Motor racing: Resurgent Berger threatens British contingent

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The Independent Online
Even as Gerhard Berger and Benetton-Renault were bathing in the sunlight after their emergence from the shadows, the whispers about the camp amounted to: "Let's see what he does at the next race."

Berger's authoritative victory in Sunday's German Grand Prix seemingly cast doubts on the wisdom of squeezing him out of Benetton and presented him as a viable option for other leading teams seeking experience in the cockpit. The knock-on effect could be damaging for the likes of Damon Hill and David Coulthard and perhaps Eddie Irvine, who is at odds with Ferrari over the terms of his contract. Johnny Herbert at Sauber-Petronas, apparently, remains the only United Kingdom driver certain of his job next year.

It is understood Ferrari have told Irvine they are prepared to exercise their option on his services for 1998, but only at a reduced rate. According to the grapevine, he was expecting $5m (pounds 3m), but the team are offering $3m. The deadline on the Ulsterman's option is Thursday and negotiations over the next three days are likely to be tense.

A similar dispute arose between Jean Alesi and Ferrari, the Frenchman ultimately receiving what was, in essence, a "take it or leave it" ultimatum.

Irvine has had public declarations of support from Gianni Agnelli, the patriarch of the Fiat empire, and Michael Schumacher, his team-mate and driving force of the Ferrari revival. Irvine, in return, is willing to continue acting as dutiful No 2 to the championship leader.

Irvine's first-corner collision with Heinz-Harald Frentzen's Williams- Renault here cannot have strengthened his cause, but where do Ferrari find a guaranteed better replacement? Berger, like Hill and Coulthard, has insisted he would not play second fiddle to Schumacher and left Maranello at the end of 1995 for that very reason.

Logic points to increasing competition for places at McLaren-Mercedes. Two strong races by Mika Hakkinen, two not so strong by Coulthard, have adjusted the balance of power there and may even have left the Scot vulnerable. Hill would certainly be keen to join the team, while Berger would relish a return to the fold. Austrian, and German-speaking, he may have added appeal for Mercedes.

However, the German company's sporting director, Norbert Haug, reiterated his belief here that changes were not probable and the same message came from the Williams compound. Before the race, at any rate. After it, the team's principals were pointedly silent.

Jacques Villeneuve spun out and is now 10 points behind Schumacher, but he is said to be "99 per cent" tied up for next year. Frentzen has another year on his contract yet is no nearer justifying it. Berger has spoken to the team and will doubtless speak to them again.

What is clear is that Williams are lacking direction from the cockpit, the kind of guidance Schumacher gives Ferrari - and the kind the British team had from Hill. A sensible solution might to make up with the Englishman, but the cost in terms of money and pride could be too much for Williams to bear.

Then how about Berger? On the face of it a sound move. He now has 10 grand prix wins to his name and demonstrated an extremely high level of commitment on Sunday after a three-race absence and the death of his father. And yet still his detractors wonder. He has long been acknowledged as a master of this circuit and, his split with Benetton confirmed, he had a point to prove. Can he sustain the pace when the motivation factor diminishes? Questions are asked also about his technical input and guidance, despite his 13 years in Formula One. One win may not be enough to rescue his career.

Jordan's excellent showing here will have increased their attraction to Berger and Hill, but they have Ralph Schumacher confirmed for next year and have not lost hope of keeping Giancarlo Fisichella, so unlucky on Sunday, from Benetton's clutches. For Hill, too, the search for a competitive car goes on.

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