Australian GP 1996

Australian GP, 1996

IT was strange to come to Australia for a second consecutive race. And yet, four months after we left Adelaide, we were back in Oz, in a park in Melbourne looking across at the same grandstands we last saw four months ago in Adelaide. After the race in Adelaide they were taken down and packed, along with pedestrian bridges and concrete barriers, and hauled all the 450 miles up the Western Highway - in 70 truckloads - to Melbourne. Albert Park was formerly a swamp and rubbish dump, public park, home of the Australian Grand Prix in the 1950s and battlefield of the shrub-cuddling eco-loonies against corporate Australia. Corporate Australia won and the resulting race track was brilliant, setting new standards for temporary facilities. The whingeing of a handful of defeated protesters may have grabbed headlines, but the fact was that most of the people in Melbourne were delighted and excited about taking the race away from Adelaide. To the average man on the street the protesters were "blue-rinse boofheads who had jeffed". For the visiting internationals, used to a variety of languages and cultures, Australia provides unusual problems: understanding the local jargon is not easy. Despite this, most people in F1 seem to like Australia - apart from a few French who want to use the country as a nuclear testing zone. This is largely due to all the fun we had in Adelaide.

Melbourne was always going to be a bit different because the city is three times the size of Adelaide - and full of Greeks. Funnily enough this was not the most notable change. Adelaide was always an end of season race and so the F1 circus arrived a little more relaxed than at any other race. End of term has always been like that. The Adelaide tradition was for everyone to go on holiday before or after the event and so - although on occasion there were championships to be settled and such things - the race was always less stressful than most.

The start of a new year means that things were very different in Melbourne. There was no time for holidays. Cars were new, parts short, teams scrabbling. There were fears that the new packages might not work. Testing can tell you a lot but it doesn't always tell the truth. The McLaren, Jordan and Tyrrell testing times at Estoril in the months leading up to the new season certainly seemed to be flattering the teams in question. The first race of the year is where, in old motor racing parlance, "the bullshit stops".

You can argue that no single race meeting is ever really significant enough for one to be able to say with any confidence that here is the pattern for the year ahead - but there is at least some indication. Bad cars do not become good cars, they merely become less bad.

After qualifying in Melbourne one might have said that McLaren was off the pace or that Benetton was struggling to be competitive. That was the way it looked in the opening sessions in Melbourne, but will that be the pattern of the year? Who can say? A team like McLaren has a vast budget so it can test, develop and improve and thus overhaul smaller teams with less money which are currently rather embarrassing to Ron Dennis and his men. If the little guys like Tyrrell and Arrows can turn their obvious promise into more sponsorship they can up their pace. Everyone is running just to stand still and the big boys have the advantage.

Thus it was not really surprising that Williams should emerge after three days of practice - but only one hour of qualifying - with Jacques Villeneuve alongside Damon Hill.

Jacques was mightily impressive right from the start. The young French-Canadian did everything right. He arrived in Australia with 9000 kilometres of testing behind him. In truth there was no pressure on him as he had nothing to lose. Expectations were not high, despite the fact that Jacques came to F1 from an Indycar title and an Indianapolis 500 win. The general feeling had been that it would take Jacques some time to be able to match Damon Hill lap for lap. It did not. And having been up with Damon throughout practice he took pole position with a late-session burst in qualifying - there is only one official session these days. With pole in his grasp young Jacques celebrated - by accident - with his first real spin of the weekend, coming to a smoky stop outside the Redhead nightclub at Turn 4.

He came happily back to the pits to be buried in a media scrum. This was news: a new boy was on pole position in his first race. This had not happened since Carlos Reutemann did it in 1972 - when Jacques was nine months old.

As with Reutemann all those years ago, F1 was surprised and impressed. If the truth be told so was Jacques.

"I didn't expect to be up there," he said flawlessly in three languages (English, French and Italian), "but after the laps on Thursday, Friday and this morning we knew we could make it. So with my engineers and the rest of the guys we worked to be sure to get it. I am very satisfied."

Jacques's lap was just a tenth faster than Damon Hill's best and the World Championship favourite said he wasn't surprised.

"I've been watching Jacques in testing and he's obviously pretty competent in his job. I'd love to have had pole position but he's done a terrific job. I really thought I had pole."

But Damon was none too worried by it all because it was quite clear that the Williams-Renault FW18 is comfortably ahead of the opposition. Villeneuve's best lap was half a second clear of the first of the Ferraris; but perhaps more significantly they were one and a half seconds ahead of the rest of the gang who were grouped tightly, 12 drivers covered by 1.8secs.

This was a pretty significant gap and one which suggests that the title fight is more likely to be between Hill and Villeneuve than anyone else. With Williams's reliability already looking very good - and some of the other teams looking decidely ropey - one has to say that this is going to be a year for Williams-Renault to add a significant number of wins to its current 83 victories, which will pull it right up front in the all-time ratings to the Ferrari (105) and McLaren (104) levels .

The Ferraris looked surprisingly good given the chaotic testing of the new F310. F1 veterans will tell you that testing doesn't mean much and that one should remember that in 1989 the Ferrari was so unreliable in practice that Nigel Mansell had actually booked a flight out of Rio de Janeiro before the end of the race. Nigel missed the flight that day - but he won the race. That was a John Barnard car too. Miracles occasionally do happen in motor racing.

The biggest miracle at Ferrari was the performance of Eddie Irvine. The Ulsterman gleefully outran current icon Michael Schumacher. Now, you can argue that one qualifying session is not significant but Irvine's showing raised questions which relate to the past as much as to the future. It's a long time since anyone in the same team as Schumacher was within a second of him - let alone faster. And when you look at the winter and the testing which Schumacher did in comparison to what Irvine achieved, you have to say that Eddie's effort was spectacular.

Schumacher had a problem - a Gurney Flap fell off the car in final qualifying - but it has to be said that in private testing on Thursday Irvine was only 0.9s slower. On Friday he was 0.5s behind and on Saturday morning the gap was down to 0.4s. Eddie was catching up.

"Michael goes out and sets the time on his first lap," said Irvine. "I just don't know how he does it. I was two seconds off and I thought, "I'm going to struggle here, he's turned up the wick again". Then I just improved the car and on the last run it was a reasonable lap, but not a mega lap. It worked out good. Michael has the edge in consistency. I have always felt that I could get a corner as good as he does, or even better, but the problem for me has been stringing together laps. It is purely down to my lack of running in the car. It's been getting better and today I popped ahead. I hope I can keep popping ahead."

Whatever the case with Irvine the result was historically significant because the mighty Schumacher who used to make the impossible happen over and over again in the last couple of years at Benetton was gone. In those days he outqualified team mates by one or two seconds in a world where a couple of tenths is worth $10 million. In doing so he destroyed JJ Lehto's F1 career and knocked holes in the credibility of Johnny Herbert and Jos Verstappen. Benetton always insisted that the drivers had equal machinery but that never rang true. Irvine's performance proved that.

Herbert and Verstappen were both able to show that they are not the wankers which being Schumacher's team mate had suggested. Now in the Sauber team, Johnny was running within a few tenths of team mate Frentzen until the final qualifying session when things did not go well for him and the gap went out to just under a second. Verstappen too was pedalling an Arrows with remarkable verve.

The truth will out.

That was certainly the case when one looked at McLaren's practice times when compared to the impressive times which came out of testing in Estoril. The McLarens were not on the pace in qualifying in Australia. Mika Hakkinen's fifth place on the grid was a great effort but analysis of the lap times showed that this had been a real banzai lap - of which only a few drivers are capable - and that the car was not regularly producing such times. Having said that F1 is about image these days and so Mika's fifth place looked OK. If he had blinked and dropped 0.4s he would have been 10th on the grid and the image would have been very different. David Coulthard was 13th.

The midfield was extremely busy but at the head of the list were the two Benettons. That was fine but being nearly two seconds off the Williams pace was a rather alarming predicament for F1 veterans Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger. There were plenty of reasons put forward as to why this was the case. We will see in the next couple of months if they are justified. It was, however, significant that on Saturday morning Alesi suffered a Renault engine failure - Villeneuve would have another on Sunday morning. This is significant because one used to count Renault failures on one hand every year. Clearly the RS8 is not as reliable as its forebears.

The Jordans too failed to live up to the expectations created in the Estoril test with Rubens Barrichello eighth on the grid and Martin Brundle 19th because of reliability problems. The drivers reckoned things would be better at race pace.

The truth is that everyone says that - whether it is true or not - and everyone denies making special efforts with qualifying "screamer" engines. The Sunday morning warm-up usually debunks the myths and Sunday afternoon provides the final judgement. It was pretty clear that on this Sunday one or two folk were going to be found out.

In the midfield we found several teams which looked likely to be better in racing than in qualifying: Sauber, Tyrrell, Arrows and Ligier. Top of this little pile was Heinz-Harald Frentzen (Sauber), slightly disappointed to be ninth on the grid but quite pleased with the race pace of the car. Johnny Herbert (also Sauber) was pretty bouncy too despite the fact that he was a second behind HH and 14th on the grid. His pace in the practice sessions had shown that he was close enough to the German to show that his criticisms of Benetton last year had some foundation.

Tenth on the grid was Mika Salo's Tyrrell and by any standards this was a good step for the team after a disastrous 1995 season. Nonetheless having raised it expectations the team was disappointed with the showing.

"We are happy to have a car in top 10," said Harvey Postlethwaite, "but a bit disappointed it was only 10th because the promise was there for something maybe a little bit better."

Ukyo Katayama was nearly a second slower which meant 15th on the grid.

Olivier Panis's Ligier was 11th - but only 0.7s slower than fifth-placed Hakkinen and the team was concentrated on race pace - although internal politics was also a major talking point in the garage. Pedro Diniz was 20th but less than a second slower than Panis which was actually a lot better than one might have expected.

Jos Verstappen's 12th place in the Arrows was a similar disappointment as the brilliant young Dutchman had been consistently higher up the timesheets until the qualifying session. He lost his first flying lap to a red flag (which indicates a halt in proceedings) and so lost the chance to improve the set-up between his runs. Far from being disappointed Jos was bubbly with expectation for an impressive race pace. Eighth in the warm-up suggested that this confidence was not misplaced.

Debutant Ricardo Rosset did a good job to qualify 18th, 0.8s slower than Jos. His times came down constantly as he learned the way to drive F1 cars and it will be worth watching him as he finds his feet in the months ahead.

Sixteenth on the grid was Giancarlo Fisichella in the Minardi which had been intended for Taki Inoue. If the Japanese driver had been in it it would not have clawed this far up the grid. Fisichella was 0.2sec faster than Pedro Lamy, suggesting that here is a young man who should not be put back on the subs bench because Inoue has the cash. Watch out for Fisichella: he will be playing a larger role in F1 in the years ahead.

To no-one's great surprise neither Forti qualified, both being enormously off the pace. They will remain so until either the team gets its new car up and running.

THE bullshit stopped amid a katzenjammer of screaming engines as the field waited for the lights to go out. The new starting system involves five red lights coming on one by one and then all going out together after a predetermined - but secret - length of time.

Villeneuve made a good getaway, smoking his tyres just a hint, but Hill's start was not as good and he found himself with the two Ferraris ready to pounce. Further back Berger made a dreadful start although it was actually better than the two Tyrrells which were both left sitting on the grid.

Sauber was also in depression because Frentzen had never even made it to the grid, his car having ground to a halt on the parade lap with an electronic problem. Also in trouble was Pedro Lamy who started from the pits because of a clutch failure on his car during the recognition laps.

So with the 20-car grid reduced to 17 before the first corner things were not looking good. At that rate of attrition there would be no cars by the time the field got to Powerhouse Bend...

In the first corner Hill was squeezed by Irvine and got a little out of shape which meant that he lost his momentum and was overtaken by both Ferraris in the run down going into the third corner. Behind Damon, Alesi sliced across in front of Hakkinen and Barrichello to claim the corner and began a chain reaction of heavy braking as drivers tried to avoid clonking one another. This was fine until the pedal-stamping reached Coulthard. The McLaren suddenly turned left and went across the road into the side of Herbert's Sauber. Herbert tried to avoid the car and braked heavily but behind him Martin Brundle was unable to check his progress.

"I had a lovely clear road ahead of me," he explained later, "and then suddenly there was nothing but cars going slowly." The Jordan driver tried to stop but made contact with the rear of both Herbert and Coulthard, and then Martin took off, bouncing down the road, ripping his car into two and getting on every news broadcast in the world. A member of the Jordan team later lamented that the team had not written "B&H" on the undertray.

At the time, however, the crash did not look at all funny.

"I was flat out in sixth doing about 290kph so the closing speed was too high for me to do anything about it. I was a passenger on a high-speed merry-go-round. I just concentrated on making sure I didn't hit my head. The accident seemed to go on for a very long time."

Martin crawled from the wreckage to find that the engine was a lot closer to his head than was originally designed and rather less securely attached. In fact there was only a single wire holding the chassis to the engine and this was cut by marshals clearing up the mess.

Up in race control F1's new race director Roger Lane-Nott was probably wondering what he had done wrong to get such an accident in his first race but the fact is that there was no question of not red-flagging and stopping the event - which was just as well because if the decision had been up to Lane-Nott's advisor, Herbie Blash (who spent the weekend jumping in and out of a telephone box changing between being a Yamaha man and an FIA official), there might have been accusations of favouritism - a restart resurrecting the desperate fortunes of Yamaha engine-user Tyrrell.

Martin was taken off to the medical centre to be poked and prodded but he couldn't find anyone who would give him the all-clear to race at the restart. Thus Martin went in search of Sid Watkins, running up the pitlane looking for F1's medical guru.

"I think by the time Sid had seen me running up an down the pitlane a couple of times he realised I was OK to race," explained Martin. He jumped into the T-car and set off for the pitlane exit. When he got there he had the chance to consider that his ankles were hurting rather a lot. Martin, you see, cannot run very well as a result of the leg injuries he received back in Dallas in 1984 and his pitlane jogging was the furthest he has run in many years. As Martin sat in his car considering this rather ironic situation his old boss, McLaren chief Ron Dennis, was right behind him, doing a passing impersonation of a caged lion as he prowled backwards and forwards waiting for Coulthard to arrive there in the spare car - which was set-up for Hakkinen. Herbert meanwhile was left standing in the pitlane as Frentzen had taken the spare Sauber.

The concrete ground was beginning to look as though it would wear thin from Ron's pacing before Coulthard arrived. By then the field had completed its parade lap and was lining up for the new start.

This time the Williams boys got away well and Hill was unchallenged by the Ferraris as they dived into the first corner. Gerhard Berger made another appalling start. On the second lap Schumacher slipped past Irvine and set off after the Williams boys, Jacques leading Damon. For the rest of the afternoon the pair would dominate.

Schumacher did a good job to hold on, but he never really looked like challenging for the lead. On a two-stop race pattern, Schumacher dropped back half a minute with his stop - although he remained in third place until lap 28 when a brake problem sidelined him. He had a stop to try to remedy the problem but went off when he rejoined and decided that enough was enough.

That left Irvine in third and there he stayed for what he later described as a "boring" race after he had rid himself of Alesi. Perhaps one should phrase that somewhat differently after Irvine had watched Alesi rid himself of a chance. The mercurial Frenchman tried a daft overtaking maneuver at Turn 3 and ended up ramming the Ferrari, ripping his own sidepods apart as he did so and upsetting the set-up of Irvine's Ferrari enough to drop Eddie a few tenths more from the ultimate pace. Alesi spun, rejoined, but ended up in the pits.

Jean's justification for the shunt was that he felt he had to get ahead before the frontrunners got too far away and that his lap times were quicker than Irvine's. This wasn't strictly true. He was quicker on laps two, five, six and nine but on laps three, four, seven and eight Irvine was faster. In other words the pair were pretty much balanced.

Berger in the second Benetton had the misfortune to make a bad start and found himself trapped behind Mika Hakkinen's recalcitrant McLaren. He did not get clear of the obstacle until halfway through the race by which time he had lost over half a minute. As a result he finished a rather uninspiring fourth. This was all very worrying for the Benetton folk because, despite having the same engines as the Williams team, the car was clearly not on the pace. Berger's best race lap was 1.3s slower than that of Villeneuve, and that said it all...

But if the faces were rather long at Benetton, they were positively dark at McLaren. Mika Hakkinen's fifth place - 95secs behind the winner - was a great personal triumph for the Finn and evidence that perhaps there really are miracles in motor racing. This is good because right now McLaren needs to visit a miracle wholesaler and get a trolley-load of them. Hakkinen spent the afternoon as a mobile chicane. In the early laps Barrichello was right in his tail and then Berger joined the train. Coulthard's involvement in the Brundle accident had forced him into the spare and clearly it was impossible for David to drive effectively.

F1 debutant Ricardo Rosset was all over Coulthard in his Arrows.

"I had a bit of a fight with Coulthard," reported the Brazilian new boy. "He was not very quick but he had a stronger engine on the straights so I could not pass him."

Everyone said all the right things at the end - as they always do - but the fact remains that no matter how much you dress it all up the performance of the McLarens was pitiful when one considers the budget with which the team is playing the game.

"Today in no way reflects our true competitiveness," said Ron Dennis. Perhaps Ron might like to name a day when McLaren will...

At the end of the day it was a Tyrrell which came home in sixth place and one could not help but notice from the race's fastest laps that once free of mobile chicanes Salo was quick, setting the eighth fastest lap of the race. If the team had not screwed up in qualifying and thus been in a better position at the start, there could have been a really good result.

Panis was seventh at the finish and the Ligier had actually set the sixth fastest time of the race so there was some optimism in the garage. Frentzen was eighth for Sauber but the team had expected more. Rosset's performance was good, the Brazilian coming home ninth at his first attempt.

Neither Minardi made it nor did the two Jordans. Martin Brundle's race ended quickly when he slid into the back of Diniz's Ligier because of cold brakes and then spun off to end a ghastly weekend. Barrichello was bottled up behind Hakkinen until his Peugeot engine failed.

But these were the bit-part players. Williams held centre stage with the battle between Villeneuve and Hill. Jacques's performance had the pundits jumping up and down with excitement. It was impressive. He led Hill early on, setting a string of fastest laps but never had more than a second or so in hand. The pair were pretty balanced in their pit stops although Damon emerged in the lead - by the skin of his teeth.

He arrived in the first corner with new cold tyres while Jacques was in his shadow and hot to trot. Jacques did not sit and wait, he forced his way through. Damon responded as soon as his tyres were up to speed and clawed right back onto Jacques's tail. This time the pressure paid off. Jacques misjudged it at the first corner and went for a little lawn-mowing.

"I thought he'd lost it," said Hill. "I thought he might catch me when he came back onto the track so I was going to one side. Then he started coming across the track and I had to lift off. When I got back on the power again he had straightened it all out. It was a bit scary."

A few laps later the white sections on Hill's Williams began to turn slightly brown and Villeneuve's car had the occasional puff of smoke. He was losing oil - and Damon was collecting it.

"I had a lot of it," he explained. "It was down his neck and everything. I was worried that something might go bang and we'd both go off."

Down in the Williams pit they knew from the computers that all was not well. There was radio traffic from Hill pointing out that he was being covered in oil but the team let the race continue until the Renault engineers began to get agitated as the engine showed signs of blowing. The team radioed Jacques to let Damon pass.

"We gave him two calls," explained Patrick Head, "but he didn't seem to hear very well so we put out the SLOW sign."

This left the oily Hill to pull away quickly in front to win the race. Villeneuve came home second with the status of moral winner.

And so there were - for now at least - questions left to be answered. Would Hill's challenge have been stronger without the oil all over his helmet? The answer to that is almost certainly yes.

"They'll be having some big ding-dongs this year," said a delighted Patrick Head, "and I think Ferrari will be in there too."

We will have to see how things develop. But if the Australian GP taught us anything it was that those who doubted that Villeneuve would do well in F1 were wrong. But at the same time Hill had showed that he is not be overlooked.

It looks like we're in for a good season...

Damon Hill Williams-Renault FW18 58 1h32m50.491s  
Jacques Villeneuve Williams-Renault FW18 58 1h33m28.511s  
Eddie Irvine Ferrari F310 58 1h33m53.062s  
Gerhard Berger Benetton-Renault B196 58 1h34m07.528s  
Mika Hakkinen McLaren-Mercedes MP4/11 58 1h34m25.562s  
19 Mika Salo Tyrrell-Yamaha 024 57  10 
Olivier Panis Ligier-Mugen-Honda JS43 57  11 
15 Heinz-Harald Frentzen Sauber-Cosworth C15 57  
16 Riccardo Rosset Footwork-Hart FA17 56  18 
10 10 Pedro Diniz Ligier-Mugen-Honda JS43 56  20 
11 18 Ukyo Katayama Tyrrell-Yamaha 024 55  15 
20 Pedro Lamy Minardi-Cosworth M195B 42 Accident/loose Seat Belts 17 
Michael Schumacher Ferrari F310 32 Brake Fluid Loss 
21 Giancarlo Fisichella Minardi-Cosworth M195B 32 Clutch 16 
11 Rubens Barrichello Jordan-Peugeot 196 29 Engine 
David Coulthard McLaren-Mercedes MP4/11 24 Throttle Jammed 13 
17 Jos Verstappen Footwork-Hart FA17 15 Engine 12 
Jean Alesi Benetton-Renault B196 Accident 
12 Martin Brundle Jordan-Peugeot 196 Spin 19 
14 Johnny Herbert Sauber-Cosworth C15 Accident 14 
nq 22 Luca Badoer Forti-Cosworth FG01-95B   21 
nq 23 Andrea Montermini Forti-Cosworth FG01-95B   22