European GP 1996

European GP, 1996

Like father, like son...

It is 15 years since a Villeneuve last won a Grand Prix (Gilles in Spain in 1981), but at the Nurburgring Jacques Villeneuve won his first F1 victory in just his fifth race. It had been a magnificent race with Jacques crossing the finish line just 0.762s ahead of Michael Schumacher's Ferrari. Half a minute behind them, David Coulthard gave McLaren-Mercedes a much-needed morale boost with third place in Mercedesland, but he only just made it because Damon Hill and Rubens Barrichello were both right on his tail. The German fans loved it; the Mercedes men loved it; TV viewers around the world loved it; and you can bet your bottom dollar that Bernie Ecclestone loved it all the way to the bank. It was magnificent. Yes. Significant? No...

In the old days when the "old" Nurburgring was still being used, tens of thousands of German race fans would pour into the Eifel mountains to watch the heroes in action. To the modern generation of F1 driver films of the old races tend to bring on a rather pale look and complete amazement that the drivers of that era were willing to accept the risks with no thought of safety and no vast financial rewards.

The excitement of danger was probably one of the main attractions for the fans, who would come with their tents and camper vans. They would bring along their bored girlfriends and drink lots of beer. I guess many a little Wolfgang, Jochen or Hansi was conceived under canvas in the woods around the track. The atmosphere was unique: woodsmoke, the fresh smell of pine - and burning rubber.

Centered on Nurburg village - from whence comes the name - the Ring is but a legend now, and only the older generations still talk with misty eyes of legendary corners such as Flugplatz, Fuchsrohre, the Karussell, the fearsome jumps at Pflanzgarten, the little Karussell at Schwalbenschwanz. There was never a track like this. There never will be again.

But the Germans haven't changed much. The tents and camper vans are still there; the many little guesthouses are still overflowing, rivers of beer are being drunk and one must suppose lots of little Schumis are being conceived.

There are times, however, when one wonders if the average Schumi fan can conceive anything after a skinful of beer. They are a rowdy lot when tanked up, and dressed this year in Ferrari red, waving Ferrari flags, they get very excited and throw thunder flashes, shoot starting pistols (I hope to God they were starting pistols and not the real thing) into the air and urinate wherever it takes their fancy: on buildings, cars and even each other.

"They are kind of like Belgians but without the charm," said a nasty Brit. The fact is that a drunken Schumi fan is a bit like a drunken Mansell one. Euro-louts. Not what you might call a class act...

The "new" Nurburgring is suitably modern and functional and has none of the atmosphere of the old, but it's not a bad race track in these days of constant radius curves and massive run-offs. In the sunshine the hills of the Eifel region are very beautiful. In October last year when the weather was bad no-one had much fun but in the Spring things were a lot better. Back in October Schumi won the game with a great drive in his Benetton-Renault. Times have changed, of course. Schumacher now has a busload of money but has to drive the rather difficult Ferrari rather than the nifty little Benetton of yesteryear.

Damon Hill is dominant. So dominant is he in fact that Schumacher went into the European Grand Prix weekend saying publicly that he expected to be beaten and that the best he could hope for on Sunday would be a podium finish.

"It is essential to have a good car on this circuit," said Germany's favorite son, "and we are not yet in a position in terms of performance to challenge the Williams."

How right he was. Qualifying proved to be a Damon Hill benefit event - which, of course, is nothing if not expected. Damon had completely dominated a test at Jerez in the week between the Argentine and European events and is flying high with confidence. He also had a great spur to success: shoving Schumacher's criticism down the German's throat. Michael had been less than polite about Hill in a pre-event press conference in Vienna; the drubbing Schumacher received in qualifying was as good a response as Damon could possibly have given. It was humiliating. Michael was absolutely flat out - and he was still beaten by 1.2secs. Damon was fastest in all the practice sessions and in qualifying; Schumacher was pushed back to the third row of the grid behind the second Williams of F1 rookie Jacques Villeneuve - who had never visited the Nurburgring before...

Given that Schumacher has been working almost flat-out testing between the races, one might have expected a better showing, but it seems the Ferrari development program is going to take a little longer than a few days to sort out the F310.

Schumacher was not at the Nurburgring on Thursday; he spent most of the day testing at Mugello before jumping on a jet in the late afternoon to fly north to Germany. Friday was the usual non-day it has become with the times being pretty meaningless: the McLaren-Mercedes MP4/11s were third and fifth which had more to do with it being Mercedes-Benz's home race than to any great leap forward in the recalcitrant Marlboro cars. They used new tires, the Williams drivers and Schumacher did not. Mind you, it would have done no harm at all for McLaren boss Ron Dennis and Mercedes-Benz Motorsport's Norbert Haug, who had to go to Mercedes-Benz headquarters for cucumber sandwiches and cups of tea that afternoon, to discuss the success - or lack of it - of the current package. Everyone said that they had had a lovely time and that no-one shouted at them at all. Then they had cakes and jelly, and came home feeling chuffed that big important executives would take time off to pat them on the head and say: "Well done for being so far behind Williams."

Still, being a long way behind Williams is not an exclusive thing this year. Williams is doing it right, everyone else is doing it wrong. Some are doing it very wrong.

Ferrari always gets the highest profile and so much of the rumoring in recent weeks has been about how the Ferrari bosses are about to whip out flick knives and stab each other in the back. The team seems quite calm on the surface, everyone saying that things are not nearly as bad as the press has made out. They are probably right.

"I knew when I came to Ferrari that things were going to be difficult and different," said Schumacher, "and that is what I am facing now. Compared to the other teams we are doing a reasonable job. I see the light in the end of the tunnel."

There were times, too, when Michael could probably see lots of lights on the dashboard - not least on Saturday morning when his engine sounded horrible and he parked by the pits. The unit was changed but it meant that Michael was late out to qualify. It really did not matter because Hill had only gone out six minutes before Michael did. That was the first round of the combat. Hill won by a couple of tenths. It would be 10 more minutes before Hill came out again and set his pole, which at the time was 1.3secs faster than everyone else. Moments later Villeneuve took second but he was still 0.78s slower than his team leader.

Schumacher tried and tried again, but there no way he was going to get even close, so we had a Williams 1-2. It was much the same pattern as we have seen all season - excluding Argentina where Damon was not feeling at all well and the gap was down to a few tenths.

"I'm enjoying a period in which everything is going superbly well," said Damon. "The atmosphere in the team is excellent."

It was Villeneuve's first visit to the Nurburgring, and although he reckoned that the track was pretty easy to learn, he was a lot further behind Hill than he had expected to be. Schumacher was nearly half a second behind Villeneuve but also nearly half a second clear of the next nearest man - Jean Alesi in his Benetton. Behind him there were 12 drivers within 1.1s. A blink made all the difference between fourth and 12th on the grid.

The Benetton camp was not a happy place to be because the B196 remains a very difficult car. So difficult is it in fact that Jean Alesi dropped the ball in qualifying and went scuttling off into a gravel trap, spraying the track liberally with pebbles. Gerhard Berger was only 0.3s behind his team mate, but that meant he was in eighth place on the grid, and, while being disappointed, he was confident that things would be a lot better in the race. The problem, of course, would be overtaking, for such things are not easy at this track.

Fifth on the grid was Rubens Barrichello in his Jordan-Peugeot - which was much as one might have expected given the team's performances to date. There was good news in that Martin Brundle finally seems to be coming to grips with his car - although he said that Friday was more a question of avoiding an accident than setting a time. By the end of Saturday Martin was 11th on the grid, and that might have seemed a little disappointing had this not been only two tenths slower than fifth-placed Barrichello.

After the excitements of Friday, McLaren looked to be heading deeply into Disasterville in the first few minutes of the qualifying session on Saturday afternoon when Hakkinen's engine blew up massively as he set off on his first fast lap. Mika went spinning off the straight on his own oil but came to rest a few feet before hitting the barrier. This meant a switch to the T-car (or spare car) which was not good on its first run, but a few tweaks and Mika was up to ninth which was a good showing under the circumstances. David Coulthard ended up sixth fastest - his best performance this year, and that was better than one might have expected. Having said that sixth and ninth are hardly earth-shattering performances when one considers the McLaren budget. McLaren had been busy spending this pile of money testing in Idi Ada and Jerez with Coulthard, Hakkinen and Alain Prost all working hard trying to make the MP4/11 go faster. It is inevitable that the big budget teams should shove the little fellows out of the way, simply because they can outspend them. There was evidence of this when you added the grid positions of the two McLaren drivers at all the races this year: in Australia it was 21 (7th and 14th), in Brazil 18 (5th and 13th), Argentina 17 (8th and 9th) and Europe 15 (6st and 9th). Sounds great, doesn't it? Well not when you consider that in Argentina the best McLaren was 1.5secs off the best Williams. At the Nurburgring the gap was out to 1.9secs. Has the team made significant progress?

"It is hard to believe," said Ron Dennis, "but we have! Mika set his time in the T-car which did not have the optimum set-up and level of balance that we had achieved with his race car. As a result, we lost the opportunity to be much better placed on the grid."

Progress or not, there was still not much spring in the step of the troops from Woking, and this year a strong race pace has not been a strong point of the McLaren-Mercedes.

Ferrari number two Eddie Irvine was seventh fastest, only 0.8s behind Schumacher, which was progress given Eddie's performances in South America.

Behind Berger and Hakkinen we had Heinz-Harald Frentzen in his Sauber-Ford, which was pretty much where one would have expected to find HH, despite the fact that Ford insisted that progress has been made with the underpowered V10 engine. Ninth in Australia and Brazil, 11th in Argentina and 10th at the Nurburgring. Is that progress? Johnny Herbert, however, did do a lot better than he has this year and was only a tenth behind Frentzen, although the pair had Martin Brundle between them.

Jos Verstappen was a disappointed 13th in the all-new TWR Arrows Footwork, which looked from a distance like one of the Beatrice chassis from the mid-1980s. The team had been hoping for a lot more as Jos had done much better in the practice sessions than he managed in qualifying. The car, he reported, was nervous in qualifying but would be better in the race - as it has been all year. Ricardo Rosset seems to be going through a bit of a confidence crisis at the moment and needs to go testing to regain the speed he showed in the early races. He was a disappointed 20th.

Disappointment, however, is an understatement for what there was at Tyrrell after another weak qualifying session. All year the team has shown well in practice sessions, but when it comes to qualifying its seems that something always goes wrong or maybe everyone else puts in special engines or whatever. In the races the Tyrrells are quick but in qualifying they are not, and that means that they tend to spend Sunday afternoons stuck behind cars which are slower at race pace than they are in qualifying - notably the McLarens. If a Tyrrell can qualify ahead of a McLaren one day we might see a really good performance. The problem is that as McLaren spends its way out of trouble, Tyrrell is not in a position to do the same. It is the fate of the small team against the big combine.

Ligier was also in deep depression with Olivier Panis 15th and Pedro Diniz 17th. This would seem to suggest that all at Ligier is not beer and skittles despite the fact that the team is frantically pretending that the loss of most of the important staff to TWR Arrows is not really a great problem. The package, however, is reliable and quick in races and so Panis expected to go better on Sunday.

The Minardis were in a league of their own with Giancarlo Fisichella beating Pedro Lamy. It is now normal for the second driver in the team to outqualify the number one.

Forti was in its usual state of Italian excitement, although this was heightened by the fact that a new car was being built up in the back of the garage. It was finally wheeled out on Saturday afternoon after the team had failed to qualify with the old cars - both Andrea Montermini and Luca Badoer falling victim to the 107% rule. In order to compete, drivers must qualify within 107% of the time set by the fastest driver.

The new car was greeted with such interesting comments as "What's the difference?" But it looks a bit smaller than the old beasts...

AFTER two gorgeous days, race day was rather misty and dull, but this did not stop Schumi's fans from crawling out of their tents, camper vans and ditches to take their places amid the 100,000 throng hoping against hope that Schumi might be able to achieve the impossible. It did not look at all likely in the warm-up as Hill was fastest from the Benetton boys and Hakkinen.

Damon was pretty confident of achieving a fifth straight win. That confidence continued until the five red lights came on one by one and then went out together marking the start of the race.

"I screwed up," said a rather deflated Damon later. The Williams crawled away from the line, while on his right, Villeneuve smoked his tires a hint and edged into the lead. Behind them, Schumacher seemed a little hesitant as he came off the line, although to his right Jean Alesi was making a pig's ear of his getaway.

"I let the clutch out in the normal way, the engine revved a lot, but the wheels just would not drive."

It was the third row of the grid, therefore, which took advantage of the miserable starts of the others. Rubens Barrichello went for the outside of Schumacher and Hill and emerged in third place, while sixth man on the grid David Coulthard went up the middle and found himself alongside Villeneuve and challenging for the lead.

"It doesn't quite match my best ever start, which was eighth to second in a F3 race, but sixth to second is a very good start. I had the right amount of wheelspin. I thought I was going to be first coming out of the first corner."

The arrival of the McLaren alongside Villeneuve's Williams was a shock not only to those watching. Jacques had been warned to watch out for Schumacher in the first corner, but as he scrambled through the corner ahead of the miraculous McLaren he shouted into his radio that he had "the wrong car" behind him.

Barrichello was third, Schumacher fourth, Hill fifth and Hakkinen sixth from ninth on the grid. The Benettons were nowhere: Alesi would come through at the end of the first lap in 13th position, while Berger arrived in the pitlane unexpectedly at the end of the first lap, having tried to start the race with his "handbrake" stuck on.

A handbrake? Yes. The modern F1 cars have a brake button which is released to launch them off the line. In Berger's case the left front brake did not release. He tried the pedal again and this time the system cleared, but by then he had flat-spotted his tires. He arrived in the pits unexpectedly because the team's radios were not working and it was all rather a mess.

The situation was aggravated somewhat at the start of lap two when Alesi donned his best set of blinkers and drove into the first corner, punting Mika Salo's Tyrrell into the air and then the sandtrap. Jean then ran across the track, went to the paddock, packed his bags and left. This was the perfect end to Benetton's day. The stewards asked to see Jean to discuss matters but he was not to be found, and so they fined him $10,000 for not hanging around after the race as he should have done, and another $2000 for running across the track. Later the team would be fined another $10,000 because the FIA felt that the team must be responsible for the behavior of its driver. All in all, this was probably not a day which will be remembered fondly when they write the history of the Benetton team. It may, however, turn out to be significant because it was yet another example of Jean's wildness. A team which has been used to dealing with the cool-headed Michael Schumacher may find Jean's antics hard to stomach. In fact they might even decide not to bother any more...

The Benetton incidentally was a pretty good car in race trim, Berger later setting the third fastest lap of the race as he chased his way up from 18th place to ninth at the finish.

With Benetton having self-destructed in less than magnificent fashion, the teams who have hitherto been squabbling over the minor placings found themselves more in the limelight than usual and none more so than David Coulthard. Those behind must have sighed deeply, because passing a McLaren these days is not an easy thing to do. The cars are very quick on the straights but not very efficient in the corners. Those behind were stuck. There was no way that David was going to stay with Villeneuve, and Jacques duly ran away with relative ease, building a seven-second gap by lap 10. It was the kind of performance which Hill has enjoyed this year, but this time it was Jacques's turn.

Damon was bottled up behind Schumacher for the first few laps, but, when Schumi went a little wide at the final corner on lap five, Damon took full advantage, dragging past the Ferrari on the run down to the first corner. But if Damon thought he was going to drag past Barrichello as well he had another thing coming. The Jordan-Peugeot was mightily fast down the straights and try as he might Damon could not find a way through. That must say something about the Peugeot V10 engine... As the pair jousted, David Coulthard was able to make himself a small gap, while behind them Schumacher and Hakkinen were joined in the queue by Heinz-Harald Frentzen.

We lost Irvine and Panis on lap five when they ran into one another at the chicane, Eddie already in trouble with a clutch problem. Panis felt he could not mess around behind the slow Ferrari and forced the issue which resulted in the pair clonking each other.

The pattern up front remained unchanged until the first pit stops began, although just before these started Hill suddenly began to drop back from Barrichello.

"The car started to feel strange and I was convinced I had a puncture or something had broken on the car," explained Hill. "I pitted and that cost me time when they checked the car out."

The check involved engineers Patrick Head and Adrian Newey and team manager Dickie Stanford all hurling themselves under the car to try and find something wrong. Things got a little complicated with signaling the all-clear and Damon lost around 12secs more. He rejoined in the midfield.

The major stops were all completed by lap 31. These included a slow stop by the Jordan team - there was trouble with the refueling hose which lost about four seconds - and a lightning fast Ferrari stop, followed by some really quick laps from Schumacher on his new tires. Villeneuve found himself with the German just eight seconds behind him and closing. Coulthard had been ahead of Schumacher before the pit stops but afterwards found himself behind and falling back fast - and Rubens Barrichello closing in.

Hakkinen's race was screwed now by a 10-second penalty for speeding in the pitlane; there would be another after his second refueling stop which meant that by the end Mika was dicing with Johnny Herbert for seventh place.

Hakkinen's misfortune moved Frentzen into the points, but his Sauber began to have gearbox trouble and he dropped down the field and would retire before the end of the race. This put Martin Brundle into a point-scoring position in sixth and he held on happily to get his first decent result of the year.

Up front, Villeneuve found himself unable to respond to Schumacher's charge.

"The rear end was a little bit light mostly in the second stint," explained Jacques. "It got good again for the third stint which was good because Michael was going really strongly. I could keep an eye on him."

Once again Schumacher closed in and for the last 15 laps he was on Villeneuve's tail exerting pressure. Villeneuve held his own.

"I did not expect to run that close to the Williams after what happened in qualifying," said Schumacher. "My top speed was far too slow to go for an overtaking maneuver although I was much better on braking. I just had to wait and hope he would make a mistake. It never happened."

This had the Germans jumping up and down with glee as one might imagine and gave Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo the chance to challenge for the Flavio Briatore Award for Playing to the TV Cameras by making emphatic gestures every time he noticed that the TV cameras were on him. A red nose might be a good idea to get more attention if he wants to compete with Flav's backward baseball cap.

Afterwards Schumacher was very honest and realistic.

"I don't think we are close to winning a Grand Prix yet," he said. "We still miss out in quite a lot of areas. I don't think it is impossible to improve but it will take some time."

In the back of Schumacher's mind was no doubt the thought that this would have been Hill's race if he had got away at the start as usual. In fact after the long stop, Damon had other adventures including going off while trying to lap Pedro Diniz's Ligier. The Brazilian seemed to be a little out of control as Damon came bearing down on him and, as Hill was lining up to pass, he suddenly had a horrible thought that perhaps Diniz had not seen him. He steered right onto the dirt. Diniz explained that he lost control when he saw Hill get on the dirt. The pair played in the sand for a while and then rejoined.

Damon dropped to 10th and then began a wonderful charge as he ducked and weaved his way through the field, setting a string of fastest laps. This would ultimately bring him right up to Coulthard's tail in the final eight laps - which was a remarkable performance given the delays along the way.

It looked as though Damon might be able to pass the McLaren, but a few judious blocking maneuvers by Coulthard convinced Damon that any serious attempt to get by would probably end up in the rough. This was, after all, Mercedes land, and McLaren needed a good showing...

"This could not have come at a better time," said Coulthard. "One of the advantages of having been Damon's team mate was that I knew he wouldn't do anything silly so I had to block a bit and wait for him to settle for a finish. I wasn't going to give it up for anything."

(Coulthard and Hill had been team mates at Williams in 1994 and 95.

But was this the start of the great McLaren revival? Ron Dennis hoped it would be. Ron was always very fond of saying that there are no miracles in motor racing and so the sudden burst to prominence of the team seemed to go against this until one looked at the fastest laps of the race. Coulthard's best was seventh, 1.1secs slower than Hill's best and only just faster than Ukyo Katayama's Tyrrell and Heinz-Harald Frentzen's Sauber. Hakkinen's best was fourth quickest so there is hope.

At the end the Coulthard-Hill battle had slowed down so much that Rubens Barrichello joined them in the final laps and tried to get by. He failed and was disappointed because without two refueling delays - the Jordan fuel nozzle was slow in being fitted on both Rubens's stops - he would have been third.

Brundle was sixth, Herbert seventh chased by Hakkinen, with Berger eighth. The Tyrrells of Mika Salo and Ukyo Katayama finished 10th and 12th, but both were later excluded for different infractions. Diniz was 11th and the rest followed home.

It was very good entertainment. But what did it all mean?

As Jacques crossed the line to win, Patrick Head came on the Williams radio and said: "The first of many." A nice gesture. But did Patrick think the rest of the field had suddenly caught Williams?

"Jacques's car was not as quick as we would have liked it to be but he made good use of the car as it was. He didn't make any mistakes and to withstand the kind of pressure from Schumacher on his home territory showed considerable maturity."

A magnificent victory then. But a significant one? We will see what happens in Imola...

Jacques Villeneuve Williams-Renault FW18 67 1h33m26.473s  
Michael Schumacher Ferrari F310 67 1h33m27.235s  
David Coulthard McLaren-Mercedes MP4/11 67 1h33m59.307s  
Damon Hill Williams-Renault FW18 67 1h33m59.984s  
11 Rubens Barrichello Jordan-Peugeot 196 67 1h34m00.186s  
12 Martin Brundle Jordan-Peugeot 196 67 1h34m22.040s  11 
14 Johnny Herbert Sauber-Cosworth C15 67 1h34m44.500s  12 
Mika Hakkinen McLaren-Mercedes MP4/11 67 1h34m44.911s  
Gerhard Berger Benetton-Renault B196 67 1h34m47.534s  
dq 19 Mika Salo Tyrrell-Yamaha 024 66 Car Underweight 14 
10 10 Pedro Diniz Ligier-Mugen-Honda JS43 66  17 
dq 18 Ukyo Katayama Tyrrell-Yamaha 024 65 Push Start On Grid 16 
11 16 Riccardo Rosset Footwork-Hart FA17 65  20 
12 20 Pedro Lamy Minardi-Cosworth M195B 65  19 
13 21 Giancarlo Fisichella Minardi-Cosworth M195B 65  18 
15 Heinz-Harald Frentzen Sauber-Cosworth C15 59 Handling/spin 10 
17 Jos Verstappen Footwork-Hart FA17 38 Gearbox 13 
Olivier Panis Ligier-Mugen-Honda JS43 Accident 15 
Eddie Irvine Ferrari F310 Spin 
Jean Alesi Benetton-Renault B196 Accident 
nq 23 Andrea Montermini Forti-Cosworth FG01-95B   21 
nq 22 Luca Badoer Forti-Cosworth FG01-95B   22