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Features - Year in Review

NOVEMBER 25, 2001


Jenson Button, German GP 2001
© The Cahier Archive

It was always going to be a difficult season for Benetton, in part because the team had been purchased by Renault prior to the first race and the whole year was of necessity a transitional period as the fullscale Renault F1 challenge built up momentum in preparation for 2002.

Renault's prowess in the mid-1990s was well established, their factory V10s having powered Williams to World Championships in 1992 (Nigel Mansell), 1993 (Alain Prost), 1996 (Damon Hill) and 1997 (Jacques Villeneuve) and now the French company was steeling itself for a repeat performance. Initially, the team wrestled desperately with poor reliability from the under-developed, wide-angle 111-degree Renault RS21 engine which - when it was running - left team with potential 100bhp deficit against established runners, forcing compromises with car set-up in an attempt to make up ground.

Early season technical unreliability and lack of pace put Benetton under considerable pressure and there was much oblique criticism of technical director Mike Gascoyne's package, but the former Jordan engineer kept his nerve, buttressed by an inner knowledge of just how much better the car really was than the earlier Supertec-engined B200 which it replaced.

In fact, Gascoyne arrived at Benetton too late to have a serious impact on the B201's overall technical configuration. Initially the car lacked downforce, in part due to delays in finalizing its layout due to corresponding delays in Renault Sport finalizing the 111-degree engine.

A major power upgrade came at Magny-Cours which was some compensation from the general lack of ability and from then on there was a steady upsurge in form aided by an excellent traction control system which contributed to Giancarlo Fisichella's superb third place in the Belgian GP.

Fisichella was partnered by Jenson Button, the young Englishman sub-let from Williams after Sir Frank opted to replace him with Juan Montoya for 2001. On the face of it, this was an astute decision, although one was inevitably bound to wonder quite how effectively the Colombian could have come to grips with the B201 had he found himself in the same position.

Button seemed to spend most of the season kicking his heels in the pit lane after only a few laps of practice, the team's main priority seemingly to save the fragile Renault V10s for the race. The oldest lesson to learn in F1 is that most drivers are only as good as their cars and Button could combine neither the genius nor the seasoned experience to carve out a short-cut to credible success.

It was a truly unenviable position for the 21-year old who seemed to be criticized roundly whatever he did. Team principal Flavio Briatore seemed to enjoy making the young British driver squirm and would have liked to ditch him for 2002 to make way for his own protege Fernando Alonso. Happily for Button he had a firm two year contract and wasn't about to walk away from it. So Alonso will have to wait to join in 2003 - by which time expect the newly branded Renault squad to be in the thick of the top-six action.