JANUARY 1, 1996
No news is big news!
FORMULA 1 racing is a world in which it is big news if there is no news. Traditionally, however, the week between Christmas and the New Year is a slow time for news because F1 people take a few days off. But, even if the newsmakers are low profile, there is still work going on at all the F1 team factories as the production teams - the forgotten battalions of Grand Prix racing - go through their busiest part of the year.
Normally we concentrate on bringing you the news - without much in the way of opinions - but as a special annual feature in the first issue of each new year we will give you a very subjective opinion of the characters involved in F1 and how they did in 1995.
The irony of the 1995 Formula 1 season is that, in a sport which is often dictated by the quality of machinery, it was not the best car which won. From the start of the year it was clear that the Renault V10 was by far the best engine and so the contest was a straight fight between the two Renault-supplied teams: Benetton and Williams. The Benetton was a good car, but the Williams was better. At the end of the year both Frank Williams and Patrick Head - the team principals of Williams - knew that it was Michael Schumacher who had made the difference.
Michael performed spectacularly well - particularly when one considers that he was only 26 years old - winning nine times out of 17. Michael seemed to be totally at ease with his car. Much of this is due to his extraordinary self-confidence. This can make him seem unpleasantly arrogant, but it is a vital ingredient for success in F1. No one ever said that sports stars had to be nice guys as well. Schumacher does a good impersonation of a nice guy, but let us not forget how he 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 - absurdly - to justify an impossible weight loss by talking of special training programs.
Let us also not forget his behavior whenever Damon Hill appeared in his mirrors - notably at Spa and Silverstone - where the German seemed intent on intimidating Damon in ruthless fashion. Hill stood firm at Silverstone and the pair collided. When Damon gave Michael some of his own medicine at Aida, the German was upset. He pretended for the TV cameras that he was not bothered, but he was annoyed. This highlighted the Schumacher that people in F1 do not like.
These criticisms aside, Schumacher's driving was magnificent, nowhere better than at the Nurburgring where he drove an astonishing race. His triumph at Aida was also remarkable. These performances showed a man who is capable of running at full-tilt, 100% of the time, without making mistakes. We did see mistakes early in the year; Michael was learning as he went along.
But this does not mean that one can place him in any historical context - and there is too much of that going on at the moment. He is a great driver and has won two World Championships back-to-back - but Jack Brabham did that as well, and one does not hear him being compared to the all-time greats. 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. Life at Ferrari will be different.
Some of Schumacher's success can be blamed on the failure of others. You can forgive Johnny Herbert a little because the Benetton team was doing very little to help him. You can forgive David Coulthard a little because of his lack of experience. Forgiving Damon Hill is more difficult.
Because he is older, people tend to feel that Damon has done a lot of Grands Prix. He has not. He has competed in only 51 and he has won 13 of them. Schumacher has won 19 of his 69. Hill has a 25% success rate and Schumacher a 27% rate.
The other thing one must say is that Williams has a style of driver management which only works with certain people. They throw drivers up against one another rather than nurturing them and making them feel wanted. With a driver like Alan Jones or Keke Rosberg this worked well, but more complicated characters like Carlos Reutemann and Hill perhaps need a gentler style.
The Williams team bosses, however, are not likely to change their ways, and so Hill must either change himself or change teams if he wants more support. Damon is his own worst critic. He knows that he could have done better in 1995, and that he screwed up too often. He is, nonetheless, a hard nut to crack. His age and his struggle to get into F1 have made him mentally strong. He came under extreme pressure when Schumacher was both pulling away in the championship and trying to intimidate him, Coulthard was getting faster. The British national press joined the attack against Hill, but he kept his cool.
He avoided saying what he wanted to say about 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. That kind of maturity and that toughness may be weapons which will help Damon win the World Championship in the future. The most remarkable thing about Hill is that - rather like his father - he has the ability to continually develop his skill and surprise his critics. Perhaps there was not enough progress in 1995, but we may see a much stronger Hill in 1996.
David Coulthard had a season which was typical of a fast youngster with a lot to learn. At the mid-season F1 people had written him off - they have very short memories in Grand Prix racing - and then everything clicked and away he went. He was way ahead when he retired at Spa and in Italy, and then he won in Portugal. He made mistakes at the Nurburgring and in Adelaide, but still emerged as a champion in the making. David says that throat problems early in the year and mechanical trouble knocked his confidence, but it is interesting that the sudden change in performance came when David knew his future. The pressure was off. The implication is that he too was not well-suited to the Williams management style. He will be a much better McLaren man - as long as the team can give him a competitive car.
One can be equally critical of the Benetton style of management of Herbert. Johnny finished fourth in the World Championship and won two races, and he did so with no psychological support from the team. Johnny said all the right things - even when the team was trying to fire him (which would have happened after Silverstone if he had not won the race), and it was only after he was dropped for 1996 that he felt the need to point out that the comparison with Schumacher was an unfair one. You only had to watch the difference between the two Benettons on the track to know that Johnny was not happy with the car. He could not take it to the limit for fear of having an accident and being fired by the team as a result.
In the circumstances Johnny did a good job. He had the mental strength to survive, where others have fallen apart. What he needs in 1996 is the chance to show that he is as quick or quicker than Heinz-Harald Frentzen at Sauber. That will highlight just how much of a psychological advantage Schumacher enjoyed.
Loyalty is a rare commodity in F1, as both Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger will attest. The pair have spent the last three years together at Ferrari gradually dragging the team forwards. The aim was for a competitive 1996. But, as things came together, Ferrari signed Schumacher and offered Jean and Gerhard the second seat. Neither wanted it and both jumped ship to Benetton. The two work together well when they have equal equipment, but it will be interesting to see how Benetton handles them. Alesi begins the year with Schumacher's team of engineers around him. Good engineers become quickly frustrated if they have worked with the best and find themselves working without good feedback. Critics say Alesi is anything but technical. This upsets Jean. This year we will discover - finally - whether Alesi can develop into a regular winner.
Berger has been trying to do that for years and has collected nine victories - although never more than two in the same year. His happy-go-lucky approach will appeal to the Benetton team and may swing it behind him. Having said that, testing so far has seen Gerhard do serious damage to three B195s - which is not a great way to win popularity. We will have to wait to see if the B196 suits Berger's driving style to know whether the relationship will be a success.
Berger is now the senior citizen of F1, which is hard to believe as the joker still lurks within him. He is just what the sport needs because too many of the younger generation are colorless.
Mika Hakkinen was always one of the more relaxed youngsters, but in 1995 even he was strained 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 circuits. The team concluded that the problem was not one of design but rather of engineering. This was odd.
Since Mika's accident, McLaren has been saying that he is fine and will be racing in 1996. The doctors say it is not quite that simple. This is odd.
If McLaren's behavior is mystifying, so too is the fact that no-one ever gets excited about Olivier Panis. In the World Championship standings Olivier was eighth - ahead of sensation of the moment Heinz-Harald Frentzen. The pair have done virtually the same number of races. Olivier could have done better with the Ligier. He had too many accidents. You can say it was luck that he was eighth, but luck is a vital ingredient in F1. One must conclude that Olivier's problem is that he doesn't speak English well enough to sell himself to a better team. That will ruin his career if it goes on much longer.
Frentzen did drive extraordinarily well in 1995, but it is difficult to know whether the Sauber was any worse than the Ligier. Heinz-Harald is obviously very quick, but his true worth as an F1 star will only become clear when he joins a big team.
Tenth in the World Championship was Mark Blundell - who started the year without a drive. He was shipped in at McLaren after the fiasco with Nigel Mansell and did a workmanlike job. He was made to look a little ordinary when test driver Jan Magnussen popped up in Aida (Hakkinen had appendicitis). Mark does not have a drive in 1996.
The Jordan boys - Rubens Barrichello and Eddie Irvine - finished the year a frustrated 11th and 12th in the World Championship. Expectations for Jordan-Peugeot were far too high. The engines were not reliable. Irvine was the quicker qualifier of the Jordan boys, but Barrichello the better racer. Rubens suffers from having arrived in F1 too young and he seems to have been around a long time. He also appears to be a rather somber soul, although a few good results will reveal that he has a rather quirky personality.
Irvine started out in F1 old and quirky, and has become rather too pleased with himself for many tastes. His self-belief is that of a champion, but the results do not yet warrant it. There is, however, talent there and also strength of character from a tough early career. We will see if this can protect him against Schumacher in 1996.
Eddie's replacement at Jordan, Martin Brundle, is not at all like his predecessor. Martin is a solid performer with F1 experience dating back to 1984. He drove selected races for Ligier and did well. Offered the chance to drive for Jordan, Martin did what he had to do and walked out on Ligier and his longtime employer Tom Walkinshaw. That is a good sign. Martin is still hungry for success. Friendship did not stand in the way of business.
Business is what screwed Gianni Morbidelli. He is a fine driver, but not outstanding enough to be an obvious choice for a top team. He is hopeless at raising money. A great waste.
You could use a similar description for Tyrrell's Mika Salo. The Finn impressed in the Tyrrell 023, and might really have made an impact if the car had not been awful. If the 024 is any good, watch out for him.
As the Williams test driver, Jean-Christophe Boullion was as quick as Hill and Coulthard, but after he replaced Karl Wendlinger at Sauber he never achieved a great deal. Jumping from a good car to a bad car when you have little F1 experience will not have helped. In a world where you are only as good as your last result, Boullion's future looks decidedly rocky.
One man who was written off by F1 was Portugal's Pedro Lamy. He smashed his legs in a nasty testing accident with Lotus at Silverstone in 1994, but this year came back with Minardi and did well enough to show Luca Badoer the way around on occasion and he scored Minardi's only point of the year in Adelaide.
Aguri Suzuki was the only other man who scored a point in 1995, and he has had a lot of chances over the years. This year was pretty miserable, having to share his Ligier drive with Martin Brundle. Aguri had less success because he is not as quick as Martin and had less time in the car. As a result he had a lot of crashes, notably at Suzuka, and is expected to retire from F1.
The other Japanese "star", Ukyo Katayama, did not star at all in 1995. Ukyo was a big disappointment and never came to terms with being outpaced by Salo. He went off too many times for a man of his experience (61 Grands Prix), 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.
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 from whatever job he holds. Egos like Mansell and Ron Dennis do not complement one another. It is like mixing weed killer and sugar and expecting grass to grow.
Magnussen did well at Aida, but needs more races to be properly judged.
Footwork employed Max Papis and Taki Inoue in addition to Morbidelli. Papis is not a man with the talent of Schumacher but he is not a complete idiot in a racing car. The team needed his money, and so ditched Morbidelli and took Max. It was the wrong move for both parties.
Inoue was out of his league in F1 and should never have been granted a superlicence. He showed that in the wrong hands $10 million will buy you nothing in Grand Prix racing except a bad reputation.
Jos Verstappen and Domenico Schiatarella wasted their time with Simtek before the team closed down with financial problems. The car - which seemed quite good - seldom ran without problems.
Pacific achieved more in that the team survived the full year, but achieved less in terms of performance. From the start it was clear that the PR02 was not a great car. The engineers said they could not do better for the money available. That said it all.
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. Bertrand Gachot - a partner in the team - drove the car until money ran short, and then let Giovanni Lavaggi and Jean-Denis Deletraz waste their money.
Pedro Diniz made Lavaggi and Deletraz look like amateurs when it came to throwing money away. The Forti was a fearful pile of junk and not even Roberto Moreno could make it go quickly. Diniz has some talent, but it will be his money which wins him a Ligier seat in 1996. Moreno should not have been driving for Forti. It was sad to watch.
Pierluigi Martini is in danger of slipping to similar depths. He continued his seemingly endless relationship with Minardi - his non-English-speaking status having ruined his career in the late 1980s. He finished seventh here and there, and was then booted out of the way when Lamy arrived with money.
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 alone.
Karl Wendlinger's comeback with Sauber was a sad affair. You could not fault the team for giving its old driver a chance, but Karl, who once rivaled Schumacher on a regular basis, had lost a little of his edge since his Monaco accident in 1994.
One can always be harsh, but one cannot escape the fact that the difference between the best and the rest in F1 is a matter of a few tenths of a second. The rest is down to being in the right car at the right time...
|Print News Story|