SEPTEMBER 16, 1996
The net closes on Damon
MCLAREN's re-signing of Mika Hakkinen - while not unexpected - does mean that Damon Hill's options for 1997 and beyond have narrowed with the only top drive now available - and officially it isn't - being Jean Alesi's Benetton seat.
Although Benetton team boss Flavio Briatore has been telling pressmen that he intends to keep both Gerhard Berger and Alesi in 1997, the team has not yet put out an official statement to that effect, which has naturally led to speculation that Alesi's position is still not settled.
French sources suggest that within the last few days Jordan and Peugeot have discussed whether they think that signing Alesi would be a good move. Jean is clearly not very happy at Benetton - he has been openly critical of the team - and may welcome the chance to move elsewhere. He won the Formula 3000 title with Eddie Jordan Racing in 1989 and the Irishman believes that he would be able to harness Alesi's considerable talents while keeping a lid on Jean's famous rages. Signing up a top star such as Alesi would also help to lift the Jordan team to a higher level and Peugeot will be quite happy to sign up France's top racer - particularly if he defects from Renault.
Benetton engineers are known to be frustrated with Jean's abilities as a development driver, having been used to working with Michael Schumacher in the past.
At the same time Renault engineers want to keep hold of Damon Hill if it is possible as they rate his feedback and development skills very highly. Signing Damon Hill - when he becomes World Champion - would also help Benetton to brighten up its rather tarnished profile.
An Alesi-Jordan, Hill-Benetton maneuver would, therefore, appear to be a deal in which everyone gains. This does not mean it will happen but F1 logic suggests that it should.
If Benetton does not grab Hill, Damon's only decent alternative would be Jordan. The new Stewart Grand Prix could become an option but it would have to be a long-term proposition and Damon - who is 37 this week - realistically only has another three or four years left in F1.
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