Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Saturday, March 9, 1996

Schumacher and Alesi Rev Their Engines

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
For Michael Schumacher and Jean Alesi, the start of the Formula One season on Sunday at the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne will be a moment of truth.

Schumacher dominated the last two seasons in a Benetton, then joined Ferrari in the off-season. Alesi, the driver he displaced at Ferrari, then took Schumacher's old job at Benetton.

Ferrari has not won a constructors' title since 1983, or a drivers' title since 1979. Some say that if Schumacher cannot carry Ferrari to victory, then the parent company, Fiat, might close the team.And if Schumacher loses, it might seem that his two titles were entirely due to the Benetton cars.

Benetton's managing director, Flavio Briatore, is trying to prove his team did not win just because of Schumacher. He is also trying to steal the hearts of the Italian ''tifosi,'' or fans, from Ferrari, and recently changed Benetton's registration from English to Italian.

Alesi has been an eternal hopeful since he started in Formula One in 1989. He joined Ferrari in 1991 when the team was entering one of the blackest periods in its history. His first, and only, victory did not come until the Canadian Grand Prix last June, on his 31st birthday, and in his 91st Formula One race.

Now that Alesi has the world championship-winning car, he has no more excuses. In a recent interview he said the pressure didn't hurt. ''The more pressure I have, the more motivated I am,'' he said. ''And in any case, it's better to be in the position of inheriting a car that can win races, than the reverse.''

But he has many demons to face after a disastrous five years with Ferrari. Among them is the reputation of being fast, but useless at setting up a car.

''It has been fabulous to have this change of team now,'' he said. ''When the engineers here saw me at work this winter, they were astonished.''

He rejects the notion that he is not good at tuning up a car: ''If you haven't set it up well, you'll have deterioration of tires, of the brakes, of whatever, and you won't have a good rhythm throughout the race. I've always had a very high rhythm throughout a race.''

He said he felt personally attached to Ferrari. ''It's true that I had a lot of sentimental feelings for Ferrari it's the history of it, the country where it is. And because I'm of Italian origin, it represented something really extraordinary for me. But towards the end, they sort of broke the Italian spirit of it all.''

Both Alesi's parents were born in Sicily. He was born in France, and grew up in Avignon. While Alesi has often led races, the big problemwas that the Ferrari just kept breaking down.

''In order to have a maximum number of points, you have to always arrive at the finish line,'' he said. ''The teams these days are working mostly for achieving reliability first, and only after that for performance.''

Benetton has been one of the most reliable cars, and this was one of the reasons he signed with them. He was also offered Schumacher's entire technical staff.

What he was not offered was the $25 million salary Schumacher received from Ferrari. But, he says, he is ''not out in the streets. At Benetton, it's the best contract I've had since I've been in Formula One.''

But he thinks about other things he risks losing from Ferrari. He had an excellent relationship with the Italian press, and the tifosi. Asked which would be the most important race to win now, the Italian or the French Grand Prix, he said, ''What will be wonderful is that in both cases, if I win the Grand Prix, there will be the Marseillaise and there will also be the Italian anthem.''

Should Alesi turn out to be the big winner, and not the big loser, he already knows what he will say after his first victory with Benetton: ''Benetton? It's what makes it now possible for Jean Alesi to win races. Benetton to me means victory, that's all.''

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