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OCTOBER 17, 2001

The end of the line for Benetton

WHILE the Formula 1 circus was concentrating on the departures of Mika Hakkinen and Jean Alesi, there was almost no mention in Suzuka that the Japanese GP was also the last race for the Benetton team - at least in name anyway. The team will become Renault Sport next year and the name Benetton Formula will disappear to the record books.

Benetton has been in Formula 1 for 19 seasons beginning in 1983 as the sponsor of the Tyrrell team. At the time Benetton was expanding in the United States of America and so backed the adventures of Kentucky's Danny Sullivan. It was not a success and in 1984 the money switched to the Alfa Romeo team and Eddie Cheever. Once again success eluded the Italians and in May 1985 the Benetton Family decided that more direct control was needed and so bought the Toleman team and put Peter Collins, the Williams team manager, in charge of operations. A deal was signed for BMW engines and the young Gerhard Berger was signed to drive and in October 1986 in Mexico City the Austrian gave the team its first victory with a clever tire strategy.

For the next few years the team used Ford engines with drivers Thierry Boutsen and Teo Fabi and the team grew, finishing third in the World Championship in 1988. And then Flavio Briatore arrived. He outmaneuvered Collins in a political battle in 1989. The unpleasant era ended with Sandro Nannini being awarded victory in Japan after the celebrated Senna-Prost collision at the chicane.

For 1990 Briatore hired designer John Barnard and Nelson Piquet but the team was not very competitive until the end of the year. There was a setback when Nannini lost his arm in a helicopter accident but another Senna-Prost collision gave Benetton an unlikely 1-2 in Japan and Piquet drove a masterful race to win in Australia as well.

Much was expected in 1991 but despite a clever win from Piquet in Canada, Briatore and Barnard fell out and Barnard departed. Tom Walkinshaw arrived and the team was ruthlessly shaken up with Roberto Moreno dumped in favor of the young Michael Schumacher.

The 1992 season saw Schumacher teamed up with Walkinshaw favorite Martin Brundle. Schumacher became more and more competitive in the B192 and he won his first race that year at Spa. The following year was more of a struggle but he won in Portugal, but in 1994 armed with the Benetton B194 he was dominant in the early races and after Ayrton Senna's death seemed to have no rival for the World Championship.

There were strong suggestions that Benetton was using illegal electronic systems and this created enormous controversy. There was further trouble when Schumacher's team mate Jos Verstappen was involved in a refuelling fire and it was found that the team had tampered with the refuelling equipment. The World Championship ended with Schumacher ramming Damon Hill off the track in Adelaide.

The team escaped any obvious punishment but a deal was struck in which Walkinshaw was transferred to run the Ligier team - which Briatore had bought at the start of 1994. This left Villadelprat running the team and with Briatore having got hold of Ligier's Renault engines for the 1995 season, the Schumacher-Benetton-Renault combination was too strong for the opposition. Schumacher and Johnny Herbert scored 11 wins between them.

But when Schumacher departed Benetton never really recovered. Many of his engineers went with him to Ferrari and victories were hard to come by. Eventually Briatore was dropped and David Richards brought in to run the team. He argued that Benetton must sell a shareholding to Ford in order to get decent engines on a long-term basis. The Benettons disagreed (and later regretted it) and Richards departed to rebuild World Rallying instead.

The team won nothing in 1998 and 1999 and at the start of 2000 the Benetton Family sold the team to Renault, which decided to put Flavio Briatore back in charge. The 2000 season was a disappointment but the team was again restructured with Mike Gascoyne coming in as technical director and Jenson Button being hired to partner Fisichella. Renault produced a new wide-angle V10 for the 2001 season but once again results were few and far between.