San Marino GP 1996

San Marino GP, 1996

Magic moments at Imola

MICHAEL SCHUMACHER might have surprised everyone in qualifying for the San Marino GP at Imola by taking pole position in his Ferrari but in the race there was no contest. Damon Hill drove a brilliant race, Williams had a brilliant strategy and the rest of the field was wasting its time. It was Williams's fifth win of the year - in five races

Imola, the historians will tell you, was once called Forum Cornelli and was founded in the Second Century BC by the Romans as they began their expansion which would ultimately dominate the known world. Roman organization was ground-breaking at the time, but somewhere along the way the Italians forgot how to make things run on time. As Rome rose and fell Imola plodded solidly along until the 14th Century when the all-powerful Sforza family built an impressive fortress in the town. It is still there today. The town also has a rather good zoo, a racing circuit and several psychiatric hospitals. This is not surprising for those who have experience of the drivers of Romagna: they are lunatics. They hurtle little Fiats along at speeds Fiats were not built to go, and they seem to think that the middle of the road is the best place to be. This is possibly because the pedestrians are constantly wandering off the sidewalks, either because they are walking round some long-unfinished building site or just because they felt like it. Bicyclists wobble all over the roads. In a lot of cases this is rather charming as the young ladies of the region tend to be as curvy as the roads in the hills.

This happy little world works fine because everyone is the same until the foreigners arrive for the Grand Prix and either emulate the Italian ways or bring new ideas to the local driving. This causes the local policemen to get very excited and they shout and scream and blow whistles and wave their arms in the air. Experience has taught that the best thing to do is to ignore them, because the worst they will do is scream "idiot German" at you. This, it seems, is the ultimate insult. In Italy, it seems, as in large parts of Europe, being a German is still not a good job.

At the moment, however, there is one German that the Italians have suddenly fallen head over heels in love with: Michael Schumacher - or "Schummy" as they have decided to call him. He drives for Ferrari. He is a hero. An ace. A Ferrari driver. The day he drives for someone else he will lose that love, but right now he is enjoying it.

It is a hard man who does not enjoy coming to Imola - despite all the bad memories we have of the place that killed Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger in 1994 - because there is in these hills the belief, normally lost in the cynical world of F1, that magic can happen. The fans really believe that a Ferrari might win, and that passion comes across the track at you from the grandstands and you cannot help but be gathered up in it.

When Schumacher took pole position on Saturday afternoon the crowds roared with joy, but the cynics in the paddock groaned. Ferrari always seems to have something a little special in qualifying at any race in Italy. The team always has some new "super motore" engine for Imola which does the impossible and is then never seen again. It is magic. There are some folk who believe that magic comes in cans with a Shell logo on the side, others that it is in 3.5-liter form. Who knows? Who cares? This is Italy. Ferrari is Ferrari. The sport and the show business sometimes get a little mixed up. NASCAR racing is no different.

There is no doubt that Michael was driving brilliantly, absolutely flat out, and it was a joy to watch. Before qualifying he had said that there was no way he was going to be on pole but he proved himself wrong. He was crashing over every available curb, pushing right up to the limits, taking more risks than normal. This is Italy after all and he is a Ferrari driver. THE Ferrari driver. This extra risk-taking became fairly obvious as he set off on his final qualifying lap having just taken pole in the closing minutes of the session. His rear suspension simply collapsed and he was turfed into a spin. If the suspension broke for any reason other than having been driven too hard Schumacher should have been very worried - but he did not seem to be overly upset.

The Imola magic blasted away Damon Hill's advantage this year which has been a steady second over the other cars. At the Nurburgring - just seven days before Imola - Hill had qualified 1.2secs ahead of Schumacher, despite the fact that Michael was being blown down the straights a little faster by the support of thousands of his countrymen.

Whatever the magic, Ferrari team boss Jean Todt sounded a careful warning after qualifying was over. "I cannot promise our fantastic fans that we will win tomorrow," said the Frenchman, "but I know that this time we start with a good chance of challenging our competitors, even if, for safety's sake, we will not yet use the latest version of the engine in the race."

Having taken pole and ridden back to the paddock on a truck, Schumacher marched like an emperor through the crowds of the paddock, like a mother duck trailing a string of TV camera crew ducklings elbowing their way along behind him. All that was needed was a marching band to make it the perfect show. The circus comes to town.

The man who got the biggest kick out of it all is probably the car's design chief John Barnard who was not even at Imola. He was back home in England, celebrating his 50th birthday. And what nicer present could he have than a Ferrari on pole. It was only 10 days ago that everything at Ferrari was "in crisis" and Barnard was about to be fired.

Eddie Irvine ended up sixth on the grid in the second Ferrari, although he felt that the car was still too twitchy for him. He needs testing. A rear damper problem was blamed for him not being a little quicker - which is what one would have expected at Imola.

Second on the grid, therefore, was Damon Hill and the pattern of this year's qualifying was turned completely on its head. Normally we have Hill, team mate Jacques Villeneuve and then Schumacher with a big gap of around a second to a gaggle of cars. But this was not the case at Imola. Part of this was due to the fact that Hill did not do as well as he normally would have done.

"I made some small changes to the car and we probably went the wrong way with those. The car was a bit too 'pointy' and it was a struggle to get any extra speed out of it. But it was good fun trying! I never count on getting pole position even when I am sitting in the garage and my name is on the top of the list on the screen. I must say it's a real punch in the stomach to see Schumacher has done a quicker lap time. It motivates me to pull out an even faster lap next time."

Further evidence that Damon had done the best possible job on this occasion came as Villeneuve was closer to Damon than has been normal in recent events. He will have been helped in the fact that this is the first track of the year on which Jacques has driven before.

Fourth on the grid - half a second down on the two Williams-Renaults - was David Coulthard's McLaren, and that was a bit of a surprise because while the Mercedes-Benz engines, particularly the qualifying ones, have been very good this year, the McLaren chassis has not been a top-of-the-range model. Even taking into account Hill's less than perfect lap and Schumacher's remarkable leap forward, one can only say that McLaren has made some progress. When you do enough testing you are bound to. McLaren, of course, is lucky to have vast resources to spend and it is informative to learn that, on the very day that Coulthard and Mika Hakkinen were racing in Germany, test driver Jan Magnussen was hammering up and the down the runways at the Danielson test track at Lurcy-Levis in France, and the poor Dane had to continue this mind-numbing business not only on Sunday but also Monday and Tuesday.

While Coulthard was quite happy, Mika Hakkinen assuredly was not. His qualifying session had been "a catalogue of disasters" with traffic, an engine problem, brake balance difficulties and a spin. He would line up 11th on the grid and that did not bode well because the McLaren race pace this year has not been a strong point. The arrival of a new monocoque - which will look a lot like the existing one - in the next race at Monaco should help the team to pull clear of the small budget operations which have been causing such embarrassment to Ron Dennis and his boys this year.

Fifth on the grid was another team which is struggling badly at the moment - World Champions Benetton. Jean Alesi - in the doghouse after his silliness at the Nurburgring - arrived in Italy telling everyone that it would not happen again. The B196 was still a difficult car to drive, and so Jean and Gerhard Berger were fifth and seventh on the grid - which is becoming normal for the team.

Behind Jean there was the usual midfield gaggle, eight cars covered by a second. This is where a few tenths can really make a difference. The most impressive performance in qualifying, except for Schumacher's magic, came from Mika Salo in his Tyrrell. The team has been threatening to do well all year, but poor qualifying performances have led to frustrating races with the Tyrrells being bottled up behind McLarens. To see Salo free of traffic and running with the big boys will make interesting viewing one day because the car is clearly quick - even if the Yamaha engines are not qualifying specials. Ukyo Katayama had a bad time and was 16th after an engine blew up on him.

Ninth and 12th on the grid were the Jordans and that was a disappointment for Rubens Barrichello and Martin Brundle, who continue to have prodigious top speed figures but slipped a little further back than has been normal this year.

Heinz-Harald Frentzen was 10th in his Sauber-Ford, which was exactly where he always is, and Johnny Herbert was 15th, unhappy with the handling of his car which was 0.8s down on Frentzen.

There was also disappointment down at Ligier where Olivier Panis found himself 13th, complaining about a lack of grip which had caused him to have at least one very spectacular high-speed double-spin on Saturday morning. Pedro Diniz did a pretty good job and was only 0.5s behind Olivier, although this meant he was down in 17th on the grid.

There was disappointment too at Arrows where Jos Verstappen was 14th and Ricardo Rosset 20th. Verstappen had blown his chances in a shunt on Saturday morning, which damaged the car and compromised the qualifying, while Rosset still needs to test to close the gap to Jos.

The Minardis were 18th and 19th with Pedro Lamy outqualifying a team mate for the first time this year, beating Giancarlo Fisichella by 0.4s.

The final qualifier was Luca Badoer in the new Forti, which seems to be a little bit better than the old one, which proved impossible to qualify in the hands of Andrea Montermini. The pair tried to share the one new car, but Montermini could not make the 107% necessary to qualify. In order to compete, drivers must qualify within 107% of the time set by the fastest driver.

The fans were all very happy, and as they tramped off to eat pasta and get drunk, the usual gang gathered in the grandstands and made up rude songs about Michael Schumacher's old boss Flavio Briatore.

IN the warm-up before the race the Ferrari magic was gone. Damon Hill was ahead by 0.6s, Jacques Villeneuve was second and the rest were a second behind Hill. Oh, and Jean Alesi crashed heavily. F1 was back to normal...

The start, however, was decidedly abnormal. Schumacher's Ferrari came off the line rather slowly and while Damon Hill made quite a good getaway it was nothing compared to that of the incredible David Coulthard.

Since the early days of his career David has been famous for his explosive starts. We saw a couple at Williams last year, but he didn't give us a real burst of that talent until the Nurburgring where he went from sixth on the grid to second at the first corner. At Imola he qualified fourth and was in the lead at the first corner. And there he stayed, with Schumacher and Hill in hot pursuit.

Behind these four there was all kinds of excitement. Jacques Villeneuve had not made a very good start, having far too much wheelspin, and this enabled Jean Alesi to try to pass him on the left - half on the grass in the finest traditions of J. Alesi. At the first braking point - the entry to the new Tamburello - Alesi was back on the track on the inside for the kink left. Jacques was on the outside. The two banged wheels. On the run down to Villeneuve Corner (named after Gilles), Jacques managed to edge ahead a little but it was then that they hit again, Jacques getting a rear puncture from one of Jean's front wheels.

While all this was going on, Mika Salo was keeping out of trouble. "I got Berger and Irvine at the start, and then Villeneuve and Alesi in the next two corners. It was fun!" He emerged fourth with Berger behind him and then Barrichello, Alesi, Irvine and the rest. Villeneuve had to pit.

It was probably inevitable, given the known race pace of the Williams, that Ferrari and McLaren would opt for low fuel loads in the early part of the race. A light fuel load would enable the cars to go faster. They had nothing to lose and everything to gain. If the Williams-Renaults had bad starts, and were caught behind others, there was the chance that Coulthard or Schumacher might have been able to make a break at the front. If this did not work, a light tank would probably produce a good showing early on which is good PR for any team.

With Coulthard in the lead Schumacher was in trouble because he needed to be up and away and could do nothing. He reckoned he was losing three or four tenths a lap and these quickly add up. Judging by his pace later in the race when he was ahead of Coulthard, the delay was probably more. It must have been a frustrating time for Michael, because in his mirrors was Damon Hill who obviously was not running with a light tank-load of fuel.

Damon's strategy was to take it nice and easy and shadow the men with the low fuel-loads until they disappeared into the pitlane. Then it was a question of putting the hammer down as the fuel load lightened so that when his first pit stop finally came he would be far enough ahead of the opposition that he would still be ahead when he went back into the race. At first it looked like a one-stop race, but the pit stop was too short for that. Damon's mid-race stint was going to be a fast dash with a low fuel load and then he would come in again for a quick splash and dash when his lead was suitably rebuilt. The plan worked like a dream.

The Coulthard-Schumacher show lasted for the first 20 laps and then the pair pitted. Hill took the lead and when Berger - who had passed Salo on lap two but otherwise remained in a solid fourth place - pitted on lap 25, Damon suddenly had a lead of 19secs over Schumacher. Damon now put his foot down and on laps 25, 26 and 27 he set consecutive fastest laps and took his lead out to 22secs. He pitted on lap 30 and managed to get out of the pits just ahead of Schumacher, and while Michael could stay with him there was no way he was going to challenge the Williams.

"It was obvious that the Williams - at least Damon's - was quicker than me. The F310 is much improved but we still have a lot of work to do."

Schumacher pitted again on lap 40 and Damon's lead went out to nearly 45secs before he came in again on lap 50. He splashed and dashed and was still 20secs ahead of Schumacher when he re-emerged. It was a great race and a sound strategy.

Schumacher had been unable to pass Coulthard on the track, but during the pit stop sequence he emerged ahead. It is interesting to note that while Coulthard was quicker in the pitlane - the McLaren men turned the car around faster than did Ferrari - Schumacher still came out ahead thanks to his incredible ability to lap fast on cold tires. As soon as he was ahead, Michael left David in his wake. The gap went from nothing on lap 22 to 17secs by lap 38. One second a lap.

The current McLaren is certainly improving in race trim - although not as much as in qualifying - but at the moment all the drivers can really hope for is a good qualifying effort and a good start. In the races the cars still fade backwards. The dog has not sprouted wings, but it is certainly looking like more of a greyhound than once it did.

David held on to third place, however, until his second stop when he stalled in the pits - possibly due to a lazy gearchange. He rejoined in fourth but a few laps later his hydraulic pressure disappeared and he had to park.

Mika Hakkinen's afternoon would be less glamorous. He spent the early laps running in 13th place, using the spare car. In the middle stint he had a big spin and dropped to 12th. He was then penalized by the stewards for blocking Schumacher badly in the final stint and given a 10-sec stop-go penalty. When you are a lap behind a car which is about to overtake you, you must make way as soon as possible. The retirements of others lifted Mika to seventh, but on the last lap his engine blew up so he ended up eighth in the final classification.

Hakkinen's blocking made little difference to Schumacher. He lost time, no doubt about that, but catching Damon and passing him were very different matters - and Hill knew it.

Schumacher's race was another faultless affair, but on the final half lap it all nearly turned to dust when his right front wheel seized solid and he had to drive around with only three wheels on his wagon. He crossed the line and parked it, the car being engulfed by track-invading fans.

Berger came home third - which was a boost for Benetton after a run of disasters. His had not been the perfect race. The car was not really competitive but he moved to third when Coulthard stalled. Gerhard also stalled during his pit stops, but Coulthard retired almost immediately, so Gerhard kept the place.

Alesi's race was anything but sensible after the wheel-bashing interlude with Villeneuve. He had lost a section of wheel rim and the wheel-balancing weights and his track rod was bent. This mean that his steering wheel was not functioning properly and so that had to be changed at his first pit stop. The new steering wheel had a limiter mechanism to stop him speeding in the pitlane, but this was incorrectly set and so he went out of the pitlane far too quickly. This meant he was soon back in for a 10-sec stop-go penalty. He fought back from this until after his second stop when he spun off while trying an unwise maneuver on Olivier Panis's Ligier. But Jean battled on and while others ahead expired he rose finally into sixth position, which was not really deserved at all. To be totally honest, Jean looks like a man who is in need of a vacation from F1 to get his head back together again and his driving under control.

Behind Berger was Eddie Irvine in the second Ferrari, coming home in fourth position. He had made a very bad start but gradually moved up the order as others ran into trouble. He overtook no-one, but points are points, so he was quite happy with the result.

Fifth at the finish was Rubens Barrichello who had a similar kind of race. His start was good and he ran sixth early on. He lost time at the first pit stop because the Jordan refueling gear malfunctioned for the second consecutive race. Despite this, he moved up to fifth when Salo retired, but he then lost a place to Irvine when the Jordan refueling equipment again failed to work properly.

"We have to improve our pit stops because we have a car which is capable of fighting for the podium," said Rubens. "At the moment, it seems that I come into the pits fighting for a position and I have lost it by the time I go out again."

Rubens's disappointment was nothing compared to that of his team mate Martin Brundle. He had been running in 10th place when he came in to pit, but the refuelers failed to get the valve and the nozzle to connect. They tried several times and then the team realized that Barrichello was coming in and decided that with Martin's race already compromised he would have to be sent out to make way for Barrichello. Two laps later Martin was back in again to get his fuel, but by the time he rejoined he was down with the Alesi's and Hakkinen's of the world. In the end he spun off in frustration.

Refueling problems put paid to both the Arrows. Verstappen had run 10th in the first stint with Rosset 18th. Jos lost time during his first pit stop because a light, which was supposed to warn the refuelers that the fuel was in the car, did not go on. Five seconds were lost. At the second stop the refueling team were looking back at the rig rather than at the refueling hose, and perhaps it was this which caused Verstappen's signaler to wave the Dutchman out. The refueling gear was still attached to the car and the refueler went with the car and the hose. The refueling machines are supposed to have connections which will snap in such cases, sealing in the fuel - a dead man's handle system - but this failed and the hose was torn out of the machine and the fuel inside gushed out into the pitlane. It was a right royal mess. There was a man down with a dislocated shoulder and fuel everywhere. Out on the track, Ricardo Rosset was running out of fuel and the team's only refueling machine was out of action. Both cars retired. David Lowe the refueler was rushed off to the track hospital.

Tyrrell's afternoon was less disastrous but still depressing for the team which had such high hopes for success. Salo was up to fourth thanks to the efforts of Villeneuve and Alesi on the first lap. And he held it without any trouble from Barrichello, Alesi and Irvine. He pitted late and was third at the time. He rejoined in seventh place but immediately his engine blew. The dreams of a podium finish - and they were pretty sensible dreams - went up with the engine. Katayama climbed gradually up and thanks to some very slick pit work was sixth when his transmission failed.

Ligier's afternoon was also depressing, with Panis stopping because of gearbox trouble eight laps from the finish. Pedro Diniz's showing was a small ray of sunshine and easily his best F1 race to date. He ran as high as seventh and would probably have been in the points but for the stop-go penalty he received for blocking Schumacher. Pedro was a little aggrieved by this, pointing out that Hakkinen had been behind him and blocking Schumacher. He said that he had let the McLaren through to avoid being given a penalty and had immediately allowed Schumacher to pass him as well. The stewards did not agree.

For Sauber it was also another disastrous race, with Johnny Herbert retiring with engine failure and Heinz-Harald Frentzen with brake problems. The Sauber-Fords were not on the pace at all. Nor were the Minardis or the single Forti. Giancarlo Fisichella blew an engine, but Pedro Lamy made it home in ninth place. Luca Badoer got to the finish in the new Forti after two stop-go penalties.

Aside from Hill and Schumacher the best drive of the race came probably from Jacques Villeneuve, who set a string of fastest laps as he charged his way through the midfield. He was in sixth place in the closing laps when the rear suspension failed and he drove into the pits to retire. It had been another mature drive and a great comeback.

But the day undoubtedly belonged to Damon Hill, even if the locals cheered Schumacher to the echo. Well, most of them did. As Michael was doing his lap of honor in a course car, one could not help but notice an apple skidding across the road. At least one brave soul out there didn't like Schummy...

Damon Hill Williams-Renault FW18 63 1h35m26.156s  
Michael Schumacher Ferrari F310 63 1h35m42.616s  
Gerhard Berger Benetton-Renault B196 63 1h36m13.047s  
Eddie Irvine Ferrari F310 63 1h36m27.739s  
11 Rubens Barrichello Jordan-Peugeot 196 63 1h36m44.646s  
Jean Alesi Benetton-Renault B196 62  
10 Pedro Diniz Ligier-Mugen-Honda JS43 62  17 
8r Mika Hakkinen McLaren-Mercedes MP4/11 61 Engine 11 
20 Pedro Lamy Minardi-Cosworth M195B 61  18 
10 22 Luca Badoer Forti-Cosworth FG01-95B 59  21 
11r Jacques Villeneuve Williams-Renault FW18 57 Rear Suspension 
Olivier Panis Ligier-Mugen-Honda JS43 54 Gearbox 13 
18 Ukyo Katayama Tyrrell-Yamaha 024 45 Transmission 16 
David Coulthard McLaren-Mercedes MP4/11 44 Gearbox Hydraulics 
16 Riccardo Rosset Footwork-Hart FA17 40 Engine 20 
17 Jos Verstappen Footwork-Hart FA17 38 Refueling Hose Attached 14 
12 Martin Brundle Jordan-Peugeot 196 36 Spin 12 
15 Heinz-Harald Frentzen Sauber-Cosworth C15 32 Brakes 10 
21 Giancarlo Fisichella Minardi-Cosworth M195B 30 Engine 19 
14 Johnny Herbert Sauber-Cosworth C15 25 Electronics/misfire 15 
19 Mika Salo Tyrrell-Yamaha 024 23 Engine 
nq 23 Andrea Montermini Forti-Cosworth FG01-95B   22