More Richards rumors

THERE continue to be strong rumors in Formula 1 circles that Benetton Formula's managing-director David Richards may be leaving the team if the deal being discussed between Benetton and the Ford Motor Company does not happen. Benetton wants Ford factory engines in the year 2000 but Ford wants a shareholding in the Italian team and this seems to be the problem.

Richards seems to have nailed his colors firmly to the Ford option and may leave the team if a deal is not agreed. While Benetton does not have to join forces with Ford it would be a wise move unless there is the possibility of a Renault factory engine deal in the year 2001, in which case it would probably be wiser to stay with the current Renault "family" of engines.

The Benetton Family has no real reason to sell the team, which has been a valuable marketing tool for the company for the last 13 years. At the moment the company is the process of absorbing the old Benetton Sportsystem into the main company and developing the new Playlife brand. There are plans for 40 Playlife stores to open in Europe before the end of this year - and the F1 team will be very useful to promote these.

The stories suggesting that Richards will go may be part of an attempt to pressure Benetton into agreeing to the deal because if Richards leaves there is no obvious replacement for him. There are, however, people in the sport capable of doing his job and it may be that Benetton will return to its old policy of having an Italian in charge of the administration of the team (Rocco Benetton is the obvious choice) and a motor racing manager to run operations. Current operations director Joan╩Villadelprat might fit that role as might the currently unemployed Max Welti.

If Ford and Benetton do not agree on a deal it is likely that Ford will have to go back to the idea of developing Stewart╩Grand╩Prix - although Tom Walkinshaw is understood to have offered his services as well. This would be a backward step as Stewart still needs a lot more developing to become a top team - even if Richards were in charge. This would mean that Ford will be stuck in a supporting role for another three or four years at best before the team could be developed into one capable of competing with Williams, McLaren and Ferrari.

The most logical course of action is probably for Ford to agree to a deal with Benetton without equity in the team and develop a parallel strategy of continuing to develop Stewart until it is a more competitive operation. Removing Richards from Benetton and putting him in control at Stewart (presumably with a shareholding) might be a good idea but it would very much depend on who is brought in to run Benetton. And that would be beyond Ford's control...

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