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Benetton denies sale plans

IF you believe the rumors circulating Europe at the moment, the Benetton Family has decided to sell its Formula 1 operation to David Richards's Prodrive team. The rumors, which seem to have originated in Germany, suggest that Prodrive will buy out the Benetton Family with the financial support of British American Tobacco - which has made it clear that it is intending to enter F1 and wants equity in a team. Richards will then run the operation on behalf of BAT.

This all makes perfect sense. Richards does have long-term F1 ambitions and has been looking at the possibility of entering Grand Prix racing for some years. It is a good time to buy because top teams are not often available - as Tom Walkinshaw has found out in recent years - and it is becoming more and more difficult to set up a new operation.

Prodrive has all the right connections. The company has been preparing Subarus for the World Rally Championship for the last five years with backing from BAT's 555 brand. It is also running the factory Honda British Touring Car team, which might supply the necessary connections to get a supply of the Japanese engines.

The only problem with all these stories is that the Benetton Family says that the team is not for sale because it is too good a marketing tool to be given up. All that the team chairman Alessandro Benetton says is that he wants to see an improvement in performance.

This is logical because unless there are more results the Benetton Family will probably have to start pumping more money into the operation as finding sponsors will be harder. Benetton's deal with Renault runs out at the end of this year and whatever happens the team looks like it will have to pay for engines. The Mild Seven sponsorship may also be up for negotiation, although the team says it signed a solid three-year deal back at the end of 1995. Whatever the case, Mild Seven can hardly be happy as since the new deal began the team has won nothing and has lost its two top engineers Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne to Ferrari.

In any normal team the owners might conclude that it was time for a change of management and a restructuring of the share capital to allow ambitious new partners to push the team ahead, leaving Benetton to recoup some of its F1 investment and bask in the publicity of any success than might come along.

Such an idea would seem to suggest that Flavio Briatore - who is not a shareholder in the team - would do well to watch his back.

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