F1: Stories From An Ex-Benetton Mechanic

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“Berger was the thickest driver I have worked with, Alesi was a close second” …those are the forthright views of a former Benetton mechanic who is ready to let rip!

The ex-Benetton mechanic has kindly contributed towards the upcoming book, but cannot be named because he still works in F1. However, his anonymity means he can be brutally honest.

Benetton started 1996 with high hopes having just been crowned Drivers and Constructors champions. Despite losing Michael Schumacher, the Enstone team were gaining a hugely gifted racer in Jean Alesi. Their other incoming driver, Gerhard Berger, was F1’s elder statesman having partnered the likes of Ayrton Senna at McLaren. If Benetton could harness Alesi’s talent or Berger’s experience, surely more success lay on the horizon. However, things didn’t quite pan out like that…

“Remember when Berger had an appalling start at Nurburgring in 1996” said the unnamed Benetton insider whose identity must remain a secret. “All he had to do was press the brake pedal and then press the line lock button to unlock the front brakes when the race started. Like a handbrake, this would have allowed our drivers to have the clutch ‘biting point’ ready when the red lights disappeared allowing a better getaway.

But Berger forgot to release the brakes and then drove a couple of hundred yards with them locked up. This completely wrecked the tyres and threw away a potential podium finish. Alesi had done the same, although to a lesser degree, and lost 9 places off the line. Now, in red mist mode, Jean dived inside Verstappen but out-braked himself and slammed into the side of Salo. Race over!”

Berger and Alesi found the Benetton difficult to drive and crashed it numerous times during pre-season.

The former Benetton mechanic also describes the time Alesi wouldn’t stop for fuel during the 1997 Australian GP. “We had everyone from the team waving at him to signal his pit stop was due. It started with the pit board and after a few laps we were waving the lollypop over the pit wall at him.”

Alesi, who had been fighting for a podium, then ran out of petrol and as his Benetton halted to a stop legendary TV commentator Murray Walker summed up the situation. “You can see by the body language of the Benetton mechanics that they are ab-so-lutely FURIOUS! Oh, Jean, you may well look a bit worried. You’ve got a major problem sunshine!” In Alesi’s defence, his radio was broken during that race.

Afterwards, Flavio Briatore (Benetton’s boss) was asked what he would do if Alesi repeated these antics. Briatore answered “on the first lap he doesn’t pit I’ll wave a big gun. If he still doesn’t stop, I’ll start shooting.” In Ross Brawn’s recent book entitled Total Competition, he described Benetton taking both Alesi & Berger for 1996 as a mistake. Brawn just wanted Alesi whereas Briatore insisted his teammate should be Berger.

As Brawn feared, the Austrian proved a bad influence on Jean as one testing session at Silverstone illustrated perfectly. Berger drove the car in semi-wet conditions and having returned to the pits he told Alesi “slicks tyres are no problem.” Alesi tried them but crashed immediately because it was too wet for slicks – Berger had just been joking!

Alesi’s biggest success with Benetton came at the 1997 Italian GP when he claimed only his second ever pole position.

“I’m sure it was Alesi who the Chief Mechanic locked in the back of the truck at Silverstone after coming into the garage in a mood and pushing over a set of tyres like a kid” claimed our ex-Benetton friend. “Think it was Berger who came into the garage after an installation lap saying he had a snake in his overalls. Was his spare earpiece down his overall leg.

Berger also came over the radio in a session saying the car is shit, bad set up. Engineer asks ‘what’s wrong?’ Berger just says it’s shit. Engineer; ‘OK let’s change something, oversteer? understeer?’ Berger, it’s just shit….. He was in P1 at the time. You always knew how much work you had to do during the weekend by the mood of the drivers.”

Having won 19 Grand Prixs throughout 1994 and 1995, Benetton only won a single race during 1996 and 1997 with Berger and Alesi (pictured) as their drivers.

Driver issues also blighted Benetton’s qualifying session for the 1997 European GP. Having crashed his race car earlier that day Alesi, now in the spare, spun twice and was extremely lucky not to damage or “beach” the B197 before posting a lap time. The Benetton teammates then blocked one another during their quick laps, ending the session in a disappointing 8th and 10th position as a result.

Unsurprisingly, Berger and Alesi were replaced for 1998 after both drivers fell out with senior team management. It was all a far cry from Benetton’s glory days with Schumacher, not least because the German went out of his way to ensure his mechanics were looked after as the following story demonstrates.

During a testing session in 1994 at the Paul Ricard circuit the German’s Benetton developed a technical issue and whilst waiting for it to be fixed, he gave some mechanics a ride in his new Bugatti supercar. Pete Hennessy was responsible for servicing Benetton’s Ford Cosworth engines mechanically in 1994 and was one of those taken around Paul Ricard by the seven-time F1 champion.

Pete later recalled “not sure what turn it was but we were going very quick, he realised the brakes had failed, changed down two gears and deliberately spun the car. Think it went round twice and came to rest half a metre from the wall…..he said ‘that was close’. I said ‘you did all that in the time it took me to shit myself’…… I will always remember it, and how he was laughing at me…….memories.”

Schumacher with Pete Hennessy, shortly before that incident.

1994 – The Untold Story of a Tragic and Controversial F1 Season is a new book which aims to uncover the truth regarding the various Benetton accusations and politics. Keep checking www.1994f1.com for more F1 blogs and the precise January 2019 release date for the book.

Alternatively sign up here; http://www.1994f1.com/contact/ to receive the book’s release date automatically.

Images courtesy of Nic Redhead, Steve Gregory, Restu20, Andrew-44-19 via https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Main_Page, Pete Hennessy and Marco Castelli

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