NOVEMBER 11, 1996

Verstappen to Benetton?

ACCORDING to reports in some of the Dutch newspapers Jos Verstappen may be returning to Benetton next season.

ACCORDING to reports in some of the Dutch newspapers Jos Verstappen may be returning to Benetton next season. The stories suggest that Jean Alesi will move across to Jordan and 24-year-old Verstappen will replace him.

Jos first signed for Benetton in January 1994 with the plan being for him to test in 1994 and race in 1995. A couple of weeks later JJ Lehto seriously injured his neck in a testing crash at Silverstone and Verstappen made his F1 debut for Benetton in the 1994 Brazilian GP, his race ending when he was launched into a series of high-speed rolls by Eddie Irvine. Lehto returned but was kicked out of the team in the mid season and Jos was put back in. He hit the headlines again at the German GP when his car was engulfed in flame during one of the Benetton pit stops. In that first season he was fast but erratic and at the end of the year Benetton dropped him because of "injury" - there was nothing wrong with Jos - and Johnny Herbert was drafted in.

The Benetton contract stipulated that Jos would compete in a minimum of six races in 1995 and as a result Jos was placed by Briatore with Simtek, in exchange for Nick Wirth's team getting access to the Benetton semi-automatic gearbox. Verstappen shone in a couple of races early in the season - running sixth in Argentina for example - but the team closed down after Monaco and he was out of work again, although he did a few tests for Benetton. At the end of the year Briatore released Verstappen from his Benetton contract and Jos signed for Arrows.

This year Verstappen showed once again that he was quick but the team slipped badly during the in-fighting which followed Tom Walkinshaw buying into the team at mid season. Tom was not happy about Jos's continuing accidents but offered him a long-term Arrows contract nonetheless. Verstappen's management - led by former racer Huub Rothengatter - appears to have misjudged the mood and asked Tom for far too much money and the deal fell through, leaving Jos out of work again.

Returning to Benetton would be a sensible step for Verstappen and for Briatore. Jos will not be a novice in the shadow of Michael Schumacher as he was in 1994 and will probably develop into a topline driver if handled correctly. His market value right now is very low - which suits Briatore who is trying to save money. In addition he will be able to work with engineer Nick Wirth - who oversaw some of the spectacular performances at Simtek.