MAY 10, 1999
Big changes coming at Benetton?
IN the last few days we have heard increasing whispers of big changes coming at Benetton Formula. The Enstone team has won only one race in the last three years and is not looking likely to win this season. The young drivers - Giancarlo Fisichella and Alexander Wurz - are becoming frustrated and the team has lost a lot of personnel to British American Racing. In addition the team looks likely to be stuck without a factory engine until the end of the year 2000 - and maybe longer.
It is not a good situation for the team, but it has been made worse in recent months by the knowledge that last autumn the Benetton Family rejected the idea of a partnership with the Ford Motor Company. The new Ford V10 engine is proving to be highly-competitive in the back of the Stewart SF3. The team's decision not to go into business with Ford - which wanted a shareholding in the team - resulted in chief executive David Richards leaving the team. Rocco Benetton was then appointed chief executive.
The question being asked is who should take the blame for the decision not to do a deal with Ford and we hear that the team's operations director Joan Villadelprat could end up as the victim of any reshuffle.
At Imola there were suggestions that the FIA's Formula 1 Race Director Charlie Whiting - who is also heavily involved in the development of the Formula 1 technical regulations - had been offered a top job with the team. This caused some excitement amongst F1 team bosses who are worried that Whiting's knowledge of future F1 technology, revealed to him by the teams, would give Benetton an unfair advantage. We understand that one F1 team boss offered to match whatever salary Benetton was offering to stop Whiting joining the Enstone team.
Whiting is not a trained engineer but he has a sound understanding of F1 technical issues and management experience might suggest that he was being considered as a replacement for Pat Symmonds as Benetton technical director but it is more likely that the offer was for the role currently held by Villadelprat.
Having said that Whiting, who has been with the FIA since the Brabham team closed down, thoroughly enjoys his role, which does not involve the same working hours as the teams. The suggestion at Imola was that he might be using the Benetton offer to try to convince the FIA that he is worth more money than he is being paid.
The fact remains that Benetton is looking for someone new - and that means that changes are ahead. Our sources say that the changes may be bigger than simply a change of management and that there is a possibility that someone will be buying into the team. The Benetton Family is not thought likely to sell the whole operation as it still provides extraordinary publicity for the Benetton name around the world at very little cost, now that the team has embraced commercial sponsorship and does not rely on the Benetton's to fund the business. Lack of success has, however, meant that sponsors have been more difficult to find and the fact that the team has not been able to replace either Akai or FedEx this year is an indication that the team's fortunes are in decline.
With the Supertec V10 engine not proving to be very successful this year and likely to be even less competitive next year, the best way for the team to get out of the downward spiral would be to agree to hand over a percentage of the shares to a car manufacturer in exchange for a factory engine deal. The obvious target for such a deal would be Renault, now that Ford has said that it will not be supplying a second team, but convincing Renault's top management that the company needs F1 is not going to be an easy task.