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SEPTEMBER 15, 1997

Alesi and Sauber

THE French daily newspaper La Figaro last week reported that Jean Alesi had agreed to drive for the Sauber Petronas team in 1998 although a contract is still to be signed. Alesi, who spent the weekend out of contact with the world on his luxury boat in the Mediterranean, is due to reveal his plans on Monday.

Sauber has made it clear that it does not intend to be held hostage by any driver but is willing to pay top dollar to a star who is willing to commit himself to the Sauber Petronas program. The team wants a topline driver to partner - and push - Johnny Herbert and had long talks earlier this summer with World Champion Damon Hill. Sauber offered Hill $20m for a three-year contract but he refused to agree the deal because he wanted to see how other deals developed. Sauber withdrew from the talks saying that Hill did not show sufficient commitment to the team.

In recent weeks Alesi's future has been looking rather shaky. His chances at Benetton do not seem to be very good and Jean has been spending a lot of his free time trying to convince his old Formula 3000 boss Eddie Jordan that the partnership should be renewed if Eddie Jordan loses his law suit with Benetton over the future of Giancarlo Fisichella. Alesi has also had talks with Alain Prost but the Frenchman already has Olivier Panis under contract and does not want two French drivers as he is trying hard to make the team appear more international.

This has left Jean without much choice. Tom Walkinshaw has not shown much interest but Peter Sauber has said that Alesi would be a good addition to his team.

Although everything appears to hinge on what the High Court in London decides about Giancarlo Fisichella's arrangements with Jordan and Benetton, it is possible that Jordan has already told Jean that he will not be getting the deal and this would explain the rumors that the Frenchman is close to a deal with Sauber.

If Jordan does lose Fisichella - which is quite possible - the team's sponsor Benson & Hedges is rumored to be putting pressure on Eddie Jordan to sign up Damon Hill. This would give Jordan an established winner and help lift the operation to a new level.

Benetton has no shortage of drivers available whatever happens: Alexander Wurz and Jarno Trulli are both Benetton drivers although the team might want an established star to lead the operation. Gerhard Berger says he does not want to stay with the team but we believe that if Flavio Briatore leaves Berger could stay on as Benetton team leader for another season.