Japanese GP 1996

OCTOBER 13, 1996

Japanese GP, 1996

Hill scales the mountain

DAMON HILL dominated the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka, leading from start to finish to win his eighth victory of the year and the World Championship. His challenger Jacques Villeneuve had taken pole position, but he made an awful start and was never in the hunt. He went out mid-race when a wheel fell off his car and he skated into a sand trap. British fans everywhere cheered the victory - Damon has done it!

Having the Japanese Grand Prix as the final race of the year was always going to be difficult. For the last 11 years the Grand Prix season has ended on the streets of Adelaide. Formula 1 enjoyed a lengthy love affair with Adelaide and it was with some regrets that the circus moved to Melbourne this year. Melbourne was great fun of course and so the pain of having to leave Adelaide did not seem as bad when we were in Albert Park back in March for the start of the 1996 season.

That pain was driven home at Suzuka. Finishing the F1 season in Japan is just not much fun when you compare it to Adelaide. In the old days the F1 circus would pop out from Europe to Suzuka and then hop on to Australia for 10 days of sea, sun, surf and other things beginning with "s" before regrouping, relaxed, in Adelaide.

The difference is probably just one of culture. F1 is a European business. Japan is involved but there is nothing European about it. In fact, to most F1 people it is still like going to the moon. Everything is more difficult. No one speaks the same language. Not everyone likes the food. It's often enjoyable but it is so different that people do not relax as they used to do in Adelaide. The parties at the famous Log Cabin bar at the circuit hotel may have been uncontrolled in the past, but they were never like the end of term parties in Australia. After seven months on the road, F1 folk like to have a party to see out the old year before people have to get their heads down again to build next year's cars. This year there would be no sun-filled break between the last couple of races. A few folk planned to go on to Australia after the race, but a lot were simply rushing back to Europe. One or two of the luckier ones decided to have a few days of vacation before Suzuka.

Damon Hill was one of them, jetting off to Hong Kong for a few days of rest before the big event. With only one point needed to wrap up the Championship, and that only if Jacques Villeneuve could win the race, meant that Damon did not need to feel pressured.

Jacques kept saying that there was no pressure on him because it was a long-shot and that all the pressure was on Damon, but this sounded more like gamesmanship than logic.

On Friday morning Jacques arrived for breakfast in the Williams area in the paddock. "You're looking tired," he said to Damon. "Yes," said Damon, "I am tired. It's all over. I've got no chance." Hill was not going to be got at with mind games.

But the relaxed Damon in the paddock did not look like the Damon Hill we saw in the car in the final qualifying session. Hill looked worried. He seemed to be struggling to compete with Villeneuve and, with just a few minutes to go, was behind not just Villeneuve but Michael Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen as well. It was unlike the Damon Hill we have seen all year. Was the pressure getting to him or was he trying to lull Villeneuve into a false sense of security?

"It was always going to be close," said Damon, "but I was confident that I had a car which would do it. I had four runs on new tires. On the second run I wasn't happy with the set-up and we changed some things. The car was much better on the last two runs and I was able to take more risks on the last run."

The last minute dash took him back to second on the grid - 0.461s behind Villeneuve - and he seemed happy with that. "I have done what I wanted to do," said Damon. "I am exactly where I wanted to be. I have a good opportunity to beat Jacques into the first corner. I think the best form of defense is attack so I will be looking forward to a good race tomorrow. As long as I can see Jacques everything is looking good."

Was there, we wondered, any significance in Damon's apparent satisfaction with second place? Could it be that he actually wanted to qualify second because of the curious grid layout in Suzuka?

It seems unlikely but being second can be something of an advantage in certain circumstances. The first corner turns to the right. Logically, therefore, pole position should be on the right to give the pole man the chance to get into the first corner ahead. But at Suzuka the right hand side of the grid is not on the racing line because there is a fast right-hander just before the start-finish section. This means that cars drift out to the left and lay rubber on the road. The track is therefore much grippier on the left and provides a better chance of a good start. A few years ago it was decided that drivers should not be allowed to decide whether pole should be on the left or on the right and that pole position would be where it was the previous year. So at Suzuka pole is on the left. This gives the pole man an advantage unless, of course, all the rubber on the road is washed away by a rain storm.

This year there was rain throughout practice and so very little rubber was put down onto the circuit. The second grid slot - albeit 8m behind the pole position - might prove to be a good choice for the race because with a good start the second-placed would have the advantage at the first corner.

Was Damon sandbagging or has Jacques simply got ahead of his championship rival in the last two races? "My car was very very competitive and I could attack with it," explained Jacques on Saturday. "On the left there is normally a lot of rubber with the rain. I don't know what it will be like tomorrow. There's not much rubber down. Tomorrow will be a very difficult for us but the pressure is on Damon. The only option for me is to go out and win."

As the Williams men quibbled over who was under more pressure, there was little doubt that the Williams-Renault FW18 was well ahead of the opposition once again. Villeneuve was 0.4s ahead of Hill and Damon was 0.7s ahead of Michael Schumacher. The Williams was a second a lap faster than the Ferrari.

Schumacher was philosophical about third place. "It was the maximum that we could do. I could have got another tenth if I had not had an engine problem on the last run, but that was not enough to make a better position."

Eddie Irvine was a second behind his team mate, which meant he was sixth on the grid. "One car on the second row and one on the third row is more or less what we expected," said team boss Jean Todt, "because the result is a true reflection of our potential. Our objective is to get both drivers into the points with one of them on the podium."

This was important because the battle with Benetton for second place in the Constructors Championship is close indeed - one point separating the two teams.

Gerhard Berger was fourth on the grid for Benetton, 0.3s behind Schumacher. It was a last minute effort in qualifying. In general, however, the team was struggling in qualifying with neither driver very happy with the set-up of their cars. Jean Alesi ended up a disastrous ninth on the grid, complaining that his B196 was handling like a pig.

Fifth on the grid was Mika Hakkinen in his McLaren - 1.5s slower than pole position - which was much as one would expect from the McLaren, with the Mercedes engine quick on the straight but the car wallowing in the corners. The Finn had lost one set of tires in qualifying because of a red flag interruption (which signalled a break in proceedings), but it is doubtful that Mika would have gone much quicker. David Coulthard had a spin which meant that he was eighth on the grid, having had to jump into the spare car. "I was able to do the same sort of lap times in the spare," said David, "which makes me think that I could have gone faster if I hadn't thrown the race car off the circuit. It's disappointing."

Heinz-Harald Frentzen was anything but disappointed, putting his Sauber seventh on the grid - the team's best qualifying position of the year. Frentzen said he had not expected it but that the car went better and better as the track dried.

Johnny Herbert was not so fortunate. Early in the qualifying session he came through the high-speed 130R - one of the few decent corners left in Grand Prix racing - and ran over the outside curb. "It must have been slightly damp and the back of the car broke away," explained Johnny. "I kept my foot on the power, hoping to sort it out, but when the car goes at that kind of speed there is not much hope. I was lucky because I was able to scrub off a lot of the speed before hitting the barrier."

The impact threw the car back across the road, with bits of wreckage flying everywhere and wheels bouncing dangerously around. Johnny climbed out unhurt and the red flags came out. Herbert would have to go to the medical center for a check-up before he was allowed to get in the spare car. "We changed what we could in the short space of time available," said Herbert, "but it is never the same. Thirteenth on the grid is not bad under the circumstances."

The two Jordan-Peugeots were pretty much where they would be expected to be with Martin Brundle 10th and Rubens Barrichello 11th. Neither driver was happy with the handling of his car and both had to work hard on the set-up between their qualifying runs.

"I got a bit of a shock on my first run," said Martin, "the car didn't respond at all well to the new tires. We had to make a lot of changes through the four runs. My last lap was an absolute peach." Barrichello made a mistake on his best run.

Next up was Olivier Panis - 12th - a good effort for the Ligier driver, given that his car has not been very good since the French holiday season in July and August. There is nothing unusual in this as Ligiers traditionally drop behind at this time of year. Pedro Diniz was 16th, just under a second a lap slower than his team mate.

Fourteenth and 15th on the grid were the two Tyrrell-Yamahas in the last race of the alliance. Next season Tyrrell will be using Ford engines. As in Portugal the cars looked good in every session except the one that counted and everyone said they were disappointed that things had not gone their way. The reality was that the cars were where they have been for much of the year.

Jos Verstappen was 17th in his Footwork with Ricardo Rosset 19th. Verstappen complained that all the rain had mean that he had not been able to do as much set-up work as he would have liked.

Splitting the two Footworks was Pedro Lamy's Minardi, using the development version of the EV3 Cosworth engine, an improvement over the normal engine which was run for the first time at the post-Portugal GP test.

Lamy's Minardi team mate Giovanni Lavaggi did not get to use the new engine, and because of mechanical problems of his own he had to use the T-car and consequently failed to qualify under the 107% rule, recording a best time which was 107.973% of the pole man's time. It was probably the last time we will see "Johnny Carwash" in F1.

When qualifying was over the skies darkened and as darkness fell rain began to fall; it became heavier and heavier. The puddles became streams and all the rubber on the race track was washed quietly away.

THE sun came out on Sunday morning and so everyone had to rethink set-up in the warm-up. Jacques Villeneuve was fastest and looked strong. The start was going to be crucial. We had to wait because the first attempt to get the race under way was aborted when Coulthard stalled his McLaren. He would have to start at the back of the grid and the race was reduced by a lap.

They lined up again and this time everything went to plan - except Villeneuve's start. It was a disaster. "It was my mistake," he admitted. "I didn't give it enough throttle so the engine bogged down. I gave it some clutch and the engine went too high. It was just a very bad start."

Damon Hill left Villeneuve behind. Schumacher was also slow away and so it was Berger who emerged second as they all dived into the first corner. Hakkinen was third with Schumacher recovering to grab fourth just ahead of Irvine. Villeneuve was fifth but nearly lost the place to Frentzen. "I got past Villeneuve going into the first corner but then ran a bit too wide and went into the dirt," explained Heinz-Harald. "That cost me a couple of places to the Jordans."

Jean Alesi's race was over very quickly. He had made a good start but found himself boxed in by the two Ferraris and had to back off. Exiting the second corner he ran over a curb and spun across the track demolishing his car backwards into the wall on the inside of the track. It was hardly the best way for Benetton to begin its defense of second place in the Constructors' Championship.

In those early laps Berger was close to Hill but on the third lap he tried a fairly unintelligent overtaking maneuver. "I was going faster than Damon," explained the Austrian "and I thought it was important to get past him as fast as possible. I wanted to build a lead over him as I was on a three-stop strategy."

The move was at best optimistic, at worst absurd. Gerhard came from a long, long, way back, so far in fact that Damon never even knew he was there. "He was way back when I looked in my mirror before the corner. I was keeping my line and I heard an engine noise. When I looked in my mirror he was a long way back."

Damon was unaware of any contact between them but Berger's front wing was damaged, probably from a brush with one of Hill's tires. As Damon rushed away Berger held off his chasers as he chased along with the front gradually coming off. By the end of lap four - when Gerhard pitted - Hakkinen was 4.3s down on Hill. Everyone was watching Hill to see if the Williams was damaged and the Williams boys came out of their pit at one point as though preparing for a pit stop, but gradually it became clear that Hakkinen was not catching him. Damon gradually pulled away and by the first pit stop on lap 18 he was six seconds clear of Hakkinen. During the pit stop sequence Hakkinen lost time and Schumacher moved to second but he could do nothing about Hill. When Damon emerged from the pits he was 1.5s ahead of his great rival. That lead grew to 5s before Damon's second stop on lap 34. Once again he emerged just ahead of the Ferrari.

Villeneuve had a rather frustrating time of it in the early laps, stuck behind Irvine. On lap 12, however, he sliced past Eddie in a beautifully-judged move at the chicane. He was through and gone. Jacques set the fastest lap of the race before his pit stop on lap 14. When all the first stops were done he was still in fourth behind Hill, Schumacher and Hakkinen and there he remained for the middle section of the race. "Before the second pit stop there was a vibration and I thought I had a puncture," he said. The pit stop on lap 32 dropped Jacques back to fifth, but he was setting fastest laps soon afterwards so all seemed to be fine. And then in the first corner on lap 37 the right rear wheel came clean off the Williams, dumping Jacques into the sand trap. The errant wheel bounced past Jacques and over a high safety fence. Luckily - or perhaps by design - it hit a second fence rather than going into the grandstand.

The World Championship was over. Damon had won. As Jacques trudged in he had no idea what had happened. Hours later it was the same story. The team was too busy drinking champagne to explain what had gone wrong. That would be worked out later, back at the factory. There were a variety of different theories. One said that the wheelnut was crossed-threaded but that would not explain the vibrations before the pit stop. Patrick Head said that the safety device designed to keep a wheel on if it was loose was intact so if the wheel had cross-threaded it would have broken the safety device as it came off. There didn't seem to be anything wrong with the hub because that appeared to be still on the car after the incident.

The only vaguely logical explanation was that there was some movement of the wheel on the hub - as happened to Damon Hill at Silverstone - and that this eventually caused the pegs on which the wheel was mounted to shear off.

Hill heard the good news over his radio. "It threw me," he admitted. "Trying to concentrate on the race when you realize you are World Champion was not easy. I had to try to put it out of my mind to concentrate and win the race. I really wanted to win the race."

And win it he did with ease and style, pacing himself on those behind. As he crossed the line the team showed him a board saying: "Damon Hill 1996 World Champion". "I cannot put into words how I feel," he babbled. "It is perfect. A fairy tale ending. A terrific day for me. This victory was for everyone at Williams - my leaving present for them. I am really grateful to them all. The championship is a different matter. I have worked for it for three years and this is a tremendous relief. The championship is for my wife Georgie who has stood by me and been a great strength to me all the way.

"I think it will take a while for it to hit me. Right now I feel like I am on a rocket which has just taken off. There is the release of pressure and the satisfaction. But I want to reflect on the season. I have won eight races and that is something I am very proud of."

In his moment of victory Damon - always the gentleman - had nice things to say about Villeneuve. "Jacques has been an outstanding newcomer to F1 and I am certain he is a future World Champion. He has taken to F1 like a duck to water and I have been impressed with him all season. He's been a great team mate."

Schumacher came home second but the gap of 1.8s at the finish did not give a true impression of his competitiveness. Hill had cruised the final part of the race, while Michael held off Hakkinen's McLaren. "He was pushing as hard as he could and I was pushing as hard as him," explained Michael. "On one occasion when a Minardi got in our way I had to be careful, otherwise I don't believe there was much chance of him getting past me."

Hakkinen reckoned that he would not have lost his place in the first pit stop but for a late message from the team for him to come into the pits. It meant he lost time and second place. His only chance to pass Schumacher came when they stumbled upon Lamy's Minardi a few laps from home. "It was a really exciting moment," said Mika later, "but it was too risky. We could have both gone off and that would have been boring."

And so he settled for third place. He was just 3.2s behind the winner. It looked good on paper, but with Hill pacing himself to Schumacher it was not perhaps the marvelous performance that it might appear. Ron Dennis said something about the team optimizing its potential and focused on 1997. Let us hope that McLaren's window of opportunity is maximized next year. A great team should not be made the struggle as it has been these last couple of years.

Coulthard's stall was only the start of his troubles. On the first lap he ran into the back of Pedro Diniz's Ligier and damaged his front wing. This needed changing. That dropped David miles behind and, although he set some good times in his recovery and overtook a few of the midfield, he finished eighth.

Gerhard Berger was fourth for Benetton but it was not enough to enable the team to hold on to second place in the Constructors' title. After running into Hill, Gerhard rejoined in 14th position and charged his way up into the top six - a good drive. He was then stuck behind Eddie Irvine's Ferrari until the second pit stops. Gerhard probably hoped to overtake the Irishman during these stops but the tactic failed and he found himself behind Eddie again for the run to the flag. This Gerhard could not afford and on lap 40 he simply pushed Irvine out of the race in a very rude maneuver which presumably had nothing to do with the fact that Ferrari and Benetton were fighting for second place in the Constructors' title... Berger's bulldozer tactics could not save Benetton's bacon. Schumacher's six points took the team to second in the Constructors' title - and rightly so.

The Benetton press release did not actually manage to mention this interlude at all, but Eddie Irvine is never one to let anything stand in the way of an open mouth. "Gerhard was much quicker than me but could not get past," he said. "I braked a little bit late and went slightly wide and the next thing I knew I was up in the air. This is the second time in two races that Gerhard has driven into me. He said sorry but it is not enough." Berger had indeed made similar maneuverings in the Portuguese GP. For his part, Irvine has presumably forgotten that he did the same to Derek Warwick in the same place in 1993...

Benetton press releases are, of course, famous for saying absolutely nothing about anything bad for the team - Jean Alesi's impact with the wall, for example, was described as "not too strong". Most of the press room seems to agree that the team would do better to follow the Benetton company's earth-loving tendencies and save trees by not turning out such garbage - which is presumably sent to sponsors as well. On this occasion, however, we had an alarming outbreak of the truth with team boss Flavio Briatore admitting what everyone else has known all year long. "In some races our cars were just not competitive," said F1's most famous wearer of backward-facing caps. One can only assume that Flavio was hit by a bolt of lightning on Saturday night because every other Benetton press release this year has banged on and on about how competitive the cars have been. Perhaps the team will do better next year when all the people leaving the team are replaced...

Martin Brundle finished fifth for Jordan, a lonely race dictated by tire wear. It was still a good result for the team. Rubens Barrichello ran a different set-up to Martin and had horrible understeer all afternoon, ending the day in ninth place. "It is sad to finish like this," said Rubens speaking, presumably, not of the 1996 season but of his career at Jordan.

Frentzen scored a point to end his Sauber career having spent most of the race trying to find a way past a less than cooperative Barrichello. At one point he flat-spotted his tires as he tried to get by. An early pit stop finally enabled Heinz-Harald to get ahead. Johnny Herbert finished 10th having suffered bad understeer all afternoon.

Frentzen was chased for most of the latter part of the race by Olivier Panis - who set some very fast laps in his Ligier. He twice went over the chicane trying to pass Heinz-Harald but in the end decided that seventh was better than eating sand. Pedro Diniz survived the bump with Coulthard but fell victim to tire wear and fading brakes. He went over the chicane twice, spinning on the second occasion.

The other survivors were the two Arrows and Lamy's Minardi all a long way behind. Verstappen drove a lonely race to 11th, while Rosset was given a stop-and-go penalty for blocking for no apparent reason. "I didn't block anyone," he said and the lap times seemed to back him up. All four leaders passed him on lap 25 and all lost about two seconds doing so, which is not an outrageous amount. None suffered any particular delay. An odd decision.

Tyrrell's Ukyo Katayama was also given a penalty for blocking Villeneuve, but again there was not much evidence of it on the time sheets. Ukyo retired with engine trouble during his stop-go penalty. Mika Salo also went out with engine grief bringing Yamaha's total of engine problems this year to a number which is slightly larger than the Yamaha men are likely to admit to.

And that was that.

"It's a great day for Damon," said Frank Williams - the man who has dumped the new World Champion from his 1997 squad. "It was a brilliant way to win from the front all the way, great control of a race. He has been climbing the mountain for four years. He had got to the top and fully deserves to be there."

Shame Frank had to push him off really...

Damon Hill Williams-Renault FW18 52 1h32m33.791s  
Michael Schumacher Ferrari F310 52 1h32m35.674s  
Mika Hakkinen McLaren-Mercedes MP4/11 52 1h32m37.003s  
Gerhard Berger Benetton-Renault B196 52 1h33m00.317s  
12 Martin Brundle Jordan-Peugeot 196 52 1h33m40.911s  10 
15 Heinz-Harald Frentzen Sauber-Cosworth C15 52 1h33m54.977s  
Olivier Panis Ligier-Mugen-Honda JS43 52 1h33m58.301s  12 
David Coulthard McLaren-Mercedes MP4/11 52 1h33m59.024s  
11 Rubens Barrichello Jordan-Peugeot 196 52 1h34m14.856s  11 
10 14 Johnny Herbert Sauber-Cosworth C15 52 1h34m15.590s  13 
11 17 Jos Verstappen Footwork-Hart FA17 51  17 
12 20 Pedro Lamy Minardi-Cosworth M195B 50  18 
13 16 Riccardo Rosset Footwork-Hart FA17 50  19 
Eddie Irvine Ferrari F310 39 Accident 
18 Ukyo Katayama Tyrrell-Yamaha 024 37 Engine 14 
Jacques Villeneuve Williams-Renault FW18 36 Wheel Lost/accident 
19 Mika Salo Tyrrell-Yamaha 024 20 Engine 15 
10 Pedro Diniz Ligier-Mugen-Honda JS43 13 Spin 16 
Jean Alesi Benetton-Renault B196 Accident 
nq 21 Giovanni Lavaggi Minardi-Cosworth M195B   20