Features - News Feature
MAY 1, 1990
The tale of two theories...: Uncivil war at Benetton
BY JOE SAWARD
This was the problem facing Benetton Formula at the end of 1988. The team had made solid and measured progress since it was formed from the remains of the Toleman team in 1986. That year it was sixth in the Constructors' World Championship, in 1987 it was fifth.
When racing historians look back at Formula 1 in the late eighties, the 1988 season will be seen as a watershed year. It might have appeared a great success for Benetton, but the 39 points gained by the team pales into insignificance when compared to McLaren's vast total of 199 points.
Such was the McLaren domination that in the Drivers' World Championship both Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost scored more than double the points of third-placed Gerhard Berger. The pair broke all the records. Senna took 13 pole positions in 16 races, winning eight times. Prost won seven races. They finished first and second on 10 occasions. The team had won 15 of the 16 races. The one defeat was, literally, an accident for Senna ran off the road when overtaking the Williams of Jean-Louis Schlesser at Monza. But for that incident McLaren would have scored a clean sweep.
Such domination will likely never be repeated and it forced many of McLaren's challengers to think again. Such is the importance attached to winning in F1, that coming second is not enough. Winning is winning, coming second is losing...
As teams began their post-mortems on the season, it was quickly clear that knives were being sharpened. Changes had to be made.
Sitting in boardrooms, looking at F1 through balance sheets, the powers that be in the Benetton Group had to accept the stark fact that Benetton Formula had won only one Grand Prix in its history. That was the Mexican GP of 1986, when Gerhard Berger took his BMW-engined, Pirelli-shod B186 to victory.
Thus it was that during 1989 a new attitude was obvious from Italy. More money could be found -- more success was demanded and at a faster pace.
In order to achieve this the Benetton Group chose Flavio Briatore, a laconic, silver-haired Italian with no racing background. Briatore had been active in Benetton's marketing push into the United States of America, but he knew little of racing. His brief from Benetton headquarters in Treviso, Italy, was to turn the team around -- put the organisation into hyper-drive and move rapidly into the top rank of the "corporate" Grand Prix teams, alongside McLaren, Ferrari and Williams.
Briatore received the backing to achieve the leap forward -- something which had not always been the case in the early years -- but it was not to prove an easy process. The old regime fought to protect the firm foundations that had been laid. The team management, working on a policy of constant rather than dramatic development, did not agree with the changes.
Only future results will answer the question of who was right...
Briatore arrived at Benetton Formula in January 1989 in the role of Commercial Director. As an outsider he had a different perspective to the general way of thinking in F1. Looking in from the outside it is easy to explain some of the reason for Benetton's lack of success. The team had been forced to constantly change its engines. This meant that a chassis/engine combination was never allowed sufficient development before it had to be thrown away and a new combination tried. Designer Rory Byrne was constantly beginning work with a clean sheet of paper.
The team had been aware of this failing and in 1987 began a special relationship with Ford which should have solved the engine switching problems. It did not work out that way. Delays in development and rule changes meant that the team had to use three different Ford engines in three seasons: in 1987 it was Ford V6 turbo; in 1988 the team switched to Ford DFRs and for 1989 there was a new V8, the HB.
Ford, clearly, would play a major role in developing the team and Briatore, adopting a low-key approach, found an ally in Ford's motorsport supremo Michael Kranefuss, a company politician and a long-time survivor in the corridors of power at Dearborn. He wanted action -- and fast.
Briatore, and Kranefuss began to look at the long-term future of Benetton, helped in the early stages by input from Jackie Stewart, who was was retained as a consultant at the time by Benetton.
The 1989 season began with the new Ford HB engine being delayed and the B188 being used in the early races of the year. In Brazil, however, there was much celebrating for Johnny Herbert, the team's new boy driver, finished fourth on his GP debut.
Johnny was still recovering from injuries he had received the previous summer in a huge Formula 3000 accident at Brands Hatch but the then Benetton team manager Peter Collins had fought hard for his inclusion in the team. Herbert's continued place in the team would become a very public battle, but is was symptomatic of a much deeper battle for control of Benetton.
Briatore's arrival had threatened to transform the team from British-based control to a system of more direct input from Italy.
Collins, a brusque, no-nonsense, Australian with years of F1 experience gained with Lotus and Williams, was convinced that sudden change was wrong.
As the 1989 season progressed it became clear that Herbert's injuries were not fully healed. In Canada he failed to qualify and alarm bells began to sound.
Collins continued to fight for Herbert but he came under increasing pressure from Briatore and Kranefuss to replace the British youngster.
The relationships were beginning to break down and in the hot wearisome summer weeks of 1989 the criticisms became increasingly public.
"What I am seeing at the moment at Benetton doesn't really convince me," said Kranefuss openly. His message was clear.
Herbert was dropped before the French GP and Italian Emanuele Pirro was drafted in to replace him. At the end of August Collins left the team and then, from the shadows, Briatore emerged to take up the reins.
While this was happening, over at Ferrari there had been similar political battles -- once again triggered by the phenomenal successes of McLaren in 1988. This was accentuated by the death of Enzo Ferrari and the takeover of the team by Fiat.
In the middle of this fighting was John Barnard, the originator of the McLaren MP4 series, a man considered by many to be the top designer in Grand Prix racing -- and an undoubted innovator. Barnard's uncompromising style has left him with some detractors, but there is little doubt that he has produced the goods.
When he joined Ferrari Barnard managed to convince Enzo Ferrari to fund a British research and development facility. Thus was born Ferrari's Guildford Technical Office (GTO) where Barnard and his engineers designed the Ferrari 639 and 640 models, which were to lay the groundwork for the successful 641/2.
In June 1989 Ferrari announced that Barnard would not be staying with the team in 1990. Barnard and Prost began talks to form a team, to be run by Hugues de Chaunac, using Renault engines. When these talks feel through rumours began that Barnard would join Benetton.
In this respect Kranefuss was vital and he was soon expressing an interest in setting up a GTO-like operation.
"I want to see an outside development design area that supplies a very small racing team with fully developed products," he commented at the time.
Kranefuss went on to offer to set up a Ford-funded technical group for Barnard.
Barnard remained coy. Would he join Benetton?
"It wouldn't be a situation of me working directly for the Benetton team," he said. "That's not something I'd look at doing."
The departure of Collins ended the major opposition to the new regime. One philosophy was replaced by another and, backed by substantial finance, there followed by a string of announcements: three-time World Champion Nelson Piquet signed to drive for the team in 1990, thus ensuring that Benetton had a "top name" driver.
Finally, in October, there came the expected news -- Barnard would join the Benetton Group of companies as Technical Director.
Thus was formed what the pitlane jokers began to call "BBK Racing". Briatore, Barnard and Kranefuss proved a powerful combination, keen to rebuild the Benetton team in their image -- an image of cold, calculating professionalism -- an image to rival that of McLaren.
Quietly, away from the tracks, the trio began to recruit. The only way to win is to get the best team you can. A steady stream of people began to arrive at Benetton -- many of the technical staff having worked with Barnard before: Peter Rheinhardt came in from Onyx; Giorgio Ascanelli from Ferrari and Mike Coughlan from Lotus, but these were just the tip of the iceberg -- there were many more.
The existing Benetton design team, which had been together from the Toleman days, was led by Rory Byrne and Pat Symonds. They remained at Benetton's base at Witney, while the new men set up shop at the design centre in Godalming. The project was shrouded in extreme secrecy.
The theory was that the old regime would concentrate on the design of the B190, while Barnard and his crew would be looking further ahead to 1991, while keeping an eye on the the progess of the B190.
Generally-speaking, trying to have two top F1 designers in the same team is unlikely to succeed -- a bit like trying to fit two Supermen into a telephone box. It seemed only a matter of time before the old regime would feel the wind of change and move elsewhere.
In the meantime the team had stumbled into a second Grand Prix victory, Sandro Nannini being awarded victory in the Japanese GP after Ayrton Senna was disqualified. No-one -- even within the team -- really considered that to be a victory.
Over the winter, as more and more people began to appear at Benetton, it became something of a joke around the racing scene to try to work out what they were all going to be doing.
The reality was that Briatore, Barnard and Kranefuss were putting together a whole new support structure, backed up with the money necessary -- to create a racing corporation, similar to that which had made McLaren so successful in 1988. There were marketing men galore and it quickly became clear that this aggresive approach was bearing fruit: Briatore's connections landed an enormous sponorship deal with the Nippon Autopolis company. This was followed by a deal with the European newspaper and, by mid-1990, a two-year deal with Camel for sponsorship in the 1991 and 1992 seasons.
At the same time the team embarked on an innovative public relations policy to gain coverage for F1 in magazines and newspapers which would not normally be associated with racing -- most notably in the fashion and glamour business, where Benetton is keen to promote its clothing.
The stresses and strains of transforming an organisation in a short space of time has inevitably resulted in casualties along the way, the survivors of the old regime talked quietly of it not being like the old days. Most, however, kept their heads down and pressed on with the job.
What happened at Benetton is perhaps an indication of the general change which F1 has been undergoing since the 1988 season, with the move towards a more corporate structure being necessary to compete at the sharp end of F1. Detractors will tell you that it has little to do with the sport, but few can deny that it is necessary.
Meanwhile, at the tracks, the B190 had been producing some useful performances. The reliance on a V8 engine was clearly something of a handicap in terms of outright power in comparison to the V10s and V12s, but the car handled well and the results began to come: Nannini was third in San Marino; Piquet second in Canada. A brilliant drive in Canada saw Nannini second in Germany and challenging for a win in Hungary until he was taken out of the race in an incident with Senna. Piquet, however, picked up the pieces to take third. Another fine drive saw Nannini finish third in Spain.
But while there were plenty of good results, it was not an easy time for the race team for there were a series of accidents which left the team constantly building up new chassis. The organisation, however, was large enough to absorb such difficulties without an effect on the overall performance.
At the same time Barnard's research team was hard at work on the B191, designing a semi-automatic gearbox and testing other developments in secret tests, using Brazilian driver Roberto Moreno, who had worked with Barnard when he was at Ferrari.
It was no surprise when, in October 1990, Byrne and Symonds decided to leave the team and head off together to Adrian Reynard's new F1 team, scheduled to enter F1 in 1992.
The season was not over, however, and sadly the last weeks were to be unfortunate for Nannini's impressive season was to be cut short when he was seriously injured in a helicopter crash just before the Japanese Grand Prix. Moreno was drafted in to replace him.
The Japanese GP was a triumph. Piquet and Moreno drove to first and second -- but admitted later that victory would not have been possible if the McLarens an Ferraris had not crashed into one another or broken down.
In Adelaide it was a different story. While Ayrton Senna drove off into the distance at the front, Piquet fought and passed the other challengers. When Senna crashed, having pushed his gearbox too hard, Nelson took the lead and held it, despite considerable pressure from Nigel Mansell in the closing laps. It was a real victory -- not an inherited one.
There is no question that Benetton Formula did well in 1990. The development and investment involved in pulling Benetton onward and upward has been substantial. Yet it remained a year of transition for the team, with new foundations being built for the future.
The team looks ahead to 1991 with high hopes for success but being a consistent winner will be a tough task, particularly with a V8 engine.
Whatever else happens, 1991 will be a crunch year for Benetton. Reputations in F1 are hard to make -- as the original management argued -- and they are quick to break -- as the original management found out. Next year Briatore, Barnard and Kranefuss will discover if they are right...
...and Collins will find out if he was wrong.