NEWS FEATURE

1995 Formula 1 Review

Grand Prix racing in 1995 was dominated by Michael Schumacher and the Benetton-Renault team. The German won his second straight championship and the team won its first Constructors' title. The remarkable thing about this is that the Benetton-Renault B195 was probably not the best car. Everyone seems to agree that the Williams-Renault FW17 was the better car and that it was Schumacher who made the difference.

There is some validity in that argument - infuriated Williams engineers screaming abuse at drivers would seem to back up this point - because Michael seemed to be totally at ease with the car and the team. With Renault V10s - the best engines in F1 - in the back of his car, he was clearly on to a good thing because his only real season-long rivals were the Williams boys. It was only towards the end of the year that the Ferraris began to get close.

Schumacher produced some really magnificent drives, none better than his astonishing win at the Nurburgring. The triumph at Aida was also remarkable. These showed very real class and mastery of an F1 car. They showed a man who is capable of running at full-tilt, 100% of the time, without making mistakes. We did see mistakes earlier in the season but you could see Michael learning as he went along. A great deal of this is down to the German's self-belief and inate confidence - an element in a racing driver which is so vital for success. Here was a man at ease with his environment, capable of giving everything safe in the knowledge that everything was focussed on him.

Hopefully Michael will have enjoyed it because it does not get much better than that. Life at Ferrari will be very different - one way or another.

To my mind, however, there is far too much in the way of historical comparison going on at the moment. Sure, he is a great driver and has won two World Championships back-to-back. Jack Brabham did that and you don't often hear people comparing Sir Jack with Juan-Manuel Fangio or Ayrton Senna.

We have yet to see Schumacher when the going gets tough. It is only at such times that one sees the really great champions. So far Michael has had it all his own way at Benetton. His team mates have been sacrificed on his altar. There is no question that the team did everything he wanted and other inputs were excluded.

Let us not forget also that Schumacher is the man who tried to gain an unfair advantage at the pre-season weigh-in at the start of the year. He was caught by the FIA and tried - in absurd fashion - to justify an impossible weight loss by talking about special training programmes. That unimportant episode did him more damage than anything in 1995. Let us also not forget his behavior whenever Damon Hill appeared in his mirrors - notably at Spa and Silverstone - where he seemed to be intent on intimidating Hill in the most ruthless fashion. Damon stood firm at Silverstone and the pair collided. Michael did not like finding someone with the mental strength that Damon exhibited on that and other occasions.

When Damon gave Michael some of his own medicine at Aida, the German was upset but pretended for the cameras that he was not bothered - and that highlighted the Schumacher that people in the business of F1 do not like. One never knows what is for the cameras and what is the reality. You can say that the character of a sportsman is not important so long as he performs and I agree with that, but that does not mean that we spectators have to like it.

Part of Schumacher's success was due to Hill's failure to make the most of his equipment. Damon is his own worst critic and he knows that he could have done better. When he screwed up - and he did too often - he was often angry but the anger was at himself. Damon is very different to Schumacher in that he is a lot older and struggled a lot more to make it to F1. This - and his background, of course, have made him a very tough nut to crack. He is shy but is an immensely likeable man and at Silverstone and Spa he tried to avoid overt unpleasantness with Schumacher because he felt he would rather be remembered by posterity as a sportsman, rather than a bad sport willing to do anything to win. This kind of intelligence helped him a great deal under the pressure which came when was being intimidated and verbally abused by Schumacher and when the British press joined the attack against him. Damon also coped very well with having David Coulthard alongside him. He made David work to beat him. The thing which is most remarkable about Hill is that he has the ability to continue to develop and surprise. Perhaps there was not enough progress made in 1995. We will see in 1996 if Damon has the necessary to become a World Champion. And it is a brave man who bets against him.

F1 people have notoriously short memories. At the mid-season most people had written off David Coulthard's career. he couldn't even beat Damon Hill, they said. And then everything clicked for David and away he went. He was way ahead when he retired at Spa and in Italy and then he won in Portugal. He screwed up badly at the Nurburgring and in Adelaide and should have done better than he did at Aida but by the end of the year he was a rising star once again and his disappointing mid-season was forgotten.

One needs to take a step back and remember that David has only just finished his first full season in F1. He is in a similar situation to Schumacher at the end of 1992. Perhaps he has made more obvious mistakes, but he is unlikely to make them again.

The most interesting thing about his season is that as soon as hee knew his future - that he was not staying at Williams - he was a different man. He threw caution to the wind. You can say that he suffered from throat problems or that he had more than his fair share of mechanical failures, but to me it indicates a man feeling the pressure in a team which has always had an odd management style. Some drivers react well to it, some do not. Coulthard will be a much better McLaren man - as long as the team can give him a competitive car...

Johnny Herbert finished fourth in the World Championship and won two races. One should be pretty impressed by that. The fact is that Johnny has suffered from being unable to match Michael Schumacher. This is not really a fair comparison as Johnny got almost no help from the team management. He stayed quiet and said all the right things - even when the team was trying to get him out of the car (which would have happened after Silverstone if he had not won the race). It was only after the team announced that he was out in the cold in 1996 that Johnny began to point out that the playing field had been anything but flat.

In the circumstances I think Johnny did a good job. He had the mental strength to survive, where others have fallen apart. Now he needs to show everyone that he is as quick or quicker than Heinz-Harald Frentzen at Sauber and thus underline the extent to which Benetton was Schumacher's team.

Johnny might question the wisdom of why he signed for Benetton in the first place, but the fact remains that had he signed for anyone else at the end of 1994 the two wins that are now in the history books would probably have never happened.

Team loyalty is a rare thing in F1 these days and the Ferrari management showed that it is not a concept they understand very well. After five struggling years Jean Alesi found himself rewarded - just as the team appears to be beginning to come good - by being offered the chance to be number two to Schumacher. He thought this rather less than respectful and when Flavio Briatore of Benetton blew warm air into his ear he signed for the World Championship-winning team. It will be interesting to see how he does. Gerhard Berger took a similar course of action ending his second three-year stint with Ferrari. Neither driver was happy that their hard work will be rewarding Schumacher.

Gerhard and Jean have worked together for the last three years and it seems to work well. People say that Jean is not good at technical feedback - this upsets him - because he reckons that he has now learned his trade. His victory in Montreal was a fluke but there were other races which he should have won had his car not broken down beneath him. We will see if he can develop into a regular winner.

That is a status which Berger has been trying to achieve for years. He always drives a car to its limits and over the years he has collected nine victories - but has never won more than two in the same year. He is now the senior citizen of F1, which is hard to believe as the joker still lurks within him. He is, in fact, just what the sport needs because too many of the younger generation are colorless and seem to lack the essential devil-may-care attitude which used to be the norm in F1.

Mika Hakkinen has always been one of the few youngsters with a ready smile and a joke, but in 1995 even he was strained and frustrated by the shenanigans at McLaren. He tested and tested but there seemed to be little that he could do to solve the problems. His second places at Monza and Suzuka showed that the car only worked on certain kinds of circuit. The team concluded that the problem was not one of design but rather of engineering. This is odd.

Since Hakkinen's accident McLaren has been saying that Mika is fine and will be racing in 1996. No problem. Doctors in Adelaide say that it is not quite that simple. This is odd.

We observers are often told that we don't know what we are talking about - particularly by smug McLaren people - so we can only presume that the team understands what is going on.

If McLaren's behavior is mystifying, so too is the fact that no-one ever gets excited about Olivier Panis. And yet in the World Championship Olivier was eighth - ahead of sensation of the moment Heinz-Harald Frentzen. Last year Olivier was 11th. He could have done better with the Ligier. He had a few too many accidents and so on, but he is still there - eighth in the World Championship. You can say it was luck that he did it, but you make your own luck. Olivier's misfortune is that doesn't speak English well enough to sell himself to a better team. If he doesn't learn soon he will blight his career.

The sensation Frentzen did do a good job in 1995. He is, however, somewhat difficult to assess as a driver because we have not seen him in anything other than a Sauber. He is obviously very quick but his true worth as an F1 star will only become clear when he joins a big team - or leads Sauber to victory (which seems a rather unlikely eventuality).

Mark Blundell ended the year tenth in the World Championship, having been shipped in at McLaren when the Mansell bubble burst. Mark did a workmanlike job, which was probably better than most people appreciate as Hakkinen was the man on whom the team concentrated. Mark was made to look a little ordinary when test driver Jan Magnussen popped up in Aida (Hakkinen had appendicitis). Unable to find a drive in 1996, Mark will probably wait to see what happens with Hakkinen.

The Jordan boys - Rubens Barrichello and Eddie Irvine - finished the year 11th and 12th in the World Championship after a frustrating time. Expectations were far too high and the Jordan-Peugeot (notably the latter parts) kept going wrong. Irvine was the quicker qualifier and Barrichello the better racer but until Eddie was signed by Ferrari no-one was really paying them much attention.

Barrichello suffers from having arrived in F1 too young and seems to have been around a long time. A few good results will reveal a quirky personality. Irvine started out quirky and has become rather too much of a smart-arse for many tastes. He does a passing impersonation of someone who really doesn't give a damn about anything. The self-belief is a little exaggerated when to the results but there is talent here, and there is also a strength of character which is essential in a top driver. We shall have to wait and see how Eddie does against Schumacher - but there are some who feel that he will impress. Other say he will fall apart.

Eddie's replacement at Jordan, Martin Brundle, is completely the opposite. He is as solid and stable as a slab of Christmas pudding with experience dating back to 1984. Offered the chance to drive for Jordan, Martin did what he had to do and walked out on his longtime employer (and fellow car dealer) Tom Walkinshaw. Tom didn't like it but he, more than anyone in F1, understands that business is business.

Business is what screwed Gianni Morbidelli. He is a fine driver but not quite outstanding enough for a top team to consider. He is hopeless at raising money. Given him the right machine and he could fly but if that doesn't happen soon he will go off the boil as they all do in such circumstances. A great waste.

You could use a similar description for Tyrrell's Mika Salo. The Finn would have been very impressive this year if the car hadn't been such an awful handful. He collected points by finishing races but the 023 completely masked his skills. If the 024 is any good, watch out for him. His rocket ship will take off again...

In a world where you are only as good as your last result Jean-Christophe Boullion's career looks as though it is on the rocks. He replaced Karl Wendlinger at Sauber and after flattering with a good performance at Monaco, never really did much except pick up points when others failed. He was dropped before the end of the year. As Williams test driver Boullion was as quick as Hill and Coulthard and you could argue that it was not in Peter Sauber's interest to let Williams see how close to Frentzen Boullion could get...

One man who was written off in F1 but made something of comeback in 1995 was Portugal's Pedro Lamy, who smashed his legs in a nasty testing shunt with Lotus at Silverstone in 1994. Lamy came back driving well, at least well enough to show Luca Badoer the way around on occasion. Badoer is no fool but Pedro needs a better car than a Minardi to show what potential he has.

The final points scorer of the year was Aguri Suzuki who had the miserable task of sharing his drive with Martin Brundle. This meant that neither could do the job properly and Aguri had less success because he is both not as quick as Martin and had less time in the car. Consequently Aguri shunted a lot, notably at Suzuka, and is expected to retire from F1.

The other Japanese "star" of the moment, Ukyo Katayama, did not star at all in 1995. In fact Ukyo was a big disappointment and never came to terms with being outpaced by Salo. Ukyo went off far too many times for a man of his experience and was lucky not to hurt himself seriously at Estoril. That crash put him out of action for a race and he was replaced by Gabriele Tarquini, a great talent who has lost his edge with the passage of time and too much touring car racing.

McLaren's non-scorers were Nigel Mansell and Jan Magnussen. The relationship between McLaren and Mansell was absurd before it ever began. It was never going to work and whoever thought it up deserves to be fired. Egos like Mansell and Ron Dennis do not complement one another. It is like mixing weed killer and sugar and expecting grass to grow. Silly. Magnussen did well but needs more races to be properly judged.

Footwork employed Max Papis and Taki Inoue in addition to GIanni Morbidelli. Papis is a lovely man but not one with the talent of a Schumacher. The team needed money and ditched Morbidelli in exchange for papis. It was the wrong move for both parties: Max needed a more gentle entry into F1. The only thing he gained before Morbidelli was put back in was a lighter wallet.

This was nothing compared to the lightening programme that went on in relation to the wallet of Takichiho Inoue. Hopelessly out of his league in F1, Inoue should never have been granted a superlicence. Apparently, however, there are some things which money can buy you. Talent is not one of them.

Jos Verstappen and Domenico schiatarella wasted their time with Simtek in the early races. The car - which seemed quite good - seldom ran without problems and then the money ran out and the team shut down.

Pacific took a little longer to close down but it was something of a hopeless case from the start once it was clear that the PR02 was not a great car. The engineers said they could not do better for the money available and that basically said it all. Bertrand Gachot tried to drive the car for the first half of the year, realized that it was a waste of time and - being a partner in the team - stood down to let Giovanni Lavaggi and Jean-Denis Deletraz waste their money. In fact Deletraz doesn't appear to have come up with his because he was unceremoniously removed from the car - not before time - and Gachot climbed back onboard for the last three races.

Andrea Montermini stayed in the other Pacific all season and showed that he has some pace despite the fact that he is rarely able to deliver any money.

Not so Pedro Diniz, who is a bit better than Inoue when it comes to talent, but is in the same league when it come to loot. Pedro was driving a dog of a car and so some of lack of speed is understandable - Roberto Moreno didn't make the Forti go any quicker. Roberto should not have been driving for Forti. It was rather sad.

Pierluigi Martini's career has similarly slipped away without him noticing. He continued his seemingly endless relationship with Minardi, finishing seventh here and there, and was then booted out of the way when Lamy arrived with much-needed loot. Lamy didn't much better than Pierluigi but fate dictated that Pedro scored a point in Adelaide.

Luca Badoer continued to show that he is quite quick - but not as quick as Italians will tell you - and that he has big accidents. He had several nasty ones at Monza... all in the same weekend.

Karl Wendlinger's comeback with Sauber was another sorry affair but you could not fault the team for trying to stand behind its old driver. Karl has lost the edge - not much, but enough - since his Monaco accident last year and there was no hiding the fact. These things happen. F1 is like that. It's hard and it ain't fair.

Ask any driver. They will all tell you the same thing. Unless they are winning. In this case they will insist that it is all down to skill and daring - and has nothing to do with the machinery or the money.

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