we have Schumacher.

'In Formula One there are two top drivers, Ayrton and Michael. I prefer to run with the younger one than the older one. Senna is very mature, but I believe Schumacher takes more risks. He is younger. I believe the potential is there and hope this year he makes no mistakes.'

Schumacher's potential was recognised by Ron Dennis, the managing director of McLaren- Peugeot, when he lost Senna to Williams. Dennis tried, and failed, to lure the German with what Briatore described as an enormous offer. Briatore said: 'Michael stayed with us because we have the package and he is very happy with me. Maybe Michael was affected by Dennis in the last two races last season. He is now signed until the end of 1996. I would like to win the world championship with Michael. If I don't win the championship by 1996, I'll stop because it will mean I'm not good enough.'

That pledge is delivered with typical flourish by an Italian entering middle age comforted by wealth and revelling in his own flamboyance.

Briatore extols the virtues of communication and fun. He readily concedes he is a businessman rather than a purist racer, such as Dennis and Frank Williams. He is also proud of his achievements so far in Formula One.

He said: 'I have been in this business four years. Ron has been in 20 years. When I came in McLaren was god. Now Dennis is second god. But if this T-shirt team, which is what they called us, can come up to second, it is no big deal. Ferrari were two seconds faster than us, now we are ahead of Ferrari. I want Ron and Frank to fight me, or it is boring.'

The grin was mischievous. It usually is. Briatore has had his political battles with Dennis and Williams, but believes his campaign for a reduction in technology has been justified. 'Every year until now I have had a 20 per cent increase in budget,' he said. 'This year, no increase. It is possible to run a team on pounds 9m to pounds 10m.' Benetton's budget is probably three times more.

He admits he has changed his mind about refuelling ('I don't think it is the right decision') and is stoking the fires under that old chestnut, the reverse grid. 'You sell a dream in Formula One,' he said. 'I never see a cheque on my desk for technology. This is about power, speed, noise, human beings fighting.'

Briatore confirmed he had put an offer on the table for Ligier-Renault and he would run it as a second team, from England. He said: 'If you like prosciutto, you come to Italy. If you like champagne, you come to France. For Formula One, you come to England. I don't like the English weather, but the best engineering is here.'

Briatore is seen as a possible successor to Bernie Ecclestone, president of the Formula One Constructors' Association and ringmaster of the grand prix circus. 'Formula One is 20 per cent of what it could be but I don't believe anybody could recreate what Bernie has created,' he said.

(Photograph omitted)