Extract: Benetton

Extract from 1989

In Rio, Pat Symonds recalls his first encounter with the man with whom he would work closely for a significant chunk of the next 20 years — and what a first impression it was. “I didn’t actually meet Flavio until Brazil,” says Pat. “I well remember him arriving and we had tiny little engineering huts in Rio. Bearing in mind I was one of the senior members of the team, it was a bit surprising we hadn’t met. We had our engineering office and there was also a marketing area. Flavio came in with someone, no idea who, and he sat down while we were in the middle of a meeting. This chap was obviously embarrassed and Flavio said, ‘Oh, don’t worry about them, they’re just engineers.’ I thought, I’m not sure I’m going to get on with this guy… In actual fact I did get on with him very well and he has a lot admirable qualities. There were some big changes in Flavio over the years.”

For Collins, the 1989 Brazilian GP is understandably a sweet and cherished memory. “During qualifying Nannini went out and set a good lap time, and Johnny was half a second off,” he says. “Nannini went back out and did another lap time, then Johnny went out and went quicker than Nannini. I was standing in the garage when he did that and Nannini’s eyes grew massively. He went out again and went quicker, then Johnny went out and went quicker. By this time Sandro was in tears and Flavio came to me and said, ‘You are trying to screw Nannini by giving him the wrong set-up.’ What?”

Herbert lined up 10th on the grid for his F1 debut, having qualified two-tenths faster than his team-mate who was right behind him in 11th. An hour and forty minutes later, the 24-year-old had only Mansell’s Ferrari, Alain Prost’s McLaren and Mauricío Gugelmin’s Leyton House ahead of him, the third-placed Brazilian a little more than a second up the road. Behind Derek Warwick’s fifth-placed Arrows, Nannini trailed home sixth, the last finisher on the lead lap, having made three pitstops after struggling with tyre blisters.

“That was the race where Nigel got out of the Ferrari, collapsed on the podium and cut his hand on the trophy,” says Collins. “Johnny got out of the Benetton and walked back to the pits unaided. He was unbelievable really. That took pressure off for a little while, but then we started going to circuits that required heavy braking and the pressure ramped up at every race, from Briatore and Benetton — which was really just Briatore.”

After the euphoria of Rio, it’s well documented how Herbert’s form unravelled. The Jacarepaguá circuit’s lack of demands on heavy braking masked Johnny’s biggest weakness. But back in Europe at Imola, as Nannini qualified seventh and finished a fine third, Herbert crashed on his third lap on Friday, qualified only 23rd, spun at Tosa in the race, but was at least classified a finisher, 11th, two laps down. Monaco followed, which was never going to be easy for him in the circumstances. He qualified 24th, in the race found himself stuck behind the mobile chicane known as René Arnoux, tagged the Ligier, pitted for a new nose and was classified 14th. Briatore had a growing armoury of ammunition.

“After that there was a big push to put Michele Alboreto, Eddie Cheever or somebody else in the car, so I took a stand again,” says Collins. “I’d spoken to [F1’s revered doctor] Sid Watkins, I knew what the injuries were. Just because the diamond has been scratched it doesn’t mean it’s not a diamond. I said honestly, if there was a better option out there I’d agree [to a switch], but there wasn’t. This went on for a month or so and I got a call from Benetton. There was a lot of politicking in Italy and they said if you want Herbert you’ve got to prove he can do the job. I said OK. I set up a test at Silverstone and he had to be able to lap within a few tenths of Nannini in the 1988 car. It was wet but the conditions were consistent. Sandro did a couple of long runs and set a benchmark time. Then Johnny got in, did one slow lap past the pits and came in. He had a pained look on his face and said, ‘I don’t think I can do this.’ He left it about five seconds, then laughed and said, ‘Come on, let’s get on with it.’ It was just a piss-take to wind me up. He went out and was quicker than Sandro in the wet. So that shut them up… for the moment.”

But by early July rumours intensified that Herbert was to be ‘rested’. In bumpy Mexico City he’d been nowhere, qualifying 18th and finishing 15th. A set-up error left him just 25th on the grid on the Phoenix street track, although high attrition in the race and a typically gritty drive in spite of foot pain was rewarded with fifth and a couple of points. But it would prove to be his final race in a Benetton until 1994 — because he failed to qualify in Canada. By the French GP the team had an all-Italian line-up as respected test driver Emanuele Pirro, who was far better known in Japan that he was in Europe, was drafted in to replace Herbert — just as the season was reaching the faster circuits that required less heavy braking.

Today, Herbert has come to terms with how his F1 career panned out. The foot injuries from that 1988 F3000 crash always troubled him and he’s open about just how tough that first season in 1989 had been — psychologically as well as physically. “Everything I’d gone through after my accident and then getting my chance in F1, I always tried to put it in a box,” he says. “All the issues I was having on the track, just put them to the back of my mind. I couldn’t speak to my wife, I for sure couldn’t speak to Flavio Briatore. I always had to do things in a secret way. On top of everything else that goes on in the F1 paddock, the expectations and pressures, I was also dealing with how my feet were very painful at every single grand prix, with about 15 laps to go. I didn’t have the same feel and touch I’d had before, again something I couldn’t discuss with anyone. So I did deal with two separate things: one, how I got around driving the car and the pain I had probably in 95 per cent of the races; and then the racing itself, trying to get the results and stay in a team or move on. But that’s life. It was unfortunate what happened to me at Brands Hatch, but I was lucky I even had a career to be perfectly honest. I was fortunate that I was in that era, and I had Peter Collins who helped get me into Benetton and later into Lotus. If it happened today, I would not have had a career in F1 at all, and very possibly not in sports cars either.”

A loan deal to Tyrrell proved short-lived — Johnny spun out at Spa and failed to qualify at Estoril — before he headed to Japan to begin the career rehabilitation that would eventually lead him back to F1, with Lotus at the end of 1990. Back at Benetton, Collins would soon follow him out the door before returning to F1 at the helm of Lotus.

Looking back on his final weeks at Benetton, Collins recalls: “One day Flavio said, ‘Peter, we should have dinner.’ He talked about all the bullshit under the sun for 90 per cent of the time, then he said, ‘I talk to Luciano. He said we can have the team, you and me. He gives it to us.’ Really. ‘But you have to get rid of this fucking Herbert.’ I said, ‘Flavio, I will not do that. If you present me with a driver who is fully fit and quicker than Johnny, I’ll change. But if you can’t there’s no reason to change. His response was, ‘Peter, you’re a fucking idiot.’

“The pressure ramped up more and more, until I got the call. ‘We have this very good driver from Japan, Emanuele Pirro. Herbert, he has to go. We make him test driver.’ By that time I was powerless to do anything because I knew he was already plotting to get rid of me. In the three months since Rio, in [Italian magazine] Autosprint every week there was an article about what I’d done wrong. They said I was managing Herbert, that I was on a back-hander — all bullshit. So at the British GP I’d pretty much given up, I was just waiting for the moment when they would tell me I was out and this is what you get.

“At the next race Flavio arrived on the Thursday in a grey suit. I said to him, ‘Flav, you’ve forgotten something. Where’s the violin case?’ ‘Fuck you, Peter!’ I knew that I was gone, but I wasn’t going to lay down. We did Hungary and then they called me to London, to Flavio’s flat. Again, Alessandro was super-nervous, telling me how much his father appreciated what I’d done, how he really respected me, but they had to make a change. Flavio was sitting there and never said a word. We got to the front door and Alessandro opened the door for me to go out. I said goodbye to Flavio. He grunted at me. Alessandro came to the outer door, stood on the steps and repeated what his father had said. I said I understood. There was no doubt Flavio had influence over Luciano. And one of the first things he did when he arrived was go to Bernie [Ecclestone] with his ‘marketing plans’. They were perfect mates.”

Collins’s spell at the helm of the Benetton F1 team ended abruptly at that meeting following the Hungarian GP. Today, his regard for Briatore still remains well in check — but he’s proud of his time at Benetton. “I never regretted going there, I had a great time,” he says. “The most satisfying thing was at the end of that period, at Hockenheim one night, I was standing at the back of the garage between the trucks and Ron Dennis walked past. Ron and I were never great mates, at all. But he just stood there, as was his way, looking from side to side at the trucks and nodding his head. And he said, ‘Nobody will ever appreciate what you did with this team.’”

Pat Symonds says the signing of Herbert was key to Collins’s “downfall”. “It wasn’t that logical for Johnny to drive in 1989, was it?” he says. “Rio was fantastic, superb. But under normal circumstances is that what you would have done? It certainly wasn’t what Flavio would have done. That was the start of a bit of a clash. You can’t just argue with your boss pedantically, and there comes a point where you say either I go this way or I leave. I don’t think he had any respect for Flavio and in those early days I can understand that. But Peter probably exercised his seniority a little too much.”

For Rory Byrne, this was also a time of increasing pressure as speculation intensified that John Barnard, freed from his frustrations at Ferrari, was about to join Benetton with heavy support from Ford to sprinkle his magic dust on a team that was still falling short of ‘heavy-hitter’ status. Byrne would miss the protection Collins had given him. “Peter and I were quite good friends and I got on well with him,” says the South African. “It must have affected the team, but I can’t remember much about his immediate departure. I just accepted the decision.”

What did he make of Briatore? “I knew his background,” says Byrne. “Luciano Benetton brought him in to set up a structure to fund the team because there were no sponsors. Luciano Benetton was actually paying for all the running costs out of Benetton’s pocket at that time. He brought Flavio in really to put the team on a proper financial footing. I knew Flavio had been successful in setting up Benetton’s retail operations, he knew how to make money and understood the commercial side of life. When I first met him it was obvious he knew nothing about F1. But it was obvious he wasn’t stupid because the first thing he did was establish the right political connections. I knew he was a shrewd operator.”

Briatore gives his account of those first months in Witney. “Originally I only stayed in England for three or four months to set up the commercial department, because other than Benetton there were no other sponsors,” he says. “The people there had no idea, no presentation, nothing. Rory Byrne, Pat Symonds and a lot of young people were there, and I started working with them. I handed responsibility to Pat in the beginning to put the team together and then we had meetings daily. I was there every day. After a few months I started to understand what was going on. The driver we had with Peter Collins was Johnny Herbert. Johnny was a good driver but he had this terrible injury and it was very difficult for him to sit in and drive the car. My question was, why have you put in Johnny in this moment? He’s not fit enough to race. Johnny was still in the paddock with crutches. It was very strange to have a driver in this situation, not only for the team but for him as well.

“So little by little I understood more. We changed the driver. After that everybody was motivated again. Benetton could see the possibility to invest in the team again, you could see the team react, you could see the team going in the right direction. If you want to be a part of this team in F1 everybody needs to be the best, everybody needs to be together. This is what you normally say to people, no? Behind you have a company with a good business, making a profit, so for Benetton it was no problem at all to invest. But we needed a change of direction completely, 360 degrees. We started from that. We started hiring people. Always in the press it was Benetton is supporting the team, Benetton is investing. Then in time I found several sponsors: for example, Sanyo. It was the first time Benetton had sponsors and you could see something was moving. In the end I signed a contract with Benetton and took a part-share in the team in 1990.”

In the wake of Collins’s departure, Briatore and Mike Kranefuss at Ford worked fast to shake up the team. Early in September triple world champion Nelson Piquet signed to race in 1990 — although given how low his reputation had fallen in his two seasons at Lotus since he’d won his third title at Williams in ’87, it didn’t look like much of a coup. “In the beginning nobody wanted Nelson,” says Briatore. “He’d had a big problem with Camel and was put out of the team [Lotus]. I signed Nelson first because nobody liked him and this was really good motivation, to have a world champion in the team. This was the first time Benetton had a world champion. Maybe the management was completely against it, but for the mechanics it was fantastic to have a guy like Nelson because he was a three-time world champion. We had somebody serious.”

Then later that month Ford renewed its exclusive factory engine supply to Benetton for another two years, with an option for 1992. And in early October Barnard’s deal was confirmed. Briatore and Alessandro Benetton had met him for breakfast at Monza in September and convinced Barnard of their ambition. He’d start work in early November.

Barnard was the technical architect of McLaren’s mid-1980s winning streak — a hat-trick of drivers’ world titles with Niki Lauda (1984) and Alain Prost (1985 and ’86), plus a pair of constructors’ titles (1984 and ’85). He was famously headstrong and particular about how he worked, whoever happened to be paying for his services. And he had become a powerful figure. Barnard’s standing in F1 during the 1980s was such that upon poaching him from McLaren in 1986, Enzo Ferrari sensationally accepted the Englishman’s terms that he could design and conceive his F1 cars not in Maranello but in Guildford, Surrey. Naming the new facility he set up GTO, Guildford Technical Office, was cute, but also struck a note of Ferrari acceptance that to combat the increasingly structured and effective operational practices of the top British teams it had to embrace their methods. Still, culturally this was a controversial shift that for some factions within Maranello was always going to be too tough to swallow — especially in partnership with such a divisive, uncompromising and short-tempered man as Barnard. In terms of world championship success, the new approach was doomed to fall short, although Alain Prost got to within an outrageous Ayrton Senna ‘professional foul’ from ending the title drought in 1990. But that didn’t stop Ferrari repeating the same experiment in the next decade when it re-signed Barnard, who again steadfastly refused to leave Surrey — and again fell short of delivering a championship-winning F1 car. Although Michael Schumacher came close in 1997 in Barnard’s final Ferrari, only to commit a dirty ‘professional foul’ of his own, on Jacques Villeneuve at Jerez.

In between his two stints in red, Barnard struck a similarly shaped deal with another Italian employer. Benetton had signed a man it ostentatiously declared was “the world’s leading designer of Formula 1 racing cars”, with a brief to build a new technology research centre that would specialise in electronics, advanced materials, chassis and transmission design, new suspension systems and aerodynamics, via a new wind tunnel: a substantial investment beyond anything Benetton had committed to before. At Ferrari, there was logic to Barnard building GTO in England given the strength of the UK’s F1 supply chain, including the vital and world-leading human skills based in the country. But this time, choosing Godalming — just a few miles away from the original Guildford base — was a little harder to fathom. Benetton F1 cars would continue to be built in Witney, so why not integrate the new research and design department somewhere a little closer to the team in Oxfordshire? ‘Us and them’ divisions were inherent to the Barnard-Benetton era from conception.

Meanwhile on track, Nannini and Pirro were seeing out the decade in what appeared to be another so-so middling season for a team still falling short of expectations. After an excellent third at a wet Silverstone, Nannini added a fifth in the rain at Spa and a decent fourth at Estoril. Pirro, meanwhile, struggled to make any more of the B189 than Herbert had managed and had little hope of being retained beyond the season.

But the decade had one final surprise in store for Benetton, and for once it was a good one. At Suzuka, Nannini qualified competitively in sixth, then inherited places to run third in the race behind the tense duel playing out between McLaren title rivals Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna. Six laps to go and Senna made his move at the chicane. It was a lunge, from a long way back, and Prost, ahead in the championship, was never going to be outmuscled in the wake of all the bad feeling that had turned their rivalry into a soap opera. He turned in, they collided at slow speed — and suddenly Nannini was in the lead.

But not for long. Sensationally, Senna resumed with a shove from the marshals down the escape road, pitted for a new nose and furiously tore into Nannini’s lead. He passed the Benetton to win on the road by 2.297sec, seemingly having kept his title hopes alive until the final round in Adelaide. But when the drivers emerged for the podium, there was no Senna. Instead, a slightly bemused Nannini took the top step. The push start and the use of the escape road had done for Senna, to his fury, not to mention that of Ron Dennis. Whatever, in his fourth season, Sandro was a grand prix winner, by hook or by crook doubling Benetton’s own victory tally, three years after Gerhard Berger’s Pirelli-inspired win in Mexico City. “I’m not happy that Senna was disqualified but I’m happy for myself,” said Nannini afterwards. “I was so far behind the McLarens and also so far ahead of [Riccardo] Patrese that I backed off in the last seven laps. Then I saw I was 10 seconds ahead of Senna. When I checked in the mirror he was 1.5sec behind me! When I saw him arrive on the brakes so easily I realised it was stupid to try and fight him.” A win is a win, goes the motto. You take them however you can.

The season and decade concluded in Adelaide in atrocious weather, with Prost withdrawing in protest and Senna crashing out, ramming Martin Brundle’s Brabham unsighted in the spray. His appeal over the Suzuka result withered in the same moment because without a victory in Australia the Japanese disqualification no longer mattered. Benetton old boy Thierry Boutsen inherited the lead for Williams to splash his way to a first grand prix victory, with Nannini finishing second. Among the other handful of survivors was Pirro, who at least took a couple of points from his maiden half-season with fifth to complete a decent day for Benetton. But even with this late-season flurry of points the team was still a distant fourth in the constructors’ standings in the ‘return to atmo’ season, dropping a place from its third in 1988 behind dominant McLaren, a rejuvenating Williams and flawed Ferrari.

Back in Surrey, Barnard knew he had his work cut out. As the 1990s dawned, he’d need more than his past reputation to lift Benetton from plucky F1 rebels to McLaren beaters. He also needed time, always making it clear three years was the investment required before meaningful results could be harvested. But would Briatore and Benetton really have the patience, and that crucial investment, he demanded?