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Berger signs for Benetton

GERHARD BERGER has never been very predictable when it comes to signing contracts and last week the Austrian caught Formula 1 - and not least Ferrari - on the hop, when he announced that he has signed to drive for Benetton for 1996 and 1997.

Berger had been expected to stay at Ferrari - alongside Michael Schumacher - but he decided to take a sizable drop in income to get away from Schumacher and into a competitive car. Ferrari was hoping to convince Berger that he would be given the same machinery as the German, but he decided that with Schumacher being paid $25 million next year Ferrari cannot afford to have him beaten by a teammate.

The switch to Benetton is a risk for Berger because the team has not been able to run two competitive cars in the last three years, concentrating all their efforts on Schumacher. The arrival of Berger will help the team's engineers to develop the cars, which was a worry for Benetton because Jean Alesi - who signed to be Benetton's number one - has never been known for his technical abilities. Berger appears not to be bothered that Alesi is nominally number one.

Berger's departure was not expected, because after working for three years to make the Ferrari team more competitive, Gerhard was expected to stay to reap the rewards for his hard work. Berger's relationship with Schumacher seems to have been the crucial point in Gerhard's decision. The two have never been close and in April this year were involved in a bitter war of words during which Berger accused Schumacher of being " an insensitive egoist", "a clown" and "a liar". Schumacher replied that Berger was more talented as a PR man than as a driver.

The public feud came to an end when Berger privately told Schumacher that he had a lot more to lose if he wanted the fight to get nasty. Michael backed off.

More recently, after Ferrari signed Schumacher, Berger criticized the German for killing the competition by insisting on being "the privileged driver in a team."

Berger's decision seems to have taken Ferrari boss Jean Todt by surprise, and there is no doubt that it is a setback for the famous Italian team which was hoping to use Berger to maintain continuity of development.

"It was not an easy decision to make," said Berger, "but Benetton offered me the most competitive package - which I believe will allow me to win races next season."

It will Gerhard's second stint with Benetton, having driven for the team in 1986 - before the present management was in place. It was Berger who scored Benetton's first F1 win in Mexico City that year.

The announcement is bad - but not unexpected - news for Benetton's current number two Johnny Herbert; although it was rather unpleasant that Herbert should hear of Berger's signing by accident, when he telephoned the factory.

"It was a bit of a shock," said Johnny, "but there is no bitterness. I have enjoyed my time there. It was a little bit frustrating with the way Michael works, but I expected that when I went there."

It is also bad news for German Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Rubens Barrichello both of whom had plans to become Benetton drivers. Frentzen is now stuck at Sauber - or perhaps he could move to Jordan - as he is virtually certain not to go to Ferrari alongside Schumacher. Frentzen's chances at Jordan would seem to depend on whether Barrichello finds a ride at Ferrari.