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...but will Webber replace Wurz?

SUCH was the speculation last week that Benetton boss Flavio Briatore decided to put out a press statement denying stories that Alexander Wurz would be replaced for the European Grand Prix. But in making a public announcement Briatore has merely added to the rumors because his statement only said that Wurz will drive at the Nurburgring and so rumors now suggest that the Austrian will be axed after that event. There is no question that Wurz's performance in the last 18 months has been disappointing. Last year he scored only three points to Giancarlo Fisichella's 13 and this year the Italian has picked up eight points in five races while Wurz is yet to score.

Getting rid of him at this stage of the year might be a little risky as Briatore would then come under pressure from Wurz's sponsor D2 Mannesmann (which brings in around $4m a year). If Wurz's performance has not improved by the midseason, however, Briatore will have less trouble replacing him. Current speculation suggests that Wurz is probably safe until after the AustrianĘGP in mid-July and that Briatore is content to let the rumors keep the driver under pressure.

If Briatore does decide to drop Wurz, the most likely short-term replacement will be Mark Webber. The Australian is showing himself to be highly competitive in Formula 3000 in his first year in the series, despite opposition from much more experienced men such as Bruno Junqueira and Nicholas Minassian. Webber is the same size as Wurz so there will not be problems fitting him into the car.

Officially, Webber is the Arrows test driver but there is clearly a problem between the Australian and the team as over the winter Webber was used quite a lot but recently has not tested at all. Last week, with Jos Verstappen out of action with flu, Arrows decided that Pedro de la Rosa should stay on at Jerez for an extra day of testing rather than having a break (as had been planned) and letting Webber do the work.

Briatore is currently rumored to be trying to convince Japan Tobacco to continue backing the team in 2001 with its MildĘSeven money (which is believed to be around $25m a year). The team very nearly lost the backing last year when Honda Racing Developments had a deal to run in Mild Seven colors, but Benetton retained the money after the HRD program flopped. Briatore needs to find more money for next year because the Benetton Family is not expected to pay its usual $15m a year and the new owner of the team Renault will want to spend its available money on engine development.

We hear that Briatore is pitching for Telefonica's F1 budget of around $20m. This will be useful for him as the Spanish telephone company's yellow color scheme would fit in nicely with Renault's corporate colors.

In the longer term Briatore is believed to be very keen to take Jarno Trulli from Jordan (he manages the Italian) and is also bidding for the services of Jacques Villeneuve.

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