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Benetton and Alonso

THE Benetton team is not running Fernando Alonso in testing at Barcelona this week because it is a charity organization. The team has three drivers already confirmed: Giancarlo Fisichella, Jenson Button and Mark Webber. The Australian was supposed to be doing the bulk of the testing with a modified Benetton B200B, featuring Renault's interesting new 111-degree V10 engine but he has yet to be seen in action and instead Alonso has been drafted in thanks to "an agreement between Minardi and Benetton" with a view to the Spaniard completing the kilometers necessary to obtain his superlicence. The Benetton press release did not bother to explain why this would be Benetton's interest and it is hard to imagine that Ferrari would run young drivers to help out Sauber or Prost.

So what is going on? Why is Benetton helping out Minardi?

The answer is that Alonso is under some form of contract to either Benetton directly (in other words to Renault Sport, which now owns the team) or to the Benetton team director Flavio Briatore. If it is a private deal between Alonso and Briatore it is hard to see why Renault would agree to it, except that Briatore seems to be given an astonishing freedom to do as he pleases by the management of the French car company.

At the same time, however, there is clearly something going between Minardi and Benetton (or Briatore). Renault may have decided that it wants to have the political clout of two teams in Formula 1 in the future and has quietly masterminding a takeover over the team (perhaps via a Renault-friendly organization such as Mecachrome) and in exchange will help the team out in the long term with the ultimate aim of running two competitive Renault-engined teams at some point in the future.

There is now little doubt that Minardi will be running the engines which were badged as Supertec V10s in 2000. Whether these will remain badged the same remains to be seen but they could turn up as Mecachromes, Playlifes, or might even be branded with one of Renault's subsidiaries: Nissan being the obvious choice although Samsung is another possibility. Whatever the case they will be the old Renault engines from a few years ago.

On a more obvious level, the testing is tantamount to confirmation that Alonso will be racing for Minardi (or whatever the team is called by then) in 2001. Minardi has no means of running him at the moment and so without the help of Benetton Alonso would not qualify for a superlicence and so could not race in 2001.

The interesting thing will be how Alonso's test will affect the morale of nominated test driver Mark Webber. Briatore will probably not care a great deal if the past is any guide as he has had a string of test drivers who were barely allowed near the cars, the best examples being Emmanuel Collard and Paul Belmondo.

Officially Alonso is still under a five-year contract with Minardi but our sources say that this has been acquired by Briatore (or Benetton) in exchange for an engine deal. It was a deal which Minardi was in no position to refuse.

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