Advantages 1995 Constructor's Champions, excellent midfield battlers in late eighties, one of the famour "Big Four" for nearly a decade.
Disadvantages Shallow championship successes, rapid decline since 1995, Favlio Briatore
Only at one time in their sixteen year existence from 1986 to their final year in 2001 did Benetton peak and prove to be the team to beat in Formula One. However, even that statement is to an extent an illusion, and the reason for it also explains why their subsequent search to rediscover that form was misguided in its' approach.In writing this opinion I hope to unfold the history of Benetton and lay bare that fatal flaw that inhibited their capacity to win Championships. As I shall explain, it may make interesting reading for fans of Ferrari. (Those lacking in patience should just scroll down to the conclusion - this is quite long).
1986-8: The Late Turbo Years
1986 was an impressive debut year for Benetton. The power of their BMW engines (sound familiar?) and Rory Byrne chassis improved together throughout the season, allowing them to become a front running team in later races. They take pole position in Austria and Italy, but mechanical problems cost them victory. Finally in Mexico Berger delivered an impressive victory by staying out all race on his ultra-durable Pirellis while other drivers made multiple stops to change ruined tyres.Berger and BMW were gone for 1987, replaced by Thierry Boutsen and Ford V6 turbos respectively. Again the team came good towards the end of the season and despite not winning any races improved their championship position from 6th (1986) to 5th. Two podiums were their best results - with Fabi finishing third in Austria and Boutsen likewise in Australia after Ayrton Senna's disqualification.
Benetton faced an uncertain 1988 with Ford switching their focus from turbos to normally aspirated engines in anticipation of the complete banning of turbos for 1989. Although the new power restrictions did not stop turbos from winning every race that year, Benetton impressed by taking points of turbo cars on numerous occasions, most often the Lotuses of Nelson Piquet and Saturo Nakajima who squandered the awesome Honda power that gave McLaren 15 of the 16 victories that year.Benetton ranked a highly impressive third overall in 1988 with Boutsen taking five podium finishes and two going the way of his new team-mate, the impressive ex-Minardi driver Alessandro Nannini. Their points total of 39 would have been even higher had not both cars been disqualified from third and fourth in Belgium due to fuel irregularities.
1989-93: The Best Of The Rest
The 1988 season was especially significant because it marked Benetton's ascension into what became known as "The Big Four." Between them, Williams, McLaren, Benetton and Ferrari would monopolise the top four places of the Constructor's Championship from 1988-1997.
Benetton struggled to get their new chassis together and ran a modified version of their 1988 car for much of the early season. Finally, they were forced to swap drivers as complications arose from Johnny Herbert's leg injuries (Boutsen having departed to Williams) eventually resulting in Herbert's replacement by the lacklustre Emanuelle Pirro. Nonetheless Nannini put the team back on track firmly with victory in Japan, albeit inherited after the controversial disqualification of Senna.For 1990 Benetton appeared to have secured a coup by signing three-times champion Nelson Piquet to drive alongside Nannini. However Piquet's ultimate position of third in the 1990 championship - a new high for a Benetton driver - masked his relatively poor showing. Indeed with two rounds to go Piquet had only four points more than his far less experienced team-mate Nannini.
At this juncture, however, Nannini lost an arm in a horrific plane crash and Piquet inherited victory at the final two rounds of the season, he and Roberto Moreno (Nannini's replacement) securing a Benetton one-two in Japan after Senna and Alain Prost had once again taken each other off.Piquet inherited victory once more for Benetton in 1991 in Canada when Nigel Mansell's engine died on the final lap. But it was to be his swan song, for at the Italian Grand Prix he was replaced by a young driver who had impressed the Formula One establishment by qualifying seventh for his debut race in Belgium for Jordan. Tom Walkinshaw aided in the poaching of him from Jordan - not the last nasty confrontation between the two teams.
The writing was on the wall for Piquet as over the course of the last five races of the season from that point onwards his new team-mate outscored him by 7 to 4.5. Piquet retired and his placed was filled by the experienced British driver Martin Brundle, who would be the last driver ever to drive in Formula One on equal status with Michael Schumacher.That Brundle finished only 15 points shy of Schumacher is a testament to how underrated the former is. Schumacher provided the teams only win in Belgium after making a fortunate tyre change and Mansell hit engine trouble.
Benetton scored 91 points that year to finish third overall in the Constructor's Championship battle only eight points adrift of 1991 Champions McLaren. This was clearly not the sign of a team that required a drastic driver change, but Brundle found himself kicked out of the team after the intervention of team leader Flavio Briatore.That Briatore's decision was foolish goes almost without saying. In 1993 Benetton scored only 72 points, a mere 20 of which came from Brundle's replacement, the thoroughly past-it Riccardo Patrese. That Briatore was in no way qualified to make such a decision also goes without saying - drafted in from a lesser-known part of the Benetton empire, Briatore knew quantifiably nothing about Formula One and so decided that, rather than run a team, he would build it around a single driver and make the securing of that driver's goal the personal aim of Benetton. Essentially, Benetton became Team Schumacher from 1993.
1994-5: Benetton = Schumacher
An impressive weapon in Benetton's arsenal was their mastery of pit strategy. Refuelling was reintroduced for 1994 and they were clearly the only team to have done their homework. Exactly whether the majority of this should be attributed to Schumacher or Benetton is almost impossible to distinguish. At any rate the unit most likely to carry responsibility for tactical decisions - Schumacher and Ross Brawn - transferred to Ferrari and so they extent to which "Benetton" should be given merit for it is highly questionable. That it gave Schumacher victories, however, is without doubt.An uncomfortable cloud of acrimony hung over Benetton for much of 1994 which their sudden rise to success did little to dispell. In Germany their second driver Jos Verstappen (replacing the disappointing JJ Lehto) was engulfed in flames during a routine pit stop. There was uproar when it was revealed that the removal of a filter by Benetton to improve pit stop speeds had caused the fire, yet a blunder by the authorities saw them escape prosecution by the FIA.
Schumacher was disqualified in Britain after pointlessly overtaking on the warm up lap, and in Belgium after running on too low a ride height. At the final round of the season Schumacher spun off and critically damaged his car, but saw to it that Hill would not take Championship victory by ramming him off at the next corner. Benetton had their first driver's World Champion, but the Constructor's title went to Williams.For 1995 the Schumacher-Benetton unit were unstoppable with Renault power, thoroughly showing up the deficiencies of the opposition. As Schumacher's team-mate Herbert found out, no other driver received equal treatment alongside Schumacher. The car was designed exclusively around his driving style and Herbert was denied access to technical data. Nine wins Schumacher and two for Herbert (when Schumacher and Hill took each other off) gave Benetton both titles.
1996-2001: Trying To Remember What A "Team" Is
For 1996 Schumacher was gone, and the vacuum compounded by the rapid departure of Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne, the technical masterminds behind Schumacher's victories off to perform more of the same but in red coats for ten times more money at Maranello. Replacements arrived in the form of Jean Alesi and Berger - the two drivers whose mediocre performances had seen Ferrari stagnate since 1993 - and technical designer Nick Wurth, formerly of Simtek. "Who's Simtek?" I hear you cry - exactly.
Benetton's flaw was visible for all to see: they had built a team around a single driver of great ability but without that driver they lacked the structure to remain a competitive team. Certainly a chunk of the structure had gone with Schumacher to Ferrari but even without that an experienced, capable team leader would have been capable of making a better job than they did - after all, they still had by far the best engines in Formula One with Renault. But Benetton did not have an experienced, capable team leader. They had Briatore.The last Grand Prix victory for Benetton was, oddly enough, delivered by the same driver who scored their first one and had hardly driven for them at all in the intervening period. Berger returned from a sinus complex and the death of his father to annihilate the opposition at Germany in 1997.
The team had one last crack at a resurgence in 1998 when the useless Briatore was replaced by the impressive David Richards of the rally squad Prodrive. At least Briatore had poached the handy Giancarlo Fisichella from Jordan (deja vu) and Berger's temporary replacement Alexander Wurz looked handy in the second car. The only truly weak link was the Renault-derived SuperTec engines (being sold by... guess who... Briatore) which lacked the power and reliability of their French predecessors.Alas, before the final round of the season the Benetton heads inexplicably fired Richards, and at that final round Jordan grabbed enough points to finally demote Benetton from "The Big Four." Their form deteriorated rapidly.
The inexperienced Rocco Benetton lead the 1999 team with the same drivers: they dropped to sixth overall. At Brazil in 2000 Briatore was back: the team narrowly scraped joint fourth with BAR-Honda, albeit with only four more points than in 1999. Briatore vented his frustration first on Wurz, then on Fisichella as the latter found form towards the end of the season.It was announced in 2000 that after 2001 Benetton would cease to be: Briatore's links with Renault opened the door for them to buy the team. In 2001 Benetton are running with a revolutionary new design of Renault engine believed to be somewhere between 101 and 111 degrees in V-angle. Whatever it is exactly, it is currently not performing and it is all Fisichella and 2000 star Jenson Button can do to stay ahead of the Minardis. A better solution is expected at the French Grand Prix.
It cannot be denied that Benetton must have been performing well as a team to secure the success they did from 1994-5. But the definition of a "team" in this sense must be qualified. Benetton were not making a "team" effort in those years - instead their aim simply was to make Schumacher world champion. This explains the signing of poor team mates and restricting the capacity of others to perform to their full.
In the coming years Ferrari may come to rue their selection of the Benetton path. As is plain to see Rubens Barrichello (and previously Eddie Irvine) adopts the same role alongside Schumacher as Herbert did at Benetton in 1995. Had Ferrari allowed Irvine to compete on level terms with Schumacher throughout 1999, perhaps their coveted driver's title would have arrived a year earlier. But more importantly, when Schumacher goes, the winning will stop. Ask any Benetton fan.
www.benettonf1.com (Benetton F1)
http://www.jtnet.ad.jp/WWW/JT/Event/F1/ (Mild Seven International)
http://www.forix.com/asp/cm.asp?z=0&k=0&l=0&x=10&r=8601019&c=0 (Forix profile of Benetton)
Attention, this is the first review from this author
Instead of giving a negative rating, consider:
Help this member by giving your advice
Report fraud (for example plagiarism) or other issue with the review to the Ciao support team
Add your comment