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Maneuvers on the driver market

THE Formula 1 driver market for 1996 remains stable at the moment, waiting for Michael Schumacher to make a decision as to his future. While everyone waits to see if the German will jump, the other top names are all busy talking, trying to put together plans for all eventualities.

Schumacher told German journalists last week that he is not interested in joining McLaren next year because the team was not competitive enough. This means that Michael has, in effect, only three possible options: he can stay where he is or he can move to Williams or Ferrari.

Frank Williams is keen to get Schumacher because the German's signature would have two important effects: it would re-cement Williams's currently strained relationship with Renault; and it would do serious damage to Benetton. Benetton is so focused on Schumacher that without the German many feel the team would implode, with the good engineers taking offers to work elsewhere and Flavio Briatore losing interest and quitting F1. The only problem for Williams is to raise the $26 million being demanded by Schumacher. Rothmans would probably be happy to pay for the top name in the sport - and Frank should be able to splash out on a driver for 1996 as he saved a lot of money in recent seasons by not having to pay Hill and Coulthard vast sums.

Ferrari also has impressive buying power, with the backing of Marlboro, which traditionally pays the Ferrari driver salaries. Marlboro wants a World Champion to leads its "Marlboro World Championship Team" and, having tried Nigel Mansell with disastrous effect this year, there is currently only one World Champion on the market - Schumacher. But, if Schumacher goes to Ferrari neither Jean Alesi nor Gerhard Berger will stay at Maranello. This would not be good for the team's continuity - something which team boss Jean Todt values very highly.

The third option is for Schumacher to stay where he is. This would involve Flavio Briatore having to find a much bigger budget than is currently the case. The team is already paying a large percentage of its budget to the German and there are suggestions that this has affected the team's development budgets this year.

Rumors at Silverstone suggested that Berger could well find a berth at Williams, alongside Hill next year with Coulthard moving on to McLaren, which is believed to have an option on the young Scotsman. This does not, however, take into account the future of Heinz-Harald Frentzen who is increasingly becoming the most sought-after young driver in F1 circles. HH is rumored to have recently signed a Williams option, having been measured against Williams tester Jean-Cristophe Boullion. Boullion is as quick as Hill and Coulthard in the Williams but has yet to get anywhere close to Frentzen in the Sauber - a Williams combination of Hill and Frentzen has thus been mooted.

If Hill leaves Williams he does not appear to have many options at the moment. There were rumors at Silverstone that Damon was being chased by Ferrari and Benetton but both teams denied this was the case. Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo recently made it clear that he is satisfied with his current drivers while Flavio Briatore denied any contact with Hill.

The various permutations are very interesting but nothing is likely to be decided before Schumacher has his name on a contract, after which everything else will fall into place.

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