Argentine GP 1996

APRIL 7, 1996

Argentine GP, 1996

Damon the Dominator (Chapter Two)

In Argentina Damon Hill did it again - dominating the entire Grand Prix with ease. In the end he won by 12 seconds but in truth it should have been more because a mid-race Safety Car deprived him of a lead he had built carefully in the early laps of the race. Jacques Villeneuve came home second but he was lucky because, behind the Safety Car, he gained back the time he had lost on the first lap when he dropped from third on the grid to ninth. Jean Alesi might have been a contender but he stalled during his vital pit stop.

If one was really adventurous one might have jumped into a boat in Sao Paulo's horrible Rio Tiete - a large open sewer which passes for a river - and spent the week between the Brazilian and Argentine GPs pottering through South America by river because the waters from Sao Paulo turn up eventually after a thousand miles or so in the River Plate - or Rio del Plata as they call it in Buenos Aires. The River Plate was actually named after silver plate because it was in Argentina (which comes from the Latin for silver) that early settlers were greeted with gifts of silver from the local inhabitants. Before long the visitors were invading the country looking for a legendary mountain of silver - the Sierra de la Plata would you believe - and slaughtering any local who got in the way of their pursuit of profit. Buenos Aires was the first Spanish settlement and so effective were the immigrants that today 95% come from Spanish and Italian origin and the indigenous population is down to half a percent of the country's 30 million people.

A lot of the immigrants got rich but they never found the silver mountain and instead money was made from meat and wool, and the city of Buenos Aires was built with Europe in mind. They call it the Paris of the South and there is a grand colonial air similar to France's capital city. There is none of the chaos of Brazil and when you wander through downtown Buenos Aires and catch the occasional whiff of high grade leather in the shops or taste the greatest beef in the world you find it difficult to accept that you are not in Europe. Then you try the telephone systems and realize that you might be in Africa...

For the F1 circus bad phones become a source of enormous passion. F1 people like technology which works. Passion is big in Argentina and is expressed best in Buenos Aires's love affair with the Tango. They say this is the most fun you can have without needing a condom. They have a National Academy of the Tango. They even have Tango Television, which features dark smoldering beauties with slicked down hair and legs to make Rita Hayworth drool, cavorting and grinding with dark smoldering men with mustaches. Mustaches are big and there is a strong vein of Machismo in the Argentine culture. Men must be as strong as lions, hairy-chested and meat-eating. The archetypal hero in Argentine tradition and literature is the gaucho - the knight of the pampa, the vast green planes.

Racing drivers are the modern gauchos. They personify the cult of Machismo, particularly at the Autodromo in Buenos Aires where this year the F1 boys were earning their money running over what can only be described as "speed bumps" on the track. Driving F1 cars over what appear to be bumps designed to force one to slow down is not a good idea and there were about 12 seconds of peace and quiet before the drivers began to complain about them.

The fact was that the bumps were very serious, but one could hardly blame the organizers who had done their very best to do everything demanded of them by the international federation. An FIA track inspector visited the circuit in January and ordered certain changes to be made. The organizers agreed and did the work. Three weeks before the race the FIA man returned to check that the changes had been made and noticed bad bumps which he had not noticed beforehand. Now there was a problem: laying new tarmac would risk creating new bumps and the possibility that the cars would tear up the road surface. So it was decided to grind down the bumps and hope for the best. The best was not good enough, drivers complained. "It's a nightmare," said Michael Schumacher. "It isn't an F1 track that's for sure," said Martin Brundle.

Some complained of badly jarred ribs and of headaches. Each evening the locals got out the grinding machines again and worked all night to try to flatten out the track. The organizers happily agreed that there would be a complete resurfacing of the problem areas for 1997 - but there was little which could be done for this year.

As always, the man with the sanest view in the F1 paddock was Professor Sid Watkins of the FIA Advisory Expert Group on safety. "The person complaining most about the bumps is Roger Lane-Nott," he said. Lane-Nott is F1's new race director and safety delegate and he has not had an easy ride in the first races this year. In Australia he had to deal Martin Brundle's spectacular accident; in Brazil he had to make a decision about whether the race should be started in the rain; and in Argentina he had speed bumps to contend with.

Even without the bumps the Buenos Aires circuit is a difficult one. It is not a track where high-speed cornering is necessary. One needs lots of wing, good mechanical grip in a car and, while engine power is not so important, a punchy engine is needed to blast you towards the next second gear hairpin.

It is, therefore, a circuit which is tough on transmissions and gearboxes. It is also traditionally a very dirty and dusty circuit because at this time of year there are warm winds which whip up the dust and deposit it on the track. Any rubber that is put down on the road is likely to survive only until the next rain shower - and they can easily come once a day. There are also pretty hot temperatures to take into account. What it all boils down to is the fact that the track is remarkably slippery, so overtaking is tough. Tire wear is critical and pit stop strategies therefore take on a particular importance - but the single most important factor is a good grid position.

With the new qualifying rules there is now only one 60-minute session which matters and so one is at the mercy of Lady Luck to some extent. Friday has become a non-day, as times are not really important, but can give some hint of what it to come. In Argentina Damon Hill was fastest for Williams with Ferrari's Michael Schumacher just a tenth behind him. On Saturday the two fought for pole position and Damon - who lapped Schumacher in Brazil - ended up two-tenths ahead. He seemed to be pretty relaxed about everything but one was left to wonder if perhaps he might have set a better lap time. Schumacher reckoned that the closing of the gap was due to the fact that the F310 was better suited to Buenos Aires than to the fast sweeps of Interlagos while others put it down to the fact that Michael was driving right on the edge and had any number of spins and incidents during the two practice days. In truth everyone had spins, Schumacher's were just more impressive!

The suggestion that Hill had not been as quick as he might have liked but wasn't mentioning it, was borne out by the fact that there were five drivers within a second of pole position and 12 within two seconds. In Brazil there were 11 within two seconds of pole but Damon had been nearly a second clear of second-placed Rubens Barrichello.

The fact was that the Williams looked good over the bumps while the Ferrari seemed to be an evil-handling device which went everywhere against its better judgment. It was fairly clear that Schumacher would not be able to keep up the same pace in the race. Michael's Ferrari team mate Eddie Irvine struggled with instability and lack of grip despite having the same settings as the German. He also complained that Hill had got in his way on his fastest lap at the end of qualifying. He was 10th on the grid.

Jacques Villeneuve was half a second off team mate Hill's pace - and so slotted into third on the grid behind Schumacher. He had struggled on Saturday after going off in the morning so he was guessing at settings a little. In the circumstances he was happy.

At Benetton it was pretty much business as usual with Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger fourth and fifth although neither was happy with the handling of the B196 - although both reckoned that they would be in better shape in the race. Neither, however, suggested that beating Damon Hill was very likely.

Rubens Barrichello's Jordan was sixth on the grid having had a spin at one point in qualifying. He felt he would have done better but for the mistake and so "not too bad" was a pretty sound analysis.

The same could not be said of his Jordan team mate Martin Brundle who was very unhappy with the handling of his car, complaining that the rear end would not stay in contact with the road.

"With my driving style I need that grip at the rear," he said. "There's no way I can push without it. I am miles off the potential of the car." And miles off the pace: Martin would start 15th on the grid.

The star performance in qualifying came from Jos Verstappen and while it might seem remarkable that an Arrows would be blitzing McLarens and such, Jos has been dropping hints that the car is good, and he has been very good in both races to date this year. Somehow, however, that potential had not quite been transformed into a result. At Buenos Aires things went right, but even then Jos was not totally happy. On his second run something went wrong with the gearbox and he had to stop beside the track. "I am very pleased with seventh place," he explained, "but I think fourth would have been possible."

Jos was disappointed too because he has a bet with his race engineer Allen McDonald that if Jos can qualify in the top six McDonald will run naked down the pit straight after qualifying. Allen was somewhat relieved to discover his driver was seventh.

Verstappen's Arrows team mate Ricardo Rosset was 20th and very unhappy over the bumps, new to the circuit, struggling with set-up and generally down in the dumps.

A similar sentiment could be found at McLaren. Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard were eighth and ninth - 1.5secs off Hill's pace - more or less the same as was the case in Brazil. The less said about the performance the better, one would hate to be accused of gratuitous criticism. One can be sure that McLaren will fix the problem - if they are capable of doing so.

Frentzen was 11th on the grid in his Sauber - which was about what one would have expected - and there were not many smiles down at Sauber. The cars are proving to be very slippery because the team does not want to put too much wing on the car due to the lack of Ford horsepower. Johnny Herbert was a perplexed 17th on the grid. Every time he tried to push hard he went off - as did Frentzen in fact - and neither driver really understood what the car was doing. "That was terrible," said Johnny summing it up.

The remains of the Ligier team qualified Olivier Panis in 12th position - which was an improvement on Brazil - while Pedro Diniz was 18th - which was not. Both drivers felt that they would be stronger in the race.

There was a fair bit of falling on swords going on down at Tyrrell where there had been high - and well-founded hopes - of doing what Verstappen achieved or better. On Friday Mika Salo was fifth fastest. On Saturday morning he had a small off and lost momentum a bit, but nothing prepared the team for the disastrous 16th position on the grid into which Salo finally fell. Ukyo Katayama was 13th, ahead of the Finn for once.

"The lower grip conditions of today's track caused severe problems in our car set-up," explained a miserable Harvey Postlethwaite. "We were unable to react fast enough to these to capitalize on the excellent potential shown yesterday."

Perhaps the most impressive performance of all came from 20-year-old Brazilian F1 newboy Tarso Marques, who qualified his Minardi 14th on the grid. He went off a lot in practice and had gearbox trouble in qualifying so he might have done even better if things had been running more smoothly. Watch out for this man in the years ahead. Marques's Minardi team mate Pedro Lamy was 19th.

Down at the back as usual were the two Fortis of Luca Badoer and Andrea Montermini although they qualified again inside the 107% rule. To compete in a race you must qualify within 107% of the fastest time.

Saturday afternoon was gloriously sunny with the breeze having moderated a little, and while the paddock basked in the fine conditions, one had to conclude that the qualifying had not been a great success as a spectacle. There was little action for the first half hour and then a flurry of qualifying runs. At the end everyone had rushed out in the last five minutes and spent the precious few moments falling over one another. It was hardly Ben Hur...

THE race, however, largely made up for the disappointments of qualifying with Damon Hill driving a splendid race to his fourth consecutive victory. In doing so he increased his World Championship lead to 18 points. Williams will now head off for some major testing - as will everyone else - and in three weeks we will gather again at the Nurburgring to see if anything has really changed. In a sport where everyone is running as fast as possible all the time, it is hard to imagine that any of the Williams-Renault chasers will be able to find the kind of margin needed to beat Williams. They might get a little closer - but I wouldn't bet my house on it.

Damon's race was a pretty faultless affair. He took the lead from the start, kept Schumacher under control in the early stages, took eight laps to build a lead of a second and then, with the race in its teens, he put the hammer down and left Schumacher and the others behind. On lap 16 the gap was 2.6s; on 17 it was 4.1s; on 18 it was 5.0s and on 19 it was up to 6.1s. When all the leading runners pitted in laps 21-25 Damon was able to resume 4.2s ahead and one must presume that the couple of seconds lost enabled him to take a bit more fuel than his rivals.

It must have been somewhat frustrating when out came a Safety Car and Damon's advantage was wiped out as the field gathered behind him. It took three or four laps to break Schumacher's tow but then he pulled away again.

At the end of the race he was ecstatic. "It doesn't get any better than this," he explained. "It is fantastic to have three straight wins to start the season. It was a great race even though the radio didn't work and I had no way of communicating with the pit." And then Damon revealed the secret of his missing time in qualifying: he had been ill for three days with a typical South American stomach bug. He hadn't eaten for two days. Williams's best tactic had been not to tell the world...

To make it the perfect result for Frank Williams and Patrick Head, Jacques Villeneuve came home second and while one might have expected such a thing, it did not look very likely at the end of the first lap when Jacques crossed the line in ninth place having made a botch of the start.

"I didn't release the clutch enough and it was slipping for a long time before it grabbed," he said. "A lot of cars got by me and then I was just in the middle of everybody battling to go through the first corner and I lost a lot of positions."

In the laps which followed Jacques passed Mika Hakkinen, Jos Verstappen and Rubens Barrichello on consecutive laps. It took four laps to get past Coulthard's McLaren, by which time he was 20 seconds behind Hill - with the two Benettons and Schumacher still between him and his team mate. Jacques recorded the fastest lap of the race to that point on lap 11 but didn't really make much impression on the gap to Hill. The Safety Car helped, closing him right up to Berger's tail but he could not hold on when the race restarted and dropped away from Berger. And then good fortune struck again: Schumacher and the Benettons fell by the wayside and Jacques moved up to second.

Jean Alesi screwed his race by stalling during his pit stop on lap 44. This cost him around 12secs - which was a good effort by the Benetton crew - but by the time Jean was back on the road he had dropped seven places. He was lucky that most of those ahead of him had to pit, and so the road cleared ahead of him and he was able to get back to fourth place without too much drama. He inherited third when Berger retired.

The Austrian had been in a solid second place. He said later that he thought he was going to win but that seems a little optimistic given that he was 13secs behind Hill and lapping at about the same speed with less than 20 laps to go. "The car was perfect," he said. "I thought it was going to be my race. Then I felt something strange at the back of the car." Gerhard thought it was a puncture and pitted for new tires but when he rejoined it was clear that this was not the case and he parked the car. It was some kind of a suspension failure - although the team was somewhat vague about its origin after the race.

Schumacher's retirement ended a spirited run and was not Michael's fault. He had been unable to keep up with Hill early on but the Safety Car came to his rescue and he challenged hard for a while. On lap 34 debris was thrown up by Hill's car - probably the result of a crash the previous lap between Tarso Marques and Martin Brundle and hit the main plane of the rear wing.

"I instinctively ducked my head because I thought it was going to hit me on the head," he said. A few laps later he became aware of a problem - the rear wing was breaking up. Behind him Alesi also noted the problem and radioed his pit to tell them to warn Ferrari that Schumacher had a problem with his wing. Alesi reckoned that probably the Benetton bosses did not hear the call.

Whatever the case Schumacher came in on lap 46 and drove straight into the garage. He was going no further. He did not think he could have beaten Hill.

Schumacher's Ferrari team mate Eddie Irvine did make it to the flag in fifth place. He drove a solid race, gaining a place when Verstappen went off and then managing to pass Coulthard on lap 55. He gained places thanks to the retirements of Schumacher, Berger and Hakkinen and so finished fifth from tenth on the grid. On the final lap Eddie hit gearbox problems and Verstappen passed him again but was going too fast and went straight on, allowing Eddie to get back ahead as they dashed down to the finishing line.

The pair finished 10 secs behind Rubens Barrichello who was running a one-stop strategy in his Jordan. Whether it was better or worse than the two-stop is hard to say because he started sixth and finished fourth with two people ahead of him retiring. There were no overtaking maneuvers.

Martin Brundle was also on a one-stop pattern but he was struggling much more with his car and holding up those behind him in the early laps. In the end it was one of the chasers who put paid to him, Tarso Marques getting his braking wrong on lap 34 and smashing into the back of Martin, removing the Jordan's rear wing. Martin was not impressed.

Verstappen's performance had been a good one - although without the two mistakes it would probably have been even more impressive. David Coulthard's speedy start had trapped Jos behind in the peloton behind the McLaren. He was to suffer for that all afternoon. It took until lap 60 before he was in a position to pass the McLaren which he did with great panache at the end of the main straight, slinging the Arrows down the inside of the McLaren. It would have been a David and Goliath story but David and Goliath were together in this case. Mind you, Goliath ain't what he used to be...

Everything that one can say about McLaren-Mercedes has probably been said already. If failure hurts Ron Dennis as much as he says it does then there is no need for people to add to his pain. He will be burning in his own private hell, knowing that people are laughing at him. One can only feel sorry for the drivers who are wasting their careers and for F1 in general which would love - and needs - Mercedes-Benz to be successful, in order to provide worhty competition to Williams and Renault.

The list of the fastest laps of the race said it all: Coulthard was 11th - behind others such as Panis's Ligier, Katayama's Tyrrell and even Frentzen's Sauber. David's best lap was two seconds off the fastest lap of the race. But he made it to the flag, which must help his confidence. In the other McLaren, Hakkinen did not make it, being the first retirement of the race - with a throttle problem on lap 19.

Panis's eighth place in the Ligier was a pretty uninspiring performance - because he was always sitting on someone's tale. His team mate Pedro Diniz, however, played a major role in the two major incidents in the race.

The first involved Luca Badoer rolling into retirement on lap 25 when he collided with Diniz while the Brazilian was trying to lap his Forti. Diniz had been running with Lamy as they came upon Badoer. "I was close to Lamy," explained Pedro. " We were both trying to lap Luca's Forti. He didn't see me and came back onto his line."

The rear wheel of the Forti hit the front wheel of the Ligier and Badoer took off. The shunt caused the Safety Car to be scrambled and Luca crawled from the wreckage while the marshals stood around clucking like incompetent chickens. Diniz continued, pitted for tires and fuel and then rejoined the race. The fuel valve however was stuck open, and so, when he braked hard for the first time, fuel sprayed out, caught fire and tossed him into a spin, which caused more fuel to slurp out and get alight. Diniz got himself out with a singed helmet.

Johnny Herbert finished ninth, but that is the best thing you could say about Sauber's performance. Frentzen had spent the early part of the race stuck in a traffic jam behind a fuel-heavy Jordan and the two McLarens. For a brief period when he was free of the traffic jams he was able to set the sixth fastest lap of the race. Then out came the pace car and he found himself behind a McLaren again. He took a risk to get ahead and spun out.

Tyrrell's race was a continuing story of wasted opportunity. Katayama had a clutch problem at the start and lost a lot of places. Stuck behind fuel-laden Brundle it took 15 laps to find a way past. He then set the 10th fastest lap of the race but then the transmission failed. Salo quickly ran into problems with his throttle and had a spin on lap seven. He pitted several times but ultimately retired 10 laps down.

Damon Hill Williams-Renault FW18 72 1h54m55.322s  
Jacques Villeneuve Williams-Renault FW18 72 1h55m07.489s  
Jean Alesi Benetton-Renault B196 72 1h55m10.076s  
11 Rubens Barrichello Jordan-Peugeot 196 72 1h55m50.453s  
Eddie Irvine Ferrari F310 72 1h56m00.313s  10 
17 Jos Verstappen Footwork-Hart FA17 72 1h56m04.235s  
David Coulthard McLaren-Mercedes MP4/11 72 1h56m08.722s  
Olivier Panis Ligier-Mugen-Honda JS43 72 1h56m09.617s  12 
14 Johnny Herbert Sauber-Cosworth C15 71  17 
10 23 Andrea Montermini Forti-Cosworth FG01-95B 69  22 
Gerhard Berger Benetton-Renault B196 56 Rear Suspension 
Michael Schumacher Ferrari F310 46 Rear Wing/handling 
20 Pedro Lamy Minardi-Cosworth M195B 39 Cv Joint 19 
19 Mika Salo Tyrrell-Yamaha 024 36 Throttle Jammed 16 
12 Martin Brundle Jordan-Peugeot 196 34 Accident/rear Wing 15 
21 Tarso Marques Minardi-Cosworth M195B 33 Accident 14 
15 Heinz-Harald Frentzen Sauber-Cosworth C15 32  Spin 11 
10 Pedro Diniz Ligier-Mugen-Honda JS43 29 Fuel Leak/fire 18 
18 Ukyo Katayama Tyrrell-Yamaha 024 28 Transmission 13 
16 Riccardo Rosset Footwork-Hart FA17 24 Fuel Pump 20 
22 Luca Badoer Forti-Cosworth FG01-95B 24 Accident 21 
Mika Hakkinen McLaren-Mercedes MP4/11 19 Throttle Valve