British GP 1996

British GP, 1996

Jacques out of the box

DAMON HILL blew his start at Silverstone and that put Jacques Villeneuve into the lead of the British Grand Prix. He put his head down and left his rivals standing, while Hill was stuck behind slower cars. It mattered not a lot because at the start of lap 27 something seized in the back end of Damon's Williams and he was dumped into a sandpit. And after that no-one even came close...

Silverstone claims to be the home of British motor racing. There is no doubt that it is the home of Grand Prix racing. It was where the very first World Championship event was held in 1950; it is where most of the F1 circus cuts its teeth and dented barriers in the junior formulae; it is where the majority of the British F1 teams spend days and days pounding around testing between races. Silverstone is within easy reach of most of the country's F1 team bases. For most of the F1 circus it is a track full of memories of good times and good races.

But a home is more than that. One is supposed to have a vague warm feeling about a place one calls home and it seems that the F1 circus does have that. Silverstone is easier because if there is a crisis one can rush back to the factory to fix a problem or find a spare part; it is also more pleasant because it is the only Grand Prix from which a lot of people can go home at night and sleep in their own beds. These warm feelings mean that some of Silverstone's more obvious faults are forgiven. The traffic makes Los Angeles seem good and there are as few hotels as Magny-Cours.

It being home means that there is a great deal of pressure to get tickets for relatives, old friends, next-door neighbors and so on. It also means that getting anything done is more difficult because you cannot walk more than 10 yards - even in the paddock - without bumping into old friends. Walking the length of the paddock can take a whole morning.

For the British teams Silverstone offers a huge advantage because they know every inch of the track. Ferrari, Ligier, Sauber, Minardi and Forti are at a disadvantage from the start of the meeting - just as the British teams are in trouble at Monza, where Ferrari does a lot of its testing.

It was quickly clear on Saturday - Friday practice is a complete waste of time - that Ferrari was not going to be a factor in qualifying. As soon as the Williams boys began to stretch their legs the rest of the field was history - ancient history.

Jacques Villeneuve had been fastest on Friday. He used a new set of tires, but only because he had punctured another set early on. Jacques was pumped up and keen to beat Damon Hill on a track which they both know well. After finding his feet in the first half of the season, Jacques had expected to begin to mount a much more serious challenge to Damon. Jacques is getting stronger as he grows more comfortable in the team and more accustomed to the ways of F1.

But Damon Hill is not to be trifled with at the moment. Those who dismiss him as being an average driver in a very good car should be careful. Damon has continued to get better as the wins have rolled in and his confidence has grown. He is absolutely at the top of his profession nowadays.

On Saturday morning Damon was quickest with Jacques a few tenths behind him. In the afternoon it would be a similar story. Qualifying was a series of skirmishes between the Williams boys. Jacques set the ball rolling only to have Hill knock him back. Next time around Jacques beat Damon's best, a time which Hill could not beat. End of round one. Damon nil, Jacques one. With 20 minutes to go, out they went again with Damon taking back pole, slicing three-tenths off Villeneuve's best. Jacques could not match him. Damon one, Jacques one. In the final five minutes of the session they were back again and this time Villeneuve looked more threatening. On his final flying lap he had to pass Mika Hakkinen's McLaren in the Complex and it lost him a few split seconds.

"It was a good lap," explained Jacques. "Hakkinen did not try to block me, but it is difficult to move out of the way at that point. That lost me a good four-tenths. It would have been close."

Hill's last lap was quicker than Villeneuve's best but it did not quite beat his own pole time. He did not need to. The battle was over.

"Qualifying is really just a bit of fun," admitted Hill. "The real business is tomorrow. Pole position is no less important but at a circuit like this pole does not give a crucial advantage. With Jacques alongside me I can expect a strong challenge tomorrow. Tactics will be crucial."

The Villeneuve camp was extremely disappointed - although Jacques hid the emotion well - but they recognized that perhaps they had underestimated Hill.

"You know," said Jacques's engineer Jock Clear, "people say that if Schumacher was in a Williams he would be quicker than Damon. I reckon that even he would have trouble getting more out of the car than Damon does. He's very difficult to beat."

Villeneuve's weakness this year has been in qualifying but in the races he has always been strong. With a front row grid position, Jacques was at least in with a chance for the race.

If the truth be told it did not look like there would be opposition to the Williams-Renaults because Ferrari's Michael Schumacher was third on the grid - 0.8secs behind Hill. Even at his most inspired Michael seemed unlikely to be able to challenge Damon in the race - unless, of course, it rained. The thing is that Michael is in a position now where he has nothing to lose and so can take risks without worrying about what happens if it is the wrong choice. At Barcelona he risked a full wet set-up because it was the only way he could see that he might win the race. If the track had dried he would have struggled horribly. It stayed wet and while everyone else chose half-way house set-ups, Michael was able to power away.

Schumacher's third place was pretty much business as usual. He made a mess of his second run by running over a curb.

"I went into turn one and came out a bit wide and went partly over the curbs. I had to come in straight away because I was afraid I had damaged something. The plank was damaged and we had to change that."

A plank of extremely hard wood is fixed under the car in order to force the cars to have a higher ride height, which reduces downforce, slowing the cornering speeds. This plank must not show any significant wear after the race or the car may be disqualified, as Schumacher himself experienced in Belgium in 1994.

Despite this Schumacher could hardly have felt he was in a position to challenge Williams. It was nonetheless quite an impressive performance given that Ferrari is not able to test at Silverstone and so should have been struggling in relation to the likes of Benetton, McLaren and Jordan which test here all the time.

If these teams were disappointing, so too was the performance of Eddie Irvine in the second Ferrari. He was 1.4secs down on Schumacher and said that he was using much the same set-up. The team tried to blame the fact that FIA engineers came to inspect his electronics and he lost a few minutes in qualifying but the fact is that he was able to complete his full quota of laps without much drama. Eddie says he does not like Silverstone but at this level of the sport that should not matter. Eddie also cannot make excuses about testing as he is now getting mileage. Perhaps it is not as much as Schumacher but in F1 you can forgive half a second, a second and a half is more difficult...

The best of the disappointing British teams on this occasion was McLaren with a pair of short wheelbase MP4/11s with the latest Mercedes-Benz qualifying engines. Mika Hakkinen was fourth on the grid and reckoned he might have been third. David Coulthard was a disappointed ninth, over a second behind Hakkinen and complaining that the rear end of his car was far too loose.

Benetton looked decidedly short of excuses as well with Jean Alesi fifth on the grid and Gerhard Berger seventh. The team had arrived at Silverstone with a spring in its step and on Saturday night it went home with slumped shoulders. Both drivers complained that the back end of the car was loose - perhaps because of the wind and higher temperatures of Saturday.

Benetton's long awaited comeback fizzled out. Things would probably be better in the race, but beating Williams seems to be impossible. The frustrations of the team are beginning to show, incidentally, two men recently quit to join TWR F1. More are rumored to be following...

Jordan is also a team under strain at the moment. There have been a trickle of personnel moving to other teams: to TWR, to Williams and to Stewart Grand Prix. The Peugeot engine is being sought by rival teams. The bottom line is that Jordan has not been delivering the results. It is essential that the team does this because the Peugeot engine is clearly very good indeed. There was much speculation at Silverstone about the future of Jordan designer Gary Anderson, but the fact is that Gary was on holiday - he needed a break to get some rest and begin thinking about next year's car. In his absence the team showed that it does have more strength in depth than was once the case and so Rubens Barrichello and Martin Brundle were sixth and eighth on the grid, Martin half a second down on Rubens.

With the top 10 places filled by the top five teams, 11th on the grid was left to the Sauber-Ford of Heinz-Harald Frentzen - which was pretty much as normal and a little surprising given that Sauber does not test at Silverstone. Johnny Herbert was 13th, the two being split by the Tyrrell of Ukyo Katayama.

Tyrrell was looking a bit better than it has in recent weeks - thanks to using Silverstone to test no doubt - but the string of engine problems continues to handicap the team. It is very frustrating at the moment but if the Yamaha engineers can sort out the problems the tiny little V10 will become a very competitive engine in the future.

Arrows - or TWR F1 depending on who you talk to - had a new version of Brian Hart's V8 engine, featuring pneumatic valves and a completely reworked top end. The new unit had been tested very briefly at Enstone aerodrome - just alongside the Benetton factory - and had run well. It was fitted into Verstappen's car on Saturday and performed without an explosion. It needs more work but it will be a step forward.

Fifteenth on the grid was still rather disappointing for Verstappen - who complained of understeer as usual. Ricardo Rosset was 17th but then missed the red light at the FIA weight check and had all his times scratched. He would have to start from the back of the field.

There was even greater disappointment at Ligier. At a disadvantage because the team does not test in England, the engineers struggled to find a good set-up for qualifying. Olivier Panis was 10th quickest on Friday but as others improved on Saturday afternoon he slipped to 16th on the grid. Pedro Diniz was 18th. Panis, however, knew that he had a good car for the race and that at Silverstone overtaking is a lot easier than at Magny-Cours and so looked something of a dark horse for a good showing in the race.

Minardi was in the usual 19th and 20th spots, Giancarlo Fisichella again beating Pedro Lamy, while the adventures of the Forti team deserve a chapter in their own right. A right royal mess it is, involving factions fighting for control of the team. This civil war resulted in no-one getting paid and so suppliers - notably Cosworth - decided not to bother supplying engines. Cosworth has been ripped off by racing teams in the past and so takes a very hard line on these matters. The Italians said it was all sorted out and that the check was in the mail. Cosworth was not impressed. Finally a compromise was sorted out and the cars were fitted with old engines. They were given a few liters of fuel for qualifying and consequently both cars ran out of fuel and neither driver qualified within 107% of the pole position, which is required if you want to compete in the race.

MIKA HAKKINEN was fastest in the warm-up but the cynics felt this was probably more to do with the fact that Mercedes-Benz chairman Jurgen Huppert was present than the fact that McLaren had suddenly discovered how to make the MP4/11 into a winning car.

There were no real dramas in the run-up to the start but tension was high in the Williams pit because the two drivers had chosen the same two-stop strategies. This was going to be a head-to-head battle.

Well, it would have been, but when the lights went out neither Hill nor Schumacher made a good start. Villeneuve's was at best average and Mika Hakkinen's was good but not great. This meant that Jean Alesi, from fifth on the grid, was challenging for the lead as they dived down towards the first corner. Villeneuve was not going to be intimidated and held the position while Alesi dived in behind him, ahead of Hakkinen, Schumacher and Hill. Next was Barrichello but then came Irvine who had jumped ahead of Coulthard, Brundle and Berger at the start.

"Irvine was quite hard in the first corner," said Berger. "I needed to get points so I didn't get into any fight with him."

In fact it mattered very little because Irvine's race was short-lived. He was out by lap five with a differential bearing failure. But Eddie's retirement was only the icing on the cake of disaster at Ferrari: Schumacher lasted only two laps.

The German's retirement was traced to a hydraulic problem with the gearbox which left him stuck in sixth gear. He came into the pits to retire. Is this the same Michael Schumacher who drove around stuck in fifth gear and even managed to survive pit stops a couple of years ago at Barcelona? For whatever reasons, the Ferrari is not a machine which will allow such things - the 1994 Benetton must have been a remarkable machine...

The reason for Michael's Silverstone problem was actually rather embarrassing. An O-ring had not been properly tightened, allowing hydraulic fluid to leak out. When the pressure fell sufficiently the gearbox seized. It could not have been worse. The Ferrari management was looking for a strong result after the disasters in Montreal and Magny-Cours. On those occasions the management held together - and turned the criticism back onto the Italian press. Even before the Ferraris were pulling to smokey halts in the pitlane, the Italian pressmen were sharpening their knives. The Monday papers would be a bloodbath of abuse.

"This is absurd," said Schumacher, "but in racing things like this can happen even if it seems very strange. After Magny-Cours we tested at Monza and Imola with satisfactory results and covered a high mileage. We have run two days here without any problems."

Whatever the case it was a pretty poor effort for the team but perhaps they were lucky earlier in the year when things held together when they were not expected to.

The disappearance of Schumacher was not that important in terms of the race. Villeneuve was ahead and gone a few quick laps building up a lead of five seconds by the fourth lap. It went on building until Jacques pitted on lap 23 - by which time he was 22secs ahead.

"I pushed very hard so that if Damon had been able to get to second I would have had a big lead. It was very important because I had the same weapon as Damon and the same strategy. I knew it was important to get him at the start."

Jacques's stop allowed Alesi to take the lead for a while but Jacques knew that Jean would have to stop and he would be ahead again. He still had to push hard because he knew that he would have to stop again as well. The two Benettons stopped at mid-distance and Jacques found himself with a 30secs lead. He pushed that out to 35secs by lap 42 when he pitted again and still had time to emerge with a 10secs advantage. From there on it was a question of pacing himself. He radioed in for the lap times of Alesi and set his pace on these. He had plenty of time in hand - but there was never going to be a challenge.

Damon Hill might have been able to do something but we would never find out. In the early laps he was stuck behind Alesi and Hakkinen and the gap between him and Villeneuve went out to around 20secs. He needed to get clear of the McLaren which was obviously holding him up in certain parts of the circuit but able to stay ahead in others - where overtaking was possible.

Shortly after Villeneuve pitted, however, Damon reported a strange sensation at the front of the car and radioed his suspicions. He was due to come in at the end of lap 27 but he never made it. At Copse Corner the car was thrown into a spin and Damon flew into a sandtrap. His reaction when he got out of the car suggested that there was nothing he could do about what had happened.

After the race the team took the car apart and discovered that one of the wheelnuts had worked itself loose but was still being held on because of a safety device. The wheel was wobbling slightly, however, and gradually this damaged the pegs on which the wheel was mounted. Eventually they sheared off, throwing the car into a spin as Hill braked.

"I really wanted to win here," the Englishman said later. "It wasn't to be and that is the hard truth about motor racing, nothing is 100% taken for granted or reliable - you just cannot predict what is going to happen."

This left Alesi and Hakkinen to chase Villeneuve with Berger in their wake. No-one else was in the picture. Hakkinen slipped back a place at his second stop - the Benetton strategy being better - and then Berger was able to catch Alesi as the Frenchman's brakes faded away. He had to retire on lap 44, leaving Berger to take second.

"I saw Jean had problems with his rear brakes," said Gerhard, "and so I played with the brake balance and put my brakes to the front. In the last laps I had big problems. I was just driving around."

And so Mika Hakkinen came home third to record his first podium since his accident in Adelaide last year. No doubt Herr Huppert of Mercedes-Benz was a happy chappy but the result was really not very significant. Mika finished 50secs behind Villeneuve - and Jacques was quite clearly not pushing as hard as he could have done. In other words the fastest McLaren would have been around a minute behind at the end, a second a lap in arrears - which is about normal. Coulthard also finished but down in fifth, nearly a lap down. It would have been a very different story if Hill, Alesi and Schumacher had all finished. Herr Huppert would have gone home grumpy. Reliability is important and McLaren's has been impressive. Hakkinen and Coulthard have now scored points nine times in the last five races - a remarkable hit rate. Suddenly McLaren is within striking difference of Ferrari in the Constructors' Championship.

Of the rest Jordan managed to bring its two cars home fourth and sixth with Barrichello ahead of Brundle (Martin having had to pit one extra time because of a puncture). It was a solid result but not one which really made much of an impact.

Mika Salo came home seventh for Tyrrell which was some reward for the team which has suffered horribly in recent weeks with failing Yamaha engines. Ukyo Katayama suffered another one.

The two Saubers ran around in the midfield all afternoon and finished a boring eighth and ninth.

Jos Verstappen was 10th in the Arrows but his team mate Rosset did not finish because of a electrical failure which cut his engine. It was at least a finish.

The last finisher was Fisichella in his Minardi. His team mate Lamy had stopped with hydraulic failure in the mid-race.

Neither Ligier made it to the finish, Panis suffering a mysterious handling problem after what had looked like a useful start to the race. Diniz retired with an engine failure.

It was not a great race, but it was a good display by Villeneuve. Now what we need is for them both to make a good start so we can find out just how much progress Jacques has made in recent weeks...

Jacques Villeneuve Williams-Renault FW18 61 1h33m00.874s  
Gerhard Berger Benetton-Renault B196 61 1h33m19.900s  
Mika Hakkinen McLaren-Mercedes MP4/11 61 1h33m51.704s  
11 Rubens Barrichello Jordan-Peugeot 196 61 1h34m07.590s  
David Coulthard McLaren-Mercedes MP4/11 61 1h34m23.381s  
12 Martin Brundle Jordan-Peugeot 196 60  
19 Mika Salo Tyrrell-Yamaha 024 60  14 
15 Heinz-Harald Frentzen Sauber-Cosworth C15 60  11 
14 Johnny Herbert Sauber-Cosworth C15 60  13 
10 17 Jos Verstappen Footwork-Hart FA17 60  15 
11 21 Giancarlo Fisichella Minardi-Cosworth M195B 59  18 
Jean Alesi Benetton-Renault B196 44 Right Rear Wheel Bearing 
Olivier Panis Ligier-Mugen-Honda JS43 40 Handling 16 
10 Pedro Diniz Ligier-Mugen-Honda JS43 38 Engine 17 
Damon Hill Williams-Renault FW18 26 Front Wheel Nut Loose/spin 
20 Pedro Lamy Minardi-Cosworth M195B 21 Gearbox Hydraulics 19 
16 Riccardo Rosset Footwork-Hart FA17 13 Alternator 20 
18 Ukyo Katayama Tyrrell-Yamaha 024 12 Engine Overheating 12 
Eddie Irvine Ferrari F310 Differential Bearing 10 
Michael Schumacher Ferrari F310 Gearbox Hydraulic Valve 
nq 23 Andrea Montermini Forti-Cosworth FG01-95B   21 
nq 22 Luca Badoer Forti-Cosworth FG01-95B   22