SEPTEMBER 8, 1997
Changes at Benetton
Briatore refuses to say what is going on but inside sources at Benetton say there is a currently a tussle going on over how much money Benetton should pay Briatore to step down. Briatore told reporters that he was not worried about his future but that it may not be in Grand Prix racing. Our sources, however, suggest that if he is ousted from Benetton, Briatore will still be involved with the sport in some capacity, either with Minardi - in which he still has a minority shareholding - or with Formula 1 Holdings. Briatore's unusual brand of buccaneering capitalism may be a little too wild for a more corporate F1 but there is no reason why he could not be employed by Ecclestone.
The management of Benetton is expected to be completely restructured at the end of the year with the Benetton Family taking a much bigger role through Alessandro's 27-year-old brother Rocco, who will take over the marketing departments.
We expect that the running of the team will be entrusted to David Richards of Prodrive although last week he insisted that he was not in the picture.
"Earlier this year I showed interest in the team and it was made very clear to me that Benetton was not for sale," Richards reported. "That ended our negotiations. It is true that we wanted to buy Benetton but only on our terms and conditions."
Richards seems to be spending more time at Enstone than he does at Prodrive in Banbury at the moment and it may be that a deal is being hammered out for Richards to get to run the team for the Benettons in exchange for a minority shareholding in the business in a deal similar to that which Tom Walkinshaw did when he joined Benetton in July 1991.
Alessandro Benetton has made it clear on several occasions that the family does not want to lose control of the team it has built up in the course of the last 12 years.
Richards has all the right credentials to run the team successfully and is extremely well-connected with British American Tobacco, having won several World Rally Championships for the company with his 555-sponsored Subaru team. It may not be a coincidence that stories about Craig Pollock putting together a BAT-funded super team have suddenly died a death and Pollock - usually a man with a high-profile in the paddock - looked extremely subdued at Monza.
It is worth noting rumors in June last year that Fuji Heavy Industries - the parent company of Subaru - still has F1 ambitions, despite a disastrous Grand Prix program with the Coloni team in 1990. It is quite possible that Subaru and 555 might combine once again to help get Richards into Benetton with the aim of continuing their winning alliance in the sport. This could be achieved very simply if the Mecachrome engines which Benetton is planning to use next year are badged as Subaru V10s or some of this year's Renault engines are sold to the team - in a deal similar to the one between Ferrari and Sauber Petronas Engineering.
Richards says that he is currently putting the finishing touches to a deal to continue with Subaru in rallying until the year 2000 but there is no reason why this could not be a parallel project, as Prodrive could run the rally team and Benetton could run an F1 operation. This would make a great deal of sense from a branding point of view as the 555 Subaru connection is already well-established around the world after five years of success in the World Rally Championship.
Such a deal might explain rumors in the paddock last weekend that Benetton is about to do a deal for engines with Honda. This is impossible as Jordan has an exclusive deal for 1998 but the rumors could be very disruptive if negotiations with another Japanese car manufacturer were in a delicate phase...