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Has Schumacher signed for Ferrari?

RUMORS swept Europe last week, suggesting that Michael Schumacher had signed to drive for Ferrari in 1996. The stories indicated that the World Champion signed last Tuesday in Geneva, but there will not be an official announcement until September. This will enable Michael to concentrate on winning this year's World Title - thus bringing the World Champion's number 1 to Ferrari - while disrupting the other teams, which are waiting to see what happens with Michael.

There is no confirmation of the signing, although it is common knowledge that Ferrari has made a bid for the German. Ferrari driver retainers are traditionally paid by cigarette company Marlboro. Marlboro has long been championing a reduction in driver retainers but may be willing to make an exception to get hold of Schumacher, who is currently head and shoulders faster than the other top F1 men. If Marlboro has agreed to pay the rumored $25 million being asked by Schumacher, then it is possible that a deal may have been done. However, there is little doubt that either Rothmans or Japan Tobacco could pay as much as Marlboro if they want the German for Williams or Benetton, respectively. In fact, either team could benefit from financial assistance from Renault and Elf which want to keep Schumacher in their camp.

In a perfect world, Schumacher would probably like to stay at Benetton because the team has been built around him and he has worked with the same engineers since 1991. He will, however, know that the Ferrari package is steadily improving and the Italian team will settle for nothing less than winning. He may also be of the opinion that the current Williams FW17 is fundamentally a better car than the Benetton B195. This puts pressure on Benetton boss Flavio Briatore to come up with a deal to keep Michael.

Briatore nearly lost Schumacher last year when the German canceled a three-year deal with Benetton - which had been signed in December, 1993 (to cover the 1994-95-96 seasons) - because he wanted more money. He used the cheating allegations against Benetton as a way of getting out of the contract and met with a Williams lawyer in St Moritz to discuss a possible deal with the Didcot team. These moves provided sufficient leverage for Briatore to have come up with more money from Renault and Elf and, we believe, gave Schumacher the Benetton sidepods to sell to the German beer company Bitburger.

Schumacher will want to keep the Bitburger loot, which would be a problem at Ferrari (which frowns upon such overt commercial sponsorships) and Williams (which has an existing deal with Labatt). If Ferrari paid enough, however, there would not be a problem and Williams could easily negotiate itself out of the Labatt deal.

The rumors of a Ferrari deal may, however, merely be a negotiating tool being used by Schumacher and his advisors to force Briatore to find yet more money.

Schumacher's negotiating is done by Weber Management GmbH, run by 53-year-old German entrepreneur Willi Weber (who has been Schumacher's manager since 1989), although the International Management Group also plays an important role.

This might explain comments made last week by Briatore, praising Jean Alesi and saying that: "If Schumacher decides to leave our team, we will keep on winning Grand Prix races with another driver. Alesi is a driver I like very much."

By making such statements, Briatore may be trying to show Schumacher that Benetton has other options available and warning him that the team might sign Alesi, a move which would leave Michael out in the cold, in a less powerful bargaining position.

If Schumacher does go to Ferrari, neither Gerhard Berger nor Alesi is expected to stay. Alesi would probably move to Benetton while Berger is believed to have offers from both McLaren and Williams. Mika Hakkinen is already confirmed with McLaren, but Mark Blundell's drive is definitely up for grabs. Berger is a big name and has plenty of experience to help McLaren. Being a German-speaker he would also be a popular choice for Mercedes-Benz.

Berger might also move to Williams to partner David Coulthard, although the Scot is tipped to have an offer from McLaren on the table. Williams's other choice is to sign Heinz-Harald Frentzen (some rumors suggest an option is already in place).

Damon Hill's future at Williams is, at best, uncertain. There is no question that the relationship between Hill and Williams is strained and that Damon is looking elsewhere. The problem he has is that little interest is being shown by rival teams. This may seem absurd, but there is a general feeling in F1 that Hill has been shown in a very good light by the FW17 chassis, and Williams bosses Frank Williams and Patrick Head are rumored to think that another driver might do better than Damon. Coulthard clearly has potential for the future but still needs time to develop.

The Williams-Hill relationship will not have been helped by stories last week in the British press which suggested that Frank Williams visited the Benetton pit after the British GP to congratulate Johnny Herbert and told Benetton staff that Damon was "a bit of a prat" in the accident. Williams denied the story saying that the reports were "totally erroneous."

Williams said: "Damon did all and more than we asked of him." He added that: "We know from not only his performance in the British GP, but also in his other 39 races with us that Damon is the only driver who can challenge Michael on equal terms."

But many feel that Frank is just papering over the cracks in the relationship while he gets ready to reveal a new line-up for 1996.

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