Italian GP 1996

Italian GP, 1996

Magnificent Michael

MICHAEL SCHUMACHER won another brilliant victory at Monza, helped by the fact that the World Championship contenders Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve both managed to ruin their own chances by hitting tire barriers. Hill could have won the World title but the big loser was Villeneuve because with two races to go the gap is still 13 points. To claw that back will be miraculous...

Monza. Even the name has a bit of vro-o-om to it. There is no place on this earth where the joy of going motor racing is as strong as at the Autodromo Nazionale. It has speed, noise, flag-waving nutters in trees, ghosts - not to mention one of the best motor racing bookshops in the world. On a clear day, with the mountains visible in the distance to the north and the derelict old banking stark among the trees, the Autodromo is magic.

And all this comes with pasta at every meal and beautiful Italian girls who strut around the Monza parkland, looking like Gazelles in Gucci and trying to avoid being drooled on by the local boys, to whom drooling comes naturally.

Despite this, however, the ladies seem to be impressed when their boyfriends climb behind the steering wheels of their Fiat Unos and show that, given an F1 Ferrari, they would be as fast as Jean Alesi or Michael Schumacher. The tifosi's taste in drivers changes depending on who is driving a Ferrari.

Monza is all about Ferrari and the boys and girls come in their thousands to watch the action. They all believe that Ferrari can achieve miracles at Monza. Qualifying for the 1996 Italian GP, however, proved that not even miracles will stop the Rothmans Williams-Renault magic.

Friday had been Ferrari's day with Schumacher fastest. Mika Hakkinen was second quickest for McLaren and Gerhard Berger third for Benetton. Williams was not in the frame. It all meant very little but it kept the fans happy.

Saturday would turn out to be a very different story - as has happened a lot this year. But it probably was not as easy as it looked. Monza is not an easy track for which to set up a car. For some reason tires last longer here than at other circuits and so qualifying tends not to be done in short bursts of three laps but rather in long runs of six laps at a time with a tenth here and a tenth there being lopped off the lap times.

The skill at Monza seems to be to find the right balance between the long fast straights and the fast Lesmo and Parabolica corners. At a place like Hockenheim you simply take off all the wing and wind up the engine as high as you dare, hoping it will not go "Pop!". At Monza it is more of a balancing act. Take off too much wing and your car will whizz down the straights but will be twitchy in the corners; put on too much wing and one has to chug down straights.

The art, it seems, is to set up the car to be moderately quick everywhere. The maximum speeds through the three Monza speed traps thus always make interesting reading to see who is juggling it well.

On Saturday Damon Hill took pole position but in the three speed traps he was ninth, 14th and eighth fastest. The balance was good.

It had looked that way on Saturday morning although Mika Hakkinen was fastest for McLaren. Damon was only a tenth slower than the Finn and there was obviously more to come. Mika had been pushing very hard.

You may say that the Williams-Renault FW17 is an exceptional car. It is, but it is still one which needs to be set up for each individual racing circuit. On Friday the team clearly did not have the balance and reckoned that they would probably lose pole position to Michael Schumacher's Ferrari. The Williams engineers did their homework well overnight.

Jacques Villeneuve would have been well-placed as well but he would have a particularly tough morning. Early on his Williams hit a large chunk of concrete - which had been ripped out of one of the new high Monza curbs by a passing Minardi - and smashed a front wing. This was repaired. Later in the session Jacques found himself being pushed off the road while trying to pass the Ligier of Pedro Diniz at very high speed on the run down to the Parabolica. The Brazilian simply did not see the Williams and moved over on Villeneuve who had to go onto the grass. He lost control at high speed and shot across the track and into the guardrail.

Jacques stalked back to the paddock, not a happy bunny. "I was unlucky to come upon one of these idiot drivers who should not be in F1," he said.

The incident meant that Jacques lost 10 laps in the morning session which he had been planning to use to find a good set-up for his car. He was at a disadvantage to his team mate and rival Damon Hill.

The goal posts would move slightly before qualifying when the Race Director Roger Lane-Nott decided, after the concrete incident, that something needed to be done about drivers cutting across the chicanes. Traditionally drivers at Monza have cut the chicanes as much as they think they can get away with. But where is the limit? In an effort to slow down the lap times the Monza curbs had been made bigger this year. The drivers continued to drive straight over them, flattening any plastic poles put in their way. After the concrete block incident Lane-Nott figured - quite rightly - that something had to be done to stop drivers attacking the curbs. He called in drivers Hill, Villeneuve and Gerhard Berger to ask what they thought about tires being used.

"Tires are not a perfect solution," said Hill, "but something had to be done to try and keep everyone off the curbs."

This meant that drivers had to rethink their lines a little in the first few laps in the qualifying session. Nothing much happened in the first half an hour. It was hot, sunny and very windy. The track was covered with autumn leaves which had parted company with Monza's trees. It was 14 minutes before we even saw a car - Mika Salo's Tyrrell - and he did not stay out for long. Gerhard Berger came out in his Benetton but as he set off on his first flying lap he unsettled his car over the curb at the exit of the first chicane and promptly spun to a stop. The track fell silent again as Gerhard jogged back to the pits.

Villeneuve came out about five minutes later, clearly keen to make up for lost time in the morning with a clear track. Jacques did a six-lap run and set the provisional pole position. He did four flying laps - each one faster than the previous - and, as Jacques got faster, Hill decided it was time to follow suit. Damon's first flyer was not good enough to take pole; nor was his second but the third one did the job. The others all followed but it was fairly clear that no-one else was in the same league as the Williams pair. We would have to wait for their final runs. In the final minutes Damon sliced another 0.4s off pole. Villeneuve's response was 0.3s slower. The game was over. Damon - the man departing from Williams at the end of this year - had won.

"Well I obviously haven't lost the knack of going quickly," he said. "It is particularly satisfying for a number of reasons. I think they are fairly obvious. The lap with which I took pole wasn't completely correct. There were parts of the circuit where I didn't get the best. I am very pleased with the set-up work I have done over the weekend."

Damon was amazingly relaxed about his current predicament. Being left in the lurch by Williams seems to be more of a challenge to him than a setback. He wants to win the World Championship more than ever before.

Villeneuve was not pleased but did accept that given what had happened to him in the course of the day the result was not a bad one.

The two Williams boys were well clear of Schumacher's Ferrari and Michael said he was a little confused given his speed the previous day. He thought that it might have been the high winds which upset the Ferrari's handling. The speed traps showed Michael fastest through the second speed trap - 10kphs ahead of Hill - and close to Damon in the other traps but he was over half a second off the pace. Team mate Eddie Irvine was seventh - half a second behind Schumacher.

Overall there was disappointment at Ferrari because Monza is the track where the team should have had an advantage as it does most of its testing at the Autodromo.

"After yesterday's result we thought it might be possible to get pole," said team boss Jean Todt. "We didn't manage it. Ferrari's objective is to get one car on the podium and the other in the points. The F310 is performing well and we should not exclude the possibility of winning."

That was pretty far-fetched, but stranger things have happened in F1.

Fourth and fifth on the grid were the two McLarens - Mika Hakkinen ahead of David Coulthard - but both 0.7s behind Hill. This was pretty much what one would have expected at Monza, given that the cars always go well when the Mercedes engine has a greater importance than the MP4/11 chassis. Being faster than both the Benettons was a step forward, but it is arguable whether this was because of McLaren progress rather than Benetton's lack of performance. In the end it does not really matter because the only thing that counts are the results. Fourth and fifth on the grid was a good effort from McLaren. Team boss Ron Dennis said he was disappointed with the result as the cars "had the speed and ability to get a front row position". Really?

Benetton's sixth and eighth on the grid was disastrous - given that the team generally does better on tracks without too many corners. Certainly through the speed traps the Benettons were very quick. The Benetton team press release - usually a worthless document - did little to explain why this speed was not translated into a good lap time.

"The car was working well," Jean Alesi is supposed to have said. "It would have taken so little to get the car to the front row of the grid. The car was running especially well on the straight but I had some oversteer on some of the corners."

With a Renault-engined car - at a track which tends to squeeze the grid closer together - to be a full second off the pace of another Renault engined car is, frankly, not very impressive.

Gerhard Berger admitted that he had made a mistake - which had been pretty obvious from the pictures of his spin - and so had to take to the T-car which was fitted with a less powerful engine.

A pretty poor effort all in all.

Ninth and 10th was hardly scintillating from Jordan, given that the Peugeot V10 engine is obviously a very useful little power unit. What was interesting was that while Martin Brundle was among the fastest through the first speed trap, Barrichello was nearly 23kph slower and yet the pair had very close lap times, Martin being just ahead on this occasion. The difference in driving style does not appear to make much of a difference on the speed of the car.

Olivier Panis was 11th on the grid in his Ligier-Mugen Honda and the Japanese V10 engine looked extremely quick down the straights. Across the start-finish line Panis was second fastest to Alesi. Pedro Diniz was half a second in 14th position on the grid.

The two Sauber-Fords were 12th and 13th on the grid, Johnny Herbert once again beating Heinz-Harald Frentzen. Heinz-Harald did not help himself when he crashed heavily in qualifying at the Lesmo and, inadvertently, this disrupted Herbert as well as Johnny had to lift off on his fastest lap when he arrived at the scene of HH's crash.

Although Ford keeps on announcing step after step for its V10 engine, the team is gradually slipping back on the grid. In the early part of the year Frentzen was regularly qualifying between ninth and 11th.

The Arrows team was in trouble with engines and Ricardo Rosset had to use Jos Verstappen's car. Both drivers were thus compromised and ended up with Verstappen in 15th and Rosset 19th.

The Tyrrells struggled for power as usual with Mika Salo and Ukyo Katayama qualifying 16th and 17th while the two Minardis were struggling away with the old Ford HB V8 engines.

Minardi's Giovanni Lavaggi, the only Italian driver in F1 these days, only qualified by the skin of his teeth, recording a time which was 106.68% from pole position. At 107% a driver does not qualify to race. We could have had an Italian GP without an Italian driver...

The night before the race the Italians put on a rehearsal of what would happen before and after the race on Sunday. When it came to playing a national anthem someone picked the German one. Up in the press room we had a good laugh at that. Italians were optimists, Schumacher was going to have trouble winning this one...

THE problem of the chicanes re-emerged on Sunday morning. At eight o'clock Race Director Roger Lane-Nott issued a bulletin explaining that there would be new tire barriers positioned on the inside of each of the apexes at the first and second chicanes. These would be fixed and three tires high. This was intended to dissuade drivers from running over the curbs.

"Nobody was happy but it was the only solution," said Schumacher. "Everybody knew that tires would be difficult and if you touched them you would be in a bad situation." And so it turned out. More of that in a minute.

The start was a dramatic affair with the two front rows both getting away slowly. Damon Hill slipped and slithered, Jacques Villeneuve spun his wheels hugely. Michael Schumacher bogged down and Mika Hakkinen got away well but then the McLaren seemed to hesitate.

The man on the move was Jean Alesi, sixth place on the grid. He was past both McLarens in a flash and his momentum took him past a surprised Schumacher as well.

"The start was just magic," said Jean. "Qualifying is not so important because I am with them by the first corner!"

Jean would probably have been delighted with passing just three cars but suddenly a nice big hole opened on the track in front of him and Alesi - not one to look a gift horse in the mouth - drove through it to take the lead.

The gap had appeared because as the two Williamses dragged down the road Hill moved aggressively to the right to stop Villeneuve getting ahead. Villeneuve kept his foot in and the two nearly touched. When they got to the first corner Alesi went in ahead of Hill. Villeneuve was badly placed and had to go across the curbs - on the wrong side of the new tire barriers. They emerged with Alesi ahead of Hill, Villeneuve and Hakkinen. Damon was not planning to take that sitting down and attacked Jean when he went a little wide in the second Lesmo Corner. Damon went through on the inside. Overtaking in the Lesmo? Damon Hill? This was a new and aggressive Damon. Alesi did not make it easy, pulling alongside Hill as they went into Ascari but Hill held his line. He was not going to give way.

"I was quite surprised," admitted Jean. "I was taking some risks but he took more than me. He came down the outside. He had the advantage for the second part of the chicane and I preferred to lift off."

This meant that on the run down to the Parabolica Jean was slightly slower than those behind him. He had Villeneuve right with him and he held up the French-Canadian which enabled Hakkinen to outdrag Jacques on the run down the straight.

At the end of the lap Hill was ahead by 0.6s and in the course of the second lap he pulled the lead out to 1.1s. On lap three he took nearly another second off Alesi and on lap 4 he added another 0.5s. Alesi was impressed. Hill was motoring.

The second lap proved to be significant. In the second chicane Villeneuve clipped one of the tire barriers. In doing so he bent the front suspension. The impact with the tires also got rid of David Coulthard who was close behind Villeneuve and hit the tires disrupted by Jacques. The McLaren's steering broke and David was thrown into a spin. He was out.

Villeneuve would be passed later that lap by Schumacher so that Michael ended lap two in fourth place. Jacques, with a bent suspension, would soon have tire troubles which would destroy not only his race but perhaps any realistic hopes he has of winning the World Championship as well.

A couple of laps later Michael would be third. As Alesi went through the second chicane he clipped the tires and one of them popped out in front of Hakkinen. The Finn's left front wing was broken. Mika did a lap not really aware of how bad the damage was but at the end of lap four he came into the pits for a new nose. He would rejoin at the tail end of the field.

Up at the front Hill seemed unflustered by all the action behind him. Exiting the first chicane on lap six, however, it all went horribly wrong. Damon glanced the tire barrier and the Williams was pitched into a spin. It did not hit anything but the engine had stalled. Hill was out.

"I could have finished the race and I think I could have won it," he admitted later. "I made a mistake and that put me out of the race. I was enjoying myself but it is just one of those things I'm afraid. I cannot blame anyone but myself."

As the enormity of what he had done sank in, Damon stood, shaking his head beside the track, pondering perhaps that it is better to go to races to race rather than to talk to rival teams about a contract for next season.

Once Hill was gone Alesi was left with Schumacher behind him. The Ferrari was clearly quicker but could not pass the Benetton and everyone settled down to wait for the first pit stops.

"I was able to catch him and I wasn't really concerned to push too hard too early," explained Schumacher. "Then I was behind him and waiting for him to make a mistake but the guy didn't want to make one! I knew Benetton would go for the same strategy. We had a lot of fuel on board to go for a very late pit stop and I was just hoping that I had enough fuel to go further than Jean. I didn't push that hard trying to save my brakes and tires."

Alesi had to pit on lap 30 and immediately Michael put the hammer down, setting the fastest lap as he tried to make a break. Alesi's IN lap was a 1m47.958s, Schumacher's - two laps later - was a 1m45.485s. The two were in the pitlane for about the same amount of time (Schumacher was 0.5s faster) and Alesi did an OUT lap of 1m31.354s, Schumacher's was 1m29.994s. That says it all. Jean had gone from 0.6s ahead to over five seconds behind.

After that, Schumacher admitted later, he was driving at only about 90%. The second set of tires made the car much better and Michael had no traffic. He pulled away gradually. By lap 39 he had a lead of almost 10s and was told by the Ferrari pit to take it easy because there were some worries about the brakes.

Down at the first chicane Michael clipped the tire barrier as he turned in.

"It was a stupid moment," he said later. "I was very surprised. I nearly lost control as the steering wheel snapped over. It was not in my hands! I picked up a slight vibration but that disappeared later on."

For a Ferrari driver to win at Monza is the ultimate victory.

"I have never seen such emotion," he explained after the podium. "It's crazy. It is only possible in Italy. It's fantastic. You get goose bumps everywhere. They have waited a long time for this and they deserve it."

But, he admitted, he had been lucky. Not so Eddie Irvine who was running third - but had overtaken no-one except the ailing Villeneuve - when he clipped the tires at the entry to the first chicane. Everything seemed to be OK until he braked for the second chicane and the front suspension snapped. Exit Eddie.

Alesi finished second and was happy because starting from sixth on the grid one cannot hope for much. Gerhard Berger was again unfortunate. He was in fifth place on lap five when his car suffered total hydraulic failure - which meant he had no gears. No gears means no points.

With the mayhem among the front-runners it was Hakkinen who emerged in third place - which was quite an achievement given that he had been dumped back to 15th place with his unscheduled pit stop. Mika drove a cracking race scything through the small fry to take third position. It looked good and must have been fun but when he got to third place he reached the level of the car and began little by little to drop back on the gap to Schumacher. From 44secs on lap 33 the gap went out to 66secs at the finish.

"I'm not too upset by that," explained Mika. "I was going flat out."

The team was not as cheerful because Schumacher's victory pulls Ferrari further ahead in the battle for third place in the Constructors' Championship. McLaren is now 13 points down on Ferrari.

Fourth and fifth were the two Jordans which managed to avoid all the early chaos. Barrichello had clutch problems and actually turned off the clutch (strange concept but possible in F1 these days) until he needed it for the pit stop. The stops put him ahead of Brundle but, when the team radioed to tell him to switch the clutch off again, Rubens hit the ignition instead and Martin went past him. The team then told Rubens to stay behind Martin which he seemed to do, although there were signs that Brundle had to block him on a couple of occasions. Rubens, it seems, has little to gain from obeying team orders these days.

Sixth place went to Pedro Diniz's Ligier and one has to say that the Brazilian drove a good race. He passed Verstappen and Herbert and held Hakkinen behind for a long part of the middle of the race. It was a thoroughly deserved result. One wonders what Olivier Panis might have been able to do but he was left on the dummy grid and had to start from the back of the grid. He then collided with Katayama as he was fighting through the field and ended up in the sandtrap.

Seventh place should have gone to Sauber's Johnny Herbert but his Ford engine blew on the last lap of the race, dropping him back to ninth in the classification. Heinz-Harald Frentzen hit the tires in the second chicane and spun out with a broken suspension.

Seventh place went to Villeneuve but this was little consolation for he gained no points. He had to pit three times during the race to replace his tires which were wearing out.

"After two laps the tires had bubbles and we just had to hold on hoping to get a few points - which we didn't." On Sunday night one wonders who slept worst - Hill or Villeneuve. Both had screwed up big chances.

Eighth at the finish was Jos Verstappen which was an optimistic result for the Dutchman after his big accident at Spa. His only major problem was a stiff neck, a leftover from the accident. His Arrows team mate Ricardo Rosset hit tires at the second chicane on lap 37 and was dumped into the sand.

Behind Herbert in 10th was Ukyo Katayama's Tyrrell, delayed by a pit stop after his incident with Panis and he had to drive with his steering completely askew. Mika Salo - say it very quietly - had another engine failure. The Minardis both failed to finish, both retiring with failed engines.

The scenes at the end of the race were like any Ferrari victory at Monza - complete mayhem. At the Parabolica the police kept the crowds from invading the track with a well-timed baton charge - which probably saved Monza a lot of trouble from the FIA...

Michael Schumacher Ferrari F310 53 1h17m43.632s  
Jean Alesi Benetton-Renault B196 53 1h18m01.897s  
Mika Hakkinen McLaren-Mercedes MP4/11 53 1h18m50.267s  
12 Martin Brundle Jordan-Peugeot 196 53 1h19m08.849s  
11 Rubens Barrichello Jordan-Peugeot 196 53 1h19m09.107s  10 
10 Pedro Diniz Ligier-Mugen-Honda JS43 52  14 
Jacques Villeneuve Williams-Renault FW18 52  
17 Jos Verstappen Footwork-Hart FA17 52  15 
9r 14 Johnny Herbert Sauber-Cosworth C15 51 Engine 12 
10 18 Ukyo Katayama Tyrrell-Yamaha 024 51  16 
16 Riccardo Rosset Footwork-Hart FA17 36 Accident 19 
Eddie Irvine Ferrari F310 23 Accident 
20 Pedro Lamy Minardi-Cosworth M195B 12 Engine 18 
19 Mika Salo Tyrrell-Yamaha 024 Engine 17 
15 Heinz-Harald Frentzen Sauber-Cosworth C15 Accident 13 
Damon Hill Williams-Renault FW18 Accident 
21 Giovanni Lavaggi Minardi-Cosworth M195B Engine 20 
Gerhard Berger Benetton-Renault B196 Gearbox Hydraulics 
Olivier Panis Ligier-Mugen-Honda JS43 Accident 11 
David Coulthard McLaren-Mercedes MP4/11 Accident