Hailed only months ago as the team which had set new standards in Formula One, Benetton has had trouble adapting to life without Michael Schumacher. And life without success.
Which is why everyone was so keen to herald a revival when they presented a genuine challenge to Williams at the German Grand Prix. Having failed by only a traction of a second to rob Damon Hill of pole position, Gerhard Berger was within two and a half laps of recording the first win of the outfit’s post-Schumacher era when his normally indestructible Renault engine blew.
“The irony is that we’ve had two real opportunities, Germany and Monaco to win a race,” puzzles Technical Director Ross Brawn. ”In previous years we could afford to lose one or two along the way but rarely did. This year we desperately needed our luck to hold.
‘ At least Benetton could be credited with moral victory. ‘The problem with moral victories, is that no one remembers them six months later when they look at the results,” points out Berger.
Not since 1988 has Benetton failed to score at least one win in a campaign. Hockenheim offered a hint that perhaps the reigning constructors’ champion could still salvage an honourable retreat from the battlefield In some respects, though, it may also transpire to have been a false dawn. The wonder of Williams’ all-conquering FW18 is that it can as Damon Hill acknowledges, be made to handle beautifully at all types of track. Here there is an opposite parallel to be drawn with Benetton’s B196, a car which to date hasn’t been persuaded to handle beautifully at any sort of circuit.
Hockenheim was the exception. It offers a far sterner examination of engines than it does of chassis, and in Renault’s V10, Benetton benefits from French horses strong enough to have powered the champion team for five consecutive years. At the same time, though, pre-event testing at Paul Ricard had also given cause for optimism that the aerodynamic performance of the car had improved. But even as the remainder of the entourage basked in the glow of its mini-resurgence, technical staff were worrying whether that progress could be transferred to the high downforce specification required for the following race in Hungary.
The twists of the Hungaroring cruelly exposed the limitations of a car that is very much part of the Schumacher legacy. The B196 is but a logical evolution of a machine that no driver bar Schumacher has ever handled with success. Certainly, neither Berger nor Jean Alesi has been fully at ease with it this season.
But the outfit’s problems run deeper than the car alone. If the chassis hasn’t inspired confidence, then nor initially, did the drivers.
A bad atmosphere lingered at Ferrari last year. The transition from an environment where he who screamed loudest got most, to a roost ruled for so long by the ice cool German, has been understandably fraught.
Where it was hoped that Alesi’s emotional approach would be tempered by working with a non-Latin team, the indications are that many of the traits for which he is infamous remain. In recent testing at Silverstone, for instance, legend has it that he threw a tantrum of such epic proportions that when he stalked away to the transporter the crew locked him in there until he came down off the ceiling.
The team grew with Schumacher. Most mechanics have been used to a driver who took time to shake hands and thank them all after a race not somebody who flies into a rage and out of the country.
In truth, the drivers’ transition wasn’t aided by Benetton MD Flavio Briatore. He fervently believed that there was no better way of hitting back at Ferrari’s snatching of his own favourite than by taking the Scuderia’s rejects and winning. When it became clear that no instant PR coup was to be had, his failure to dismiss suggestions that Madame Guillotine was poised over either pilot’s head did little to ease the pressure that Alesi initially betrayed with a succession of errors.
The misery into which Benetton had slumped by mid-season also owed something to the high expectations with which all parties commenced the campaign. Freed from the polemics of Maranello, both Alesi and Berger genuinely believed this could be their year.
In recent months, morale has improved as the understanding between drivers and engineers has grown. The fruits of that Improved relationship may not now be seen until next season. In the meantime. there are few rabbits left to be pulled out of the magician’s hat over the remaining races “We desperately want to win but I think we will probably need some luck,” admits Brawn. Mind you after Hockenheim I think we are owed some.