AUGUST 14, 1995
It's confirmation week
THIS week Ferrari will announce that it has signed Michael Schumacher for 1996 and 1997; Benetton will tell the world that Jean Alesi will take Michael's place and Williams will reveal that Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve will be its drivers next year. This means that the only major drives still open are the second McLaren and the second Benetton. The second Ferrari drive may also be up for grabs, but we will have to wait until the end of August before we know whether Gerhard Berger will stay as Schumacher's team mate.
Even after the race on Sunday, Schumacher was denying reports that he had signed for Ferrari for the 1996 season but the German's credibility is not very high, particularly as Fiat boss Gianni Agnelli, who controls Ferrari, told Italian journalists: "Yes, I believe he has been hired." All the indications are that the deal will be announced on Wednesday and will coincide with the Alesi and Hill/Villeneuve releases.
To get Schumacher out of Benetton was a major achievement and the financial package is believed to be enormous. Benetton's Flavio Briatore has been telling people that Michael has gone because Ferrari offered him $35m for 1996 and $45m for 1997, but the reality is not likely to be this high. Our sources say that Briatore pulled out of the bidding when Schumacher's price reached $25m; Frank Williams went no further than $13m.
As soon as the Schumacher deal was agreed with Ferrari, Briatore and Williams went after Jean Alesi - the Frenchman being on top of Renault's list of desirable drivers. The team who had Alesi, it seemed, could gain the upper hand with Renault. Jean's price went up to $4.5m and Williams decided that Jean was not worth the money and looked instead to hold on to Damon Hill, while taking a risk - and pleasing Renault and Bernie Ecclestone - by signing up Indycar star Jacques Villeneuve.
Hill, in the meantime, had been offered a $3m deal by the Newman-Haas Indycar team. He may have taken this seriously but it seems more likely that he used it to push Williams's financial terms higher. Damon agreed a deal worth around $4m with Frank on Friday and the contract was drawn up in the course of Saturday.
The deal with Villeneuve was agreed soon after his test at Silverstone and by Thursday last week. Players Ltd., the sponsor of Villeneuve in Indycars, announced that it had been informed Villeneuve was moving to F1.
The most remarkable thing about the recent negotiations is that Flavio Briatore does not seem to have played a very strong hand. Schumacher has gone and Alesi is not currently in the same class. Jean may be quick and spectacular but he has yet to prove he has the temperament and technical understanding which the top drivers enjoy.
The danger, therefore, is that Benetton will now implode. The team was built around Schumacher and already there are strong rumors that the important engineers are looking elsewhere for work. Pat Symonds is believed to be going with Schumacher to Maranello. He has worked with Ferrari race team chief engineer Giorgio Ascanelli before, when the Italian was at Benetton, and the pair worked well together.
There are also strong rumors suggesting that Ross Brawn is leaving the team to rejoin Tom Walkinshaw at Ligier. Brawn worked with Walkinshaw with enormous success in their Jaguar sportscar days and joined Benetton when Walkinshaw bought a share in the team.
There are also strong rumors that chief designer Rory Byrne has had enough of motor racing and wants to retire. Byrne has won a World Championship and has made plenty of money. This might explain why Benetton recently signed up former Simtek designer Nick Wirth, to act as a "special projects engineer".
Wirth had offers from Ferrari and Sauber but wanted to stay in England. Although after having run his own show, the ambitious Nick was not likely to fit in well with any existing design team.
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