2001: A Benetton Odyssey

In 1995, the Benetton Formula 1 team was on top of the motorsport world, and bagged both World Drivers’ and Constructors’ championships that year. Six years later, the Benetton name left the sport having scored a measly ten points all year long. Where did it all go so wrong?

Nineteen-ninety-five was the culmination of Benetton’s upward mobility sustained over the previous few years, but the season ended with an exodus of key personnel. Michael Schumacher decamped to Ferrari, with technical demi-gods Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne in tow.

The decline was clear; from winning the constructors’ championship in 1995, the team slumped to third in ‘97, and then again to sixth in ‘99. Rebounding slightly at the turn of the millennium, Giancarlo Fisichella’s podiums ensured that Benetton pipped BAR to fourth on count-back, but let’s face the facts here: post-1995, the team managed one further win – courtesy of Gerhard Berger at Hockenheim in ’97.

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After a decade and a half of ownership, the Benetton family came to the conclusion that the squad’s continuing slide in form could affect the team’s value. Having already batted off an approach by the Ford Motor Company a few years earlier, an offer came through that was too good to refuse.

On March 16th 2000, it was announced that Renault had purchased the team for approximately $120 million. The cars would race under the Benetton name for one final season, with the Renault name officially returning in 2002. Immediate controversy followed as the new owners reinstalled Flavio Briatore as team manager, reportedly against the wishes of Benetton.

Heading up Benetton during the team’s glory days, the brilliant but controversial Briatore was initially shown the exit door in September 1997. His replacement was no-nonsense Prodrive boss David Richards but, as the team’s competitiveness tailed off as the season progressed, Richards was gone by the end of 1998, replaced by Rocco Benetton who had little impact on arresting his family team’s slide.

One could argue that the lethargic feel of the team also affected the team’s liveries, going from the vibrant multi-coloured chaos of the early 1990s to a smart but staid light blue by 2000. While Forsythe Racing over in the CART series demonstrated what could be done with a light blue livery, Benetton’s livery appeared to be the result of minimal effort, a squad very much going through the motions. Briatore’s return certainly injected some colour back into the team.

In the years prior to Renault’s takeover, Benetton was stuck running a Playlife-badged, Mecachrome-maintained ’97 Renault unit for three seasons in a row. Powering a combination of Williams, BAR, Arrows and Benetton during this period, the engine earned a reputation for sturdiness. It was perhaps expected in many quarters that Renault’s all-new V10 for 2001 would be based largely along the lines of this enormously successful unit, which had remained competitive for years. Jean-Jacques His, Renault’s engine design guru, had other ideas.

From a blank piece of paper, he penned a wide-angle V10 engine, most notably with its cylinders offset at 111°. The benefits of such a design would lie in aerodynamic packaging, reducing the centre of gravity at the rear of the car, and enabling the car to run extra ballast where needed. It was quite literally His’ engine and, if Renault got it right, could lead to a minor revolution.

But when the engine was tested extensively in a B200 test mule, the initial results made for grim reading. Down on horsepower, Renault’s new design was also horrendously unreliable. Warning signs were already starting to appear at the B201’s launch in Venice at the beginning of February; Briatore and Renault chief Patrick Faure were cagey about the expectations for 2001, and new technical chief Mike Gascoyne was equally as taciturn. “We’re not expecting things to be easy in the first part of the season,” Gascoyne told F1 Racing.

What they perhaps didn’t realise is how bad things would actually be.

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The season-opener at Melbourne rather set the tone, and Fisichella and Button could only manage 16th and 17th on the grid, over three seconds slower than Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari. The team opted to take it easy in the race, using the Albert Park circuit to clock miles on the car. By mid-distance, the B201s were running dead last, eventually finishing there. Fisichella limped home in 13th, three laps behind the leaders and a full lap behind Fernando Alonso’s Minardi. Thanks to an electrical failure, Button parked his car on lap 52, officially classified 14th. The nightmare was just beginning.

Two weeks later, the paddock convened at Sepang for the second race of the year, with Benetton reprising their roles of qualifying 16th and 17th. Disappointment soon became embarrassment, as Fisichella lined up in the wrong grid slot. Perhaps hoping not to be noticed, he attempted to crawl over to the correct side of the grid.

The cameras caught him at the exact moment he stalled his car in the middle of the track. Oh, Giancarlo.

As the field was dispatched for a second formation lap, the Italian was wheeled into the pitlane. From the pitlane, Fisichella took advantage of the chaotic opening laps to run 7th for a brief period, but eventually retired with fuel pressure issues. His team mate floated around at the bottom end of the midfield and finished 11th, ahead of both Minardis and the hapless Gaston Mazzacane, but truth be told nowhere near the rest of the midfield.

At the next round in Brazil – and very much against the run of play – Benetton-Renault scored a point.

The team found itself mired at the wrong end of the grid in practice and qualifying, the Renault engine struggling to match the top speed of its contemporaries. Luckily, attrition and changing conditions hit Interlagos, and Fisichella took advantage to record a shock 6th place finish.

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That solitary point was the highlight of Benetton’s early season. Too often, the light-blue machines were left to do battle with the tail-end teams thanks to the shortcomings of the Renault. Granted, the Enstone team’s latest chassis was hardly up to scratch, and Jenson Button described the B201 as “a total dog to drive” in his autobiography, Life to the Limit. It didn’t even have power steering.

Already, the relationship between Benetton and Renault was becoming marginally fractious. Renault allegedly asked Benetton to bolt in one of the old Playlife-badged engines in a bid to illustrate that the B201 chassis was not exactly up to par.

There was one race on the calendar that the team would be forgiven for looking forward to: Monaco. The tight streets of Monte-Carlo would – in theory, at least – negate the horsepower deficit of the V10. With attrition also likely to run wild, this appeared to be Benetton’s best chance of grabbing some more precious points. The B201s were comfortably running in the midfield during free practice, and in qualifying Fisichella finally brought the team a top 10 qualifying position. Despite only managing 17th, Button was simply relieved at getting off the back row of the grid.

Come race day both drivers successfully navigated the opening laps, with Fisichella hustling his car further up the grid as frontrunners ran into problems. It looked like a great result was on the cards.

On lap 44, it all went wrong.

Harrying Jacques Villeneuve’s BAR for fifth, the Italian overcooked it turning into St Devote and the unforgiving barrier claimed its latest victim. A potential podium finish was thrown away from the merest of mistakes.

Button meanwhile did enough for 7th position, but the sheer amount of attrition though had been a gift for two of Benetton’s midfield rivals. Jaguar’s update package for their recalcitrant R2 had suddenly turned their car into a player in the hands of Eddie Irvine, who finished third for Jaguar’s first points of the season. To rub salt into the wound, Jean Alesi finished sixth in his Prost. Benetton was now 9th in the Constructors’ championship – behind Arrows but just ahead of the French outfit on count-back.

Benetton looked down and out, especially after a dire Canadian Grand Prix. The Circuit Gilles Villeneuve was historically a happy hunting ground for Fisichella and, on the back of a streak of four podium finishes at the circuit, casual observers may have considered that another was possible.

Instead, the long straights completely exposed the Renault V10’s shortcomings. The team were resigned to fighting for the wooden spoon with the similarly breathless Minardis at the bottom of the timesheets. Picture Benetton, a two-time championship winning team struggling to overhaul Minardi, which was armed with a car thrown together in six weeks and a four-year old engine. It must have been humiliating for the engineers at Enstone and Viry-Châtillon respectively.

The problems mounted; Button jumped the start and copped a stop-go penalty for his troubles, and later Fisichella misjudged his braking point at the hairpin and deranged his front wing on Bernoldi’s Arrows. The race got more embarrassing, especially considering that the Arrows was fitted with an Asiatech engine –  little more than a gutless year-old Peugeot,  it had the legs on the B201s on the back straight. Bernoldi slipstreamed Button, who swerved left to avoid being steamrolled…straight into the path of Fisichella.

Fisichella’s race ended on the spot. Incredibly, Button was able to continue, but lasted only a few laps more before an oil leak mercifully ended the weekend for Benetton. With Jean Alesi scoring a further brace of points for Prost, this meant Benetton were now 10th in the standings, with little immediate prospect of improvement.

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Sometimes, it was difficult to know which car was faster. (EMPICS)

However, steady progress from Renault and a raft of upgrades from Enstone for the final five races of the season helped the team conduct a small turnaround in form – surprisingly, at two of the faster venues on the calendar.

For the final race on the original high-speed Hockenheim, the team locked out the ninth row of the grid. Button was lucky not to have Luciano Burti’s Prost land on top of him during the spectacular accident that forced a race restart.

It seemed like a now-usual afternoon for Benetton, and the duo of Fisichella and Button both lost ground to the all-too-familiar Bernoldi. Then, attrition hit. The track lived up to its car-killing reputation, and by the end only 10 cars were still circulating when the chequered flag dropped – the German crowd treated to a smorgasbord of engine failures.

In context of their early issues, it was incredible that both Benettons survived. It was even more incredible that they were running fourth and fifth! Fisichella and Button chased third-placed Jacques Villeneuve to the line to bring home a massive five points for the team, the latter snatching his first points finish since the previous year’s Japanese Grand Prix. This was an enormous boost for Enstone.

Although Hungary was a non-event, Belgium was the real high water mark. Firstly, Fisichella secured the team’s best qualifying result of the year so far with 8th. Button lagged further down the field in 15th. By this point in the season, the team had finally got its new-for-2001 launch control software dialled in, and both drivers made brilliant use of it. Button rose to ninth at the first start, then to fifth at the restart following Burti’s colossal accident at Blanchimont.

Fisichella fared even better. Rocketing his way up to third place, the Italian clawed his way into second on the restart. Almost wresting the lead from Michael Schumacher at La Source, Fisichella’s real battle was with the much faster David Coulthard. Aided by an unconventional tyre strategy, in which the team only changed the rear tyres at each pitstop, Fisichella managed to fend off the McLaren for more than half the race, but reached an impasse catching up to lap Bernoldi. Coulthard capitalised to grab second, with Fisichella consolidating his third place. It was a far cry from Melbourne.

It was to be the final points finish in Benetton’s history. Against the odds, Fisichella kept Benetton’s record of scoring a podium in each season it competed in remained intact. Amazingly, it emerged that the car had dumped nearly all its oil on the seven-kilometre Spa-Francorchamps circuit. It was a minor miracle the car even made the chequered flag.

Fisi en route to Benetton's final podium (Carsten Riede)

Fisi in Spa, en route to Benetton’s final podium (Carsten Riede)

The rest of the season petered out. Focusing firmly on 2002 and its new Renault guise, Benetton’s successful time in Formula 1 ended on a flat note.

Although 2001 was largely development year for Renault, as they invested in the depleted infrastructure, it was certainly the weakest season for Benetton in its 16 years as an F1 constructor. In the present day’s formula of four engines per season, it’s absolutely staggering that Renault manufactured over 250 of their V10 engines over the course of the year.

Ultimately, a collection of ten points and seventh in the constructors’ championship was a sad way for one of the more colourful outfits in Formula One to bow out. However, the groundwork had been laid for future success at Enstone.

Short term pain certainly made way for long-term gain.

Sources: GrandPrix.com, Formula 1 Yearbook 2001-2002, StatsF1.com, Motorsport Magazine, Autosport. F1Technical.net