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Where does Berger go now?

WITH Michael Schumacher now confirmed at Ferrari, Jean Alesi at Benetton and Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve at Williams, the Formula 1 driver market is concentrated on the future of Ferrari's Gerhard Berger.

Berger was given a Ferrari contract for 1996 at Monaco, in May but decided he would wait and see how things developed before signing it. That was probably a mistake because if Berger had a firm contract, Schumacher might never have signed. In the interim, Gerhard had talks with McLaren's Ron Dennis about returning to the team for which he drove in 1990-91-92 - if only to provide himself with an alternative to Ferrari should one be necessary.

When Schumacher signed for Ferrari for a vast sum of money, Berger's desire to stay dried up. He knows that in order to get Schumacher the Ferrari bosses will probably have agreed that Michael will have clear number one status. If no such agreement is in place, Berger may stay. He has never shied away from a challenge and indeed went to McLaren in 1990 to measure himself against Ayrton Senna. In the end he was able to beat the Brazilian on occasion and, if he has that kind of motivation again, he could probably beat Schumacher as well.

"I have always said it would not bother me to drive in the same team as Schumacher despite all the differences we have had in the past," Berger told reporters last week. "He always wants to be the privileged driver in a team and receive the best equipment. That is not right and it kills competition."

Roughly translated, this means that Berger is not going to stay at Ferrari and suffer the sort of humiliation that JJ Lehto, Johnny Herbert and Jos Verstappen have had to endure as Schumacher's teammates at Benetton.

His escape route to McLaren, however, may no longer be open, as Mika Hakkinen has apparently already signed and most of the F1 circus believes that David Coulthard is McLaren's choice alongside the Finn. Coulthard says that he decided to leave Williams "some time ago", unhappy with the way his career was developing. He was forced into F1 too early - after Senna's death - but could not turn down the chance. He was also not very happy racing for the team which is famous for not giving its drivers any moral support. Frank Williams and his partner Patrick Head have always believed that promoting rivalry between their drivers is a better spur to success.

Coulthard says he knows where he is going next year, and his manager Tim Wright appears to be in agreement. "David's future is secure and safe and he will be in a seat with a top-four team," he says.

In November last year, after a number of lengthy meetings with Ron Dennis, Coulthard signed a long-term deal to drive for Marlboro McLaren Mercedes as Mika Hakkinen's team mate. Marlboro appeared to be happy with the arrangement, but Williams challenged the deal and it was left to the FIA Contract Recognition Board to decide that Coulthard would have to stay at Williams for 1995. We believe that immediately after the Recognition Board met in December last year, Coulthard and Dennis agreed a secret option for a long-term deal for 1996 and beyond. This option was due to run out at the end of June.

There have been some suggestions that Coulthard will go to Ferrari but this would seem to be a foolish move. It is hard to see how Ron Dennis can possibly combine Hakkinen, Coulthard and Berger, unless Hakkinen's situation is not as solid as it appears to be.

If the doors are closed at McLaren, there is a small possibility for Berger at Benetton, although the Austrian is smart enough to realize that the team has never yet shown itself to be capable of running two cars to the same level and that Alesi's French nationality will make him the top man for Renault. This does not mean that Renault will favor Jean, but rather that Benetton will do everything possible to keep the Renault men happy, having lost what Renault wanted most of all - Schumacher.

In effect, therefore, Berger's only real choice - unless Sauber, Jordan or Ligier come up with vast sums of money - is to stay at Ferrari.

His other option is retirement. Gerhard will be 36 on Sunday in Belgium, and has amassed a fortune during his F1 career, despite not winning as many races as he would have hoped. He has been paid very well by both Ferrari and McLaren and, until recently, was F1's top earner after Senna's death.

Gerhard is also heavily involved with running his family's various trucking businesses and may decide that he now wants to get his kicks out of business rather than F1. He has always said that even if he quits F1 he will probably end up back in touring cars with his old friends from the Schnitzer BMW team so he can keep racing at a professional level.

Berger is believed to have until August 31st to make up his mind with Ferrari. If he decides to go, the team will have an open choice of candidates. Everyone wants to be a Ferrari driver, but the risk of a ruined career after a year with Schumacher will probably mean that Ferrari will end up with test driver Nicola Larini or Marlboro Italy prot?g? Giancarlo Fisichella. Both would be cheap and would have nothing to lose as little would be expected of them.

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