Schumacher starts the bidding for next season

motor racing
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The Independent Online
It is difficult to avoid the subject of money in this fortress for millionaires, but it seems talk of little else is washing around one local resident.

Michael Schumacher is not merely acknowledged as the best in Formula One, he is regarded as the only driver currently worth breaking the bank for, a man likely to rank alongside Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna as racers apart.

Already speculation rages as to which team Schumacher will be with next year. His cohorts have let it be known he is looking for $20m (pounds 13m) and at that price Ferrari would have to be the leading contenders. Even McLaren- Mercedes and Williams-Renault would be reluctant to compete on such a level.

Schumacher's present employers, Benetton-Renault, would certainly have to restructure their financial organisation to come anywhere near meeting that demand, but Flavio Briatore, their apparently unflappable managing director, believes he may still be able to make the German an offer he cannot refuse: the prospect of more championships.

Briatore eased back into a corner lounge of the Benetton motor home, lit a cigarette and gestured in the way Italians do. "I tell you, I don't honestly think of the money and I have never even spoken to Michael about this," he said.

"The most important thing is to make sure we're competitive enough to win the championship. If we do that, why should he change teams? There's no point talking figures now. Maybe around September we can do that.

"You cannot stop market forces. If there is only one Baggio in football, the price for him is high. In Formula One there is a big difference between Michael and everybody else.

"But you look back to the best drivers and always the most important thing for them was to win. That was why Senna went to Williams. Before then he was all those years with McLaren and that is where he won his championships. Michael is 26, still very young. When he retires he will be remembered as Fangio and Senna were.

"The best drivers, like the best teams, always look to tomorrow, to the long term, and that is what we have done."

Briatore did so when he switched from Ford engines to Renault at the end of a 1994 season that brought Schumacher his first title. "It took guts to do that," Briatore said. "Now we have the best engine and normally drivers like the best engine."

Benetton appear to have overcome the inevitable teething problems inherent in an engine change and Briatore predicts another significant technical advance by his team from the French Grand Prix, in July.

Schumacher is already a point ahead of Damon Hill in the title table and is the popular tip for tomorrow's Monaco Grand Prix. He is second on the provisional grid, alongside Ferrari's Jean Alesi. Hill, currently fourth, was relieved yesterday was a rest day.

The rain that pummelled the streets of the Principality would have washed away any prospects of his improving that starting position. If the weather is fine this afternoon, he will have the chance to advance in the final qualifying session.

On the other side of the financial divide, Simtek-Ford, the Banbury-based team launched last season, are the latest threatened with closure unless they can find extra backing soon.