Spanish GP 1996

Spanish GP, 1996

Michael walks on water

IN the rain-soaked Spanish Grand Prix Michael Schumacher dominated completely, winning the race by 45secs, although he slowed down towards the end, and setting a fastest lap which was 2.2secs faster than anyone else. That really says it all. The guy is a class act in a racing car. In a class of his own in such conditions.

Generally-speaking the F1 circus has a good feeling about Barcelona. The city has its charms - although the area around the circuit is not one of them.

Barcelona is a lively cosmopolitan place and now that the road building work, scheduled to be completed for the 1992 Olympic Games, is finally finished the traffic almost runs without a problem, given that most of them are driven by excitable locals.

The Spaniards still have their old quaint habits, driving erratically, eating dinner at midnight and sleeping all afternoon. This is a lovely lifestyle if one does not have to work different hours, in which case it becomes infuriating as no-one seems to understand that there is a different way of life.

The Catalans will tell - endlessly - that they are different from other Spaniards, and indeed they are, but the idea of setting up an independent state seems rather pointless as the Catalan political bosses currently hold the balance of power after the recent Spanish elections, so they can do more or less what they like at the moment.

The local government has been very powerful for quite a while and it was this body which decided that it was time to build an international racing circuit and went on to largely fund the project.

The Circuit de Catalunya was a splendid job, about as good a circuit as you can build taking into account all the modern demands of Grand Prix tracks. Amazingly it even has a few challenging corners which are few and far between in these days of constant radius curves and endless run-off areas.

The circuit is clever because it distinguishes a good car from a bad one. This is achieved by demanding that engineers find a compromise between horsepower and aerodynamic downforce, so cars which have good grip can run less wing than those with a poor car which means that the good cars can achieve higher straightline speeds.

The other interesting thing about Barcelona is that it eats tires. The teams have to use their allotment of 28 tires for the weekend cautiously, which precludes the kind of PR stunts we have seen on occasion this year when teams have used new rubber to make an impression on Friday - which remains a meaningless day of testing.

On this occasion Eddie Irvine was fastest with a late dash on a new set of tires but it meant nothing and Eddie's Ferrari team mate Michael Schumacher was unequivocal about his chances for pole position. "The circuit is not compatible with our car," he said.

To no-one's great surprise the best car in Formula 1 in 1996 was fastest: the Williams-Renault 018 was well clear of the rest with Damon Hill completely dominant, beating his team mate Jacques Villeneuve by 0.434s. It was not easy, of course, because Damon's progress was handicapped somewhat by a pair of punctures which meant that he had to mix and match tires to make up his first set of tires for the qualifying runs. This enabled him to beat Villeneuve's first run but Schumacher was ahead at "half-time" in the qualifying session. It did not last.

The track at Barcelona tends to get quicker and quicker as the weekend goes on and although there was no Formula 3000 race this year to put down rubber, it was clear that the fastest runs would be late in the session.

"I knew I would have to pull out all the stops at the end," said Damon. He did just that to record a lap of 1m20.650s, 0.8s faster than last year's pole position, despite regulation changes to cut the speed of the cars.

Villeneuve was disappointed not to have mounted a stronger challenge to Hill at a track where he has done plenty of testing. He would probably have done better if he had not suffered a Renault engine failure on Saturday morning.

"That was pretty annoying," said the French-Canadian, "because we had just started to go quickly with low fuel and we lost 20 laps that we needed to get the car set up."

He was, however, happy not to be off the pace - "in the boonies" as he called it - as he had been at Monaco, and posted the second fastest time of 1m21.084s. He was not very happy to have been fined $5000 for speeding in the pitlane.

The Renault engine failure was the third such blow-up in the last two weeks and Hill admitted that these failures were rather worrying as reliability is the key to any World Championship challenge.

The Williams-Renault speed is certainly not a problem and, as has been the case in most of the races this year, the Williams-Renaults have been well clear of the nearest challenger. On this occasion Hill was around a second faster than Schumacher's Ferrari. After the rather unusual grids of Imola and Monaco, at Barcelona everything was back to normal. Behind Schumacher was a gaggle of a dozen cars all covered by two seconds.

"I didn't think for one moment that I would be able to get the pole position," said Schumacher. "I wasn't competitive enough. I feel this result gives a clear picture of the current situation - from a technical point of view. I got the absolute maximum out of the car. The gap stems mainly from aerodynamic reasons. Until we have the new parts we are currently developing it will be difficult to close the gap. There is nothing wrong with the engine, we are very competitive in that area."

In an effort to find more answers Schumacher was running with two completely different set-ups and, as it turned out, found that the spare car was quicker than his normal race car.

Behind Michael it was pretty much business as usual with all the promised comebacks and development programs showing very little impact on the grid. The Benetton boys were fourth and fifth - Jean Alesi just ahead of Gerhard Berger - but the pair were 1.4s off pole position time, despite using exactly the same engines as Williams. Alesi said he was satisfied, Berger said he would have managed another two or three tenths if he could have gotten back the balance he had in the morning. This cannot have been very good news for the Benetton team because even with the car perfect, the B196 is still a second a lap adrift of the Williams. There must be a moral in that somewhere...

Eddie Irvine ended up sixth fastest on Saturday after his moment of glory on Friday. This gave Eddie a great deal of pleasure as he has finally benefited from some decent testing with the F310 and has been able to find a balance he likes. "I think I can have a good race," he said, adding wistfully that "the Williams will probably be out there racing on their own."

Next up was Rubens Barrichello in his Jordan-Peugeot, although the Brazilian admitted that the car was not going to be any quicker than that. "I did all I could do," he said.

Martin Brundle was down in 15th place on the grid - which was not a great 37th birthday present for Martin. He complained of traffic.

Next was the newest French hero Olivier Panis - after whom children all over France are now being named following his astonishing victory at Monaco. "Olive" was bouncing along on a confident high and was quite happy to be eighth on the grid - his best qualifying position this year - although he felt he might have been quicker if he had not chanced upon a slow moving Forti, not once, but twice...

His Ligier team mate Pedro Diniz was down in 17th, which was a disappointment for the young Brazilian who felt he had got lost in set-up in the morning.

Ninth and 11th on the grid were the two Sauber-Fords - their habitual hangout - although on this occasion Johnny Herbert managed to out-qualify Heinz-Harald Frentzen. Both drivers complained of bad understeer in qualifying trim but hoped that things would be better in the race.

Now you may have noticed that so far we have had no mention of the McLaren team. This might seem strange given the apparent progress which has been made recently. The truth is that at Barcelona things did not look good from the start and by Saturday evening - Ron Dennis's 49th birthday - David Coulthard and Mika Hakkinen had only managed to drag their long wheelbase MP4/11s to tenth and 14th on the grid. It was the team's worst qualifying showing of the year and put an abrupt end to any idea of progress. To give one some idea of this, the best thing is to very simply add the grid positions of the two drivers together and compare the races. In Australia the total was 21 (7th and 14th), in Brazil 18 (fifth and 13th), Argentina 17 (eighth and ninth), Europe 15 (sixth and ninth). San Marino was 15 as well (fourth and 11th) but Monaco was 13 (fifth and eighth). Barcelona saw the total plunge to 24 (10th and 14th) and the gap between McLaren and Williams go out to 2.4s.

This has been achieved with vast amounts of testing between races and huge expense. What is going on? There are no excuses for a team with such a history and an engine manufacturer with such pedigree as Mercedes. You can argue about this and that and lack of grip and all the other lame excuses there are in the world, but no matter which way you look at it the team's performance this year is scandalously poor. If that sounds like kicking a team when it is down, it is. McLaren has no right to be scrabbling around with the small fry... Ah, but they have a lovely new motorhome!

Twelfth behind Hakkinen and Frentzen was Mika Salo's Tyrrell, in a car which carries virtually no sponsorship and has a very limited budget with which to test and make progress. There were a few misfire problems with Salo's Yamaha engine on Saturday morning, but the major problem was that the V10 did not have enough grunt on the straights. This must have been very frustrating.

Ukyo Katayama must also have been disappointed. He was restricted to 16th on the grid because of an engine failure in qualifying.

Jos Verstappen was 13th on the grid which was a pretty good effort given the fact that the Arrows team currently has no money available to do any development work because of a struggle for power going on within the team between 49% shareholder Jackie Oliver and 51% owner Tom Walkinshaw. At the moment neither one seems to be paying and so progress is rather limited.

The Minardis were 18th and 19th on the grid - which was as much as one would expect, although it was unusual that Pedro Lamy out-qualified Giancarlo Fisichella.

Arrows's newboy Ricardo Rosset was 20th, continuing to struggle and clearly desperately in need of a serious amount of testing to get his confidence up.

Luca Badoer and Andrea Montermini did not make the cut in the Forti-Fords, now painted green and white in deference to the arrival of new sponsorship from the Shannon Racing Team. This must have been something of a shock for the team as the new car is supposed to be a lot quicker than the old one...

ON Saturday afternoon it began to rain, and it had set in by early Sunday with a constant downpour all morning. The warm-up saw Damon Hill fastest from Michael Schumacher, but one or two of the drivers suffered as they were not able to test a full wet set-up because the session was stopped when Frentzen demolished a Sauber against the pitwall - in a very big accident. For some inexplicable reason the seven remaining minutes of the warm-up were forgotten about.

At the drivers' briefing there was talk of rolling starts behind the pace car and as the grid lined up the safety car was parked at the front of the grid. With a few minutes to go, however, it disappeared. Someone had decided that the race should have a normal start. This took a lot of the drivers by surprise as race director Roger Lane-Nott had apparently warned them that a safety car start was quite likely.

Whatever the case the start came in terrible conditions with those at the back of the grid racing into enormous clouds of spray. They could see nothing.

Up at the front Hill was slow away but the two Ferraris were even slower so Villeneuve was able to get into the first corner ahead with Alesi behind him and Damon Hill third. Fourth was Berger, fifth Barrichello and sixth Irvine. Behind Eddie was Schumacher.

What happened further back in the field will remain forever a complete mystery because none of the drivers involved had the faintest idea what they had hit or who had hit them. All they knew is that they were out. The television was hopeless. No-one had seen anything.

"I don't know who I hit," said David Coulthard. "I could not see him. All I know is that I found myself with no front left corner..."

No-one knew what had happened, although David thought that whoever he had hit probably kept going. It might, he opined, have been Eddie Irvine's Ferrari.

It was a similar story further back. Let Giancarlo Fisichella explain his short but eventful race. "Maybe it wasn't very wise to let us start under those conditions," he said. "I moved from the grid barely touching the throttle as I couldn't even see the nose of my car. I was going quite slowly in order to avoid any collision but all I could see was a wall of water when I crashed into a car in front of me - maybe Lamy's - and then another car crashed into mine. I managed to complete the lap and get back to the pits but my car was beyond repair."

It can be established that Fisichella had indeed run into the back of his team-mate. This was confirmed when the Minardi badge from the nose of Fisichella's car was found jammed in the shattered rear end of Lamy's M195B. Ouch! Perhaps it would be inopportune to mention that the pair collided on the first lap at Monaco as well...

The rude assailant of Fisichella's rear end appears to have been Ricardo Rosset in his Arrows - although he was not sure what had happened. The damage to his car was all frontal and there was no-one behind him...

Tyrrell's Ukyo Katayama, incidentally, claimed to have hit Fisichella as well, while there was Minardi green paint on the rear end of Olivier Panis's Ligier.

Pedro Diniz might have been involved because as he motored merrily through the fog a car - he was unable to identify it - shot right across in front of him and he missed it by inches.

There were three cars left wrecked beside the track at the end of all this: Lamy, Coulthard and Rosset. Fisichella and Panis managed to drive to the pits with bits hanging off their cars.

We would lose Eddie Irvine on the second lap when he spun off and then somehow beached his Ferrari on a ridge and that was it for him.

This left Schumacher on Berger's tail fighting for fourth place. It would become a battle for third place on lap four when Damon Hill dropped the ball. "I thought we had a good wet weather set-up," he said, "but I had trouble keeping ahead of those behind me."

On lap four he slid off and dropped behind Berger and Schumacher. On lap eight he went off again - spinning this time - and dropped behind Barrichello, Frentzen and Verstappen. Three laps later Damon spun again. This time the car connected solidly with the pit wall, leaving Damon no choice but to hop out and walk back to the pits.

"I am just relieved to be in one piece," he said later. "I am pleased to be out of the race. It was a bad day for me. It was difficult to see anything and I had problems."

When Hill hit the wall, the Schumacher fans cheered loudly, but they would be doing more cheering in the laps ahead as Michael carved past Berger on lap five, Alesi on lap nine and Villeneuve on lap 12. Once in the lead he simply drove away from the field, setting a string of fastest laps which saw his lead go from 2.9s on lap 12, to 6.6s on lap 13; 10.5 on lap 14; 14.9s on lap 15 and so on. His 14th lap would stand as the fastest lap of the race - a 1m45.517s - which would be 2.2secs faster than any other lap by any other driver in the course of the afternoon.

This was a performance of remarkable talent - reminiscent in many ways of Ayrton Senna at his very best. Schumacher was, pure and simple, in a class of his own.

After the race, team boss Jean Todt used the word "incredible" and that was not overstating the performance. Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo called him "exceptional".

On lap 18, Schumacher came by with his engine sounding a little rough but it seemed to clear itself and the gap continued to grow. He pitted early - on lap 24 - but this was the pre-ace strategy and he was still 25secs ahead when he rejoined. On lap 31 the rough sounds returned and became gradually worse. "I was driving either an eight or nine cylinder engine. I had much less power. I was down about 10kph on the straights."

Despite this, Schumacher was still able to pull away from the rest of the field. He stopped again on lap 42 but was a minute ahead when he rejoined. He let this slide back to 45secs by the finish, but there was never a threat from any other driver.

Benetton's Alesi would end up second having been able to get past Villeneuve during the mid race pit stops. Despite this Jean said it had been "a terrible choice by the team. A big mistake."

This was a strange statement because the strategy looked pretty good and did allow him to pass Jacques which was more than he could do on the road...

Gerhard Berger ran fourth for most of the afternoon and would probably have finished there, but he spun off on lap 45 while trying to pass Diniz.

"It was basically my mistake," he admitted. "I had to try and overtake on the straight as there was no way to stay close behind him. I tried to show him I was right next to him and that he should slow down but he did not realize."

With Berger gone, Villeneuve was unchallenged in third place in the Williams. He looked like threatening Alesi in the late laps but in the end there was no way to catch the Frenchman and he settled for third place.

Fourth would go to Heinz-Harald Frentzen in the Sauber - which was a remarkable result given that he was in the spare car. It would probably have gone to Jordan's Barrichello but the Brazilian ran into clutch trouble soon after his pit stop. He had run second before that and rejoined in fourth, looking strong, but to score points one must finish... Rubens, however, did set the second fastest lap of the race.

Team mate Martin Brundle didn't make it to the flag either, retiring with transmission failure on lap 16.

Frentzen's team mate Johnny Herbert was another victim of the conditions. Like Heinz-Harald he had survived the early carnage to run eighth, but he went off on lap three and dropped to 10th, and then spun off once and for all on lap 21. "In conditions like that," explained Johnny, "it is a bit of a lottery."

Jos Verstappen was another to make a mistake and spin off, which was a shame because the Dutchman was up to fifth place when it happened, having driven a quite remarkable early few laps. He set the third fastest lap of the race on lap 29, but on lap 51 he went off.

"I was pushing too hard," he said. "I think I went over a puddle, got some oversteer and simply lost it." The Arrows team was not impressed and Jos got a dressing down when he returned to the pits.

Tyrrell disappeared quickly in the race with Salo's car refusing to run properly on the grid. He was pushed into the pits, jumped into the spare car - illegally - and started the race from the pitlane. He would be black-flagged after 15 laps. Katayama ran 13th in the early laps but suffered another Yamaha engine failure on lap nine.

All this left McLaren's Mika Hakkinen and Ligier's Pedro Diniz to complete the runners, and by finishing gain points for fifth and sixth places. One can say that this was down to good reliability and sensible driving - which was true - but neither man was even close to the pace. The fastest laps of the race revealed that Hakkinen's fastest lap was 4.2secs slower than that of Schumacher. It should also be noted that he was a minute behind the leader after just 12 laps.

Now, here is a competition. How does a team with so many talented engineers, such a good engine, such a vast budget and such impressive facilities manage to do so badly when we know the drivers are quick? Answers on a postcard, please, to Ron Dennis, Woking Business Park, Albert Drive, Woking, Surrey or c/o The Fancy Motorhome, Any Paddock, F1.

As one star fades so another rises, but even as Ferrari celebrated Schumacher's great victory Jean Todt was careful not to get carried away. "This is not the time to talk of the dawning of a new age," he said. "We have won one race. Our objective is to continue improving."

Praying for rain at every race would be the cheapest research & development program...

Michael Schumacher Ferrari F310 65 1h59m49.307s  
Jean Alesi Benetton-Renault B196 65 2h00m34.609s  
Jacques Villeneuve Williams-Renault FW18 65 2h00m37.695s  
15 Heinz-Harald Frentzen Sauber-Cosworth C15 64  11 
Mika Hakkinen McLaren-Mercedes MP4/11 64  10 
10 Pedro Diniz Ligier-Mugen-Honda JS43 63  17 
17 Jos Verstappen Footwork-Hart FA17 47 Spin 13 
11 Rubens Barrichello Jordan-Peugeot 196 45 Differential 
Gerhard Berger Benetton-Renault B196 44 Spin 
14 Johnny Herbert Sauber-Cosworth C15 20 Spin 
12 Martin Brundle Jordan-Peugeot 196 17 Differential 15 
dq 19 Mika Salo Tyrrell-Yamaha 024 16 Changed Car After Parade Leap 12 
Damon Hill Williams-Renault FW18 10 Spin 
18 Ukyo Katayama Tyrrell-Yamaha 024 Electrics 16 
Eddie Irvine Ferrari F310 Spin 
Olivier Panis Ligier-Mugen-Honda JS43 Accident Damage 
21 Giancarlo Fisichella Minardi-Cosworth M195B Accident Damage 19 
David Coulthard McLaren-Mercedes MP4/11 Accident 14 
16 Riccardo Rosset Footwork-Hart FA17 Accident 20 
20 Pedro Lamy Minardi-Cosworth M195B Accident 18 
nq 22 Luca Badoer Forti-Cosworth FG01-95B   21 
nq 23 Andrea Montermini Forti-Cosworth FG01-95B   22