Belgian GP 1996

Belgian GP, 1996

Williams drops the ball

ON such strange things do races turn. When Jos Verstappen had a nasty crash just as the leaders were about to pit, Williams radioed leader Jacques Villeneuve to come in because there was a Safety Car on the circuit - it would be second nature to an Indycar driver to pit immediately - but Jacques did not hear the call, he had not passed the accident and so he did not know it had happened. He did not pit. That screwed his race. Unwittingly, he would destroy Damon Hill's race as well. The team radioed Damon to come in - it would have been the perfect moment - but as he headed into the pitlane the team realized that they could not change all the pit equipment over in time. Damon was told to stay out. It screwed his race. Waiting to pick up the pieces was Michael Schumacher who won in a car which was patently slower than those behind him.

There is a game Europeans play. When driving across Belgium you have to try to name five internationally-famous Belgians, but you are not allowed to mention sportsmen. Belgium is a small country so it is a race against the clock. It is not easy because the French make fun of the Belgians as the Americans laugh at the Poles or the English laugh at the Irish. That means that Belgians who do make a big splash around the world sometimes prefer not be identified as Belgian.

Some folk will tell you that naming famous Belgians is hard because Belgians are boring. This is not strictly true, although there is a strong streak of conformity in the population. This comes from the fact that Belgium is not a natural country. It was created by European statesmen who were tidying up the map of Europe and found they had a space between Holland and France. It was probably lunch time and so they called it Belgium and found a spare King and went off for a big meal, leaving the Belgians to figure out who they were. The major problem is that half the population speaks French and the other half speaks Flemish, which is somewhere between Dutch and throat-curdling gibberish. The Belgians were two tribes. They made the most of it, learning the art of compromise and taught it to their children. As a result Belgians make good bureaucrats - which is why the European Community has a lot of its infrastructure in Brussels - but bureaucrats like to live quietly and so do not tend to make a big splash on the international scene.

Despite the strange division, Belgium is a nice quiet country full of nice quiet people. The signs are all in different languages and so you can follow signs to "Luik" and find yourself in Liege.

Being a nice quiet country has its advantages, but when something big happens the country tends to be traumatized. That was certainly the case in the days leading up the Belgian GP because of the child sex murders of Charleroi. On the ride down to Spa from Brussels all the motorway bridges carried banners suggesting that the death penalty should be used.

If the Belgians were shocked and subdued, the visiting Germans were as loud and tanked-up as usual. This is Schumacher's "home" track - at least it is the nearest F1 track to his home across the German border at Kerpen. The pitlane wags will tell you that Germans have a habit of coming through the Ardennes hills - they did in 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge - although these are not really laughing matters. Not far from the track is a memorial to 100 American prisoners of war who were machine-gunned by troops. Germans are not popular in these parts, although this does not seem to deter the followers of Schumacher, who are willing to put up with the rude comments which they sometimes get in order to watch Schumi in action.

Spa is a favorite for many British and French fans as well, not only because it is easy to reach but also because it is the only decent racing circuit left in F1 these days apart from, maybe, Suzuka. The drivers love it. "It is a very very exciting circuit," says Damon Hill. "There is no other way to describe it. You are really flying here, really motoring. It is a tremendous and awe-inspiring circuit and you have to put more faith into the machinery and your ability at a place like this."

It would be Jacques Villeneuve's first visit but he knew that it would be his kind of track. "I was really looking forward to this track," he said, "because you can really get into it, where you can push the limit. It is one of the few real tracks remaining. In the name of safety they are destroying what racing is all about. The people I spoke with about it - other drivers - had really strange ideas about what would be safe. I was really surprised."

Yes, Spa is pretty dangerous - in modern F1 terms - but that is what motor racing is all about. Perhaps this is not considered to be a socially-acceptable view but screaming liberals should spend their time complaining about the number of people who fall off mountains rather than those who die motor racing. F1 needs more tracks like Spa. There really is nothing like listening to the wail of the engines in the hills and watching the cars twitching through the fast stuff. It is so rare these days that it is almost surprising.

The thing about Spa is that if you do come off you are likely to be going quite fast and that means that you generally hit something quite hard. Schumacher did it on Friday morning, pushing his Ferrari too hard and losing control at the exit of Rivage, a 100mph flick to the left. The Ferrari flicked round and skated right across the sand trap and hit the wall backwards. There was no deflection at all and so the car absorbed all the energy, its nose rising up and then crashing down. For a moment Schumacher sat very still and then he began to climb out and limped away, having banged his right leg badly on the inside of the monocoque and having had a good dose of whiplash. He would miss the afternoon session and spent Friday night with his masseur trying to get rid of the aches and pains caused by backing a car into a wall at 100mph.

"It is more of a problem to walk than to drive the car," he said. "There is not much you can do. The muscle in my leg is swollen and a little bit cut, but it is nothing serious. There is a little stiffness in the shoulder muscles but I have to say that the head protection is really fantastic."

If the driver was fundamentally all right, the same could not be said of his car and the Ferrari men had to build up a replacement around a spare monocoque. The accident also destroyed one of the three seven-speed gearboxes which the team had brought with it to Belgium and so the drivers tended to be a little more careful than normal on Saturday for fear of trashing the two remaining units, which they reckon make the car much better to drive.

Better or not, Ferrari did not come close to challenging the Williams-Renaults in qualifying - and that was no great surprise. Several of the cars were right with the Williams boys on the split times running up the hill to the top of the track and some could match them on the run back up the valley towards the pits, but none of the obvious cars were even close in the high-speed wiggly stuff as the tracks dives downhill between the "Pif-Paf" (Belgian for chicane) at Malmedy corner and the curling Stavelot corner. This highlighted the aerodynamic advantages enjoyed by the Williams, while also showing just how close together the best engines in F1 now are. There is very little difference between the Renaults, Mercedes, Ferrari and Peugeots.

Logic should dictate that Damon Hill, a double winner at Spa, should be better able to exploit the circuit than Jacques Villeneuve who had never visited the track before but Villeneuve made his preparations with a computer game. "It is going to sound childish and foolish but I checked out the track with a video game. It gave me an idea of where the track goes. So when you come out of the pits you at least know what is coming and where you are on the race track. In the video game I qualified 18th or something but from the first laps here the car was very good and so I could get up to speed pretty quickly."

This is Villeneuve's kind of track, where you can hang it out and explore the limits. "You can always go faster," he said.

Jacques very quickly got to grips with the track and looked strong, but Hill remained the favorite for pole position. It was thus very frustrating for everyone that halfway through the qualifying session the rains came. It was like Spa always is, veering from gloriously sunny conditions to tempestuous rainstorms and back again.

The rain meant that Villeneuve was able to take pole position at his first attempt. This was very impressive but one could not help but think that Damon would probably have nailed him later in the session.

Rain had threatened right from the very start of the qualifying session - with the barometers dropping gradually and the clouds swirling threateningly. This led to a rush of drivers coming out in the first few minutes of the session to make sure that they had a time in the bag.

Villeneuve took pole very briefly only to be beaten by Hill on his first flying lap, then Gerhard Berger beat them both in his Benetton. Ten minutes later Villeneuve came out again and sliced half a second from Berger's best but moments later Hill lopped 0.4secs off that time to regain pole. Another 10 minutes passed and out came Villeneuve for a third time. He carved another four-tenths off the pole time, but Hill's response was slower. And then, as Berger was flying, the rains came. For the next half an hour there was rain at one point or other on the circuit with sun and rain getting mixed up. At the end of the session a few folk came out to try dry settings in damp conditions but the times were meaningless.

Villeneuve was delighted to have grabbed his second pole position in F1 and grinned a lot.

Damon Hill was less cheery. "I can't take anything away from what Jacques did but there is always a certain amount of pain in being beaten. I was frustrated by the fact the rain came and I didn't get out on my last set of tires. That is the way it is. Jacques did a great job and shows that he is very determined to try and win here. I made a change to the car on my third run and wasn't happy with it. I have really enjoyed driving here, I have a better set-up than I have ever had but I did not get a chance to fully explore it. This season I have usually managed to get a good time in on my last run."

So the Williams boys would start 1-2 and, with race pace being their strong point, there seemed to be little chance for the others given that the third placed man on the grid - Michael Schumacher - was 1.2secs slower than Villeneuve and mixing it with Benettons and McLarens.

The World Champion's performance was impressive given his problems but reckoned that the Friday shunt had not really affected him. "The basic problem is understeer as it has been all season. We lost a bit of direction yesterday and maybe we could have got a couple of tenths more but this is pretty much what we can do. If it is dry in the race then I think Williams will be unbeatable. If conditions are variable then I will be able to show what I can do."

Eddie Irvine was 1.2secs behind Schumacher but that meant he was down in ninth on the grid, which the Ulsterman reckoned was better than he had expected.

Fourth and sixth on the grid were the McLarens of David Coulthard and Mika Hakkinen which looked good in the sections of the track where the engine is important and lost 1.2secs to the Williams-Renaults in the twisty sections where aerodynamic downforce is important. It was pretty much what one has seen from McLaren all through the year and so the hopes for the race were not high.

The Benettons looked better placed for that because they tend to go better in races than they do in qualifying, although keeping up with the Williamses is still out of the question. Berger was fifth fastest with Alesi seventh. Gerhard reckoned he could have been much higher up had the rain not come, and it certainly looked that way. Alesi would have gone better too but he was stopped out on the circuit early in the qualifying session when his car stopped with a fuel system problem. This was actually the T-car which he had decided to use because his race car had been behaving badly on Saturday morning.

Eighth and tenth on the grid were the Jordan-Peugeots with Martin Brundle beating the dispirited Rubens Barrichello, although he was rather disappointed to discover that he was only on the fourth row of the grid. Martin feels much more comfortable with the car now and reckoned that it would be strong in the race.

Barrichello's 10th place was due to traffic and not being able to use his final set of tires.

The Sauber-Ford boys were 11th and 12th on the grid which was about right considering that Spa is a track where engine power is important. The Ford might have been better on the twists and turns of Hungary - Frentzen and Herbert were very fast in the twisty downhill sections at Spa - but they could not keep up with the others on the blasts up the hill and back down the valley.

Thirteenth was a odd showing from Mika Salo in his Tyrrell-Yamaha, there were only minor problems with the Yamaha engines on this occasion and so progress was made. Ukyo Katayama was 17th on the grid because of an oil leak in the morning session which meant his engine had to be changed and he lost time in which to set up the car.

The Ligier team were 14th and 15th with Olivier Panis just ahead of Pedro Diniz. This was frustrating because in race trim the Ligier is still a very strong car although in qualifying it seems to suffer from excessive understeer. The team had a new version of the Mugen-Honda V10 engine and Panis reckoned he would be strong in the race, although as usual he was expecting to lose a lot of time in traffic.

Jos Verstappen and Ricardo Rosset were 16th and 18th in their Footwork-Harts, both complaining of terminal understeer. At the back as usual were the two Minardis, although only Lamy qualified as Lavaggi was too slow to make the 107% qualifying rule. In order to compete in the race itself drivers must qualify within 107% of the time set by the one in pole position.

With Forti having disappeared without trace, 19 cars would start and while a Williams victory looked most likely everyone was wondering if the weather gods at Spa would once again pull their funny tricks on Sunday.

LITTLE did we know that the weather gods would spend Sunday afternoon asleep after a brief flurry of activity in the morning. In fact it would be mechanical gremlins that would decide the issue. Something went wrong with Jos Verstappen's Arrows. The car speared off the track - probably with a sticking throttle - and was demolished against the barriers at 135mph. The Dutchman was badly shaken up and bits of his car were all over the road. The Race Director scrambled a Safety Car and all the carefully planned and calculated strategies went out of the window. The first men into the pits gained the biggest advantage and, because the F1 pits at Spa are small, teams can only bring in one driver at a time and so the second drivers were dropped way behind.

By the time everyone had sorted themselves out the shape of the race had changed completely. Williams had been beaten. Ferrari had slipped ahead.

That had nearly happened at the start when Schumacher made a good getaway and was almost able to pass Villeneuve - who had smoked his tires at the start - going into La Source hairpin. Hill had made his usual less than brilliant start. Damon was using the T-car after a spin in the morning warm-up during which the car had gone backwards while in a forward gear. The Renault engine men looked a little worried by that piece of information and so he took the spare instead.

Damon's poor start meant that he arrived in the corner behind Schumacher and only just ahead of David Coulthard in the McLaren. David was right with him on the blast down to Eau Rouge and then the long drag uphill to Malmedy. This enabled David to dart out from behind Damon and grab third as they braked to go into the "Pif-Paf". Damon had gone from second to fourth and, stuck behind the others, found his car was understeering because of the disruption of air ahead of him.

The most surprising thing in those early laps was that Villeneuve did not drive away from Schumacher as has normally happened this year when a Williams is ahead at the start of the race. Jacques pulled out 0.8secs on the first lap, 0.7secs on the second but then Schumacher responded with a couple of fastest laps and closed the gap. Jacques responded with another fastest lap. It was a seesaw battle. Then on lap 8 Villeneuve had a big lock-up going into the Bus Stop chicane.

"After that the tires started to bounce and it became very easy to lock it up," he explained. Jacques would lock up a few more times before the pit stops and that meant that his gap to Schumacher remained constant. This was a big surprise given that in qualifying the Williams had been a lot quicker than the Ferrari. Villeneuve had been forced into an error by Schumacher's pressure, enabling the Ferrari to stay with him. Schumacher might have been hoping that he could get in and out of the pits faster at the first stops and thus get ahead. Overtaking in F1 these days is so tough that being ahead with faster cars bottled up behind is an important tactic. McLaren were the only team to decide on a one-stop race strategy, which was based on the fact that they could bottle up the opposition when they were on heavy tanks at the start and go faster when their fuel loads lightened and when everyone else had been in the pit for fuel and tires.

In fact all the strategies meant nothing because of Verstappen's crash and the ensuing Safety Car. Yellow flags came out to warn the drivers to slow down and not to overtake until they had the all-clear. The teams radioed their drivers to warn them about the crash and the Safety Car. Villeneuve had been ahead of Verstappen on the road and so did not know about the accident. He did not hear the message that came to him on the radio. He was due to pit next time around.

"We did not understand one another," explained Jacques later. "I almost came in. The guys were ready for me, but I could not understand what I was being told and so I stayed out. We lost the race by miscommunication when that yellow [flag] came out."

As Jacques flashed past the pits - taking the crew by surprise - Damon was powering up the valley towards the pits. He knew about the crash because he had arrived at the scene as bits of Verstappen's car were bouncing across the road. He had to dive between two bouncing wheels but could not avoid hitting bits of the Arrows suspension.

This was not good but Damon's woes were about to get worse. As soon as Villeneuve had passed the pit, the Williams engineers radioed Hill - who was about 15secs behind Villeneuve - to pit immediately. In the next few seconds they suddenly realized that there was not enough time to switch the fuel rigs and change all the tires. There are two fuel rigs because the amount of fuel being loaded in each car may differ and the drivers may choose to use differing sets of tires. So much for standardization. Switching everything around would have taken about 30secs, and the mechanics had less than 10secs. Adrian Newey immediately got on the radio and told Hill to stay out. When he heard that message Damon was at the heading into the pitlane entrance. He had slowed considerably and had to weave his way through some plastic blocks to get back onto the track and by the time he had done this he had lost places to Hakkinen and Berger. He was sixth.

Damon said later that he felt that the team might have let him come in and have a slightly longer pit stop and not suffered as badly as he did. But the split-second decision had been made. As this was sinking in, up at the top of the hill Villeneuve arrived behind the Safety Car and realized what the message he had not been able to hear had been all about. But he too was in trouble because he would complete the half a lap at Safety Car speed before he could get into the pits. Behind him Schumacher had been in and out of the pits as soon as he knew the Safety Car was out. It looked like inspired tactical work by the Ferrari strategists but afterwards Schumacher admitted that in fact he had just been lucky.

"It was not my decision," he said. "It was the decision of the fuel tank. That was our strategy. We had planned to stop on that lap. It worked perfectly."

The other men to stop immediately were Alesi and Salo. Both gained enormously and would capitalize on that advantage later in the race. The Safety Car stayed out for four laps at the end of which the McLarens were running 1-2 (having not stopped), while Schumacher and Alesi were ahead of Villeneuve and Salo was sixth. Hill was a disastrous 13th. Berger had fared badly as well and had dropped from sixth before the stops to eighth after them.

At the restart Villeneuve made short work of Alesi, diving past the Frenchman at La Source hairpin and setting off after Schumacher. The pair were not far behind the McLarens but they could not pass.

"I was losing a bit compared to Jacques through the Bus Stop," he said, "but I found a way to improve that by riding high on the curbs. When I was behind Mika I did that one time and suddenly there was a lot of play in the steering. I was a bit frightened. It felt strange in Eau Rouge and I was close to stopping the race. I spoke to the pits but they said it would not be dangerous." And so Michael raced on. The McLarens disappeared into the pits at mid-race and it was left to Michael and Jacques to circulate together at the front, separated by less than two seconds. "On the second set of tires I thought the car was good for two or three laps and then it started to push (understeer) like a pig." Towards the second stops Jacques closed up on Michael a little and then he did two laps before coming in himself. Schumacher's time in the pitlane was fractionally slower but his IN lap was a second quicker than that of Jacques. The two OUT laps were virtually identical but this meant that as Jacques came out of the pits, Schumacher flashed past him and took the lead before Jacques could get his power down.

There would be no catching him, although Jacques felt his car was quicker. The Williams once again understeered badly after the first three or four laps and then Jacques began to hear strange noises from his Renault V10 and decided that second place would have to do.

"The pipes were rattling a bit," he explained. This must have given him time to do his arithmetic because after the race he had already worked out that he has now closed to within 13 points of Damon in the Championship, with three races to go. That means that Jacques has to keep pushing because if he wins all three and Damon finishes second, Hill still wins the title.

"Four points a race is not enough," said Jacques. "I need six over Damon to keep the Championship open."

All this was academic to the thousands of rejoicing Germans around the circuit. Schumacher had won against the odds. Michael did not analyze why he had won, he was elated. "I would not have bet anything for this to happen," he said. "There was no way I thought I could win this race. Spa is lucky for me." Indeed it is.

It was not so lucky for Eddie Irvine who retired with another Ferrari gearbox failure. At best he would have finished fifth, but when he retired he was 13th.

Damon Hill made a lot of progress after the disastrous first stop but he had to fight his way through traffic. He was back in the top six by mid-distance and after his second stop was able to finish fifth. Disappointing but not bad given the circumstances.

Behind Villeneuve was Mika Hakkinen's McLaren and the Finn was pretty pleased with the result. He had started sixth and finished third, those ahead of him on the grid had all made mistakes or retired. One of them was Coulthard who led the race for seven laps after the two-stop runners had all pitted. The McLaren men argued that the Safety Car demolished their strategy because in the laps when the Safety Car was out the two McLarens should have been traveling at their fastest and building up a lead. On his second set of tires Coulthard found himself in traffic with a car which was behaving very badly. In the end he spun off.

Whether or not the strategy was good or not cannot really be proved, but there is no doubt that on this occasion the McLarens actually looked vaguely sensible. Sure, the track suited the cars, and their fastest race laps were still over a second slower than those of the fast men, but it was at least something to be optimistic about. Right now there is not much optimism at Woking.

Jean Alesi finished fourth with Gerhard Berger sixth. It was a moderate result for Benetton but there should have been more. Alesi's car did not handle well and Berger was screwed by the pit stops and then blew all his chances with a spin, although he set the fastest lap as he charged back.

The two Tyrrells finished seventh and eighth which was a good result after months of pain. Salo's race was particularly good given the clever use of the Safety Car. He ended up fourth in the mid-race but could do nothing to keep Hakkinen, Hill and Berger behind him, despite a spirited defense. Katayama's race was less inspired - he finished 40secs behind Salo - but a finish is a finish and at Tyrrell they have been rare this year.

Ricardo Rosset finished ninth which was some reward for Arrows on an unfortunate day. Verstappen had done well early on but had to pit with a sticking throttle. He was sent out again and crashed on his first lap out. The throttle seemed to be the blame. Jos went off to the hospital but was found to have only a sore neck, a few abrasions on his chin and a big headache.

The last finisher was Lamy's Minardi which finished where it had started.

Jordan's day was a depressing one. Barrichello was involved in a midfield first corner melee which wiped out the two Saubers and Olivier Panis's Ligier. He pitted for repairs and battled on for a while until the handling had deteriorated so much that he decided not to risk a high-speed failure and retired. Martin Brundle had a non-descript race ending in an engine failure on lap 34.

Ligier's day was ruined at the start. Panis was punted out and Diniz suffered front end damage which required a new nose during one of his pit stops. In the end he retired with engine trouble.

Sauber's day was worse, the two drivers collided at the first corner...

Michael Schumacher Ferrari F310 44 1h28m15.125s  
Jacques Villeneuve Williams-Renault FW18 44 1h28m20.727s  
Mika Hakkinen McLaren-Mercedes MP4/11 44 1h28m30.835s  
Jean Alesi Benetton-Renault B196 44 1h28m34.250s  
Damon Hill Williams-Renault FW18 44 1h28m44.304s  
Gerhard Berger Benetton-Renault B196 44 1h28m45.021s  
19 Mika Salo Tyrrell-Yamaha 024 44 1h29m15.879s  13 
18 Ukyo Katayama Tyrrell-Yamaha 024 44 1h29m55.352s  17 
16 Riccardo Rosset Footwork-Hart FA17 43  18 
10 20 Pedro Lamy Minardi-Cosworth M195B 43  19 
David Coulthard McLaren-Mercedes MP4/11 37 Spin 
12 Martin Brundle Jordan-Peugeot 196 34 Engine 
Eddie Irvine Ferrari F310 29 Gearbox 
11 Rubens Barrichello Jordan-Peugeot 196 29 Accident/front Suspension 10 
10 Pedro Diniz Ligier-Mugen-Honda JS43 22 Engine Misfire 15 
17 Jos Verstappen Footwork-Hart FA17 11 Stub Axle/accident 16 
Olivier Panis Ligier-Mugen-Honda JS43 Accident 14 
14 Johnny Herbert Sauber-Cosworth C15 Accident 12 
r  15 Heinz-Harald Frentzen Sauber-Cosworth C15 Accident 11 
nq 21 Giovanni Lavaggi Minardi-Cosworth M195B   20