United Colours of Victory…
From the modest beginnings of Toleman Motorsport came one of the most iconic team names in Formula 1 history – Benetton. Having provided a major sponsorship deal to Toleman during the 1985 season, the global clothing brand purchased the team in its entirety at the end of that year, renaming the outfit under its new parent name.
Benetton welcomed a host of names to its cockpits – seventeen in total – all providing memorable performances, and the majority bringing points, podiums and of course wins to the team.
During a major period of transformation, the Benetton era also saw the team relocate from its Witney base to the current facility at Enstone in 1992, bringing with it significantly expanded opportunities for the team to build on its existing foundations and push forward towards the upper reaches of the sport.
With podium finishes already in the bag in its previous incarnation as Toleman, the team had yet to take that elusive first victory. That duck was to be broken in Benetton’s first season under new ownership, with Austrian driver Gerhard Berger claiming the outfit’s maiden Grand Prix win at the 1986 Mexican Grand Prix.
From that point onwards success continued to build, with a total of twenty-seven wins and 102 podium finishes during eleven seasons. The culmination of these results would lead to consecutive Driver’s World titles in 1994 / 1995 with Michael Schumacher at the wheel, and a Constructor’s World title in the latter of those two landmark years in the history of the team.
In 2000 season the Benetton name would depart the Formula 1 community after many years in the sport both as a sponsor and later team owner, as former engine supplier Renault moved to rekindle its full manufacturer status in the elite category of motorsport for the first time since 1985 by taking control of the team.
Thus one of the most successful, flamboyant and eccentric periods in the history of the team came to an end. Below is a summary of the Benetton era in numbers:
- Debut – 1986 Brazilian Grand Prix
- Final Race – 2001 Japanese Grand Prix
- Driver’s Championships – 2
- Constructor’s Championships – 1
- Race Weekends – 260
- Points – 861.5
- Wins – 27
- Podiums – 102
- Pole Positions – 15
- Fastest Laps – 36
The Living Legend
When Michael Schumacher first burst onto the scene in 1991 with the Jordan team, the young German immediately raised eyebrows within the paddock. Initially signed to replace Bertrand Gachot at the Belgian Grand Prix, Schumacher produced a staggering performance to qualify in P7 on his Formula 1 debut.
Despite being let down by a clutch failure on the opening lap, the future seven-time World Champion had suitably impressed the Benetton management to earn a race seat with the team; in place of Brazilian Roberto Moreno. With natural talent in abundance, the following years would provide the platform upon which the young German would build the most successful career in the history of the sport.
In just his second Formula 1 race – his first for Benetton – Schumacher would finish above his team-mate and three-time World Champion Nelson Piquet in at the Italian Grand Prix. From there, the points, podiums and victories began to build.
Taking his first podium and shortly afterwards first victory in his first full season of Formula 1 – at the 1992 Mexican and Belgian Grand Prix respectively – Schumacher quickly established himself as one of the brightest lights in the sport.
Two years later in 1994, Schumacher would achieve the ultimate goal – the World Driver’s title – after a thrilling year-long battle with Williams driver Damon Hill. The German would clinch the championship by just a single point at season-ending Australian Grand Prix after the pair collided and subsequently retired from the race.
Back-to-back titles were achieved with victory in the 1995 World Championship, with Benetton also clinching its first Constructor’s World title in the process in a year of near total dominance for both team and driver.
This would ultimately signal the end of a successful and historic relationship, as Schumacher departed Benetton for the Ferrari team at the end of the season after four and a half memorable seasons. Below is an outline of the German driver’s career with the team:
- Nationality – German
- D.O.B. – 3rd January 1969
- Debut – 1991 Italian Grand Prix
- Final Race – 1995 Australian Grand Prix
- Race Weekends – 68
- Best Championship Position – P1 (x2)
- Best Result – P1 (x19)
- Best Qualifying – P1 (x10)
Yet More Italians!
Continuing the Toleman tradition, Benetton race seats were filled by no less than five different Italian drivers, adding to the four to have driven under the team’s previous name. Amongst them, one name was already familiar with the Witney outfit – none other than Teo Fabi, one of the most capped drivers of the Toleman era.
Undoubtedly the most successful among the group was Alessandro Nannini, who took one victory and nine podium finishes during his three year stay with the team. Compatriot Emanuele Pirro enjoyed a somewhat more low-key stint with the Benetton family, competing in just ten races for the outfit. Riccardo Patrese by contrast produced a number of strong performances, taking two podiums and a top ten finish in each of his sixteen Grand Prix for the team.
The last of the Italian mob went on to become a well-recognised face around Witney (and later Enstone); that of Giancarlo Fisichella. ‘Fisi’ took seven podium finishes during a four year spell with the team, and would re-join the team later in his career under the rebranded Renault name.
A Merry Band of Brits
Of the three British drivers to have competed under the Benetton banner, all have gone on to be regarded among the most respected figures in world motorsport. Johnny Herbert was first among them the join the ranks in 1989, bringing a total of four podium finishes (including a pair of race wins) during his two stints with the team.
Martin Brundle was next in line; the world-renowned commentator clinching five podiums and finishing in the top five drivers during each of the eleven races in which he finished – a figure which could have been even more impressive had it not been for retirements in the remaining five of his sixteen Grands Prix for Benetton.
Last but by no means least, the 2001 season saw the emergence of another future World Champion among the Enstone masses; that of a very youthful Jenson Button. With regular top ten finishes in his debut season with the team, Button would go on to forge a successful career – including driving for the Benetton team in its rebranded identity as Renault.
A pair of Austrians and a pair of Brazilians also graced the Benetton corridors, with a significant Formula 1 pedigree between them. Austrian driver Gerhard Berger – a true veteran of the sport’s modern era with 210 Grand Prix starts – took in two stints with the team, winning two races (including the team’s maiden victory at the 1986 Mexican Grand Prix) and taking a total of six podium finishes.
Perhaps the most revered name among this select group however, was that of Nelson Piquet. The three-time World Champion’s reputation long preceded him and the Brazilian did not disappoint, taking seven podiums – three race victories among them – and bags of points during his two year stay.
The remaining pair of Alexander Wurz and Roberto Moreno may not have emulated their compatriots success with the team, but the former certainly made an impression during his twenty-five races under the Benetton umbrella. Competing in one full season (1998) and two part seasons (1997 / 1999), Austrian driver Wurz was a regular top ten contender and achieved a solitary podium at the 1997 British Grand Prix. Brazilian born Moreno also saw the top three on a single occasion, and similarly made frequent appearances towards the front of the grid.
The remaining four out of the seventeen drivers to take to the track in a Benetton creation combines a blend of Belgian, French, Dutch and Finnish names to round off the bunch.
Among them, the figure Jean Alesi stands out from the crowd; with an impressive record both at Enstone and elsewhere throughout his long career. In just two seasons with the team, the talented Frenchman took home thirteen pieces of silverware; the most recent of his nation to do so until Lotus F1 Team driver Romain Grosjean finally broke the curse with a P3 finish at the 2012 Bahrain Grand Prix.
Eight more podiums were to be spread between Belgian Thierry Boutsen (six) and Dutchman Jos Verstappen (two) – achieved from thirty-two and ten Grand Prix starts under the Benetton banner respectively.
The final piece in the puzzle took the form of Jyrki Juhani Järvilehto – more commonly known as JJ Lehto. The Finn competed in just six races for the team during the 1994 season, with three top ten finished and three retirements to his name.
On Top of the World
The 1995 Japanese Grand Prix proved to be one of the most memorable moments for the team throughout its thirty two year history. After a season long battle with the Williams team, the Enstone outfit clinched its first Constructor’s World Championship with a race to spare, as Michael Schumacher and Johnny Herbert brought the B195’s home in P1 and P3 respectively to clinch the crown.
Schumacher had already won his and the team’s second successive Driver’s World Championship at the previous round – the Pacific Grand Prix – with the double completed to cap a dominant season for Benetton.
Starting in P1 and P9, the German and the Brit began the race on wet tyres in line with the rest of the grid on a damp afternoon at the Suzuka circuit. Schumacher held onto his lead into the first corner and never looked back. Herbert meanwhile picked his way through a host of off-track excursions from those in front to bring his car home in the final podium slot – gaining six places over the course of the Grand Prix.
Scenes of jubilation from the Benetton team greeted the pair as they returned to Parc Ferme, as the Enstone family celebrated the end of a fifteen year wait for the most prestigious silverware in world motorsport.
- Venue – Suzuka Circuit, Japan
- Weather Conditions – Wet, drying later in the race
- Chassis – Benetton B195
- Engine – Renault RS7
- Drivers – Michael Schumacher (GER), Johnny Herbert (GBR)
- Qualifying – P1 (Schumacher) / P9 (Herbert)
- Result – P1 (Schumacher) / P3 (Herbert)
- Fastest Lap – Schumacher (1:42.976)
The 1994 Australian Grand Prix provided a thrilling climax to the season-long battle between Michael Schumacher and Damon Hill. The pair collided at the Flinders Street corner, forcing both to retire; the German driver subsequently clinching his first Driver’s World title with the Benetton team by a single point.
At the 1986 Mexican Grand Prix, Gerhard Berger drove a superbly controlled race to take the team’s first ever race win by over twenty-five seconds from his nearest rival; reigning champion Alain Prost. With tyre degradation forcing most competitors to pit for fresh rubber, the Austrian managed his Pirelli tyres perfectly to run the entire race without a stop; thereby taking his maiden Grand Prix victory.
The 1995 British Grand Prix saw an emotional Johnny Herbert take the first of his two career wins in Formula 1. The popular British driver has waited for almost six years to break his duck, finally standing on the top step at his home Grand Prix – Silverstone – just a few miles down the road from Benetton’s Enstone base.
As brilliant as it was poignant, the 1997 German Grand Prix at the Hockenheimring saw the final pole position, fastest lap and race win for Gerhard Berger before his retiring at the end of the season. The race was the first time Berger had sat in the car since the death of his father; his domination of the event a fitting tribute with which to sign off his final year in the sport.
Jos Verstappen’s race came to an abrupt and somewhat heated end at the 1994 German Grand Prix after the Dutchman’s B194 became engulfed in flames following a fuel spillage during a routine pit stop. A failed valve on the re-fuelling gun caused the liquid to ignite on the glowing hot right-rear brake disk creating a fire ball around both driver and pit crew – including current Race Team Manager Paul Seaby, who ranked among the mechanics at the time.
An ambitious move from Jean Alesi during the 1997 Austrian Grand Prix saw the Frenchman’s car flung high into the air after a collision with Eddie Irvine’s Ferrari as he attempted a bold move from more than eight car lengths behind. Both drivers would go on to finish the race despite the jaw dropping experience.
One year later, and this time it would be Alexander Wurz’s turn to take to the sky at the 1998 Canadian Grand Prix. Outbraking himself into the first turn at the Montreal circuit, the Austrian driver rattled over the kerb and into Jean Alesi’s front left wheel, pitching his Benetton up and over the field into the gravel. Needless to say, the Grand Prix was halted and Wurz’s race ended in spectacular fashion.
This time we’re at the 1998 Monaco Grand Prix, and Alexander Wurz is at it again; piling his B198 into the Armco barrier through the infamous Monaco tunnel. Emerging shortly afterwards, the Austrian was still sawing away at the steering wheel despite having left both front rims back in the tunnel!