Hungarian GP 1996

Hungarian GP, 1996

A double 1-2

WILLIAMS won two FIA Formula 1 World Championships in Budapest. The team now cannot be overtaken in the Constructors' title - equaling Ferrari's record total of eight Constructors' titles - but what some folks overlooked was that Sir Frank Williams and Patrick Head also won the Drivers' World Championship at Budapest. We still have to discover whether it will be Damon Hill or Jacques Villeneuve but we now know for certain that it will not be anyone else. The Hungarian GP was a splendid victory for Jacques. He did what he had to do to win, nothing more. Damon made a dreadful start (again) but then drove a superb race to finish right on Villeneuve's tail. But what did Jacques have in reserve? We still have to see a straight fight between the two with neither having problems and neither making a bad start. That will be worth waiting for...

A few years ago the Hungarian Grand Prix was Gerhard Berger's "home" race, with thousands of Austrians pouring over the border from Austria. The grandstands were full of Austrian flags. Today the Berger fans are still there but they have been squeezed out of the way by the legions of Michael Schumacher fans, who drive east every August to gather on the hot and dusty hills to the east of Budapest to pitch their tents and battle flags around the Hungaroring. They bring their fireworks, their Deutschmarks and their beer cans and they seem to have a good time. The locals have a better time, collecting money from the thousands of visitors.

The Hungarians - frustrated capitalists in the Communist years - have embraced western culture and they are willing to take a dollar off anyone. Western companies have come streaming into the city, keen to pick up the local business. Budapest, a city of just over two million people, is booming. Advertising hoardings and new developments are eating outwards from the city into the countryside. The old Trabants and Ladas are being replaced by Volkswagens, Fiats and Opels. The yellow arches of McDonalds are everywhere. These are interesting times in Hungary.

The locals have still to develop much of a local racing infrastructure - it will come with time and money - and that means that the Hungaroring, built in the days when the state did everything, is dormant for most of the year. There is a little investment going on but as the years pass the facility - modern in 1986 - is getting increasingly tattered at the edges and not really in keeping with the glitzy image to which F1 aspires to these days. Still, Hungary is a little different from the normal European races, and anything different or distant tends to appear glamorous.

The lack of use of the track means that inevitably the first session on Friday is a non-event. With strict limitations on the number of laps they can do and tires they can use, teams do not wish to run until someone else has cleaned the track a little. The first cars out always kick up clouds of dust, and because dust does strange things to racing rubber everyone leaves it to someone else. That means that fans who have paid fortunes for their tickets are left sitting watching an empty track. After a while there were whistles of disapproval. Down along the pitwall - millionaires row - they ignore it. The sweaty public does not get any concessions nor any sympathy from the F1 team bosses.

"They know what to expect," say the team bosses.

This year the crowd did at least have the chance to watch Jacques Villeneuve and Giovanni Lavaggi in action early on. Neither had been to the track, both HAD to go out.

Gradually the others began to venture out - although the first session saw only 15 of the 20 cars in action. Twenty cars? Yes. There was no sign of the Forti team. Whether we will ever see the yellow bath tubs again remains to be seen...

The cars which did appear did not do many laps. We saw nothing of Arrows nor much of Benetton. Schumacher and others used wet tires. Tyrrell's Mika Salo did not record a time because - surprise, surprise - his Yamaha engine went pop.

The reason for this unwillingness to go out was that tires are a precious commodity at the Hungaroring and you need as many as possible for qualifying. A good grid position is essential because overtaking in the races is so difficult as to be absurd. It is like Monaco without the walls. Horsepower is not very important but mid-range punch is very useful. Good mechanical grip and driver ability is what you need.

Thus, as at Monaco, it was Michael Schumacher who emerged on pole position. This was something of a surprise as Schumacher & Co went to Budapest with low expectations.

"I thought it would be a disaster," said the World Champion.

It was certainly close up at the front with Schumacher just 0.053s ahead of Damon Hill who was just 0.077s ahead of Jacques Villeneuve. There was then a gap of 1.35s back to the rest.

It was Schumacher's fourth pole position of the year and he was delighted that the recent aerodynamic modifications to the Ferrari F310, which had been a disappointment at Hockenheim, worked very well on the tight and twisty Hungaroring.

Such a result was appreciated by Ferrari team boss Jean Todt, who has been in the firing line because of the team's troubles in recent weeks.

"On this track it is very important to start from the front and in this instance we have hit the Bull's Eye. I am happy for the guys in the team who have worked so hard and deserved a morale-boosting result."

Todt was realistic enough, however, to realize that things would be a lot more difficult on Sunday. In race trim the Williams is always well clear of the Ferrari. The Hungaroring is a track where anything is possible. This, remember, is where Thierry Boutsen held off Ayrton Senna to win in 1990 - against all the odds - but the handling of the Ferrari was anything but easy.

"The car always makes me work hard on this circuit," admitted Schumacher. "It is very bumpy and the car is very unpredictable. It is not consistent and you have to work hard to keep it on the road."

Tactics would be important, Schumacher admitted, but he wasn't giving anything away. His tactic would be to "stay in front". Eddie Irvine showed that Ferrari has improved but he was still 1.48s behind his team leader although this put him fourth on the grid.

Hill was disappointed not to have taken pole position and admitted that his car was not quite as good as it might have been. "I thought coming here that Benetton would be closer than it transpired they are, but I always had Michael down as being a threat. He proved to be so again and I would say that the car is quicker too. That is good news for them - but not so good news for us. I wasn't completely satisfied that I had the best possible set-up for qualifying. It wasn't the best balance we could possibly have had. I never actually felt like I had done a peach of a lap. The important thing, however, is tomorrow. I have a good car and an opportunity to win the race and naturally I want to win. The thought of trundling around in a motor race to collect points does not appeal to me."

Villeneuve's qualifying performance was very good, given his lack of experience and testing at the track. "I thought it would be a more difficult track to learn," he admitted. "It is fun to drive - just bad for racing." In his efforts to beat Hill, Jacques had a series of very lurid moments but held it all together without dumping himself in the dirt.

Behind Irvine were a string of cars - all closely matched - but it was Benetton which emerged on the top of the pile. After the excitements of Hockenheim the team was disappointed to discover that it was not on the pace in Hungary. Both drivers were frustrated, complaining of a lack of aerodynamic grip - not for the first time this year. Alesi was fifth, Berger sixth, the pair split by 0.040s.

Seventh on the grid was Mika Hakkinen in his McLaren-Mercedes, two places and two-tenths ahead of team mate David Coulthard. The McLaren story was similar to that of Benetton. After the blistering straights of Hockenheim, where the Mercedes-Benz V10 engines were able to scream themselves silly, it was back to the drudge of a gripless chassis for the McLaren boys. Team boss Ron Dennis continues to witter on with earnest protestations that the team does not have a chassis problem and that the media does not understand, but no-one in the press office is listening any more. If McLaren doesn't have a chassis problem how come the team is still two seconds off pole position pace?

The McLarens were split by Johnny Herbert's Sauber. Yes, I know that sounds unlikely, but the Sauber-Ford combination has finally found some pace. The track configuration helped of course because the Ford lacks top speed, which is not essential in Hungary, but Cosworth does seem to have made a big leap forward, filling a large hole on the power curve with lots of lovely horsepower. This probably is not unrelated to the fact that Ford bosses have told Cosworth to get its act together or go to hell. Public companies with profit motives understand that kind of talk...

The Sauber chassis looked to be quite good - as we have suspected all year - but Herbert reckoned that the C15's aerodynamics were slightly out, in that you had to push the car beyond the normal limit before the aerodynamics kicked in mightily. Johnny had discovered this and was delighted, Heinz-Harald Frentzen was struggling to make the same leap of faith. The German was 10th on the grid but would be seventh fastest in the warm-up as he got used to this curious new phenomenon.

The Ligiers were 11th and 15th with Olivier Panis as usual outqualifying Pedro Diniz. This seemed a fairly sensible performance but Panis was disappointed that the car was not handling as well as it had at Monaco - where he won the race.

Twelfth and thirteenth on the grid were the two Jordan-Peugeots and this was not a good showing. Both Martin Brundle and Rubens Barrichello - they qualified in that order on this occasion - were struggling to find a way to set up the car, Brundle said he was fighting the car all the time, Barrichello that his 196 would not react to changes. Down at Jordan, times are hard...

Times are also pretty miserable at Tyrrell with the Yamaha problems still pretty much as they have been all season. Salo blew an engine on Friday and Katayama had misfire problems on Saturday. In the end Ukyo was able to outqualify Mika, who was struggling to find a balance.

Harvey Postlethwaite was brutally honest as usual. "We are currently not quick enough in qualifying to challenge for the top 10."

Tom Walkinshaw at Arrows was feeling pretty brutal as well. Jos Verstappen and Ricardo Rosset were 17th and 18th on the grid, both drivers complaining of understeer. Verstappen might have been quicker but a sticking throttle lobbed him into a sandtrap on Saturday morning which lost him valuable setting-up time.

"The chronic understeer of the car is preventing the drivers from achieving a good time," said Walkinshaw, "and short of redesigning the front end there's nothing we can do about it."

Sharing the back row were the two Minardis of Pedro Lamy and Giovanni Lavaggi, Johnny Carwashbeing much closer to Lamy than one might have expected - 0.7secs. Team boss Giancarlo Minardi was not particularly impressed as the team was not even close to its lap times of last year at the track.

Comparison with the 1995 lap times was fascinating. There have, of course, been fairly large regulation changes to the cockpit area and a reduction in wings. The tire compounds were the same. Pole position was around a tenth slower than 1995 but the fastest Ferrari lapped nearly a second quicker than it had last year. The fastest Jordan was a second faster; the fastest Tyrrell was also a second quicker, the best Sauber had carved 0.8sec off the 1995 lap times. The fastest Williams was 0.2sec slower; the leading McLaren was 0.753secs slower and the fastest Benetton was 1.2secs down.

THE skill of being a Formula 1 strategist is a dark, black art very difficult to understand and to explain. There is only one correct strategy - the one which wins. That depends not only on the skill of the driver and the speed of the car but also on the way in which the traffic ebbs and flows. And when it comes to that it is a question of educated guesswork by the engineers. Sometimes they do things which seem illogical. Sometimes a driver does not understand what the team has in mind. All he knows is that while he is busy driving his car, the engineers are in constant discussion with the team's number-crunchers to try to figure out who will be where on the track at a given point.

Pre-planning strategies is also a complicated business which has to fit in with the individuals goals of a driver. Michael Schumacher may have taken pole position but no-one was really expecting him to win the race. He would do his best, of course, but the Williams-Renaults in race trim are remarkably strong.

The Williams drivers started the race with very definite goals. Villeneuve had to win the race to claw back some of Hill's advantage in the World Championship. He chose a very strict three stop race. He had to stop for fuel on lap 21. This meant that he would start the race with less fuel than Hill and if he could make the most of the start and get ahead he would be very well-placed. It was a risk because a bad start would have left him in real trouble but he knew that Hill was starting from the dirty side of the road and would probably slip and slide a little as he dragged off the line.

Hill, on the other hand, was well clear in the Championship. He has a lot of points in hand over Villeneuve and so a flexible three-stop strategy left him with more options - even if in theory it would be a slower race than a strict three stopper. Damon started with more fuel but was actually taking less of a risk.

The start, as usual, was decisive. Schumacher, Villeneuve and Alesi - who were all on the clean side of the road went from first, third and fifth on the grid to 1-2-3 in the first corner. Hill, Irvine and Berger on the dirty side of the road in second, fourth and sixth on the grid went into the first turn 4-5-6.

The most dramatic start came from Alesi and it was the Frenchman who was wildest going into the first corner, playing chicken with Hill, going around the outside. On this occasion it worked but as Hill pointed out, he could - if he did not believe in fair play - have easily pushed Jean off the road and into the boonies...

"I'm pretty disgusted with my start," said Damon later. "The way the clutch works doesn't suit me and I am working very hard to get Williams to supply me with a clutch I can use more easily. I'm really frustrated with the operation of the clutch. The start was going OK, then I had a bit of wheelspin. I tried to use the clutch to modulate it and it just gripped."

With Schumacher, Villeneuve and Alesi ahead of him, Damon was in trouble because he could not find a way around Alesi, despite having a car which was clearly two seconds a lap faster than the Benetton.

"I lost the race in those first 10 laps," said Hill. "It was over. Jacques and Michael were long gone."

By the time Schumacher pitted on lap 19 Hill was 20secs down. It was not until Alesi pulled off on lap 22 that Damon was able to open up the Williams. He immediately set the fastest lap. On the next lap there was traffic and so - oh misery - when Damon came out of the pits he found Alesi swerving across in front of him as they dived into the first corner.

"After tugging along behind him for so many laps my heart sank," admitted Hill. Five laps later Jean got it slightly wrong at the first corner and slid wide. In a flash Damon was through. He left Jean standing.

Out front the same was happening with Villeneuve and Schumacher. Bottled up early on, Jacques sat behind the Ferrari hoping for a mistake.

"I was pushing Michael and going for it," he explained. "If there had been an opening I would have gone for it. There was never a big enough gap. It was close. It was fun because he was really on the edge."

When Schumacher came in and went out again he was slowed down by Berger - who was on a two-stop strategy. At the same time Villeneuve had a clear track - he set the fastest lap of the race. Schumacher's time in the pitlane was nearly three seconds shorter than Villeneuve's but the French-Canadian came out ahead and was immediately able to drive away from the Ferrari. When he stopped again he was 15secs clear of Schumacher.

By then Hill was closing in on Schumacher after a string of fastest laps after he had escaped the clutches of Alesi. Damon thought that he was on a two-stop strategy, but on the pitwall the Williams engineers were plotting a different idea. They looked at the traffic ahead and concluded that although having a clear track ahead of him would be useful, Damon was going to hit traffic badly if he gained 10 seconds and then lost 25secs in the pits. They figured that he would still be behind Schumacher. They therefore decided to bring Damon in within a couple of laps of Schumacher. He came out about 12secs behind Schumacher and closed up very fast. The plan was to pit as soon as he caught the German and thus get in some very quick laps while Schumacher was doing his pit stop. That should get Damon ahead. One of the strategy-callers then realized that if Schumacher knew that Hill as coming in, Schumacher would do the same, because if he did exactly the same as Hill he would stay ahead. The Williams pit crew was sent into the pitlane to get ready for Hill. The Ferrari boys saw this, radioed Schumacher and he decided that he would come in. Damon was warned that the Ferrari pit crew were ready for action and it was suggested that he might like to stay out for as many laps as his fuel allowed and put the hammer down. When Michael came into the pits, Damon did not. Ferrari had been suckered. Damon put the hammer down and when he pitted 11 laps later he was over 20secs clear of the German.

In that period Damon was also taking time off Villeneuve - Jacques was taking it relatively easy - but there was still around 25secs between them with both needing another stop.

Villeneuve came in on lap 58. He was being careful. The pit stop went wrong: the left rear tire nut did not go on properly. The mechanic spotted the problem, took it off again and made sure the nut was properly secured. For an extra eight seconds Jacques sat in the pits, knowing that Hill was getting closer and closer.

Damon had to pit again but his stop went without drama and so when the pair were both back on the track there was only 6.5secs and Damon was going a lot quicker on his newer tires.

"When he started to get closer I wasn't pushing that much," said Jacques. "He was a little bit quicker but it is very difficult to overtake on this track. It was tough because I had to get back into pushing mode but I was concentrating hard not to make a mistake. It was a tough race at the end but I knew that if I didn't make a mistake or hit traffic in the wrong spot I would be all right."

Nose-to-tail in the final laps the two Williams men sliced through the backmarkers, taking risks and giving it their all.

"I was aiming to put Jacques under pressure," explained Damon. "I was pushing as hard as I could." Hill's drive had been very spectacular - brilliant even - but he had blown it at the start, and he knew it.

Schumacher's race ended in retirement on lap 71. "The throttle was getting stiff and tending to stick open," he explained. "Then the gearbox began to play up on downshifts. Going into the slow corners, the only way I could slow the car was by turning the cut-out switch to kill the engine and then switch it on again. I made a mistake and hit the neutral selector switch and the engine cut out and would not fire up again."

You could call it driver error under duress but most folk felt that mechanical failure was a better description for Schumacher's demise. With Eddie Irvine there was no argument. He suffered gearbox failure on lap 31. Prior to that - on lap 16 - he had lost a place to Berger when he ran wide onto the dirt.

The demise of Ferrari let Benetton get the third slot on the podium. It should have gone to Berger. He was much faster than Alesi in the middle of the race and was being held up by the Frenchman. He wanted to get after Schumacher and so the team radioed Jean to move over and let Berger past. Alesi was not happy about it. Unfortunately, the Austrian's Renault engine then blew up mightily, which left Alesi in fourth place again. When Schumacher retired he inherited third.

Fourth place went to Hakkinen in his McLaren which was a triumph of trolling around surviving, rather than being competitive. Mika was a lap down at the finish - a minute and a half behind the winner - which is rather worse than McLaren's usual loss to Williams in race trim. Normally the team only loses one second a lap. David Coulthard was behind Hakkinen - on a one-stop strategy - when he retired with engine failure after 23 laps.

Olivier Panis came home fifth which was a good result when one considers that the Ligier started 11th on the grid. This was achieved with a bold two-stop strategy which outpaced those around him on the grid. As usual Olivier figured strongly in the fastest race laps, setting the fourth quickest lap of the afternoon behind only Hill, Villeneuve and Schumacher. If the Ligier could only qualify well it would make mincemeat of Jordans and McLarens. It might even keep up with the Benettons. Pedro Diniz's race was shortlived, the Brazilian being involved in a first lap incident with Salo and Verstappen.

Rubens Barrichello was sixth for Jordan which was about as good as one might expect given the Jordan's poor qualifying after a dull two-stop race. Martin Brundle was running in company with Rubens when he dropped the ball on lap 6 and went bouncing over a sandtrap, tearing important bits off the car.

The next survivor was Tyrrell's Ukyo Katayama in seventh after a solid race. His only worry was high temperatures caused by radiator damage which resulted from Martin Brundle's incident in the gravel trap. Salo was knocked out of the race in the first lap incident - all the drivers blaming one another.

Ricardo Rosset came home in eighth place in the Arrows while Jos Verstappen spun out, probably as a result of suspension damage caused in the first lap incident.

Both the Saubers of Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Johnny Herbert looked quite useful early on but then retired with engine trouble which will not have helped Cosworth's relationship with Ford.

Both Minardis also stopped, Lamy with damage from the same incident as Verstappen & Co, while Lavaggi nearly made it to the chequered flag before he spun out a few laps from home, worn out by his exertions.

It had been a very enjoyable race, but it did not answer the question that most F1 folk want to know the answer to. Can Villeneuve beat Hill in a straight fight? To date Jacques has won three times but each time Damon has screwed his start. As we go into the final four races the rivalry is being played out with the World Championship as the prize...

Jacques Villeneuve Williams-Renault FW18 77 1h46m21.134s  
Damon Hill Williams-Renault FW18 77 1h46m21.905s  
Jean Alesi Benetton-Renault B196 77 1h47m45.346s  
Mika Hakkinen McLaren-Mercedes MP4/11 76  
Olivier Panis Ligier-Mugen-Honda JS43 76  11 
11 Rubens Barrichello Jordan-Peugeot 196 75  13 
18 Ukyo Katayama Tyrrell-Yamaha 024 74  14 
16 Riccardo Rosset Footwork-Hart FA17 74  18 
9r Michael Schumacher Ferrari F310 70 Throttle Control Unit 
10r 21 Giovanni Lavaggi Minardi-Cosworth M195B 69 Spin 20 
Gerhard Berger Benetton-Renault B196 64 Engine 
15 Heinz-Harald Frentzen Sauber-Cosworth C15 50 Electronics 10 
14 Johnny Herbert Sauber-Cosworth C15 35 Engine 
Eddie Irvine Ferrari F310 31 Gearbox Oil Temperature 
20 Pedro Lamy Minardi-Cosworth M195B 24 Accident/rear Suspension 19 
David Coulthard McLaren-Mercedes MP4/11 23 Water Pump Drive/spin 
17 Jos Verstappen Footwork-Hart FA17 10 Spin 17 
12 Martin Brundle Jordan-Peugeot 196 Accident 12 
10 Pedro Diniz Ligier-Mugen-Honda JS43 Accident/suspension 15 
19 Mika Salo Tyrrell-Yamaha 024 Accident 16