Renault return to F1 with Benetton buy-out

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The Independent Online

Renault confirmed their return to Formula One yesterday, buying out the Benetton team for $120m (£78m).

The French company joined the increasing list of heavyweight car manufacturers who are using grand prix racing as a high-profile, high-cost marketplace. A liaison with Benetton, fading former champions of the sport, had long been expected but, rather than merely invest in the team, Renault followed the lead of Ford, who bought the Stewart organisation and then changed the name to Jaguar.

Benetton, the innovative and often controversial Italian clothing group, will retain the team name for this season and next, with Renault taking over the name in 2002.

Luciano Benetton, president of the Benetton group, said in Milan yesterday: "Today globalisation means that it must be the specialists in each sector who compete in their own market. We have invested a great deal of effort in Formula One and it has brought us more satisfaction than we could have imagined. Now, to guarantee the development the team deserves in this new scenario, it is appropriate to pass the baton to Renault. I take this opportunity to thank all the sponsors who have supported us with passion in this extraordinary adventure."

Louis Schweitzer, chairman and chief executive officer of Renault, maintained that the company had always intended to return to Formula One.

"I believe today that a Renault team has the capacity to win the world championship," Schweitzer said. "Going back to Formula One as an engine supplier wouldn't have made much sense as we have already won everything there is to win. So we chose to go for the only title missing from our sporting achievements: namely the constructors' world championship title under the colours of the Renault team."

Like Benetton, Renault are former champions, having enjoyed success as engine partners to Williams and Benetton in the 1990s. They pulled out at the end of the 1997 season, maintaining they had achieved all their goals.

Now, however, they are re-entering the arena in their own right, seeking to fulfil their original ambition. They made their Formula One debut in 1977 and pioneered the then much-derided turbo engine. Others were to capitalise on their initiative but they regrouped to become the envy of the business.

They won six constructors' titles and five drivers' championships - with Nigel Mansell in 1992, Alain Prost in 1993, Michael Schumacher in 1995, Damon Hill in 1996 and Jacques Villeneuve in 1997.

For the past two years they have maintained links with Formula One as customer suppliers, under the guise of Supertec, who began the season in association with Arrows as well as Benetton. This latest development completes the cycle.

The agreement also takes Benetton back to basics. They first dabbled in Formula One as sponsors in the early 1980s. Their involvement with Toleman grew until, in 1986, they assumed ownership of the team.

The signing of Schumacher in 1991 heralded the team's halcyon days. The German won the drivers' championship in 1994 (in a Ford-powered car) and retained his title when Renault came on board. Benetton added the constructors' crown to their haul that season.

Schumacher left to take on a new challenge at Ferrari in 1996 and Benetton have been in decline ever since. They have won only one race post-Schumacher and managed a modest sixth place in last year's constructors' championship.

Renault's intervention will revive hopes at the Cotswolds-based team and give their drivers, Giancarlo Fisichella and Alexander Wurz, a much-needed new lease of life.