French Grand Prix Review

Round 9: Renault Take Top Four Places At Home Grand Prix
by Toby Waller

1996 FIA Formula One World Championship - Round 9
French Grand Prix
Magny-Cours, Nevers, France

Damon Hill started the second half of the season as he had finished the first - with a comfortable win over his Williams team-mate Jacques Villeneuve. The combination of the Williams chassis, the Renault V10, and Damon Hill's unquestionable talent meant that the Englishman was never really threatened from the minute the lights went out. Hill's win owed something to good fortune, though, as Michael Schumacher had been a real threat during qualifying and taken pole by a mere 0.07s. If the Ferrari had appeared flawless on Saturday afternoon, then the formation lap proved otherwise - Schumacher pulling off in a cloud of oily smoke before even reaching the grid. Ferrari's lack of reliability was made to look even more disappointing, as the Renault unit powered the top four cars to the finish without a hitch. A near perfect afternoon for the French fans was completed when Olivier Panis finished a fine seventh and the Peugeot powered Jordan's finished eighth and ninth.

Saturday Qualifying

If the Friday practice had offered perfect racing weather, then Saturday threatened to spoil the circuit's run of sunshine. The conditions had turned nasty in the morning, and the high winds were sending clouds scuttling across the circuit. The grip from lap to lap was changing dramatically, and there was a threat of rain later in the session. Most of the big names were out early to try and post some quick times in case the track conditions deteriorated. First Gerhard Berger, then Mika Hakkinen, then Jean Alesi were quickest, and soon the lap times were already below last year's benchmark. When Michael Schumacher and Damon Hill came onto the track, the time was certain to drop further. Sure enough, first Hill knocked 0.039s off Alesi's 1m16.939s pole time, then Schumacher took a further 0.3s chunk out of that. Exciting stuff, and we'd only had ten minutes of the session!

Jacques Villeneuve was next out, and he set the fourth fastest time. Olivier Panis was also out, and he was qualifying the Ligier like it had never been qualified before. Using his local knowledge to good effect, he posted the sixth quickest time of the session. When Mika Hakkinen returned to the track on his second set of tyres, he managed to carve another 0.7s off his previous best and move up to second. Alesi was also making a return to the track, and he improved 0.6s on his previous best, and 0.3s on Schumacher, to re-take pole. Damon Hill was under pressure, and looked agitated as he talked to his engineers in the pits. He returned to the track, and managed to hack another 0.6s off his time. On his second lap, though, he was badly baulked and sensibly returned to the pits without completing the lap. Before anyone else could attempt to take pole, however, the session was red flagged.

Villeneuve, attempting a fast lap on a new set of tyres, had run wide whilst exiting the 140mph Estoril corner and clouted the tyre wall heavily. Villeneuve admitted after the session: "I tried to drive out of it rather than lift off the accelerator. Once I went off the tarmac I knew I was a passenger so I sat there and waited. If the Canadian had been lucky to catch the last few yards of the tyre protection, then he was even luckier to avoid being hit by David Coulthard: "I was flat in fifth at 160mph, concentrating on the corner, so I didn't see Jacques to start with. I gave mine a quick flick onto the grass, but ducked down and braced myself because I really thought I was going to hit him".

When the session re-started thirty minutes later, it was Hill's last attempt to seize a home pole for the Renault engine. His first lap was looking good, but he lost sufficient time in the second half of the lap to still be 0.069s behind Schumacher. His second lap, despite being on worn rubber, looked like the pole grabber, but he was baulked by Johnny Herbert at the final two corners and had to settle for second on the grid. Schumacher was, surprisingly, back out on the track. Eddie Irvine's Ferrari had just been disqualified from the session due to oversized deflector panels, and Schumacher was making sure that he would have a backup time with legally dimensioned deflectors. Whether or not his pole time was entirely legal, Schumacher had the pole, and his recent suggestion that the championship is over was already looking premature.

Final Qualifying Times

1   Michael Schumacher    Ferrari                 1m15.989s
2   Damon Hill            Williams-Renault        1m16.058s
3   Jean Alesi            Benetton-Renault        1m16.310s
4   Gerhard Berger        Benetton-Renault        1m16.592s
5   Mika Hakkinen         McLaren-Mercedes        1m16.634s
6   Jacques Villeneuve    Williams-Renault        1m16.906s
7   David Coulthard       McLaren-Mercedes        1m17.007s
8   Martin Brundle        Jordan-Peugeot          1m17.187s
9   Olivier Panis         Ligier-Mugen Honda      1m17.390s
10  Rubens Barrichello    Jordan-Peugeot          1m17.665s
11  Pedro Diniz           Ligier-Mugen Honda      1m17.676s
12  Heinz-Harald Frentzen Sauber-Ford             1m17.739s
13  Mika Salo             Tyrrell-Yamaha          1m18.021s
14  Ukyo Katayama         Tyrrell-Yamaha          1m18.242s
15  Jos Verstappen        Arrows-Hart             1m18.324s
16  Johnny Herbert        Sauber-Ford             1m18.556s
17  Giancarlo Fisichella  Minardi-Ford            1m18.604s
18  Pedro Lamy            Minardi-Ford            1m19.210s
19  Riccardo Rosset       Arrows-Hart             1m19.242s
20  Luca Badoer           Forti-Ford              1m20.562s
21  Andrea Montermini     Forti-Ford              1m20.647s
22  Eddie Irvine          Ferrari               no time set

All cars within 107% time of 1m21.308s

The Race

After a "warm up from Hell" that saw him collide with Heinz-Harald Frentzen and slide off the circuit, Damon Hill was still confident to take the race win, despite being second on the grid: "I think that our car, over the race distance, is the better car", he said before the start. As the cars proceeded around the formation lap, Schumacher's Ferrari looked unlikely to make the grid. Entering the Nurburgring chicane, his engine expired in a cloud of oily smoke. Although Hill's first reaction was naturally joyous, he still had cause to be concerned: "I was a bit worried that Michael's engine was going to blow up in a big way and leave a huge oil slick". Michael Schumacher was understandably disappointed by his Ferrari's continuing lack of reliability: "I don't know what went wrong - it must have been the engine. I was angry at first, but then you have to calm down and look at the problem. It was a real pity because we had been reliable until Canada, but now we are getting problems". Another terrible race for the Ferrari team would end five laps later, Eddie Irvine pulling off with a lack of drive.

All this was good news for Hill, though, and he used his newly inherited pole to great effect - darting across the circuit to head off Jean Alesi and take the best line into the first corner. Mika Hakkinen made a terrific start from fifth on the grid to move up to third, and Jacques Villeneuve also got a flier, gaining two spots on his sixth position by the first corner. Martin Brundle's promising weekend continued, as he moved up ahead of David Coulthard during the first lap. The most incredible performance was that of Pedro Diniz though. If the fact that he had lined up eleventh - a mere 0.3s behind team-mate Olivier Panis - wasn't enough, then his first lap charge through the field to eighth must surely have raised some eyebrows. Team-mate Panis, however, had a terrible first lap that saw him drop down to eleventh, passed by Rubens Barrichello into Nurburgring.

At the front, Hill was opening up a clear gap to Alesi, and already setting some exceptionally fast laps in the process. By lap eight, the gap was up to four seconds and looked like increasing further. Villeneuve, meanwhile, was piling the pressure on Hakkinen, both drivers desperate not to lose time to the leading pair. At this point, the main battle was for eighth - Diniz, Barrichello and Panis repeatedly trying to outfumble each other into Adelaide. The current order was Hill, Alesi, Hakkinen, Villeneuve, Berger, Brundle, Coulthard, Diniz, Barrichello and Panis, and the question was: what were the driver's respective pitstop strategies? Olivier Panis was first in, to make the first of three stops. The next few laps saw a flurry of pit stops that were constantly changing the order, but all these drivers were intending to make only two stops. First Barrichello, then Alesi on lap 22. Gerhard Berger was next up, then David Coulthard, then Damon Hill. With most of the top drivers having made their stops, the order was Villeneuve, Hill, Alesi, Hakkinen, Berger, Diniz, Coulthard, Brundle, Panis and Barrichello. The incredible performance by Pedro Diniz was not to last, though, as he retired on lap 29.

Jacques Villeneuve was into the pits a lap later. His lead, despite a series of fast laps, was only 10.2s, and he rejoined the track 4s behind Alesi, but ahead of Hakkinen. The young Canadian was finally getting the hang of the Magny-Cours circuit, and he soon closed the gap to the Benetton and passed it on lap 38. Gerhard Berger was also closing on his opponent, in this case Mika Hakkinen, and he overtook the McLaren at the hairpin five laps later. Olivier Panis had made the second of his pitstops on lap 38, and we settled down to wait for the other top drivers to make their stops. Villeneuve was desperately trying to close the gap to Damon Hill, but was thwarted in his attempts by an uncooperative Minardi. On lap 42, Alesi provided the first of the big pitters, promoting Berger to third. Villeneuve started gaining time on Hill, as he was being held up by the battling duo of Brundle and Panis.

On lap 47, Berger pitted, promoting Alesi back up to fourth, then Barrichello stopped. Two laps later, Villeneuve, Brundle and Coulthard were in. Finally, on lap 53, Hill made his second and final stop. With an uninterrupted run to the flag, Hill had a clear lead of 11s to Villeneuve. Try as the young Canadian might, he couldn't significantly reduce the deficit, and the pair ran in formation to the flag. It looked like being a dull last few laps, but the Benetton pair would provide the final entertainment - both charging hard to the finish line despite badly worn tyres.

After the race, Hill was understandably delighted: "There were no problems in the race at all... everything went fantastically. It is a very good result and I'm delighted for the whole team". He was quick to praise the Renault engine, and dedicated his win to the Renault Sport team that helped power him to his previous eighteen victories. Jacques Villeneuve was also happy with his second place: "It was a good result, especially after the big crash yesterday. We had a very good car. I changed my lines a bit and I was driving the track a little bit better today than in qualifying." Jean Alesi was happy with his third place - his first French GP podium finish. Asked about his late race battle with Gerhard Berger, he smiled and said: "I was not able to push more than what I was doing, but I knew it was impossible for him to overtake me so, actually, I was playing with him". The final word went to Damon Hill. With his home Grand Prix next, he was looking forward to competing there: "There's only one thing left for me to do now, and that's to win the British Grand Prix. Irrespective of the championship, a win at home would be fantastic". With his current run of success, who would bet against him?

French Grand Prix: Lap-by-lap

Formation lap: Schumacher pulls off in a cloud of oily smoke with a massive engine failure.

Lap 1: Villeneuve up to fourth from sixth, Hakkinen up to third from fifth, and Pedro Diniz makes terrific start to finish the first lap eighth from eleventh on the grid.

Lap 4: Hill driving a scintillating pace, opens up 2.5s gap to Alesi. Andrea Montermini's Forti is the first retirement. Giancarlo Fisichella's Minardi follows him a lap later.

Lap 5: Eddie Irvine pulls into pits to retire with lack of drive.

Lap 11: Hill continues to set fastest laps [now standing at 1m19.059s] as his lead over Alesi increases to 5s. Jos Verstappen slides wide at entry to Estoril, and he gets bogged down in the gravel and retires.

Lap 16: Barrichello constantly pressuring Diniz, but the Brazilian holds him off well. Order now Hill, Alesi, Hakkinen, Villeneuve, Berger, Brundle, Coulthard, Diniz, Barrichello, Panis.

Lap 19: Coulthard pressuring Brundle who is constantly locking brakes as a result of a stiff suspension setup. Olivier Panis pits (8.1s) and loses two places.

Lap 21: Barrichello pits (8.4s) and rejoins behind Herbert (twelfth).

Lap 22: Alesi pits (7.3s) and rejoins behind Berger (fourth).

Lap 23: Brundle pits (8.5s) and rejoins ahead of team-mate Barrichello. Coulthard pits two laps later and rejoins ahead of Brundle.

Lap 24: Berger pits (8.1s) and rejoins fifth, behind Alesi.

Lap 27: Hill pits, but has a long stop that drops him to second behind team-mate Villeneuve, yet to stop. Mika Hakkinen pits (7.7s) and rejoins behind Alesi.

Lap 30: Villeneuve pits (8.9s) but only had a 10s lead over Hill, and rejoins ahead of Alesi.

Lap 37: Order now Hill, Alesi, Villeneuve, Hakkinen, Berger, Coulthard, Brundle, Panis, Barrichello, Frentzen - Diniz having retired on lap 28.

Lap 38: Villeneuve, having gradually closed the 4s gap to Alesi, passes him into Adelaide hairpin. Panis makes second stop (8.1s) and sets fastest lap so far when he rejoins track behind Barrichello.

Lap 42: Berger takes Hakkinen for fourth position at Adelaide hairpin. Alesi pits (10s), promoting Berger to third.

Lap 46: Panis passes Barrichello at Adelaide hairpin. Villeneuve trying desperately to close gap to Hill before pitstops, despite being held up for several laps by a Minardi.

Lap 47: Berger pits (8.5s) promoting Alesi back up to third. Barrichello pits (9.1s) but doesn't lose place.

Lap 48: Villeneuve sets fastest lap of race [1m18.610s] and pits next lap (8.4s). Hill now has a 31s lead over Villeneuve but still has his own pitstop to make.

Lap 50: Brundle pits (11.4s) and Coulthard (7.6s). Order now Hill, Villeneuve, Alesi, Berger, Hakkinen, Coulthard, Panis, Brundle, Barrichello, Frentzen.

Lap 53: Panis takes Coulthard into Adelaide hairpin. Hill pits (7.2s) but rejoins in the lead, the length of the straight between him and Villeneuve. Panis makes third, and final, pitstop, losing two places.

Laps 55 - 72: Field carries onto chequered flag with no further changes in order. Hill takes his sixth win of the year, and provides Williams with their 90th, and the Williams-Renault combination with their 50th wins. Villeneuve, Alesi and Berger follow him home to provide a Renault one-two-three-four.

Post Race: Johnny Herbert disqualified for oversized deflector panels.

Final Results

1   Damon Hill              Williams-Renault        1h36m28.795s
2   Jacques Villeneuve      Williams-Renault        + 8.127s
3   Jean Alesi              Benetton-Renault        + 46.442s
4   Gerhard Berger          Benetton-Renault        + 46.859s
5   Mika Hakkinen           McLaren-Mercedes        + 1m02.774s
6   David Coulthard         McLaren-Mercedes        + 1 lap

7   Olivier Panis           Ligier-Mugen Honda      + 1 lap
8   Martin Brundle          Jordan-Peugeot          + 1 lap
9   Rubens Barrichello      Jordan-Peugeot          + 1 lap
10  Mika Salo               Tyrrell-Yamaha          + 2 laps
DQ  Johnny Herbert          Sauber-Ford             + 2 laps
12  Riccardo Rosset         Arrows-Hart             + 3 laps
13  Pedro Lamy              Minardi-Ford            + 3 laps


DNF Heinz-Harald Frentzen   Sauber Ford             lap 56
DNF Ukyo Katayama           Tyrrell-Yamaha          lap 33
DNF Luca Badoer             Forti-Ford              lap 29
DNF Pedro Diniz             Ligier-Mugen Honda      lap 28  
DNF Jos Verstappen          Arrows-Hart             lap 10  
DNF Eddie Irvine            Ferrari                 lap 5   
DNF Giancarlo Fisichella    Minardi-Ford            lap 2   
DNF Andrea Montermini       Forti-Ford              lap 2   
DNF Michael Schumacher      Ferrari                 lap 0

Fastest Lap Jacques Villeneuve  Williams-Renault    1m18.610s

Championship Standings

1   Damon Hill           63 points       1   Williams-Renault  101 points
2   Jacques Villeneuve   38 points       2   Ferrari            35 points
3   Michael Schumacher   26 points       3   Benetton-Renault   35 points
4   Jean Alesi           25 points       4   McLaren-Mercedes   26 points
5   David Coulthard      14 points       5   Ligier-Mugen Honda 12 points
6   Mika Hakkinen        12 points       6   Sauber-Ford        10 points
7   Olivier Panis        11 points       7   Jordan-Peugeot      9 points
8   Gerhard Berger       10 points       8   Tyrrell-Yamaha      5 points
9   Eddie Irvine          9 points       9   Arrows-Hart         1 point
10  Rubens Barrichello    7 points
11  Heinz-Harald Frentzen 6 points
12  Mika Salo             5 points
13  Johnny Herbert        4 points
14  Martin Brundle        2 points
15  Jos Verstappen        1 point
16  Pedro Diniz           1 point

Toby Waller
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