German Grand Prix Review

Round 11: 'It was always going to be close'
by Toby Waller

1996 FIA Formula One World Championship - Round 11
German Grand Prix
Hockenheim, Heidelburg, Germany

Over recent years the Hockenheim circuit has gained itself something of a reputation for providing rather dull, processional races. This weekend's race was anything but dull, though, with a close battle for the lead that lasted almost to the chequered flag. Damon Hill, adopting an unusual two stop strategy, was behind Benetton driver Gerhard Berger and challenging hard for the lead when the Austrian's luck ran out with only two laps to go . His Renault engine let go in a spectacular plume of smoke and gave Hill the triple success - pole, win and fastest lap - that he so desperately needed to answer his critics. After following his Benetton team-mate for much of the race, Jean Alesi finished a fine second and Jacques Villeneuve took his Williams-Renault to a fine third on his debut at the dauntingly fast Hockenheim circuit. Michael Schumacher's Ferrari finally managed to last the race, followed closely for fourth by David Coulthard in the McLaren-Mercedes. Rubens Barrichello was the final points finisher. It was Damon's day, though, and the win was the twentieth of his career and his seventh of the season. Hill put it best himself: 'Couldn't be better!'

Saturday Qualifying

With only two minutes of qualifying left, Michael Schumacher looked like he had a certain, if somewhat close, home pole. But with the steward preparing to wave the chequered flag and end the session, Damon Hill rushed across the line and started what would be an incredible lap to snatch the German's home pole.

'It was so last minute, it was fantastic.' said Hill after the session, 'That's my best pole ever.' After free practice sessions that had yielded a mixed bag of results it was expected to be a close qualifying - we weren't disappointed. First Schumacher set pole, with Hill and Gerhard Berger exchanging second early in the session. By the mid-way point, Schumacher had further improved his time and Mika Hakkinen had joined the battle for the remaining front row spot. With Hakkinen and Berger improving their times further, Hill was demoted to fourth. It was looking like the Englishman wouldn't start the race on the front row for the first time this season - had Williams lost their advantage? After a series of adjustments to his car, Hill joined the top men on the track in a last minute attempt to lower his time. With Hakkinen, Villeneuve, Schumacher, Coulthard and Berger all out on the circuit it was getting crowded, and Hill was lucky to get a clear lap. By the second split he was faster, but the tricky stadium section had been the downfall for so many quick times earlier in the session. Hill conquered the slippery twists, though, and emerged across the start/finish line in pole - a full 0.565s faster than Schumacher. The Englishman was naturally delighted, punching the air before he even reached the first corner: 'Everyone here is cheering for Michael so it was extra motivation for me to get pole position.' Once again, Hill conquered pressures both inside and outside the cockpit to get the job done when it mattered. Berger had also performed brilliantly, taking second spot at the same time as Hill. The hard task for the Englishman still remained though: 'I've never won the German Grand Prix and I want to put that right.'

The repercussions of Hill's improvement extended even to the back of the grid. After being out of touch with the rest of the pack for much of the weekend, Giovanni Lavaggi had managed to qualify the Minardi on his debut for the team - just. Hill's improvement in the dying minutes of qualifying meant that the Italian would have a long Sunday, missing the grid by a mere 0.17s. It stank somewhat of sour grapes when the Minardi team protested Hill's pole over a minor technicality (Hill inadvertently missed a weighing check) but one couldn't help but feel for Lavaggi - it had been that close. As feared, the Forti team weren't able to resolve their financial difficulties in time to compete this weekend. With one of the smallest grids in years, we could only hope that this wouldn't be further blighted by the poor reliability that races at Hockenheim so often yield...

Final Qualifying Times

1   Damon Hill          Williams-Renault        1m43.912s
2   Gerhard Berger      Benetton-Renault        1m44.299s
3   Michael Schumacher  Ferrari                 1m44.477s
4   Mika Hakkinen       McLaren-Mercedes        1m44.644s
5   Jean Alesi          Benetton-Renault        1m44.670s
6   Jacques Villeneuve  Williams-Renault        1m44.842s
7   David Coulthard     McLaren-Mercedes        1m44.951s
8   Eddie Irvine        Ferrari                 1m45.389s
9   Rubens Barrichello  Jordan-Peugeot          1m45.452s
10  Martin Brundle      Jordan-Peugeot          1m45.876s
11  Pedro Diniz         Ligier-Mugen Honda      1m46.575s
12  Olivier Panis       Ligier-Mugen Honda      1m46.746s
13  HH Frentzen         Sauber-Ford             1m46.899s
14  Johnny Herbert      Sauber-Ford             1m47.711s
15  Mika Salo           Tyrrell-Yamaha          1m48.139s
16  Ukyo Katayama       Tyrrell-Yamaha          1m48.381s
17  Jos Verstappen      Footwork-Hart           1m48.512s
18  Pedro Lamy          Minardi-Ford            1m49.461s
19  Riccardo Rosset     Footwork-Hart           1m49.551s

Cars over 107% time of 1m51.186s
20  Giovanni Lavaggi    Minardi-Ford            1m51.357s   

The Race

Despite brief showers in the morning, race day would be another hot and dry affair. As the lights went out, Hill made another poor start and dropped back behind the Benettons of Gerhard Berger and Jean Alesi. The Frenchman had made a superb start from fifth on the grid, taking good advantage of Michael Schumacher's attempts to block off Mika Hakkinen. Coming into the first chicane, the order was Berger, Alesi, Hill, Schumacher, Jacques Villeneuve and David Coulthard - the Scot in the McLaren also making a tremendous departure from the grid. The usual first lap collision was minor - Jos Verstappen running up the rear of Johnny Herbert's Sauber and retiring immediately. Into the second chicane, and Coulthard dived alongside Villeneuve and took the fifth place. Villeneuve explained after the race: 'We had a pretty good start and we were just behind Michael [Schumacher] on the first lap. I wasn't very aggressive - I didn't want to go off then - and Michael was keeping his line. Then Hakkinen [Coulthard actually] surprised me and got in front of me.' The McLaren was soon all over the back of Schumacher's Ferrari, starting a battle for fourth that would last for the majority of the race.

The front three, meanwhile, were pulling out a gradual lead to fourth placed Schumacher. By lap five the gap to the Ferrari was 4s. Talk of strategy was rife: Was Schumacher on one stop and the Benettons and Williams on two? It certainly appeared so, as Villeneuve was gradually pulling away from Irvine and Hakkinen was catching the Ferrari. By lap 10 the gap from the top three to Schumacher had extended further to nearly 10s -almost the full length of the final straight - and the German was under increased threat from Coulthard. The time was rapidly approaching for the two-stoppers to make their first visit to the pits, and Hakkinen was first in. The Finn suffered from transmission problems on his getaway, though, and immediately pulled off the circuit. Ferrari were also preparing for a stop, and Eddie Irvine was the man taking on the new set of tyres. Coulthard was in soon after him, rejoining some way down the field.

Berger, Alesi and Hill had passed the third distance mark without stopping, and had further enlarged their lead to Schumacher - by lap 19 the gap was a massive 15s. Hill was in next time round, and left after taking on just 8.1s worth of fuel. It was obviously insufficient to take him to the end, but it was rather late for a first pit stop of two - what were the Williams team playing at? With a 20s lead to Schumacher, Jean Alesi pitted at the halfway point. The Benetton team put in enough fuel to finish the race and it was soon apparent that the Benetton cars were both on a one stop strategy. Schumacher and Villeneuve were also in, the pair nearly colliding as they left the pits after almost identical stops. Coulthard gained from the pit stops - the battling duo of Schumacher and Villeneuve re-joining behind him. It was soon Villeneuve following Coulthard, though, as the Canadian slipped passed the Ferrari a lap later: 'I was a couple of car lengths behind and I don't think he was expecting me to outbrake him.' Eddie Irvine was also with the trio, and soon pressing his Ferrari team-mate for the place. With both cars making it this far, Jean Todt must have been the happiest man on the pit wall - his head may yet remain safe for another fortnight.

Berger pitted on lap 23 and this promoted Hill into the lead. It was obvious that the Englishman would have to make another stop as he immediately turned up the pace, setting the fastest times on laps 22, 23, 24, 25 and 26 in a desperate quest to extend his lead. The gap started at 3s, then quickly extended to 7s. By lap 30, it was almost 12s. Try as he might, though, Damon didn't appear able to sufficiently extend the gap to Berger. The time for his second stop was fast approaching, and the gap was nowhere near the 26s that would be required to rejoin in the lead. Whilst all this was going on, Irvine and Coulthard had made their second stops - Coulthard rejoining behind Schumacher. The new found reliability for Ferrari soon came to an end, though, as Irvine pulled off on lap 35, smoke billowing out of the Ferrari's rear.

Hill was in on lap 34 and the stop took 8.2s - it wasn't quick enough. With only a 16.7s lead to Berger, Hill rejoined behind the Benetton - it looked like Williams had lost on strategy once again. In a thrilling finale to the race, though, Hill was diving all over the back of Berger and the Benetton was weaving erratically in his attempts to stay in the lead and provide the team with their first win of the year. With Hill receiving constant orders from the pits - Pump on, Mix 4, Pump off - it was unclear whether Hill was being told to hold back or speed up. Hill was still trying, though, and on lap 43 - only two laps to the end - it paid off. Berger's Renault engine expired whilst exiting the Jim Clark chicane, and Hill was through to inherit the German win that he so desired. It was a major disappointment to Berger, but he can surely have answered his critics in the Benetton team and helped make sure of a seat there next year. Hill had a grandstand view of the engine's demise: 'I heard his engine make a bad noise coming out of the first chicane and I knew he had a problem. It was either him or me - I wasn't really sure - and I was rather pleased to see it was his engine.' The action wasn't over for Schumacher, though, as he had to fight David Coulthard tooth and nail to the line. After the last three races, Schumacher must have been incredibly happy to finish - albeit in fourth.

After the race, Hill was unsurprisingly in buoyant mood: 'It was a fantastic race, all the way through. I didn't make a good start and from then on it was always going to be difficult.' When reminded that he was now on level pegging with Michael Schumacher for career wins, Hill seemed pleasantly surprised: 'I'd forgotten it was my twentieth victory so I've got a lot to celebrate tonight.' Jean Alesi made yet another visit to the podium, picking up team-mate Berger on the slowing down lap, and was naturally delighted: 'I'm very happy, because I'm back to third in the championship.' Asked if the hard work over the recent months meant a win was on the cards, the Frenchman shrugged: 'I hope so, but Damon and Jacques are working very hard also.' Jacques Villeneuve seemed optimistic despite the extended gap to championship leader Hill: 'I was hoping to be closer than 21 points. We were a little behind with our setups and it showed in the race.' Whilst Williams can win the constructors' championship at Hungary, the drivers' championship is still far from over...

German Grand Prix: Lap-by-Lap

Lap 1: Hill slow off line - Berger and fast starting Alesi pass him into the first corner. Coulthard, another quick starter, takes sixth into turn one and fifth into turn three. Verstappen provides first retirement, running into Johnny Herbert at the first chicane.

Lap 6: Berger, Alesi and Hill gradually extend their lead over Schumacher to 5s. Coulthard is pressuring the German, and Villeneuve is being followed closely by Irvine.

Lap 8: Panis stops to replace flat spotted tyres.

Lap 13: Hakkinen first to stop (8.3s) but slow to get away. Pulls off with transmission problems.

Lap 15: Irvine pits (9.9s) for first of two stops.

Lap 16: Coulthard makes his first of two stops (7.6s). Frentzen also in (7.1s)

Lap 17: Herbert pits, also on a two stop strategy.

Lap 20: Katayama loses it under braking and retires. Hill stops (8.1s) but his strategy is unclear. Rejoins behind Schumacher and Villeneuve.

Lap 21: Berger and Alesi now have a 20s lead before over Schumacher. The German, Villeneuve and the Benetton pair are preparing to make their one and only stops.

Lap 22: Alesi in (10.3s). Schumacher (11.7s) and Villeneuve (11.3s) also pit and nearly collide whilst exiting the pit lane.

Lap 23: Berger pits (11.2s) whilst Villeneuve outbrakes Schumacher for fifth at the first chicane. Brundle, in 9th, is suffering a puncture and pits.

Laps 22-26: Hill, attempting to improve his lead to Berger before his second stop sets a succession of fastest laps, culminating in a 1m46.504s race best. Hill continues to gradually extend his lead over the next few laps.

Lap 25: Herbert pits, much to the surprise of his pit crew, but retires with downshift problems.

Lap 31: Irvine makes final stop (7.7s)

Lap 33: Coulthard stops (7.0s) and rejoins behind Schumacher.

Lap 34: Hill makes final stop (8.2s) but his 16.7s lead isn't enough and he rejoins behind Berger.

Lap 35: Irvine retires when his Ferrari trails the familiar plume of smoke.

Lap 35-42: Hill continually attempts to pass Berger but the Austrian resists the Englishman's attempts superbly. Schumacher (in fifth) is struggling to hold off Coulthard, despite home support.

Lap 43: Berger retires when his engine blows spectacularly. Hill continues to take comfortable win, 11s ahead of Alesi. Villeneuve is remaining podium finisher after steady drive on unfamiliar circuit.

Final Results

1   Damon Hill          Williams-Renault        1hr21m43.417s
2   Jean Alesi          Benetton-Renault        + 11.452s
3   Jacques Villeneuve  Williams-Renault        + 33.926s
4   Michael Schumacher  Ferrari                 + 41.517s
5   David Coulthard     McLaren-Mercedes        + 42.196s
6   Rubens Barrichello  Jordan-Peugeot          +1m42.099s
7   Olivier Panis       Ligier-Mugen Honda      +1m43.912s
8   H-H Frentzen        Sauber-Ford             + one lap
9   Mika Salo           Tyrrell-Yamaha          + one lap
10  Martin Brundle      Jordan-Peugeot          + one lap
11  Riccardo Rosset     Footwork-Hart           + one lap
12  Pedro Lamy          Minardi-Ford            + two laps
13  Gerhard Berger      Benetton-Renault        + three laps


DNF Eddie Irvine        Ferrari                 lap 34
DNF Johnny Herbert      Sauber-Ford             lap 25
DNF Pedro Diniz         Ligier-Mugen Honda      lap 19
DNF Ukyo Katayama       Tyrrell-Yamaha          lap 19
DNF Mika Hakkinen       McLaren-Mercedes        lap 13
DNF Jos Verstappen      Footwork-Hart           lap 1

Fastest Lap Damon Hill  Williams-Renault    1m46.504s

Championship Standings

1   Damon Hill          73 points   1   Williams-Renault    125 points
2   Jacques Villeneuve  52 points   2   Benetton-Renault     47 points
3   Jean Alesi          31 points   3   Ferrari              38 points
4   Michael Schumacher  29 points   4   McLaren-Mercedes     34 points
5   David Coulthard     18 points   5   Jordan-Peugeot       14 points
6   Gerhard Berger      16 points   6   Ligier-Mugen Honda   12 points
7   Mika Hakkinen       16 points   7   Sauber-Ford          10 points
8   Olivier Panis       11 points   8   Tyrrell-Yamaha        5 points
9   Rubens Barrichello  11 points   9   Footwork-Hart         1 point
10  Eddie Irvine         9 points
11  H-H Frentzen         6 points
12  Mika Salo            5 points
13  Johnny Herbert       4 points
14  Martin Brundle       3 points
15  Jos Verstappen       1 point
16  Pedro Diniz          1 point

Toby Waller
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