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FEBRUARY 12, 1996

Benetton struggling with the B196

BENETTON launched its new B196 amid much pomp and circumstance last Monday at Taormina in Sicily with Benetton boss Flavio Briatore predicting that the team of Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger would mount a powerful defense of the titles Michael Schumacher and Johnny Herbert won in 1995.

"We are very motivated by the loss of Michael Schumacher to Ferrari," said Briatore. "This has fired the team up and we want to make a very strong start again this year."

One of the new cars - shaken down briefly in England by Allan McNish - arrived in Estoril on Wednesday, but Alesi spent most of the day in the pits, completing only eight laps because of electronic problems. On Thursday, Jean managed nine laps because of gearbox trouble, but on Friday he did 30 laps with a best time of 1m22.37s. Berger took over on Saturday - announced himself to be very happy with the amount of space in the cockpit - and then managed just 12 laps because of further mechanical troubles with a best lap of 1m23.90s.

The B196 car, powered by a new Renault V10 engine, is a logical development of the B195, but because the drivers have different styles from Michael Schumacher, changes have been made to alter the handling of the car. There is a new front suspension system, featuring three shock absorbers, and a seven-speed longitudinal gearbox - although the team can run six gears if they wish to do so.

The most striking thing about the new car is that it is surprisingly white with the disappearance of 1995 sponsors Bitburger, RTL, Enervit, Technogym, Seal's System, Sikkens, USAG and LPR. Oracle has been replaced by Compaq and there is new support from Kingfisher Beer, Fondmetal, PI Sa (an Italian ceramics company) and Typhoon. Benetton Sportsystem, which comes and goes whenever there is no other sponsorship available to fill the space, fills the sidepods.

This does not mean that the team is short of money, as was proved at the launch of the car, during which two 1995 cars were run through the cobbled streets of Taormina before a horse-drawn carriage carried Alesi, Berger and Briatore to a 2000-year-old Greek amphitheater, where the B196 was unveiled. In the course of the proceedings, FIA president Max Mosley presented Briatore with the 1995 Constructors' trophy, the official prize giving having been canceled in December because of the transport strikes in France.