The fifth part of this series explores the era of the Enstone team under the Benetton name. Active from 1986 to 2001, Luciano Benetton and his family bought the Toleman team as a means of advertisement for their Italian clothing chain. After providing large sponsorship deals for Tyrrell, Alfa Romeo and Toleman; the family eventually bought the latter in 1986 and Benetton became an independent team.
Italian Teo Fabi and Austrian Gerhard Berger were the drivers for Benetton’s debut season in 1986. Powered by BMW engines, their B186 chassis enabled Fabi to take pole twice before Berger finally sealed a win at the Mexican Grand Prix. With 19 points, the team finished 6th in the Constructors’ Championship.
Switching to Ford Cosworth V8 engines for 1987, Fabi and new partner, Belgian Thierry Boutsen, scored a third place each on their way to a 5th place finish in the Constructors’ Championship with 28 points. Fabi was replaced by compatriot Alessandro Nannini for 1988 and scored 2 podiums. A further five podium finishes for Boutsen consolidated an impressive 3rd place in the Constructors’ Championship in their B188.
1989 began with Nannini partnered with Briton Johnny Herbert, but the arrival of Flavio Briatore as Benetton boss saw Herbert and team manager Peter Collins shown the door. Another Italian, Emanuele Pirro, was brought in to replace the outgoing Briton; but he could not manage a podium finish. Nannini ended the season with one victory courtesy of Senna’s disqualification in Japan.
Brazilian triple-champion Nelson Piquet joined Benetton for 1990. He was accompanied by Nannini for 14 rounds before Brazilian Roberto Moreno took the second drive for the last two races of the season. As per the previous year, Benetton capitalised on a collision between the McLaren’s of Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna with a stunning all-Brazilian 1-2 for Piquet and Moreno respectively. Piquet built on this with a win at the season-ending Australian Grand Prix. With 71 points, the B190-Ford finished 3rd in the Championship.
1991 saw the debut of Michael Schumacher for the at the Jordan-Ford team. The German amazed everyone with a 7th place qualification. It was enough for Benetton to wrestle Schumacher out of Jordan, but materialised into a court battle won by Benetton as Schumacher had not signed a contract with Jordan. Schumacher took Roberto Moreno’s seat at Benetton. Piquet was immediately outperformed by Schumacher and ultimately called time on his career at the end of the season.
Schumacher was unable to challenge for the 1992 title as active suspension gave Williams an advantage, but he took his first victory at Belgium on the track he debuted at the previous year. Martin Brundle’s 5 podiums helped the team finish third in the Constructors’ Championship.
Benetton made progress with a semi-automatic gearbox and active suspension for 1993, but traction control came too late into the season to challenge Alain Prost. Benetton placed 3rd in the Championship for the second year running.
The 1994 Benetton B194 was powered by Ford, who had made massive strides with their Zetec-R engine. After winning the opening two races, Schumacher stood alone as Formula One’s front-runner after the tragic death of Ayrton Senna at San Marino robbed the life of a driving legend and perhaps the most iconic battle the sport could ever have witnessed.
Schumacher suffered a two-race ban and a further disqualification across the season and so by the season finale at Adelaide, Schumacher was one point ahead of Williams’ Damon Hill. Mansell started on pole with Schumacher in second, and when the lights went out the German managed to pull out a small gap to title rival Hill in third. However, pushing to create a gap saw the German clatter the wall quite hard. A dive by Hill and squeeze by Schumacher saw retirements for both drivers and the title for Schumacher.
Schumacher won the title again in 1995 with 9 victories and combined with Johnny Herbert’s 2, Benetton-Renault won the Constructors’ title. Schumacher left for Ferrari with chief engineer Ross Brawn for 1996, while John Alesi and Gerhard Berger joined the team. They were no match for Williams and failed to win a race that year. Berger managed one win in 1997 but could not match Jacques Villeneuve in the Williams.
Benetton fielded a much younger line-up in 1998 with Italian Giancarlo Fisichella and Austrian Alexander Wurz. Between 1998 and 2000, Fisichella scored 6 podium finishes. As the B197 and B198-Playlife cars team slipped into a midfield position, Jenson Button joined the team for what would be the last season for Benetton in 2001 after a buyout by Renault in 2000.
Following a dire final season for the team, scoring 10 points and finishing 7th in the championship, the Renault takeover was completed and the team was rebranded as Renault. In many ways, the spirit of the Benetton era of the Enstone team and the legacy created by Michael Schumacher has allowed the Benetton name to be remembered at the pinnacle of motorsport.