German GP 1996

JULY 28, 1996

German GP, 1996

Lucky seven

DAMON HILL won his 20th Grand Prix victory at Hockenheim - equaling Michael Schumacher's career total of F1 victories. It was Damon's seventh win of the year, but this time it was not easy. Hill made a bad start and was then stuck behind the Benettons. A good strategy helped him pass Alesi but there was no way he could pass Berger - until Gerhard's engine blew up three laps from home...

A couple of weeks ago the annual statistics for the consumption of beer around the world came out - and we discovered that Germany has reduced its intake slightly. Today it has the second largest intake per capita in the world - behind those Bud-swilling Czechs, would you believe.

When you go to Hockenheim you cannot but help to wonder if Germany would not fall behind other countries were it not for the efforts of the Schumacher fans every summer at Hockenheim. They set up camp in the forests around the circuit and they start to drink. They drink and then when they get bored they drink some more. By the time Schumy and Co hit the race track, some of them are barely able to wave flags, so they sit in their campsites and wave beer cans at passing cars. The European sausage mountain also takes a hammering.

In general, however, the fans are well-behaved these days. They talk rather loudly and slap each other on the back a lot but at least they are not fighting. Their idea of fun is to set off fireworks as Schumy arrives in the stadium area. This is very dramatic but just a little silly.

Hockenheim's stadium has a strange atmosphere. A few years ago it was chilling but today it seems all rather jovial. And when qualifying is on, it fills with tension and excitement. It was a clever design.

You would, of course, expect such a thing from Dutchman John Hugenholz - a man who knew how to design great racing tracks. Zandvoort, Suzuka and Jarama were all his work and all of his circuits feature a layout which forces teams and drivers to find the right balance between top speed and good cornering. You might think that Hockenheim is mainly about engine power - over 60% of the lap is at maximum revs, with the longest bursts of full throttle of any circuit (around 17 secs from the first corner to the first chicane). This puts serious stress on an engine because in races temperatures tend to rise little by little - particularly in the late July heat - and engines can blow.

But engine power is not everything. Because the wiggly stadium section, ringed by its vast grandstands - throbbing with Schumacher fans - was designed so that Hockenheim was not purely a question of horsepower. The stadium is very tough if you do not have enough downforce. Many a fast car has arrived in the stadium with faster split times than all the rest only to lose the advantage in the twiddly bits.

When it comes to getting the right compromise between engine and chassis, the Williams team has been hard to beat. The car seems to work on all tracks and the Renault horsepower, while not as high as some rival engines, is in the right place.

Hugenholz's corners in The Stadium work well but, curiously, it is a circuit at which the skill of the driver tends to be subjugated to the performance of the car. Traditionally a Hockenheim grid is very much a team by team affair - with team mates on the same rows, depending on how good their cars happen to be.

That was almost the case this year, but things were a little scrambled at the front of the grid. One reason for this was because things were very tight at the front. As it turned out Williams's Damon Hill took pole by 0.39s but there was then a rush of seven cars covered by only 0.62s. There was then a biggish gap back to the slowest of the cars from the top four teams and thereafter it was back to normal for Hockenheim with two Jordans (row five), two Ligiers (row six), two Saubers (row seven) and two Tyrrells (row eight). At the back the Minardis and Footworks were slightly scrambled. There were no Fortis, the team having pulled out of motor racing.

So what caused the strange mixture at the front of the grid? In part it was due to the fact that Jacques Villeneuve had never visited Hockenheim. On Friday he struggled to find the right braking distances and was surprised by how bumpy the track felt.

"I like the circuit layout," he said, "but if you place the car wrongly the bumps are as bad as they were in Argentina."

He hoped to do better on Saturday but his progress was halted by a huge Renault engine blow-up - and he later ran into trouble with the stewards for crossing the track. This meant he was down on track time - and using a slightly different engine - when it came to qualifying. The balance of his car was wrong and although at one point he looked like being a contender for pole, he lost it all in the stadium section as the car slid all over the place.

But even if Villeneuve was not a challenger for pole position, the final qualifying session was still a very exciting affair with Hill snatching pole from Schumacher with just a few moments of the session remaining. Behind him Gerhard Berger was also very quick and bounced Schumy back onto the second row of the grid just before the chequered flag came out. The Schumacher flags stopped waving as the commentators explained that Germany's hero had been bounced into oblivion.

Hill was delighted - more so than usual - and punched the air with glee as he went on his slowing down lap. He had not been certain that he would take pole. "I knew that we had the right equipment," Damon said later, "but I made a bit of an error on my third run." Damon came in, was delayed by the scrutineers and then the Williams team rushed through a few set-up changes in time for Damon to go out with just three minutes to go. The track was clear, Schumacher was on pole but his runs were over. The only threat came from Berger's Benetton. "I wish we could have some more stadiums like Hockenheim," said Damon. "There is an excitement here that you can feel. It adds a lot to qualifying and to the race. You feel the tension of the crowd. I knew it was a quick lap. I was excited and I punched the air and waved to the crowd. Then I got Adrian (Newey) on the radio, saying: "Not so fast, Gerhard is still out there"."

Damon's pole was over half a second faster than Schumacher's best - and that had stunned the crowds - but Berger cut that embarrassing gap down to a more acceptable 0.38s. This was a dramatic step forward from Benetton because to date the team has struggled despite having the same engines as Williams.

"I have had difficulty with this car," said Berger, "especially in qualifying. It has turn-in oversteer and I do not like this. It takes confidence away. Last week we tested at Paul Ricard and I improved the car. I am now more confident. I am not 100% happy because there are other cars which can go into the corner in the way I want but we are moving in the right direction and we are getting a bit closer."

Jean Alesi was 0.371s slower than Gerhard, but this meant that he was fifth on the grid. Jean was unhappy with the way his chassis was handling and was worried that he could not sort out the problem.

Third on the grid - and disappointed - was Schumacher, who said that he knew deep down that he was not going to beat Hill but had kept on hoping nonetheless. The Ferraris had new undertrays and revised rear suspensions and this seemed to make them more stable, although they still looked like a handful to drive. The team decided not to use the new seven-speed gearbox which has been tested in recent weeks.

"Maybe our result could have better if we had fitted the seven-speed gearbox," said team boss Jean Todt, "but the decision not to use it in Germany was based on the principle of not taking any risks."

Ferrari cannot afford to take any risks at all at the moment.

Schumacher had not had it easy, struggling badly with the handling on Friday and adopting Irvine's settings for Saturday. In the morning he had a huge spin, exiting the Ostkurve but somehow managed to keep the car away from the barriers. "We don't look as bad as we would have done with the old aerodynamic set-up," he said.

Michael's Ferrari team mate Eddie Irvine was almost a second behind Michael - and not really sure why. One can only hope for Eddie's sake that Ferrari knows there is a good reason why the gap is so large.

Fourth on the grid was Mika Hakkinen's McLaren - which is pretty much to be expected now. In fact, it was probably something of a disappointment for the Mercedes-Benz men because the V10 engines they had for Hockenheim were absolutely screaming with power and torque. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the engine. The cars were fast through all the speed traps, with David Coulthard hitting 212mph just before the braking point at the first chicane. In the stadium section, however, the cars were a complete handful. At one point - amazing though this may seem - Coulthard arrived in the stadium with the fastest split times around the entire lap. By the time he had wiggled the McLaren around Hugenholz's curves, he had dropped to fifth. He would later be bounced down to sixth. The McLaren pair were split by 0.307s. The cars were fast in most of the other sessions - creating a good impression is not a bad idea - but in racing trim no-one was expecting them to be up there - it would be the usual gentle fading backwards through the field. At Hockenheim overtaking is not as hard as at some other tracks but there are still advantages to be had from having a good qualifying engine and a reliable race engine. The combination can net results - and drag the team up the points table - but the car still does not look like a winner, unless everyone else runs into trouble. That happened at Monaco - where McLaren was beaten by Ligier - but it is not likely to happen again. You cannot polish a brick. All that you can hope to do is convince some folk that your brick is shiny...

There was a fair amount of disappointment at Jordan with ninth and tenth on the grid - Barrichello beating Brundle as usual. The Peugeot qualifying engines are among the fastest V10s in F1 and the Jordan car is slippery down the straights but it is also not very good in the corners, particularly in hot weather. For some reason when the temperature goes up the Jordan chassis loses traction and starts to oversteer.

"I was at the top limit of our performance this afternoon," said Barrichello, "it was just not quick enough. I was trying to do something that the car just would not do."

Martin Brundle sang the same song, but both men felt they would be better in race trim.

Ligier was quite happy with 11th and 12th on the grid - an indication that the Mugen Honda V10 has a lot of grunt - but it was rather surprising to find Pedro Diniz ahead of Olivier Panis. It was Pedro's best F1 grid position and he was delighted.

"We found a good set-up and the car ran very well," he explained. He even thought he might have gone quicker if he had not encountered traffic on his final flying lap.

Panis, on the other hand, was struggling. He reckoned that this was because he could not get a good braking set-up. He reckoned he would be a lot faster in the race. He usually does.

On row seven were the two Saubers; Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Johnny Herbert proving that engine power is useful at Hockenheim. The Ford V10 does not have enough, so there was not a lot they could do.

"All things considered I am quite happy with what I got out of the car," said Frentzen, which is code for "I would have gone a lot faster if Cosworth had built me a more powerful engine".

Back on row eight we had the two Tyrrells and here there was a strange story indeed. The Yamaha engine, we know, is not the most reliable nor powerful of beasts, and it is very hard to develop power curves when the engines pop every time you breathe near the throttle.

In an effort to overcome these drawbacks the Tyrrell number-crunching nutters came up with an idea for reducing drag on the straights. In theory this would allow the car to travel faster, despite the lack of wild horses. The plan was simple, you simply fit small front tires at the front and at the rear. Tests confirmed that over a two-lap blast there would be an advantage in doing this and the team ran the cars in this configuration at the out-of-the-way Crowthorne testing facility, next door to Broadmoor, Britain's famous prison for the criminally insane. There were some in the paddock who thought that perhaps the Tyrrell boffins had got the wrong address when they went testing...

...but it worked, at least for Ukyo Katayama.

"It was a good and original idea," said Ukyo. "It might look a bit strange but the high-speed balance was fine. The car was slightly less stable under braking."

Mika Salo did not set his best time with the small tires because he had to run in the spare because of engine trouble - but we won't talk about that, the Yamaha chaps get so upset when you mention the fact that the engine is currently disastrous.

At the back we had a melange of Minardis and Footworks, all struggling with no power. Jos Verstappen had hoped to use one of Brian Hart's new V8 engines but this popped its clogs during the installation laps and that was that. The two Arrows understeered as always and so Jos was 17th on the grid and Ricardo Rosset 19th.

Pedro Lamy was between them while Minardi's new boy Giovanni Lavaggi struggled to adjust to F1. He failed to qualify within 107% of the fastest time and was thus not allowed to start. Minardi protested against poleman Damon Hill, claiming that he had missed a weight check, but the protest was thrown out by the FIA stewards.

The Forti team is a right royal mess at the moment. The team turned up in Germany, unpacked everything, sat about with nothing to do on Friday morning, and then packed everything up again and withdrew from the meeting. The problem appears to be that two groups are fighting over who owns the team (who would want it?). The trucks then headed off to Italy where the civil war will presumably continue until the team dies.

Saturday's sunny weather gave way to a cloudy Sunday and in the warm-up we had what looked like some more McLaren-Mercedes brick-polishing as Hakkinen and Coulthard were first and second fastest. Maybe they were going to win. No-one really considered the possibility.

Then it rained which meant that there had to be another 15-minute practice session during which the McLaren-Mercedes were quick. The Mercedes-Benz management no doubt had a good lunch and slapped one another on the back. Yes, today, would be their day...

WHEN the lights went out both Hill and Schumacher made heavy weather of their starts, which played into the hands of Berger and Alesi. It would have helped Mika Hakkinen as well - he had made a good start - but Schumacher squeezed him nastily into the pitwall and he had to back off. This meant that Jacques Villeneuve, David Coulthard and Eddie Irvine were all able to get ahead of the Finn as everyone dived into the first corner. Berger got there first, followed by Alesi and Hill. Then came Schumacher, Villeneuve, Coulthard, Irvine and Hakkinen.

Villeneuve was looking for a way to get past Schumacher and was not paying much attention to Coulthard as they streamed into the first chicane. David made his move. "He surprised me a little bit," said Jacques, "I was concentrating on Schumacher and didn't see him coming." Once behind Schumacher and Coulthard, Villeneuve was stuck.

Up at the front the Benettons were not able to get away from Hill. They were clearly holding him up but as he could do nothing about it, this status quo remained until Hill was called in by Williams. Once the Williams men realized that both Benettons were on a one-race stop they had to do something to give Hill - who had chosen a two-race pattern - a chance of victory. The strategy they adopted was to bring Hill in late, put in a small amount of fuel and get him out again so that when the Benettons stopped at half distance Damon would have a clear track before his second stop in which to build up a gap and not get trapped behind them again after the second stop. Damon's progress was mighty. In 10 laps he built a lead of 16secs setting several fastest laps as he did so. He came in on lap 34 and emerged just behind Berger, but ahead of Alesi. He was quickly on Gerhard's tail but did not seem to be able to find a way around the Austrian. It was exciting stuff. "It was a fantastic race all the way through," said Damon later. "It was always going to be close because Gerhard was on one stop and I lost to him at the start."

With three laps to go the pair streaked down to the Clark Chicane, Berger went through ahead again but as they accelerated away Hill heard a noise. "I heard one of the engines making a noise. I thought it was mine but then I realized it was Gerhard's. I went to the right to avoid it, I think he pulled slightly to one side. Then the engine erupted. These things happen. I have had my fair share of bad luck here, I was leading the race by 30secs in 1993 and had a puncture on the last lap. It would have been a very exciting last few laps if Gerhard had kept going but that is the way it goes."

And so it was that Damon finally won the German GP. The crowd didn't much like it, but they were a good natured bunch this year and there were only a few whistles when he came into the stadium.

Berger's demise meant that Williams would also get third place as Jacques Villeneuve has worked his way up after the frustrating early part of the race when he was penned behind Schumacher and Coulthard.

David had chosen a two-stop strategy and so got out of the way on lap 16. Six laps later Villeneuve and Schumacher pitted together. Their stops were very similar but Schumacher was further down the pitlane and so was able to swerve, in none too subtle a fashion, into Villeneuve's path as the two set off again. Exiting the pitlane Villeneuve's aim was to get Schumacher braking for the first chicane. "I don't think he was expecting me," said Jacques.

Free of the road blocks he was able to pull quickly away. He had a moment at the Clark chicane later but was still able to stay ahead of the Ferrari. Coulthard's second pit stop put the Scotsman out of the running and so Jacques emerged fourth.

Berger's retirement was a bonus for Jacques, but a bitter blow to Benetton. The cars were clearly still not as fast as the Williams but being quicker than someone these days is not the same as being able to overtake them. Overtaking has become so tough that F1 bosses are beginning to get worried - and rightly so.

Whatever the case, Hill's early delay played into Berger's hands and it was touch and go right up until Damon came out after his second stop. Berger was just ahead - and he could stay there.

"I am very sad about this," said Gerhard. "I so much wanted the victory for myself, for the team, for everyone. I really looked in good shape and I could not believe what had happened. Everything was perfect and I was confident I could hold up Hill - as I had done for the previous 10 laps. I had no warning that anything was wrong until the engine blew."

Berger's misfortune promoted Alesi to second but even he was sad for poor Berger. "We are working very hard," he said, "and slowly we are improving the car. It is a shame we cannot be together here on the podium." But if there was disappointment there was, at least, a little optimism as Benetton packed up. The car had been quicker. Things were improving.

It is unlikely there was much of the same feeling at Ferrari. Schumacher had finished a drab fourth, chased to the line by the McLaren-Mercedes of David Coulthard. Michael's race was, if nothing else, a sign that Ferraris can be reliable. In this case, however, it was slow and reliable. Irvine's wasn't even that good. It suffered a gearbox failure on lap 35.

Down at McLaren there was cause for a few smiles - a rare thing down Woking way these recent years. The new Mercedes engine is clearly a step forward. It showed up particularly well on the fast blasts of Hockenheim - it will probably go well at Monza as well - but there was not much evidence that the chassis is any better than ever it was.

Coulthard was fifth at the end of the first lap after a great start and he finished fifth after a two-stop race, 42secs behind the winner - not quite a second a lap. His fastest race lap was down 1.1secs on Hill's best. It is curious to know if this amounts to progress. Perhaps it is the first sign of revival, perhaps it is merely a function of good qualifying engines, a good start and the current difficulty in overtaking. It will be interesting to see how the cars go in Hungary.

Hakkinen's race was compromised at the start and he was stuck down in eighth when he pitted. The gearbox then went wrong and Mika had to park.

Sixth place went to Rubens Barrichello, but this was not an impressive display by the Jordan-Peugeots. They held their grid positions in the early part of the race. Both planned a single pit stop but just before his turn came, Martin Brundle suffered a puncture and lost a lot of time driving slowly around to the pits. He charged back but was only able to finish 10th. Barrichello had no such difficulties and finished sixth, profiting from the retirements of Berger, Irvine and Hakkinen ahead of him. He was very nearly caught in the closing laps by Ligier's Olivier Panis, who had driven a storming race after flat-spotting his tires early on and being forced to pit for new rubber. This dropped him to the back of the field but he quickly caught up and carved his way back up to eighth before pitting at the mid-distance. He rejoined 10th and chased back up to eighth, being promoted to seventh when Berger retired but not quite being able to catch Barrichello. The chances are that if he had caught the Brazilian he would not have been able to get past. It cannot have helped, by the way, that Olivier was shown the chequered flag a lap early by some wombat in a blazer, who was waiting for Damon Hill to arrive. Olivier ignored this.

It is bizarre in this day and age that this sort of amateurism still exists. Perhaps the FIA should employ a flag waver who is capable of identifying the cars he is waving his flag at.

Further back came Sauber's Frentzen after a dull race - Herbert went out with serious vibration problems. Salo was ninth in the Tyrrell after a steady race. This was a good result for Yamaha given the fact that Hockenheim is the hardest race on engines. Katayama made a mistake and crashed out after 19 laps.

Brundle came home 10th after his Jordan's puncture having passed Rosset (Arrows) and Lamy (Minardi). Verstappen (also Arrows) had not got very far. On the first lap he found himself embroiled in a frantic fight involving Katayama and Herbert. This resulted in Jos making contact with Ukyo and going off into the sandtrap, damaging a front wing as he did so. He tried to rejoin but the clutch burned out as he was trying to get going again.

For once it had been a more exciting race, but the result was the same. Damon just had to work a little harder to achieve it...

Damon Hill Williams-Renault FW18 45 1h21m43.417s  
Jean Alesi Benetton-Renault B196 45 1h21m54.869s  
Jacques Villeneuve Williams-Renault FW18 45 1h22m17.343s  
Michael Schumacher Ferrari F310 45 1h22m24.934s  
David Coulthard McLaren-Mercedes MP4/11 45 1h22m25.613s  
11 Rubens Barrichello Jordan-Peugeot 196 45 1h23m25.516s  
Olivier Panis Ligier-Mugen-Honda JS43 45 1h23m27.329s  12 
15 Heinz-Harald Frentzen Sauber-Cosworth C15 44  13 
19 Mika Salo Tyrrell-Yamaha 024 44  15 
10 12 Martin Brundle Jordan-Peugeot 196 44  10 
11 16 Riccardo Rosset Footwork-Hart FA17 44  19 
12 20 Pedro Lamy Minardi-Cosworth M195B 43  18 
13r Gerhard Berger Benetton-Renault B196 42 Engine 
Eddie Irvine Ferrari F310 34 Gearbox Oil Lost 
14 Johnny Herbert Sauber-Cosworth C15 25 Gearbox Electronics 14 
10 Pedro Diniz Ligier-Mugen-Honda JS43 19 Throttle 11 
18 Ukyo Katayama Tyrrell-Yamaha 024 19 Accident 16 
Mika Hakkinen McLaren-Mercedes MP4/11 13 Gearbox 
17 Jos Verstappen Footwork-Hart FA17 Accident 17 
nq 21 Giovanni Lavaggi Minardi-Cosworth M195B   20