Brazilian GP 1996

MARCH 31, 1996

Brazilian GP, 1996

Damon the Dominator

Damon Hill completely dominated the Brazilian Grand Prix, taking pole position, winning the race by a big margin and setting the fastest lap. He now leads the World Championship by 14 points - after just two races. This is all very impressive but Hill probably had the most fun when he lapped Michael Schumacher's Ferrari 10 laps from the finish. One might feel sorry for the double World Champion - except that he chose to give up a competitive Benetton car in exchange for $25m...

YOU should not believe everything you hear about Brazil. If you allow yourself to be seduced by images of palms trees, endless beaches and dusky half-clad beauties you will be imagining the Brazil which exists only for the tiny group of super-wealthy Brazilians and in the minds of the country's publicists. The reality for a lot of the population of Sao Paulo - 20 million people at the last count - is dirt, poverty and violence. In the days before airlines the sailing ships used to avoid "the fever ports" of Brazil. If you put your ship in at Santos, Recife or Rio de Janeiro the chances were that half the crew would end up in their graves. Either that or they would be seduced by the delights of Belo Horizonte - which they tell me is a town, although I think I once knew a girl of that name...

Sao Paulo is not a nice place. This is a town where the industrial revolution is not part of history. It's happening now. Even those who like Brazil say that the only sensible option for Sao Paulo is to bulldoze the place and start again. In fact this seems to be what they are doing because each year the road systems change and so most of the F1 visitors who stay downtown spend their time lost in dodgy suburbs. The nicest thing one can say about the place is that it is bursting with energy. The nicest part of town is the departure lounge at the airport.

However, F1 goes to Brazil because the locals are willing to deliver truckloads of money to get the Grand Prix show and improve the image of the town by rubbing shoulders with the glamorous F1 world.

Image is everything these days in F1 and any opportunity to grab five minutes of fame is leapt upon. With the new qualifying regulations this year, Friday practice has become rather meaningless. The newspapers may have got excited about a Benetton 1-2 with McLarens third and fourth but the truth was the Williams was just playing with the opposition. The Friday times meant nothing.

These days only the one hour of qualifying counts and so on Saturday afternoon the excitement is a little more intense because there are no second chances. There are also no second chances for the TV directors and so we never did get to see Damon Hill's pole lap because Brazilian TV was too busy recording Gerhard Berger trolling around. F1 folk love to chatter about improving "the show", perhaps the best way to do that would be to find someone who understands the sport and put them in charge of the TV crew.

Hill's pole lap was probably a good one because it was nearly a second faster than his nearest rival. He did not even bother to go for a second run at the end of the session, deciding to save rubber for Sunday when the tire men said that at least two stops would be necessary - probably more.

By the end of the Saturday session the grid was much as one would have expected based on the showings in Melbourne. The gaps were not greatly changed: in Melbourne the two Williams-Renaults were half a second clear of Eddie Irvine's Ferrari but nearly 1.5s clear of the main challengers, who were grouped together - 12 drivers covered by 1.8secs. At Interlagos Hill was a second clear of Barrichello but 12 drivers were within 1.1s of the Brazilian.

On this occasion Villeneuve was nowhere near Hill's pace, and so there was some disappointment amongst those who had decreed after Melbourne that here was the next Messiah in F1. Jacques is new, it is entirely logical that he should be at a disadvantage against a seasoned F1 campaigner like Hill - and Damon gets better and better. Villeneuve is obviously going to be a major player in F1 but to expect instant domination is naive. The post-Melbourne hype - and it was considerable - was exactly that.

In his efforts to get closer to Damon, Jacques pushed too hard in final qualifying. He went a little wide at one point, bounced along the grass verge and ripped off the front wing of his car. He motored back to the Williams pit to shrug in his relaxed way and say "C'est la vie". He will do better another day because he has the equipment.

The Williams-Renault performance at the moment is brilliant but it is not miraculous. It is a good solid engineering job with good solid drivers and a good solid budget. The conclusion one has to draw is that, while Williams deserves to be ahead a little, the current gap back to the other so-called "big teams" is more a testament to the rivals doing a poor job than Williams producing an astounding chassis.

In qualifying in Brazil it was not Benetton, Ferrari or McLaren which came closest to Hill. This was to be Rubens Barrichello's Jordan-Peugeot.

Jordan's Silverstone testing obviously helped the team. Jordan did well in Brazil but then Melbourne had been a pretty disastrous affair by all accounts. After Villeneuve went off Brazilian Rubens Barrichello was not challenged as the second man on the front row and there was much rejoicing both among the spectators and down in the Jordan garage. It was a super performance - with Rubens bubbling with confidence (which is not always the case) although he was sufficiently sensible to recognize that if Villeneuve had not screwed up he would have been on row two.

"Pole was never really on the cards," he admitted later. "My real place was probably third. I was a bit lucky to get second from Villeneuve but I am very happy with it."

Team mate Martin Brundle's performance may have looked a bit shoddy alongside Rubens but there were reasons for it which Martin sportingly described as "small gearbox gremlins". What he meant was that the team is still not a big enough operation to have every conceivable gear ratio at every flyaway race. Martin could not use the same ratios as Rubens because the team did not have them and so he had to carry less wing to get the speed on the straights - and that meant that the car was not as good in the corners...

Schumacher did a good job to grab fourth in the final minutes of qualifying but he might easily have been seventh or eighth. The F310 looked decidedly wobbly and difficult to control and no matter which way one looks at the car one has to say that just now it is not on the pace. The fact that the team decided to use the 1995 gearbox was odd as Schumacher's retirement in Melbourne was supposedly due to brake failure, although in the finest traditions of motor racing a brake failure can be defined as such when the rear suspension mounting point on the gearbox fails and the brake lines fail to hold the suspension together... I am not suggesting that Ferrari was telling lies in Melbourne, they just weren't telling the whole truth.

The fact that there were more Ferrari boffins in Brazil than there are Chins in a Chinese telephone book suggests that the F310 is not the jet fighter that the team had hoped - even with Schumacher in the driving seat. Eddie Irvine proved that Melbourne was not a fluke by qualifying only half a second slower than Michael, despite blotting his copybook by trashing his F310 on his first lap out on Friday morning by hitting a bump and then a number of other solid parts of the local scenery. Eddie thus missed the whole of Friday and was at a disadvantage on Saturday when he also had other problems to contend with. Having said that Schumacher missed most of Saturday morning with an engine problem.

After getting very excited on Friday the Benetton troops came down to earth with a muffled thump on Saturday as both drivers went off in separate incidents in the morning session. Alesi's series of spins meant that he had to set the car up again, but Berger had the misfortune to smack the front end of his B196 into a tire barrier, which meant that the steering rack, front suspension and nose all needed to be replaced. It was all a bit fraught but things improved when the team raised the ride-heights a hint and stopped the cars hurling themselves off the track after leaping over the bumps. In the afternoon Alesi qualified fifth and Berger eighth. Melbourne had seen the pair sixth and seventh, the gap to Williams had not come down a great deal. As Benetton has the same engine as Williams one can only say that Benetton has no excuses to justify the gap. When one adds that Williams not only designed and built its new car but also moved factories in the winter, the competitiveness (or rather lack of it) of the Benetton B196 is a double mystery.

McLaren is also rather devoid of good excuses for the performance of the MP4/11. One can accept a bad weekend in Melbourne - like Jordan's for example - but there Mika Hakkinen qualified fifth and David Coulthard was 13th. Here in Brazil Mika was seventh, DC 14th. The McLaren management didn't even bother saying "today in no way reflects our true competitiveness" on this occasion because the result patently did...

There are loads of rumors about McLaren these days but there are very few facts. Team boss Ron Dennis gets upset about rumors and says he wants to deal only in facts. Well, here's a fact: the McLaren MP4/11 is not competitive.

If you want to listen to the critics, they will tell you that Dennis was barking mad to have kept the same technical structure at McLaren after the MP4/10 debacle of 1995. Dennis clearly believed it was the right decision so the only thing which was definitely barking in the McLaren garage was the car. Expensive enough to have a pedigree and from a good lineage a few generations back, the MP4/11 is - when compared to the Williams - a dog. Or a hund as they say - or rather try not to say - in Germany. After Melbourne Mercedes racing boss Norbert Haug tried to argue that the McLaren-Mercedes relationship was not disastrous because it had only lasted for 18 races. It was an interesting point - but a lousy argument. The McLaren-Honda relationship, which began in 1988, netted 16 race wins in the first 18 races... and that is a fact.

The silliest rumor was that Alain Prost was getting a superlicence and was going to replace Mika Hakkinen. This was extremely silly because Mika is doing a remarkable job at the moment. It smelled like an attempt by the race promoters to get more Brazilians into grandstand seats by hinting that the Great Alain Prost might be on show. But Prost is not stupid - far from it - and it there is no conceivable reason why he should want to drive the McLaren: it is not going to win him races.

Heinz-Harald Frentzen was the only man outside Williams, McLaren, Benetton, Ferrari and Jordan to make it into the top 10 and his ninth place was a good effort. The Sauber is clearly a rather useful car, but the new Ford V10 Zetec-R engine is not yet what had been hoped. The whispering walls of the Sauber garage said that another 15 horsepower might be rather useful. Johnny Herbert was 12th, but only 0.4s slower than Fabulous Flying Frentzen, which confirmed the showing in Australia. It's official, Johnny Herbert is no fool in a racing car - no matter what the Benetton people and Michael Schumacher tried to tell the world last autumn.

The Tyrrell boys were 11th and 16th with Mika Salo again faster than Ukyo Katayama. The cars are clearly very good in race trim but do not currently qualify well because, while the Yamaha engine is tiny in comparison to the other V10s, it is not as powerful as might be the case.

The Arrows team - now owned by Tom Walkinshaw Racing - had lots of Ligier-looking sponsorship (Parmalat, Power Horse) and a few TWR men dressed in Arrows gear. Jos Verstappen and Ricardo Rosset qualified 13th and 17th but were both disappointed because the car needs development to improve.

In the garage next door was Ligier with Parmalat and Power Horse sponsorship and a few TWR men dressed in blue gear. The story of Ligier's qualifying was as complicated as the dealings of the sale of the Arrows team from Jackie Oliver to Tom Walkinshaw, who also runs Ligier. There were a list of alleged infractions in dispute including alleged illegal push-starts, misuse of spare cars and mistaken identities. In such circumstances Walkinshaw is in his element and the rule books and highlighter pens were out. For several hours all was confusion and as the minutes ticked by and international newspaper deadlines closed every time zone had a different story. It was many hours before everyone was settled. Pedro Diniz would start from the back of the grid and would be $5000 poorer than before. To Pedro Diniz $5000 is a cab fare...

Olivier Panis did better, getting 15th on the grid.

Also at the back was another of the four Brazilians in the race, Tarso Marques having been booted back for missing a weight check. Marques had been given his F1 chance by Minardi - in exchange one must presume for a briefcase or two full of loot. Marques is clearly quick and outpaced Pedro Lamy.

But for all this the two Fortis would have been on the back row of the grid as is customary. In order to qualify a driver must come within 107% of the fastest time. This time the 107% rule did not stop Luca Badoer or Andrea Montermini from racing. They sported fancy new backing from a petrol company called Hudson but the cars still look like upturned bath tubs on wheels painted canary yellow.

THERE had been vague whisperings during the practice days suggesting that there might be rain on race day. You expect a shower every day in Brazil at this time of year but Sunday morning gave no hint of the monsoon which broke over Interlagos 35 minutes before the race was due to start. Everyone rushed to the rule books to see about extra practice sessions but found that the 15 minutes allotted for the recognition laps was all they were going to get.

One might argue that races should not be started in such circumstances and it was definitely a marginal decision which had to be taken by the Clerk of the Course. The option was to delay for 10 minutes but the decision was to go ahead as normal. In such circumstances the pole position man has an enormous advantage: he is the only man who can see the track ahead.

"The conditions were pretty risky," said Damon Hill. "There were rivers on the track and quite heavy rainfall - even after the start. Obviously I was in a good position with the clear track. I can hardly imagine what it was like for the guys behind me.

"You have to capitalize on that and so I was eager to get a gap between myself and whoever was behind me."

As things turned out the man behind was none other than Jacques Villeneuve, who forced his way ahead of Rubens Barrichello, the Brazilian then being pushed back to fourth by the feisty Alesi. Villeneuve was doing a spirited job but there was no way he was going to stay with Hill. As he later explained it was only his second ever wet race. He has done a lot of wet testing, of course, in England, and other rainy places in the winter months, but having a field full of nutters all around you throwing spray around must be a rather alarming experience.

"There was a lot to learn," admitted Jacques.

Jacques did a spirited job but there was no way he was ever going to stay with Hill who went away at a rate of knots. After the first lap Damon was ahead by 2.7secs; on the second lap it was 5.9s; on the third 9.3s. Eventually the gap stabilized at around 12s but even then Damon continued to edge away at a few tenths a lap.

With the track drying in places and then a little rain here and there, it was difficult to construct a strategy but Williams did it perfectly. Damon went for one stop as the track was drying and took on slick tires. The timing was good and he began to set fastest lap after fastest lap as the track conditions improved. Between laps 43 and 56 he set nine new records - one after another and then settled back in the closing laps and let a 27s advantage shrink to 17s by the time he took the chequered flag. It was a flawless and totally dominant performance.

Villeneuve's spirited run ended on lap 27 when he came under pressure from third placed Alesi after getting held up as he tried to find way past a floundering Forti. Jacques had been held up by the Forti on the way down the hill from the Senna Corner and so Jean had pulled up alongside as they thundered down the straight. Alesi had the inside line Jacques was on the outside - they were sharing the dry line. A hint of feinting and the squabble was resolved with Alesi - a hard man - winning the game.

Jacques was going too fast for the wet track as he turned in to the left-hander at the end of the straight. He tried to hold the car but it was not interested and dumped him in the sandtrap, a place of no return. This sort of thing is bound to happen to Villeneuve this year. He has not raced regularly with many of the other F1 men and consequently he has not been part of the European racing culture and now needs to carve himself a place in the F1 pecking order so everyone knows exactly where they stand with him. It is inevitable that as he does this there are going to be accidents - just as happened with Michael Andretti when he tried to make his name in F1 back in 1993.

The demise of Jacques lifted Jean to second place ahead of his early race rival Barrichello. The two had fought a little early on and it was interesting to see that while Rubens was able to line himself up and make the move on the Benetton he always overshot and allowed Jean to get back ahead. The moves were not decisive. In the end - on lap 32 -Alesi went off onto the grass and Rubens got ahead only to lose the position again because his race strategy was wrong. He stopped to refuel and take on new wet tires and then had to stop again for slicks. By the time he had done all this he had dropped behind both Alesi (who had a pretty good one-stop strategy) and Schumacher. Try as he might Rubens could not pass the German in a decisive fashion. It was, in fact, a similar story to his early adventures with Alesi. On lap 60 after passing Schumacher, only to be repassed immediately, Rubinho lost concentration at the end of the back straight and spun off.

It had been a good performance - a big-hearted show for the local fans which had taken a lot of on-the-limit driving but it was also a flawed performance.

The demise of Rubens gave Schumacher third and he deserved it because he had driven exceptionally well in what is quite clearly a car which does not handle well in the wet conditions. When the track dried he was faster but later on he was getting short on brakes which meant that on lap 62 Damon Hill lapped him.

Fourth place - two minutes behind Hill and a lap down - was Mika Hakkinen's McLaren, which profited from the demise of those ahead to get some more points in the bag for the team. In a sport where image is everything this was a good result for McLaren, a tribute to the team's reliability. As in Australia, however, Hakkinen spent much of the early part of the race acting as a block to those behind, notably Mika Salo's Tyrrell.

Salo tried everything and almost fell off trying to pass his rival. The Tyrrell team then did a good job at the second pit stop when the Mikas pitted together. Hakkinen came in ahead but went out behind. Salo however was left completely helpless on the run down the straight as Hakkinen simply pulled out of his slipstream and used the Mercedes-Benz horsepower to blow past. In the twisty sections Salo was all over Hakkinen but on the straights Salo could only hang on to the McLaren's tow and ponder risky moves in the corners. Salo did actually get by a couple of times but on each occasion Hakkinen blew by again on power. There is clearly not a great deal wrong with the power of the Mercedes engine. In the end Salo lost the tow and dropped away but fifth was still a good effort for a team with a severe shortage of money.

Harvey Postlethwaite was excited. "He showed that the 024 chassis-engine combination is competitive with cars from teams with very big budgets," said Tyrrell's technical director. If Yamaha can squeeze a hint more top-end power out of the V10 we could see some startling results this year. Although Ukyo Katayama never really figured in the race, a look at some of his lap times showed that he was motoring very quickly indeed, his delays being caused by being hit in the eye by a stone early on, spinning after making contact with Pedro Lamy and then being delayed in a pit stop mix-up when both Tyrrell drivers arrived together.

In the other McLaren, David Coulthard's showing didn't look that good on paper but in fact he had driven a dramatic early race, leaping from 14th on the grid to ninth (while Hakkinen went from seventh to 14th). On lap 20 Coulthard went off and dropped back to 14th. He then pitted for slicks too early and consequently went off again - this time for good - on lap 30. Not good.

Hakkinen's performance was better but the result was largely due to the disappearance of those ahead rather than out-and-out overtaking maneuvers. What was significant was that Mika appears to have decided not to involve himself in the early hurly-burly confident that once everything had settled down he would pick up positions without risk. This is most unlike the Hakkinen we all know and love. Was it a sign of a new maturity? Only time will tell.

Olivier Panis did another good solid job for Ligier which netted him sixth place and Pedro Diniz did better than some might expect by finishing eighth.

Seventh place went to Ferrari's Eddie Irvine which was not bad considering the weekend which Eddie had. He had ignition problems which dropped him to 13th early on but these cured themselves and he speeded up although the car was never handling well. He then had to make two stops (one for fuel and one for slicks) which left him trolling around among the Ligiers.

Of the rest, two drivers showed well. Jos Verstappen was brilliant in the wet early on - just as he was in Argentina last year when he hauled the Simtek into the top six. Jos took the Arrows from 13th on the grid to sixth by lap three. He then had a spin but set two fastest laps of the race as he recovered. Sadly his Hart V8 blew up on lap 19. Arrows team mate Ricardo Rosset was a lot luckier. He lost control of his car in the fast left-hander onto the pit straight and at 150mph - flat in fifth gear - smashed into the wall with his front right, knocking a wheel off and banging his head on the cockpit surround. The car then cannoned across the track and into the pitlane wall, in a fairly sorry state.

Sauber's Heinz-Harald Frentzen also impressed in conditions where his under powered Ford was able to shine. He was in the top six after three laps and then set three consecutive fastest laps as he chased and harried Schumacher for fifth place, taking it on lap 17 only to lose it before the end of the lap as Schumacher powered past him. He was up to fifth again later but then his pneumatic-valve air supply failed and that was that. Johnny Herbert had to start from the pits because of engine trouble and retired with a similar problem in the mid-race.

Of the rest Martin Brundle had a miserable time in the Jordan with set-up slipping back gradually, going off and pitting at the wrong time until he spun out finally from ninth place on lap 60.

The rest did not figure, although Minardi's Tarso Marques did become the youngest F1 driver since Mike Thackwell in 1980 for a whole half a lap before spinning and stalling...

Damon Hill Williams-Renault FW18 71 1h49m52.976s  
Jean Alesi Benetton-Renault B196 71 1h50m10.958s  
Michael Schumacher Ferrari F310 70  
Mika Hakkinen McLaren-Mercedes MP4/11 70  
19 Mika Salo Tyrrell-Yamaha 024 70  11 
Olivier Panis Ligier-Mugen-Honda JS43 70  15 
Eddie Irvine Ferrari F310 70  10 
10 Pedro Diniz Ligier-Mugen-Honda JS43 69  22 
18 Ukyo Katayama Tyrrell-Yamaha 024 69  16 
10 20 Pedro Lamy Minardi-Cosworth M195B 68  18 
11 22 Luca Badoer Forti-Cosworth FG01-95B 67  19 
12r 12 Martin Brundle Jordan-Peugeot 196 64 Spin 
11 Rubens Barrichello Jordan-Peugeot 196 59 Spin 
15 Heinz-Harald Frentzen Sauber-Cosworth C15 36 Engine 
David Coulthard McLaren-Mercedes MP4/11 29 Spin 14 
14 Johnny Herbert Sauber-Cosworth C15 28 Engine 12 
Jacques Villeneuve Williams-Renault FW18 26 Spin 
Gerhard Berger Benetton-Renault B196 26 Hydraulic Pressure 
23 Andrea Montermini Forti-Cosworth FG01-95B 26 Spin 20 
16 Riccardo Rosset Footwork-Hart FA17 24 Accident 17 
17 Jos Verstappen Footwork-Hart FA17 19 Engine 13 
21 Tarso Marques Minardi-Cosworth M195B Spin 21