King Vagabond - Benetton F1

The rise and fall of the Benetton F1 team

1y ago
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A sometimes overlooked team, Benetton was in its days one of the most competitive teams the sport had ever seen. The United Colors of Benetton brand came into F1 in the early 80s as a lead sponsor for the Tyrrell team, later for Alfa Romeo, and finally for Toleman in 1985. Eventually though, they decided to enter the sport themselves and as soon as Toleman hit trouble, the Italian brand was quick to buy what was left of the team. Toleman had already designed a car for 1986, the TG186, and the new owners decided to take advantage of that and simply re-named the car as the Benetton B186, they replaced the pointless Hart engine with a brand new BMW power unit and once that was done, they took it racing.

Benetton made its racing debut with the BMW-powered B186

Benetton made its racing debut with the BMW-powered B186

In the hands of Gerhard Berger and Teo Fabi, the car was immediately competitive. It scored points on its first race and managed to finish 3rd at San Marino. The car wasn’t the fastest, but in the hands of Berger it sure looked like it was, at least, while it worked, because just like apparently every single F1 car in the 80s, it was very fast as long as the engine didn’t implode. None of their cars managed to finish any of the following 5 races after Imola. To the team’s frustration, Fabi positioned the car on pole position in two consecutive races (Austria and Italy) and yet on both occasions they had to retire. The multi-colored Benettons were the only cars able to keep up with the McLarens and Williams-Hondas, but reliability issues and a very inefficient fuel consumption were holding back the team’s potential. Eventually, arrived the Mexican GP, and with Benetton coming from a streak of 9 races with retirements, they weren’t expecting anything too special. However, the cars were sporting some new tyres courtesy of Pirelli after having ditched Goodyear. Berger took advantage of this and qualified 4th, a good position that made the team hope for a podium. The race started and the car was managing to keep up, but it wasn’t until the pitstops that it took the lead. The new Pirellis could last longer than their rivals and therefore saved the team a pit-stop, Berger took the lead and drove superbly to finish 1st, a full 25 seconds ahead of Alain Prost in 2nd. Benetton had managed something that very few teams had ever done, win a race in their debut season. Eventually, they finished the season 6th after a last disappointing race in Australia, still a good result considering their amount of retirements.

Berger gave the team a first win in Mexico 1986, it would be the last win for the BMW M12 engine.

Berger gave the team a first win in Mexico 1986, it would be the last win for the BMW M12 engine.

In 1987, Benetton became the Ford works team and received exclusive use of the turbocharged Ford TEC V6 engine for their new B187. The team had a rather disappointing start of the season, with only one point scored in the first 5 races. However, by running less turbo boost (which limited speed but also saw the reliability problems go down), by mid-season both Fabi and Thierry Boutsen were regularly challenging the top teams. Boutsen made the team return to the points with a 4th place in Hungary before teammate Fabi scored a 3rd place podium in Austria. They scored points in the following races but reliability was still holding them back, a clear example being when Boutsen retired from the lead of the Mexican Grand Prix and the team had to be satisfied with a 5th place by Fabi. There was a little compensation for them as they kept scoring points in the next races before Boutsen scored a podium in the final event, at Adelaide. Unlike the year before, they had failed to win a race or even qualify on pole, however, the improved results that came in the second half of the season gave the team a result of 5th in the championship.

In 1987, Benetton became Ford's works team. With the new engines, the cars scored 2 podiums.

In 1987, Benetton became Ford's works team. With the new engines, the cars scored 2 podiums.

1988 was the beginning of the end for turbocharged engines. For Benetton, a team that had made pretty much 100% of its progress with turbo engines, these weren’t the news they wanted to hear. Ford halted the development of a successor for the turbo V6 used in 1987 and focused its attention on creating a new engine to go with the new rules (which now allowed a choice between a 1.5 turbo or a 3.5 N/A) The result was the DFR V8. The new power unit generated 620hp. Compared to the 650hp of the Honda engines in the MP4/4s that would eventually win the championship, it would seem that the Benetton car had no chance against the Japanese power. However, the new B188 was almost 50kg lighter than the McLaren. The team rolled the car out at the opening race in Brazil only to be disappointed by the results. New driver Alessandro Nannini retired while his teammate Boutsen only managed a 7th place. Things got a little better at the next race at San Marino as both cars took points, before once again being bad in the following two races. Their luck eventually returned, Boutsen managed two consecutive 3rd places in Canada and Detroit, Nannini took another one in Great Britain before Boutsen got 3 more podiums at Hungary, Portugal, and Japan. Another podium by Nannini in Spain was enough to give the team a best result of 3rd in the championship.

In 1988, the team got a best result of 3rd in the championship after taking a total of 7 podiums.

In 1988, the team got a best result of 3rd in the championship after taking a total of 7 podiums.

In 1989, Benetton was supposed to enter a new car, however, an accident during testing meant that the use of the new chassis would be impossible. Ford had also developed a new engine, the HB4 V8, but since the new power unit didn’t fit in the old car, the team had to race with the 1988 engine as well. Surprisingly, the 1-year-old cars had better results now than when they were new, both scoring points in the opening race as new driver Johnny Herbert finished 4th. The team was even more confused when their old machinery took a podium on the following race at San Marino. More points finishes were to come in Mexico and the US before Benetton retired the B188 for good at the French GP. The new car, (literally just 1 car) the B189, finally appeared in France, where it retired. It surprised everyone in the following race in England when it took a podium in the hands of Nannini. That convinced the team of entering a second car for the following race in Germany, only for both machines to retire. More retirements followed in Hungary, Italy, and Spain. The B189 wasn’t proving to be a good evolution of the successful B188, but then one of F1’s traditional strikes of luck happened. It was the 1989 Japanese GP, Prost and Senna started from the front and lead the race, Nannini qualified 6th but eventually found himself in 3rd after both Ferraris retired and he had overtaken the Williams of fellow Italian Riccardo Patrese. When the two McLarens collided, Nannini took the lead, Prost was out but Senna got back in the race and was quickly catching up. Knowing he didn’t have a car to rival Senna, the Italian driver let him through, not wanting to risk losing such a good result for the team. Nannini crossed the finish line 2nd, but after Senna was disqualified, he was handed the victory. Another podium came in the last race of the season in Australia when Nannini finished 2nd. The results were enough to salvage a 4th place in the championship.

After a second victory, a failed evolution, and some other shenanigans, Benetton finished the 1989 season in 4th place.

After a second victory, a failed evolution, and some other shenanigans, Benetton finished the 1989 season in 4th place.

Following the effort of the last season, Benetton once again entered the year with an old car, racing with the one-year-old B189 during the first 2 events and surprisingly getting points on both occasions. A new car, the B190, was presented in San Marino and with the new HBA4 engine, it immediately proved fast by scoring a 3rd place finish by Nannini. Both cars failed to finish in Monaco, but new driver Nelson Piquet scored a 2nd place in Canada. Nannini responded with an equal result in Germany and Piquet scored another podium in Hungary by finishing 3rd. Sadly the team took a hard hit that year when driver Nannini was severely injured in a helicopter crash that put an early end to his promising career. He was replaced by Brazilian Roberto Moreno. The following race was at Suzuka, and once again Prost and Senna started from the front and once again they crashed, leaving the cars of Berger and Mansell to take the lead with both Benettons following behind. Berger then spun off, leaving the English Lion to fight alone against the chasing multi-colored Benettons. Knowing Benetton would follow their usual strategy of avoiding a pit stop, Mansell built up a gap until he pitted at the end of lap 26, he left his box with heavy wheelspin, and his driveshaft failed. This left Piquet and Moreno to take the lead, keeping it until the end and delivering the team with a 1-2 result. Piquet also managed to win the following race in Australia.

With a slight sense of "Deja Vu", Benetton finished the 1990 season 3rd in the standings.

With a slight sense of "Deja Vu", Benetton finished the 1990 season 3rd in the standings.

In 1991, Benetton (for the 3rd year in a row) entered the first races with a car that was originally meant to be retired the season before. However, they couldn’t complain, as Nelson Piquet once again took the car to a 3rd place finish at the first race. He scored again in the second event before Benetton finally introduced the new car in San Marino. The B191 had a disaster of a debut as it proved rather uncompetitive in its first event. Luckily for the team, things straightened up quite soon, and they scored points in Monaco before Piquet won the Canadian GP. They continued to score points until they fell back during a couple of races, however, Piquet once again got things back in order and took the car into 3rd place at Spa. For the following race in Italy, Moreno was replaced with a new rookie that had been snatched from Jordan, Michael Schumacher. No more podiums came for the team that season, but both of their drivers were very closely matched, and delivered some very good results to the team that allowed for a 4th place result at the championship.

The Benetton B191 took the team to 4th place in the championship, and saw the arrival of a rookie Michael Schumacher.

The Benetton B191 took the team to 4th place in the championship, and saw the arrival of a rookie Michael Schumacher.

Based on what happened in 91, 90, and 89, can you guess what the Benetton team did for the first races of 1992? If you said: “Enter the first events of the season with the car from the year before“ you are totally right. With Piquet retiring from F1, the team replaced him with Martin Brundle, while keeping Schumacher. The German driver opened the season with a 4th place, and followed with 2 consecutive 3rd places in Mexico and Brazil. Once the new B192 was introduced, Schumacher improved with a second place in Spain and later Canada, while Brundle (who had faced poor reliability) was finally able to fight for better results when he scored podiums in France and England. Both cars were constant point scorers and even podium finishers, eventually, they achieved more when Schumacher finished the Belgian GP in first place. The victory, combined with 12 other podiums was enough to get the team back to 3rd place in the championship.

Brilliant drives from Brundle and Schumacher took the team back to 3rd place in the 1992 standings

Brilliant drives from Brundle and Schumacher took the team back to 3rd place in the 1992 standings

In 1993, McLaren made a deal and managed to make Ford supply equal engines to both Benetton and the Woking team. It was a serious threat to their good results, but there was nothing the team could do about it other than carry on. That year, Benetton was finally on schedule and delivered a new car on the first race of the season. Schumacher took the thing into the podium 8 times, while his teammate Riccardo Patrese did it twice. Schumacher topped the season with a victory in Portugal.

1993 was proof that Benetton could still fight against the top teams, works engine or not.

1993 was proof that Benetton could still fight against the top teams, works engine or not.

For 1994, Schumacher was retained as lead driver, however, the team’s second seat bounced around throughout the whole season between Jos Verstappen, JJ Lehto, and Johnny Herbert. Schumacher was the fastest driver of the bunch, and not even the team was able to believe at first what their car would manage in the hands of "Der Kaiser". The German driver took the team from being a constant podium finisher, to a constant race winner. Schumacher fought all season against Damon Hill for the title, eventually, he defeated the Englishman by 1 point. Michael was world champion, however, the team could only finish 2nd to the seemingly invincible Williams team. Williams and Benetton were the only two teams to finish with more than 100 points.

In 1994, the B194 gave Michael Schumacher the first of his 7 world titles.

In 1994, the B194 gave Michael Schumacher the first of his 7 world titles.

In 1995, the team was able to have a stable line up. They changed their power units to Renault, (same as Williams) and kept Schumacher and Herbert. The Scotsman delivered good results, with multiple podiums and even 2 wins, however, those results were nothing compared to his teammate Schumacher, who after an initial disqualification and subsequent reinstatement of victory in Brazil, carried on from where he had left off in 1994 and battled Damon Hill for the world championship. The two drivers had several collisions and near misses just as in 1994, the most notable was at the British Grand Prix when Hill attempted to pass and took both him and Schumacher out of the race. Schumacher capitalized on further mistakes by Williams and Hill and took nine victories, easily retaining his championship. The same mistakes that allowed Schumacher to become champion again, also allowed the team to become champions for their first and only time. Unknown to the team at the time, most of their key technical staff would defect to Ferrari when Schumacher signed for them for the 1996 season.

1995 saw Schumacher become back-to-back champion, it was also the year that rewarded the team with their own championship win.

1995 saw Schumacher become back-to-back champion, it was also the year that rewarded the team with their own championship win.

1996 was a hard hit, after a significant amount of their staff left to Ferrari, the Benetton team was once again in turmoil. They once again changed their lineup, re-signing Gerhard Berger and new driver Jean Alesi. They kept the engine partnership with Renault, however this time the French power units were nothing like the ones that took them to victory the year before. They were still very powerful, and took the B196 cars into a podium finish a total of 10 times, however, no wins. The poor reliability of the engines, combined with a very strong Williams team that came back with all of its might to reclaim their title, meant Benetton could do nothing but watch as their 1995 1st place in the championship, became a 3rd place by the end of 1996. The result was still good, but having been so much better the year before, it felt hollow.

In 1996, Benetton returned to 3rd place in the championship.

In 1996, Benetton returned to 3rd place in the championship.

1997 was the beginning of the end for the Benetton team. They kept scoring podiums and even managed that Gerhard Berger got a race win for the team in Germany. Unknown to them, that was going to be their last ever victory. Ironically, both the team's first and last victories ever were delivered by Berger. More podiums were enough for the team to hold on to 3rd place, sadly, it all went downhill from there.

The B197 was the last ever race winning car Benetton would ever have.

The B197 was the last ever race winning car Benetton would ever have.

The following seasons can all be pretty much summed up together. In 1998, the team had an encouraging start which saw Giancarlo Fisichella finish second at two successive races, the team sat a comfortable third place in the Constructors’ Championship. However, the season went down towards the end, with Benetton ultimately finishing the season in fifth place. The team blamed Bridgestone for favoring eventual champions McLaren, who were the tyre supplier’s top team at that time. The 1999 car, the B199, contained some sophisticated parts, such as a front-torque transfer system and a twin-clutch gearbox, but these proved troublesome. Furthermore, any performance advantage was held back by the increased weight and aerodynamic inefficiencies which resulted in a chronic lack of grip. The team eventually took sixth place in the Constructors’ Championship. In 2000 the team saw a tiny glimpse of glory in the shape of two podiums, but that was barely enough to salvage a 4th place in the championship. That same season, the team was sold to Renault. Finally in 2001, the team was at its lowest point. Only 10 points scored that saw them finish 7th place in their last championship. The team officially became the Renault works team for the 2002 season.

Benetton's last years were simply disappointing compared to their glorious days.

Benetton's last years were simply disappointing compared to their glorious days.

The team eventually became Renault in 2002, ending the story of Benetton in Formula 1

The team eventually became Renault in 2002, ending the story of Benetton in Formula 1

So that was the story of the Benetton F1 team, all from the start. If you have read until this point I would like to thank you very much for reading, it means a lot to me. Tell me, what do you think of the story of Benetton? Where you a fan in their glory days or did you just learn about it now? Leave your opinions in the comments.

THANK YOU VERY MUCH FOR READING

F1Trooper out

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Comments (3)

  • That Schumacher guy looked good, wonder what he did after leaving Benetton...

      1 year ago
  • Thanks for the very informative and smooth article. I remember all the details you mentioned. Wow! How time flies.

      1 year ago
3