OCTOBER 18, 2000

Benetton planning switch to Trulli in 2002?

BENETTON Formula 1 boss Flavio Briatore has been quoted as saying that Jarno Trulli will replace Giancarlo Fisichella in the team in 2002.

BENETTON Formula 1 boss Flavio Briatore has been quoted as saying that Jarno Trulli will replace Giancarlo Fisichella in the team in 2002. It is curious that Briatore should be making such comments given what it will do to Fisichella's motivation next year and to the prospects with the team of potential test driver Mark Webber.

There is obviously more to the story than meets the eye. Benetton will be taken over by Renault at the end of 2001 and there are no guarantees that Briatore will even be with the team after that has occurred. Briatore himself seems to have some doubts about his future as in recent months he has been involved in a variety of negotiations to acquire shareholdings in some of the smaller struggling teams. We hear that one of the reasons that Minardi will not be using Supertec engines is that the little Italian team wanted to avoid being involved with Briatore again. He owned the team briefly some years ago. There have also been suggestions that Briatore wants to get a foothold in the Prost organization but Alain Prost seems to be avoiding this situation at the moment.

Telling the world that Trulli will join Benetton in 2001 will obviously not help Trulli's relationship with Jordan and Honda. The Japanese car manufacturer will not want one of its drivers heading off to rival Renault with all the latest engine information and so perhaps the move is designed to try to break up the Trulli-Jordan relationship.

It is worth noting, however, that what Briatore says and the reality of what later happens are often unrelated. Briatore does have some form of agreement with Trulli dating back to the end of 1995 when he signed up the Italian rising star. Since then Briatore has been earning money from Trulli as he has moved from Minardi to Prost to Jordan. Jarno's current deal with Eddie Jordan does run out at the end of next year and, in all probability, Briatore does still control Trulli for the 2002 season although it is doubtful that the contract runs beyond the end of that season as deals longer than seven years have been rejected by courts in the past as being too restrictive.

There is little doubt that Fisichella will be moving on from Benetton as he has failed to deliver on his early promise but Renault may have other drivers in mind. Certainly there are members of the team who think that the team would be wise to choose Webber, who did so well in testing recently. The Australian will not be happy to hear that Briatore intends to sign Trulli as this will close the door for him at Benetton and he is unlikely to want to agree to a deal to be test driver for more than one season.

Briatore's comments may, of course, be another ham-fisted attempt to motivate Fisichella to produce better performances but this approach is unlikely to succeed and such behavior will also deter other drivers from becoming involved with Briatore as his understanding of what racing drivers need in order to perform is clearly lacking. After 11 years in the sport one would have thought that Briatore would have known better.

Although some in F1 feel that Briatore is a solid player in the sport, there are others who feel that the Italian's image is not what F1 wants in the corporate era ahead. Briatore keeps close to Bernie Ecclestone but there are some who believe that the F1 boss does this to ensure that he knows what Briatore is plotting. It is worth remembering that when Briatore was kicked out of Benetton in 1997 Ecclestone put out a bizarre statement saying that although Briatore was "a friend of the family" he had never had "any business association with him or any of his companies". That press release has never been fully explained and the impression it created was that he was glad to see the back of Briatore.

It is a view shared by a number of other team bosses.