NEWS FEATURE

All the reasons for the 1999 Benetton Crisis

Benetton did not have a good year in 1998 but it was always going to be a difficult season because for much of the 1997 season former team boss Flavio Briatore was fighting to keep his job rather than planning for the future. In the end Briatore was removed as head of the team and when his replacement David Richards joined the team it was too late to change very much.

Richards adopted the attitude that it was best not to make radical changes and began a building process for the future. This included the hiring of Alexander Wurz to drive alongside Giancarlo Fisichella. It was followed by the sensible decision to switch from Goodyear to Bridgestone tyres. This came rather late in the day and meant that engineers had to make a lot of changes to the B199. Things were not helped by the fact that neither Benetton driver had much experience which meant that the team suffered in terms of tyre development in comparison to McLaren, which had David Coulthard. As a result there were times when Benetton suffered from changing tyre companies.

Richards spent several months looking at the entire Benetton operation and sorting out problems - like the troublesome windtunnel programme - and he concluded that the best way to make the team competitive again was to form a new partnership with a major car manufacturer. He suggested that Benetton do a deal with Ford but the American car company wanted a shareholding in the team and the Benettons were unwilling to part with any shares. In the end Richards departed but there is no reason why this will make much of a difference to the team in the short-term. There is already an engine deal in place for 1999 and 2000 with Super Performance Competition Engineering although the ex-Renault V10s are likely to continue being called Playlife V10s. For the long-term the Benetton Family is hoping that Renault decides to return to F1 in 2001 so it can become the French company's factory team.

The team's money supply is also secured with a recently-signed two-year extension with Japan Tobacco to continue running Mild Seven branding.

One area where Richards did make a difference was in the marketing department which was expanded considerably in the year in which Richards was in charge.

From a technical point of view the team is doing well with the recent commissioning of the long-overdue new windtunnel at Enstone. This should help produce a more competitive car for 1999 and the technical team under Pat Symmonds and Nick Wirth seems to be fairly solid.

The day-to-day running of the team has also been little affected by the departure of Richards. Operations director Joan Villadelprat took over the running of the team at the end of 1994 when Tom Walkinshaw and continued in that role under Briatore, who never had more than a rudimentary knowledge of how to run a racing team.

The danger for Benetton is that the replacement of Richards by 29-year-old Rocco Benetton may harm the team in the longer term.

Benetton - the youngest son of Luciano Benetton - has a degree in engineering from Boston University and after university he spent four years in New York, running an investment company, but he had no experience of motor racing when he was appointed Commercial Director of the team in September 1997 and may well find the politics of the sport and the constant battling over deals very difficult to master.<\#026>

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