Berger gets equality at Benetton

GERHARD BERGER and Jean Alesi are to have equal number one status with Mild Seven Benetton Renault next season - despite the fact that Alesi signed to be clear number one for 1996 and 1997 just a couple of months ago.

Last week in Italy, Benetton's racing boss Flavio Briatore told reporters that he would decide halfway through the 1996 season which driver will be favored for the World Championship.

"For the moment," said Briatore, "I have no preferences. Time will tell."

Alesi had been hoping to have clear number one status, but it seems that under pressure from Briatore he had no choice but to accept Berger. Jean, however, will presumably be rewarded handsomely for his willingness to give away his original pre-eminence.

The signing of Alesi by Briatore was a reaction to the loss of Schumacher to Ferrari. Jean was a good choice because he is French and that kept Benetton's engine supplier Renault happy; and, at $4.5 million, he was a lot cheaper than Schumacher. Benetton engineers, however, were none too impressed because Alesi is not known for his incisive technical comments. As a result there was pressure from within Benetton for Briatore to sign up a good development driver to be Jean's number two. The only problem was that no-one who fitted the bill was available.

When Berger decided he did not want to stay at Ferrari, Briatore jumped at the chance of signing up the Austrian star. The move was not anticipated because no-one in F1 believed that Berger - a man who has a very sound grasp of the value of money - would be willing to take a huge cut in income to join Benetton; and the team was not expected to put itself into a position where it was paying its second driver more than its number one.

Rumors in the paddock, however, said that Berger was not taking much of a salary cut in his move from Ferrari - where he had been paid around $8m a year. So how could the problem be resolved? The only apparent way out of the situation was for Briatore to agree to increase Alesi's retainer by around $3m to $7.5m - on a par with Berger - in exchange for the Frenchman accepting Gerhard as an equal number one.

This situation might explain Briatore's joke last week that he is now getting two drivers for the price of one: Schumacher's salary from Benetton this year is believed to be around $15m.

The negotiations over number status with Benetton might help to shed some light on Alesi's agitation in Portugal recently when Ferrari boss Jean Todt told him to let Berger through. Alesi refused and was later fined $200,000 by Ferrari.

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