Portuguese GP 1996

Portuguese GP, 1996

Jacques keeps it open

JACQUES VILLENEUVE drove a storming - brilliant - race to win the Portuguese Grand Prix. He made a mess of the start but recovered in a remarkable fashion. It was the first time that the Canadian had beaten Damon Hill in a straight fight and it kept his title hopes open. It had included the best overtaking maneuver of the season so far - around the outside of Michael Schumacher in the curling final corner. After the race Jacques was deadpan. You would have thought that his pet hamster had just died. Is there something wrong with showing emotion?

Usually at this time of year the Estoril coast to the west of Lisbon, in Portugal, is a pleasant place to be. There is plenty of warm sunshine and some pleasant cooling breezes coming off the Atlantic Ocean. This is not far from the western-most point of continental Europe and so it has to take whatever the great ocean has to throw at it.

On occasion the storms can become pretty wild. It is for this reason that Lisbon grew up where it is, a huge natural harbor where the River Tagus meets the Atlantic. It was from these calm waters that the great Portuguese explorers set out to chart the world. Today they are remembered by an impressive monument at Belem, not far from the arching suspension bridge which links northern Portugal to the south. Perched on a cliff to the southern side of the bridge is a towering statue of Cristo Rei (Christ the King) looking out across the oceans towards its distant cousin - Corcovada - in Rio de Janeiro.

A few years ago Portugal and Brazil seemed rather similar but a vast amount of European Community money has resulted in massive economic growth and a completely new infrastructure. This means that for the last few years Lisbon and the Estoril coast has been a vast building site. Is it progress? That is a matter of opinion, particularly if you can remember what it was like when F1 first began visiting Estoril in 1984. The circuit is much as it was in those days. The paddock is a little tidier and there is a new - and rather silly - hairpin out at the back, but otherwise Estoril is quite a long way behind many of its rival races.

It is a strange track, one which demands a good car - one which will handle both the high-speed corners and the twiddly stuff. The circuit eats tires and its behavior can change dramatically with a gust of wind. The Formula 1 team which has constantly been able to find this delicate balance has been Williams-Renault, which has won four of the last five races. In 1991 it was with Riccardo Patrese, in 1992 with Nigel Mansell. In 1993 Michael Schumacher broke the run with a win for Benetton but Alain Prost finished right on his tail. In 1994 Damon Hill won, but last year Hill was pushed back into second place by his young team mate David Coulthard.

One way or the other there was little doubt as the F1 circus headed to Portugal that the major players this year would be World Championship rivals - and Williams team-mates - Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve. The Williams-Renault FW18 has been the best car of the year - striking a superb technical balance. Some of the other teams have been - moderately competitive at tracks with certain kinds of corners (or a lack of them) - but Williams has been competitive everywhere - and if a car is good anywhere it will be particularly good in Estoril.

Friday was the usual meaningless day with Ferrari's Michael Schumacher fastest from Hill, Tyrrell's Ukyo Katayama, Ferrari's Eddie Irvine and Villeneuve. The Tyrrell men looked very happy - such performances are useful, particularly when you are trying to negotiate for the future - but we waited for Saturday to see reality. On Saturday morning Schumacher was quickest again but with Hill and Villeneuve on his tail things looked ominous for the afternoon. The weather had been playing games with the odd rain shower which disrupted everyone in their set-up work.

When it came to the showdown, however, Williams emerged as the force - as we knew the team would. The clouds were threatening rain as the teams prepared for qualifying and so there was a rush of cars in the early minutes as everyone made sure they had a time "in the bank" in case there was a rainstorm. Before the rain does appear, drivers are anxious to set a qualifying time on a dry track to ensure they will qualify, even if lower on the grid than normal, in case rain for the rest of the qualifying hour makes a competitive time impossible. Schumacher was briefly on pole but was beaten by his team mate Eddie Irvine - an unusual event. This did not last long and Hill sliced 0.6s off Irvine's best time and Villeneuve weighed in with a lap which was just a couple of tenths slower.

The track fell quiet for a while and then Benetton's Gerhard Berger came out again and knocked Villeneuve back into third place. On his second run Jacques made a mistake in the middle part of his lap and had to watch as Hill emerged to take pole out to nearly a second faster than the nearest challenger. This scrambled the opposition and Schumacher and then Jean Alesi improved to push Jacques down to fifth.

With 15 minute to go Jacques came out and set about beating Hill. He was faster in the first split time and very close at the second. As he crossed the line the timing computers flashed up the news that Hill was still on pole - by 0.009s.

Damon came out for his third run but it was not very good and he aborted it. There was 10 minutes left and both Williams boys had another set of tires to use. And then the weather struck again. Rain was threatening as Villeneuve came out for his final flying lap. It was raining before he could cross the starting line. Hill did not bother to come out. The showdown had been wrecked. Both Williams men reckoned they would have done better - if necessary.

"I was under no illusion that Jacques was not where he should be in fifth. I knew he would close when he got a clear run. It was so close that it was scary," said Hill. "Nine one-thousandths is not a lot of distance."

Renault later had the computers number-crunch a figure. Hill had beaten Villeneuve, they reckoned, by just over 2 feet.

Jacques was disappointed. "Nine-thousandths of a second is so small. If you knew it was going to be that close you could find it. It is frustrating when it is so close. It is like throwing a coin in the air. It's tough."

Both drivers seemed to be pretty happy with their cars and the fact that both were 0.7secs ahead of Alesi's Benetton suggested that it would be a two-horse race on Sunday - unless, of course, the weather was going to intervene.

Hill would start with the advantage of course. With pole and a healthy lead in the World Championship he would be able to have a less risky strategy than Villeneuve - who had to win to have any real hopes of winning the World Championship. Overtaking is not easy.

Damon would also start from the clean side of the track. "The left side," said Damon, confusingly, "is the right side - if you see what I mean. I want to win the race tomorrow. That is my goal. I have to finish ahead of Jacques as far as the championship goes."

Jean Alesi was delighted to be third but worried about what might happen at the start. "I don't want to be involved in any kind of accident with Jacques and Damon," he said. "I don't want to disturb the World Championship. I have to be a little careful."

Alesi admitted that the track was "very difficult" for the Benetton and Gerhard Berger added that third was the best that the pair could have hoped for. Gerhard was, therefore, disappointed to be fifth on the grid, complaining that he would have been higher up the order if he had been able to have a final run on new tires. The rain, however, put paid to such ideas.

The two Benettons were split by Michael Schumacher's Ferrari and Eddie Irvine's F310 was sixth. The quartet were covered by just 0.126s which is nothing at all. Alesi was happy but the other three all reckoned that they could have beaten Jean.

"Fourth place is not great," said Schumacher, "but looking at the performance of the Williams I don't think I could have done better than third - even if things had gone perfectly. The main problem is a lack of traction coming out of slow corners and a difficulty in finding a good balance in the medium speed corners."

Being just a tenth behind Schumacher was a good performance for Irvine, who looked a lot better than he has on occasion this year. This is probably to do with the fact that Eddie had spent four solid days of testing at Fiorano while Michael Schumacher had a holiday. It was probably also helped by the fact that all the cars are now using the new seven-speed gearboxes - which seem to be a lot more reliable than the old six-speed units.

This all meant that the McLarens were only seventh and eighth on the grid, Mika Hakkinen not far ahead of David Coulthard. The pair were 1.3secs off the pace of the Williams-Renaults and all the time was being lost in the wiggly middle section of the lap, where chassis grip is important. On Friday morning Hakkinen had a close shave when he narrowly missed flattening a local dog which had strayed onto the racing circuit, looking for bones or some such. A press release came out in French talking about "Hakkinen et le chien" and a number of folk misinterpreted this title to mean that the MP4/11 is a dog of a car rather than a neat competitive little beast that the team would have us believe is the case. The fact is that without long straights to allow the Mercedes V10 engine to scream its little heart out the McLarens were back where they always are on any circuit without straights. In other words nothing has changed.

Making progress in F1 these days is like the old days of the nuclear arms race. Anyone with the money tests and tests and they all make progress but as everyone is progressing they all keep at a similar level of competitiveness. It is only the poorer teams which cannot afford to test which drop backwards. The best example of this is Tyrrell.

Jordan has done as much testing this year as all the other big combines, but the car continues to behave in its curious fashion, slipping at vast speed down the straights but becoming distinctly difficult in the corners. Rubens Barrichello was ninth on the grid - admitting that media interest about his F1 future is taking its toll. Having said that, by the end of qualifying, Rubens reckoned that he had extracted about as much as was possible from the car. Martin Brundle was 10th, disappointed that his last run was taken away because of the rain, although he was quite pleased with progress given that in the Saturday morning session the car had been behaving very badly.

The two Sauber-Fords were next up, Heinz-Harald Frentzen 11th on the grid and Johnny Herbert 12th. This seemed to be pretty much as normal although it was a little disappointing as the cars have tended to go better at tracks where handling is better than brute horsepower. The fact that Ford had new evolution engines for both drivers might also have produced a better result. It did not, although Frentzen reported that the Ford's top-end horsepower was a bit better than previously.

Tyrrell proved to be a bigger disappointment after its promising showing on Friday with Mika Salo and Ukyo Katayama 13th and 14th. The cars were very quick in the twisty sections but lost out a lot on the straights. The paddock cynics suggested that the Friday performance was not to do with development but rather with finding loot for next year - which naturally the team denied. The denials made the Friday showing all the stranger. If the team can do it once why do they not do it every time?

If Tyrrell was disappointed Ligier was also down in the dumps with Olivier Panis 15th on the grid and Pedro Diniz 18th. The Ligiers have never qualified particularly well but this was poor.

The Ligier pair were split by the two TWR/Arrows/Footwork-Harts of Jos Verstappen and Ricardo Rosset. Mechanical troubles, incidents and a painful neck (from his Spa accident) kept Verstappen in check, while Rosset struggled with understeer - which seems to be the major handling characteristic of the Footwork chassis. There is nothing the team can do about that at this stage of the season.

Down the back as usual were the two Minardis with local hero Pedro Lamy the fastest despite a series of fuel pump problems which left Pedro stuck out on the circuit at one point. Giovanni Lavaggi qualified, although, with a lap which was at 106.574% of pole time, he only just made it under the 107% regulation. In order to compete drivers must qualify within 107% of the time of the driver in pole position.

BEFORE the race began - as the cars sat on the grid - Damon Hill could not stop himself thinking that within an hour and 45 minutes he might become World Champion. He was starting from pole position and at Williams the driver who qualifies best gets first call on when to stop during the race. He has a strategic advantage.

On this occasion Damon made a proper start. "I have been practicing them," he said.

Jean Alesi had made a better start but there was no way that Hill was going to let him through on the inside. Damon sliced across the track and squeezed Jean.

"I never even saw him," said Damon. "Was he there? I was looking where I was going, keeping my eyes on the road ahead."

This put paid to Jean who dived into the first corner behind Hill, edging out a fast-starting Schumacher, who pushed Villeneuve down to fourth place. A disastrous situation for Jacques.

He was trapped behind Alesi and Schumacher and Damon was disappearing into the distance. After 16 laps, in fact, Hill was ahead of Alesi by 13.512s - and 15secs clear of Villeneuve.

"I had a good battle with Michael," said Jacques, " but it was very difficult to overtake him. Then we caught some traffic (Giovanni Lavaggi's Minardi) in the fast corner before the pits. I have been telling the team that one could overtake on the outside there and they said that they would come and pick me out of the guardrail. I had nothing to lose. It was worth taking a big risk. I got him on the outside. My oval experience helped there a little bit. That was a lot of fun."

Overtaking Schumacher on the outside in Estoril's curling final corner - called Senna these days - is something which only those with serious steel in their backbones should consider. And it took Schumacher by surprise.

"I was behind the Minardi and I knew that if I followed him through the corner I would be slow down the straight and Jacques would be able to pass me," Schumacher explained. "So I pulled off to get a gap. Jacques used the opportunity to come alongside me. I looked in the mirror and I didn't know where he was and then I saw him beside me. It was a scary moment because he came with his wheel between my wheels so I could not back off because he would have gone over my front wheel and would have had a big accident."

Who dares wins, so they say, and Jacques certainly did. Schumacher had been out-Schumachered. "I told you it could be done," Jacques told his engineers over the radio.

The next task was to get rid of Jean Alesi, and to do this the Williams engineers decided to bring Jacques in on lap 18. Jean would not pit until lap 22 by which time Jacques had built a big enough gap to be well clear of Jean. In fact Jean dropped behind Schumacher as well.

Villeneuve's target was now Hill. Damon had come out of the pits on lap 17 with a lead of around 15secs over Villeneuve. He held that steady for a while but on lap 22 stumbled while trying to find a way past the backmarkers, which included the Tyrrell of Ukyo Katayama and the Arrows of Ricardo Rosset which were battling mightily. "They were weaving all over the place," said Damon. "They were all over the road and I was held up badly."

In one lap Villeneuve took nearly six seconds off the gap. On the next lap he carved off another two seconds but then the gap stabilized and even grew as Jacques had to work the traffic. At the end of the run Damon began to drop time badly. On lap 32 he lost a second to Villeneuve and on lap 33 it was nearly two seconds. At the end of lap 33 he pitted. The IN lap was a 1m32.220s. When Villeneuve pitted the next time around his IN lap was 1m30.492s. The OUT laps were a similar story - Damon did a 1m43.313s, Jacques was a 1m42.205s. The gap had disappeared.

For the entire third stint Jacques shadowed Damon. F1 cars being as they are these days he could not pass because if you run too close to a car in front the tires suffer badly. "It was difficult to stay with him," admitted Jacques, "but I knew in the pit stop I could get by him."

And that is exactly what Villeneuve did. Damon must have been aware of the threat because his IN lap was a 1m30.826s - over a second faster than the earlier one. Jacques more or less matched that. Damon's OUT lap told the story, however: it was a 1m44.861s. That meant that Jacques popped out of the pitlane just ahead of his team mate. Damon had not gone fast enough on the new tires.

"I saw a car coming out of the pits and I thought it was a Tyrrell or something and I was hoping it would stay out of my way," said Hill. "Then I saw Rothmans (the main Williams sponsor) on the rear wing and I realized it was Jacques. I was surprised. I tried to stay with him but he was really flying."

The fight was over. Damon was never going to get past Jacques and it became an academic question a few laps later when Damon was informed that a clutch problem had showed up on the telemetry.

"You can imagine the alarm bells started ringing quite loudly," said Damon. "It was the last thing I wanted to hear." Damon settled for second place.

"I wanted to keep the point loss to a minimum," he explained. "Jacques drove a great race to win from fourth place - and that is no mean feat around here!"

Schumacher and Alesi would spend most of the afternoon fighting over third place. They adopted different strategies - Alesi having a two-stop race and Schumacher a three-stop strategy. This meant that in the middle of the race Alesi was ahead. At one point Michael actually collided with the Frenchman.

"In turn four he braked a little bit more than normal," explained Schumacher, "and I went into his rear wing. He closed the door when I thought there was an opportunity. I cut the nose a little bit."

It didn't really matter because when Jean pitted again Michael was able to get ahead and he stayed ahead. Jean finished fourth.

Ferrari's other driver, Eddie Irvine, had a solid day. He ran sixth early on but was able to get ahead of Alesi's Benetton team mate Gerhard Berger at the first pit stops. He held the advantage at the second stops - being on the same two-stop pattern as Gerhard - and managed to hold off the Austrian in the closing laps. At one point Gerhard went past Eddie at the hairpin but overshot, allowing Irvine to get back in front. On the last lap Gerhard tried again, locked up and ran into the Ferrari. The two spun but Eddie was able to get his car back on the road first and duly took fifth.

This was important because Benetton and Ferrari are now locked in a battle to finish second in the Constructors' Championship. Ferrari is one point ahead. If Berger had beaten Irvine back onto the road on that last lap Benetton would have been a point ahead. With the financial rewards involved getting a good result in the Constructors' Championship can be just as important to a team as the Drivers' Championship.

Seventh and eighth were the two Sauber-Fords with Heinz-Harald Frentzen leading Johnny Herbert home. Frentzen had made a dreadful start but fought back, turning in some useful lap times. Herbert was frustrated behind Brundle in the early laps but otherwise had an uneventful day.

Ninth was Brundle, who complained that his car was eating tires. Team mate Rubens Barrichello spun off on lap 42 while running 11th.

Ligier's Olivier Panis made it to the finish in 10th, complaining of serious understeer. Despite this he managed to catch the group of cars ahead of him - the Saubers and Brundle - and reckoned he might have made up some places had his engine not cut out briefly with a couple of laps to go. This cost him 10secs.

Team mate Pedro Diniz retired on lap 47, colliding with Ricardo Rosset as he tried to overtake the Arrows driver.

Eleventh and 12th were the two Tyrrells - a pretty lackluster performance which seemed to suggest that the fireworks on Friday had been nothing but a publicity stunt.

David Coulthard's McLaren was 13th - evidence that McLaren had failed to optimize the potential of the cars and maximize the result. There are no long impressive marketing words for monstrous cock-up and the McLaren jargon-writers were, therefore, a little lost for words. The cars had been off the pace as expected and had drifted around in seventh and eighth places until they collided with one another on lap 46. The accident - a nose-to-tail interface situation - was caused by Mika Hakkinen running into David Coulthard, spinning the Scotsman. Mika described it as "a racing incident". Coulthard described Hakkinen in rather more colorful terms. Whatever the case Hakkinen had front wing damage and Coulthard had a rear puncture. They both arrived in the pits at the same time. The team was not prepared for this and Coulthard was waved out to complete another lap while Hakkinen's car was checked over. David had to complete a lap shedding bits of rubber and damaging his car still further before he could pit for repairs. He then accelerated away too quickly and so had to return to the pitlane later for a 10-sec stop-go penalty, for exceeding the speed limit on his way out of the crowded pits. Hakkinen later retired because of the damage, while Coulthard trogged around to the finish - an unhappy man. "In situations like these," said team boss Ron Dennis, "we need to focus on the opposition, which should never be from within."

Confused? So were the McLaren boys.

Arrows's Rosset struggled home in 14th which was a good effort given that there was no oil left in his gearbox at the end. Jos Verstappen retired on lap 48 when his engine blew up. The two Minardis finished and got more coverage than most teams as they were constantly being lapped...

In theory the World Championship is still open but all Damon Hill has to do in Suzuka is to finish sixth. Jacques Villeneuve needs to win the race in order to get the 10 points necessary for the Championship.

"I am going to try and win," Villeneuve said. "Then we will see what Damon does. A nine point gap does not look very good. You never know what can happen. Damon can make a mistake, the car could break down. Until the last lap of the last race I will go on thinking I can do it."

It is worth considering such things. After the race the Renault engineers discovered that Damon's gearbox would not have lasted another lap...

Jacques Villeneuve Williams-Renault FW18 70 1h40m22.915s  
Damon Hill Williams-Renault FW18 70 1h40m42.881s  
Michael Schumacher Ferrari F310 70 1h41m16.680s  
Jean Alesi Benetton-Renault B196 70 1h41m18.024s  
Eddie Irvine Ferrari F310 70 1h41m50.304s  
Gerhard Berger Benetton-Renault B196 70 1h41m56.056s  
15 Heinz-Harald Frentzen Sauber-Cosworth C15 69  11 
14 Johnny Herbert Sauber-Cosworth C15 69  12 
12 Martin Brundle Jordan-Peugeot 196 69  10 
12 Martin Brundle Jordan-Peugeot 196 69  10 
10 Olivier Panis Ligier-Mugen-Honda JS43 69  15 
11 19 Mika Salo Tyrrell-Yamaha 024 69  13 
12 18 Ukyo Katayama Tyrrell-Yamaha 024 68  14 
13 David Coulthard McLaren-Mercedes MP4/11 68  
14 16 Riccardo Rosset Footwork-Hart FA17 67  17 
15 21 Giovanni Lavaggi Minardi-Cosworth M195B 65  20 
16 20 Pedro Lamy Minardi-Cosworth M195B 65  19 
Mika Hakkinen McLaren-Mercedes MP4/11 52 Accident/handling 
17 Jos Verstappen Footwork-Hart FA17 47 Engine 16 
10 Pedro Diniz Ligier-Mugen-Honda JS43 46 Spin 18 
11 Rubens Barrichello Jordan-Peugeot 196 41 Spin