AUGUST 28, 1995

Frentzen in the spotlight

ALTHOUGH it has not yet been agreed officially, Gerhard Berger looks likely to be Michael Schumacher's partner at Ferrari next year.

ALTHOUGH it has not yet been agreed officially, Gerhard Berger looks likely to be Michael Schumacher's partner at Ferrari next year. Berger spent last weekend fishing around to see what options he has for the future and all indications are that he is coming round to the opinion that Ferrari is his only real choice.

McLaren's Ron Dennis effectively dismissed any hopes Gerhard had of moving back to the Woking team when he told the press at Spa that his 1996 driver line-up has already been decided, while Gerhard spent the weekend telling everyone that he did not have a deal and was visible during his visits to other teams. McLaren will take Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard but will probably announce a pool of four drivers: add Alain Prost and Jan Magnussen to his list of drivers when he makes the team's official announcements about 1996 at the European Grand Prix at the Nurburgring on October 1.

Gerhard's only choices now are Ferrari or the second drive at Benetton. The problem with Benetton is that Jean Alesi has already been named as the team number one and Benetton has not done a good job running two competitive cars in recent years. Even if there is a chance at Benetton, Berger must be willing to lower his price dramatically because there are other good drivers who are financially a better bet for Benetton.

Rubens Barrichello could bring considerable money and talent to Benetton, but in recent days his candidature has gone rather quiet, and at Spa, Benetton's major effort appeared to be going into getting Sauber's Heinz-Harald Frentzen.

This is a sensible move as Frentzen is clearly very talented and he is German, which would mean that Benetton might possibly be able to rescue some of its German sponsorship deals, notably Bitburger, left behind by Schumacher.

Another advantage is that Schumacher knows exactly how good Frentzen is - the pair were team mates in the Mercedes Junior Team in sportscar racing. A lot of folk in the F1 paddock actually believe that Schumacher is actually worried that Heinz-Harald could usurp his place in the affections of the German racing public.

In Belgium there were clear signs that Schumacher's personal staff - notably his manager and his press agent - were busy running down Frentzen's talents in an effort to dissuade Flavio Briatore from hiring HH. There was a suggestion that MartinÊBrundle might be a better choice.

Frentzen's only drawback to Benetton is that he is expensive. It will cost US$2 million to buy Frentzen's option with Ford and Sauber. This becomes a solid contract at the end of September and so urgent action is required. Frentzen, however, is not going to Benetton unless the team can provide him with a number of guarantees about his position in the team and the engineers with which he will work. Heinz-Harald's management is very wary of a second Benetton drive as all the recent Benetton number two drivers have done serious damage to their careers. Frentzen is also keen to sign a two-year deal.

While Benetton may seem a very attractive choice, Frentzen is also being heavily courted by Eddie Jordan and Peugeot, who are looking for a new team mate for Eddie Irvine. Sauber and Ford are also working flat out to make sure that Frentzen - their best asset - does not walk out on them.

Sauber is also busy talking to other drivers in case Frentzen does leave and have had conversations with Gianni Morbidelli, Mark Blundell, Johnny Herbert, Jos Verstappen and Rubens Barrichello. Jean-Christophe Boullion is not expected to be retained as his performances have been rather disappointing this year.

Ferrari, incidentally, made a few contacts just in case Berger decided to leave and we hear approached Irvine and Tyrrell's Mika Salo. Irvine is in the middle of a three-year deal with Jordan and his contract has a US$5 million buyout, while Salo has an option to continue at Tyrrell.