French GP 1996

French GP, 1996


THE most exciting thing to happen in the French GP took place before the race even started - pole man Michael Schumacher suffered a major engine failure on the parade lap. In doing so it blew up any vague idea Michael may have been harboring of fighting for the World Championship this year... He is now 37 points behind Damon Hill. That means he needs four wins without Hill scoring a point with seven races left... It was the fourth Williams 1-2 of the year. Everyone else was in their normal predicament - they were too slow. Benetton trolled around in third and fourth giving Renault a 1-2-3-4 finish and Damon was quick to dedicate the win to the men of Renault Sport.

There has been motor racing in the sleepy village of Magny-Cours since 1960 when a local farmer called Jean Bernigaud built a 1.2-mile track on some of his land. This did not attract worldwide attention. A few years later a racing school was established, and, as French drivers rose to the top of the sport backed by Renault and Elf in the 1970s, Magny-Cours grew with the French racing industry. Bernigaud expanded Magny-Cours - naming it the Circuit Jean Behra - just before he died. His widow took over the track and allowed the local motor club to run the circuit. The circuit received no real investment and by the mid-1980s was in a sorry state.

Madame Bernigaud, however, was a well-connected lady. For a long time she had been friends with a couple of local politicians: Francois Mitterand, the mayor of Chateau Chinon and Pierre Beregovoy, the mayor of Nevers. They worked their way up to become President and Prime Minister of France and between them dreamed up the idea of using the racing circuit to boost the Nievre region using motor racing. The track was acquired, vast sums of government money was poured into it and huge incentives were offered to Ligier and other racing teams to relocate to the middle of nowhere.

The new track followed the route of the original but was made more spectacular by copying good corners from other circuits - hence the strange corner names of Magny-Cours: Estoril, Adelaide, Imola and Nurburgring.

Magny-Cours is a curious racing circuit in that it is very smooth and offers little grip. Cars with good horsepower and good mechanical grip do well - if the two elements are balanced. Aerodynamics are not as critical as at other tracks. In effect, this means that the circuit tends to narrow the gaps between the lap times. The grid showed this with pole man Michael Schumacher having 12 drivers within 2secs behind him. The fact that Schumacher was on pole was strange, but then qualifying was a curious affair, disrupted by Jacques Villeneuve having the biggest shunt he has so far managed in an F1 car. A spectacular affair, it was not sufficient to deter Jacques from jumping straight into the spare car and rushing out to try again.

The Williams boys had a new Renault development engine to play with at Magny-Cours and Damon Hill reported that there was a small improvement in the mid-range of power, "where we need it".

Damon should have been on pole position. It was certainly expected although Friday had seen Hill a bit all over the place as the team played about with set-ups, notably when he contrived to take off dramatically over a curb. Fridays, however, do not much matter these days - unless you are willing to sacrifice some new tires to impress an impatient sponsor.

Saturday morning's rain did not help anyone much and Williams seemed a long way off in terms of damp set-up. In the afternoon, however, we waited for Damon to pull out the fast laps as he has done all year. The first runs were successful. He took pole for a few seconds on his first run, only to be knocked off the top by Schumacher within a few seconds. His second run was spoiled by a Minardi in his path. His final run at the end of the session should have brought him pole position. The split times were rather strange. In the first sector of the track he was streets ahead of the rest - as much as 0.5sec ahead - but in the second sector he lost a little, and the third he seemed always just to miss out and so he crossed the line each time slightly slower than Schumacher over the whole lap. On the final charging lap, Damon admitted that he made a mistake.

"I was up and I lost it all in the quick chicane on the way back," he said. "I had a moment there and I would have had pole but for that. A bit of a driver error I am afraid. But I am on the front row and that is important. So it is not a great disadvantage." A mistake or not, the lap times were still rather odd.

"We are aware of that," smiled Damon. "We need to do a bit of a balancing act. It is quite different to my last visits here, when I made up time on the second part of the lap. Still, I have been on pole here three times and never won. Maybe my luck will change this year."

Jacques Villeneuve was certainly not having much luck on Saturday, although on Friday he had been confident. "For sure tomorrow we will fight to get the car on pole and we will give it our best shot," he said.

On Saturday afternoon, exiting the very fast curling Estoril corner - named after a corner in Portugal from which it was copied - Jacques gave it a hell of a shot. He ended up drifting wide. In the finest tradition of racing heroes he kept his foot nailed to the throttle as the car bumped and ground its way onto a little grass. This was probably a little damp because he was quickly into the dirt. He kept his foot nailed to the floor. It looked for a minute that he might make it round the corner without hitting the wall. He obviously thought he would. It was at this moment that he hit a piece of tarmac built to allow service vehicles to drive onto the circuit. It launched him into a short flight and a heavy landing. Moments later the space ran out and Jacques's front left wheel smacked into the tire barrier. It was torn straight off. The rear left came off too as the Williams was thrown upward by the tires. It crashed back down onto the road and slewed across the track... just as David Coulthard arrived on a flyer in his McLaren.

"I thought he had stopped in the middle of the road," said the Scotsman. "The angle I was approaching from hid the fact that he still had some momentum and I had to take to the grass to avoid hitting him. That was a bit scary!"

Luckily, however, the Williams was not hit and Jacques duly climbed out, looking a little sheepish but otherwise none the worse for wear. "It is not the biggest crash I have ever had," he explained. "I have had bigger ones in Indycars." Later he would go out in a spare Williams, but he did not improve his time and ended up sixth on the grid.

With Williams not doing as well as is expected, Michael Schumacher was handed the chance to grab pole position. That is like offering a gin & tonic to a lush in the desert.

On Friday such a thing had looked distinctly unlikely. "I expected to encounter a few difficulties here as Magny-Cours is a track which offers little grip, which means that the car tends to slide a lot. My F310 is unpredictable." Twenty-four hours later here was Schumacher on pole.

"I was quite worried after yesterday because the car was not handling at all," he reported. "This morning did not help us because of the wet. We were not able to test. So we went for a solution and it worked. I was quite surprised. It was a complete change."

Whatever the case, it worked and on his second run he took pole position. On later runs the car did not improve but Schumacher felt this was more down to a rise in track temperature than car problems.

"Over the race distance it is going to be a problem," he added. "I was unable to do a fast time on my second lap on each set so the race is going to be tough."

There would be controversy after the session about a Ferrari air deflector - the vertical turning vanes which channel air down the sides of the cockpit. Early in the session Eddie Irvine's car was scrutineered and one of these air deflectors was found to be 15mm too tall. The FIA Technical Delegate Charlie Whiting informed Ferrari that Irvine would be reported to the stewards at the end of the session. Ferrari then closed up the garage door and worked on Schumacher's car for a while. The deflectors on the other cars were checked. According to Ferrari the only one with a problem was the one which Whiting had spotted. Others were more cynical.

When Schumacher failed to go quicker late in the session there were suggestions all over the paddock that perhaps this was because the turning vanes had been modified and that pole position had actually been taken with illegal fittings. No one except the Ferrari folk will ever know the answer to that one. In fact it was an academic argument.

"If anyone actually thinks that an extra 15mm of turning vane made the difference they are stupid," said a Ferrari engineer. "What made the difference was the fact that Michael Schumacher was driving the car."

The FIA, therefore, left Schumacher alone - nothing could be proved one way or the other - but Irvine was deprived of all his times (which would have been good for 10th on the grid) and would have to start the race from the back of the field.

"All in all," said the resigned Irishman, "10th or last doesn't make much difference. I should have gone at least half a second quicker. It is incredible how much time I lost in the third sector - it was half a second in the hairpin alone. The car would not go round the corners."

Behind Schumacher and Hill we had local hero Jean Alesi in his Benetton - desperate to do well in front of his home crowd. The Benetton team looked a little more competitive than it has been in recent weeks but Damon Hill was still 0.3secs ahead - even after his mistake - and Alesi reckoned that the team was still not using the Renault engines "as we should".

Gerhard Berger was fourth fastest, but the Austrian was not particularly happy with his lot in life having lost time on his best lap when he locked up because his tire pressures were - for some reason - too low. His major problem remained as it has been all year long: understeer.

Fifth on the grid was Mika Hakkinen with his McLaren team mate David Coulthard in seventh spot. This was pretty much as one would have expected although the team was busily trying to push the idea that there has been a specific breakthrough in recent testing. Mika Hakkinen was fastest on Friday having used new tires. That did not prove a lot but was a PR bonus. On Saturday the Finn felt that fifth place was good.

"We are still a few tenths off the pace but we know where we can improve," he said.

Coulthard had a less easy time of it. On Friday he had an off which delayed his progress and then gave himself a scare when Villeneuve crashed.

"I don't think seventh is a bad place to start the race from and one second away from the pole is as close as we have been in some other races," he said.

Behind the McLarens came Martin Brundle, outqualifying Rubens Barrichello for the first time this year. The Brazilian managed only 10th on the grid. Martin and Rubens were using the latest version of the Peugeot V10 engine - an evolution of the A12, known as EV5. The Jordans were again fastest in a straightline. Martin was also using Jordan's new power-steering system.

"I felt we could have - and should have - popped it into the top six today," said the Englishman on Saturday evening. "We missed it by a few tenths and, although we know where they are missing, it proved difficult to find the improvement without compromising the car on other parts of the track." Barrichello was disappointed but complained that he was unable to find a decent set-up for the car - and he didn't know why.

Splitting the Jordan-Peugeots was Olivier Panis in his Ligier-Mugen Honda. The team traditionally has an advantage at Magny-Cours as it is usually the team's test track. This year, however, all the political shenanigans with Tom Walkinshaw and Flavio Briatore has meant that the team has not tested as much as it would have liked to have done. Nevertheless in race trim the Ligier is often quick and qualifying ninth is a good place to start, particularly when some of those ahead in qualifying owe their places on the grid to qualifying engines and such things.

On Friday when things did not matter Panis was second fastest - which was achieved without new tires. On Saturday, however, he struggled to find a good set-up and eventually switched to the spare for qualifying. A radio cock-up with the team in the final minutes of the session meant that he did not do as well as he had hoped. He would probably have been in the top six if all had gone well. He was, therefore, a dark horse for the race. His Ligier teammate Pedro Diniz was 11th fastest, which was a good effort and his best F1 qualifying position to date.

Behind the Jordans and the Ligier was Heinz-Harald Frentzen in his Sauber and this was a disappointment - although Ligier was expected to do better here than in other events. Johnny Herbert was 16th with major brake problems.

Thirteenth on the grid was a sensible showing from Mika Salo, but the Tyrrell team continues to have engine problems on a regular basis. Ukyo Katayama was 14th, two-tenths behind his team mate.

Next up was Jos Verstappen, which was as expected given that Arrows has spent the last few weeks riddled with in-fighting and not doing enough in the way of development work.

"I don't want to say anything," said a long-faced Verstappen. "My face says it all. The lap time is too slow. The main problem is still understeer."

Arrows teammate Ricardo Rosset was 19th - his usual position given the fact that Irvine would have been tenth if he had not been bounced to back.

The Minardis were in their usual formation with Giancarlo Fisichella faster than Pedro Lamy and the tail end featured the two Fortis as usual.

THE race morning warm-up - usually a dull affair - was a circus at Magny-Cours with the unlikely result of Villeneuve fastest. He had spent the night being massaged by the Williams trainer Erwin Gollner, and when he was out of the car he wore a neck brace. The mechanics looked a bit sleepy because they had spent half the night building up a new car around a spare chassis to replace the one Jacques had demolished in qualifying. But if things were going right for Jacques, they were going wrong for Damon. He described it as "the warm-up from Hell" and it involved crashing into Heinz-Harald Frentzen's Sauber while not paying attention and then bouncing over a sandtrap while out in the spare.

"I went to apologize to Frentzen," said Damon, "because I was fiddling with an adjustment in the cockpit and I didn't see him coming inside me."

McLaren's Mika Hakkinen had a brush with Fisichella's Minardi and a little trip into a gravel trap, while Coulthard went off with a brake problem, to be followed almost immediately by poleman Schumacher with a similar difficulty.

By the time the cars lined up on the pre-grid, Michael's Ferrari was back to its normal pristine state and the German was looking forward to a great start. He had a new clutch - "Made in Germany" he boasted - and was dreaming of making the kind of start which he made at Magny-Cours back in 1994, when he catapulted off the line, controlling the traction with an almost machine-like skill.

Ah, what frail things are dreams. As the field toured round on the final parade lap, everyone concentrating on what they were going to do when the five red lights went out, the rear end of the Ferrari suddenly disappeared in a great cloud of oil smoke and steam. The Ferrari V10 had blown up. Bang. Kaput! Ai-e-e-e-e, as they say in Italy.

The World Champion was out - and after the Canadian disaster he was not in a good mood. "I was quite angry," he admitted. "In a few seconds I saw all the hard work I have done with the team go up in smoke. It is at times like these that you must control your emotions and stay cool and rational. The fact that we would have reliability problems is something I was aware of from the moment I started working for Ferrari. I thought we would have them at the start of the season."

"We must not get discouraged," he said - sounding vaguely Churchillian. "We must grit our teeth and push on."

Damon Hill, cruising along behind Michael, was: "Amazed. Stunned. Delighted!" He was also worried: "You get prepared for a race and go through all the permutations of what might happen. And then you go off on the parade lap and the guy's engine blows up. It is not what you expect and it is easy to get distracted by something like that. I was very careful because he blew the engine in a proper way and there was a lot of oil on the track."

Despite his worries Damon drove a great first lap, crossing the line a second and a half ahead of Alesi. Hakkinen had found a way passed Berger and Villeneuve had gone with him, dropping the Austrian to fifth.

In those early stages Hill put in a series of good laps to establish a lead and then began banging in quick laps to build up the gap. After 18 laps he had a lead of just under 10 seconds. "The car was good for those first few laps and I was able to push hard. I wanted to get as much of a lead as I could." Hill was planning a two-stop race with a fairly long opening stint. He was not under threat at any point.

Behind him Alesi ran pretty much alone in second with Hakkinen running third, holding up Villeneuve. There was a small gap back to Berger and then a big gap to Brundle, who was holding up Coulthard. Then there was another gap to Diniz who has a train of cars in his wake. Magny-Cours is like that. Overtaking is not easy. Villeneuve was able to take the lead after those ahead of him stopped and set some very fast laps as he tried to grab time so that when he came out from his pit stop he would not be stuck behind Hakkinen again. The tactic worked.

Jacques then breezed up behind Alesi and on lap 37 drafted past the Frenchman at the Adelaide hairpin. "I was pretty good in the Estoril corner," explained Jacques, "and so I could get a run at others and get close for the hairpin. Jean had a problem with his brakes." Alesi tried to chase Villeneuve but found it was an impossible task and so settled down to run third.

Villeneuve put in a spurt to try and catch Hill - setting the fastest lap of the race - but Damon reacted and it became clear to Jacques that there was no way he was going to do much about his team mate.

Towards the end of the race Alesi was joined in third by his team mate Gerhard Berger, who had sneaked past Hakkinen and then clawed his way up behind Jean. There was no danger of Gerhard getting past however.

"He was quicker in some parts of the circuit," said Jean, "but I knew it was impossible for him to overtake me. I played with him, going a bit slow just to upset him. We have been together as team mates for five years. We are good friends!" The two finished 46secs behind Hill - which doesn't really suggest that Benetton has really made much progress in race trim.

It was a similar story with McLaren. Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard finished fifth and sixth - and both scored points - but Mika was 62secs behind Hill over the 72 laps and Coulthard was a lap down. The team blamed the loss of first and second gears on lap 29 for some of Mika's misfortunes but it really didn't seem to make much of a difference. He had one lap in which he lost about a second and then he was back at much the same pace as before. It was a problem for his second pit stop and he lost seven seconds, but he had dropped behind Berger before the stop so it did not make much difference.

Coulthard made a poor start and dropped behind Brundle. This cost him a lot of time in the early laps because although he was clearly faster than the Jordan driver, he could not pass him. This was achieved at the first pit stop but by then David was 20secs down on Berger and going slower than the Austrian. Luckily there was no-one behind him to challenge as all the others had been so badly held up behind Diniz in the early laps that he had a 10sec cushion. Brundle tried to close up but inevitably failed because Jordan's understeer was ruinous to the tires and fell back to hold up a frustrated Olivier Panis - who seemed to spend the whole afternoon stuck behind Jordans.

The general impression, therefore, was that the McLarens had drifted back through the field as they have done in many races this year. If progress has been made it is only minimal...

Panis ended the day seventh - 17secs behind Coulthard - but he deserved more, having driven a race full of heart and frustration. His fastest lap was second only to Villeneuve and a full second quicker than the McLarens and Jordans. Without them he would have starred. Unfortunately life is like that. He did not make a good start, losing places to both Barrichello and Diniz. And so he was stuck behind the pair of them. Diniz was planning just one stop and had a heavy fuel load and Barrichello was suffering from terminal understeer. Olivier stopped early - hoping to use the clear track when he rejoined to outrun the others when they stopped. It would have worked too but the Ligier refueling rig was not working properly - the team did not want to explain why - and so he rejoined without enough fuel. He would have to stop twice more. The car was still fast and the pit stop strategy was good enough to get rid of Barrichello and later Brundle but Coulthard was too far ahead. Olivier took five seconds off the McLaren but with 10 laps it was pointless to push harder and so he backed off. "If I had qualified better I am sure my race would have been a different affair altogether."

Diniz's one-stop plan might have delivered some points. He was in the top six when he retired on lap 28 with a pneumatic valve problem on his engine.

Jordan's was a black day as well with Brundle and Barrichello finishing eighth and ninth. This is Peugeot country and the result was not good, despite an obviously very useful engine. Both drivers reported terrible understeer and tires faded quickly.

"This is a disappointing Grand Prix where the team never found a good set-up for both cars," said Peugeot Sport boss Pierre-Michel Fauconnier. "It is a pity because we showed reliability again and that should have made a better result possible."

Mika Salo finished 10th for Tyrrell after a dull race during which he suffered an oil pressure problem with his Yamaha engine. Katayama did not get that far. His engine died on lap 33.

Johnny Herbert came home 11th which was a terrible result for Sauber. Johnny was disenchanted throughout the weekend. "There is something odd about my car," said Johnny. "It has been really bad all weekend but for three laps in the race it was suddenly fast - and then it was terrible again. I do not understand."

Frentzen had to race the spare after the incident with Hill in the morning and he dropped a few places at the start and ended up stuck behind Diniz, Barrichello and Co. He spun into a gravel trap on lap 57.

Ricardo Rosset brought his Arrows home 12th which was good for his confidence but Arrows had a bad day overall, Verstappen making a good start before he was stuck in the Diniz jam. A steering arm failed on lap 11 and dumped him in a sand trap.

Lamy got his Minardi home in 13th but it was a dull day for them as Fisichella went out with a fuel pump failure on lap 3. Both Fortis retired with engine troubles - rumors suggesting that both were parked because the engines were beyond their allowed mileage...

Racing engines are designed to last a specific distance (established by the manufacturer) before needing to be rebuilt to replace worn-out components.

The other retirement was Irvine, who started from the back and after five laps parked with a gearbox problem. "This is the blackest day of my long career in motorsport," said Ferrari team boss Jean Todt.

Damon Hill Williams-Renault FW18 72 1h36m28.795s  
Jacques Villeneuve Williams-Renault FW18 72 1h36m36.922s  
Jean Alesi Benetton-Renault B196 72 1h37m15.237s  
Gerhard Berger Benetton-Renault B196 72 1h37m15.654s  
Mika Hakkinen McLaren-Mercedes MP4/11 72 1h37m31.569s  
David Coulthard McLaren-Mercedes MP4/11 71  
Olivier Panis Ligier-Mugen-Honda JS43 71  
12 Martin Brundle Jordan-Peugeot 196 71  
11 Rubens Barrichello Jordan-Peugeot 196 71  10 
10 19 Mika Salo Tyrrell-Yamaha 024 70  13 
dq 14 Johnny Herbert Sauber-Cosworth C15 70 Bodywork Infringement 16 
11 16 Riccardo Rosset Footwork-Hart FA17 69  19 
12 20 Pedro Lamy Minardi-Cosworth M195B 69  18 
15 Heinz-Harald Frentzen Sauber-Cosworth C15 56 Throttle Jammed/spin 12 
18 Ukyo Katayama Tyrrell-Yamaha 024 33 Engine 14 
22 Luca Badoer Forti-Cosworth FG01-95B 29 Fuel Feed 20 
10 Pedro Diniz Ligier-Mugen-Honda JS43 28 Engine Pneumatic Valve System 11 
17 Jos Verstappen Footwork-Hart FA17 10 Front Steering Arm/accident 15 
Eddie Irvine Ferrari F310 Gear Box 22 
21 Giancarlo Fisichella Minardi-Cosworth M195B Fuel Pump 17 
23 Andrea Montermini Forti-Cosworth FG01-95B Electrics 21 
Michael Schumacher Ferrari F310 Engine