Round 5: Hill Wins Again as Schumacher Slides to Second

ATLAS TEAM F1
Round 5: Hill Wins Again as Schumacher Slides to Second
by Toby Waller
England

1996 FIA Formula One World Championship - Round 5
San Marino Grand Prix
Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari, Imola.

During the qualifying and practice sessions it looked as though Ferrari had finally found the match of the Williams team. But, after taking a superb pole position, Michael Schumacher was lucky to be able to finish the race. The fact that he crossed the line second, with one tyre locked solid after a wheel mounting had failed, was academic, and the fanatical tifosi soon swamped the track to worship their hero. Man of the race was once again Damon Hill though, winning his fourth race of the season with a totally dominant drive where, despite losing the lead, he never lost control of the situation. If the Williams team were once considered poor at working out, and adapting, race strategies, then this year they are truly the masters of the art. Gerhard Berger got the remaining podium place after a calm, collected drive. Eddie Irvine managed a fine fourth, proving he has nearly got to grips with the nervous Ferrari, and Rubens Barrichello and Jean Alesi provided the final points finishers.

Saturday Qualifying

If anyone approaching the Imola circuit on race morning had been unsure of the pole position holder, then they canít have had a difficult time guessing. The throngs of tifosi, with their red and gold banners held proudly aloft, were there to witness Schumacher starting from pole position, the second "home pole" for Ferrari in thirteen years (Alesi at Monza 1994 was the other).

The German had led much of the first half of the qualifying session but, when Damon Hill came out on his second set of tyres, the Englishman was able to slice 0.3s off the Ferrari driverís best time. Hill remained in front for the remainder of the session until, with only a minute remaining, Schumacher returned the favour to push Hill back into second place. The Ferrari was lucky to be able to complete the pole grabbing lap, as the left rear suspension broke just two corners after crossing the line. The reigning World Champion was driven, to the delight of the fanatical Italian crowd, around the circuit on the back of a lorry with his wounded car. Ferrari had further cause to celebrate as Eddie Irvine had found a temporary solution to his problems with the troublesome Ferrari. He might have been further up the grid than sixth had it not been for a damper failure on his final set of tyres.

Jacques Villeneuve once again performed brilliantly, this time able to use his skills on a circuit he knew. He ended up third on the grid but possibly could have done better had he not run wide on the final corner. David Coulthard, seemingly now the McLaren team leader, used the improved form of the Mercedes powered car to great effect, taking fourth on the grid, the teamís highest position to date this season. Mika Hakkinen could only manage a disappointing eleventh. The Benetton pair of Gerhard Berger and Jean Alesi performed average on their way to fifth and seventh respectively. After a three hour crisis meeting of the Benetton personnel earlier in the week, it emerged that the team has to start performing well, and soon. Mika Salo was delighted with his eighth position, the Tyrrell teamís best this season, but Katayama was a more disappointing sixteenth after engine problems forced him to adopt the spare for yet another Saturday afternoon. The Jordan team seemed to be returning to their mid-field reputation after Barrichello and Brundle could only achieve ninth and eleventh positions. At the back of the grid, Forti were able to finally run the new FG-03 and Badoer enabled the team to give it a proper race test by qualifying it within the 107% limit.

Schumacher was, as ever, delighted with his result, "To get pole position on Ferrari's home track is fantastic. It is the first time this season that my predictions have been wrong, but I really did not expect it." Despite the Williams pair being right behind him on the grid he said, "I am hopeful because our car is also going much better on full tanks, something we lacked at the beginning of the season." Damon Hill admitted after qualifying that it had been close, "It was like a punch in the stomach when I saw Schumacher's time, but I never count on pole position. It is never over until the end of the session. I gave it my best but Michael is on home ground and that probably lifted him a bit."

Hopes of a Ferrari victory were still slim though, as the team had been using a special qualifying engine that would not be raced until further endurance testing. It wasnít likely to stop the tifosi hoping for a win though.

Final Qualifying Times

1.      M.Schumacher        Ferrari                 1m 26.890s
2.      D.Hill              Williams-Renault        1m 27.105s
3.      J.Villeneuve        Williams-Renault        1m 27.220s
4.      D.Coulthard         McLaren-Mercedes        1m 27.688s
5.      J.Alesi             Benetton-Renault        1m 28.009s
6.      E.Irvine            Ferrari                 1m 28.205s
7.      G.Berger            Benetton-Renault        1m 28.336s
8.      M.Salo              Tyrrell-Yamaha          1m 28.423s
9.      R.Barrichello       Jordan-Peugot           1m 28.632s
10.     HH.Frentzen         Sauber-Ford             1m 28.785s
11.     M.Hakkinen          McLaren-Mercedes        1m 29.079s
12.     M.Brundle           Jordan-Peugot           1m 29.099s
13.     O.Panis             Ligier-Mugen Honda      1m 29.472s
14.     J.Verstappen        Arrows-Hart             1m 29.539s
15.     J.Herbert           Sauber-Ford             1m 29.541s  
16.     U.Katayama          Tyrrell-Yamaha          1m 29.892s
17.     P.Diniz             Ligier-Mugen Honda      1m 29.989s
18.     P.Lamy              Minardi-Ford            1m 30.471s
19.     G.Fisichella        Minardi-Ford            1m 30.814s
20      R.Rosset            Arrows-Hart             1m 31.316s
21.     L.Badoer            Forti-Ford              1m 32.037s
*************Cars over 107% time of 1m 32.972s****************
22.     A.Montermini        Forti-Ford              1m 33.685s

The Race

As the cars sat on the grid, David Coulthard was asked about his start at the Nurburgring that saw him climb from fifth on the grid to second by the first corner. He jokingly suggested that if he had a repeat of that start here, he would make it up to first. Just five minutes later there was a queue of people outside the McLaren pits asking for the Scot to make other predictions.

The warm-up lap saw Schumacher sprint away from the rest of the pack whilst Hill kept the field bunched up behind him to avoid sitting on the grid too long. As the cars finally pulled up to their places, the Ferrari fans were nervously hoping that Schumacher would make a clean start and lead into the first corner. Their dreams were shattered however, as Damon Hill shot off the line and went into the first right-hand kink side by side with the German. Hill was occupying the middle of the track, and Schumacher was being forced away from the line into the first chicane. It was all looking good for the Englishman until a blur of red and white shot by the Williams. Coulthard had performed another miracle start, and taken the lead on the outside of the new Tamburello chicane. Ron Dennis must have been beside himself with excitement as the McLaren crossed the line ahead of the Williams and the Ferrari. Mika Salo had also made a cracker, and was up to fourth. Salo joked after the race, "I got Berger and Irvine at the start and then Villeneuve and Alesi in the next two corners! It was fun!"

Jacque Villeneuveís chances of repeating last weekendís win were soon dashed. The Canadian, finding himself swamped by the field at the first corner after a poor start, had a puncture after running over Jean Alesiís front wing and had to come in for an early pitstop. Villeneuve explained after the race, "In the first corner I was on the outside of Jean and we were about the same height, front wheel to front wheel, but he banged into me. I am not sure why. I am not saying he did it on purpose, probably not. That was okay, but then on the next one I was on the inside, and a little bit in front of him, and he banged my rear wheels." Gerhard Berger and Rubens Barrichello were two of the other drivers to make significant gains on the first lap, and ended up crossing the line fifth and sixth.

If the tifosi were going wild when Schumacher was third, then they had real cause to celebrate on lap three, as Schumacher eased past Hill into the first chicane. The German was soon crawling all over the back of Coulthardís McLaren but Hill seemed to be struggling to keep up. The rumour soon began to do the rounds that Hill might be on a two stop strategy, and the others a three stopper. By lap nine the Englishman had lost just over 3.0s to the front-running pair, but was then able to maintain the gap and even start setting fastest laps.

The time was soon approaching for drivers on a to make their first stop if they were on a two stop strategy, and Hakkinen was the first in on lap 17. Hill was now beginning to make some ground on the leading pair, and eventually moved into first when Coulthard and Schumacher made their stops on laps 20 and 21 respectively. Schumacher had the slower stop, but rejoined the track just ahead of Coulthard. The German soon started setting fastest laps, and began to ease away from the McLaren. Alesi, despite being told to calm down in the races by team-boss Flavio Briatore, exceeded the pit lane speed limit during a stop that saw the Benetton driver even go to the extent of changing his steering wheel. He was soon back in to serve his sentence, but it was a low point in a disappointing afternoon that saw him lucky to gain a point. Mika Saloís race came to a premature end when his engine expired on lap 23. Saloís team-mate Ukyo Katayama would also have his fine drive ended by an engine failure during the closing stages of the race.

Amazingly, Hill was still out on lap 26, and it looked like he was only going to be stopping once. The Williams driver eventually came in only three laps before the half-way point. The head scratching commenced, as Hill pitted in a time of 7.5s. This meant that the Williams retained the lead, but would have to return to the pits once more during the race. This was turning out to be a strange, but clever, strategy. Hill emerged from the pits just in front of Schumacher, but soon began to pull out a slight lead. Villeneuve, currently in fourteenth behind Alesi, was struggling to make his way through the field but a multitude of retirements and drivers stalling their engines in the pits would soon see him promoted into the points.

As the Italian director followed the Ferrari around the circuit (a good excuse for independent TV coverage if ever I saw one), the tough Italian circuit began to claim its first victims. Heinz Harald Frentzen pulled his Sauber into the pits to retire after another disappointing weekend. If rumours are true that the talented German will be driving for another team next year then he was probably wishing that he was driving for them now, as the Sauber-Ford package failed him once again. Brundle provided another brief glimpse of a car other than the Ferrari of Schumacher, as he spun off into the gravel on lap 36.

By lap 39 the leading pair were 16.6s ahead of the rest of the field, but only 1.5s apart. The question was, how much fuel did Hill have in his car? Would the Englishman be able to retain the lead during the next round of pitstops? These questions were soon answered, as Schumacher came in for his second stop on lap 40. A flurry of cars soon followed, and during all this action, the cameras focused in on an injured mechanic on the ground. After Paul Tracy had slammed into his mechanics during an Indycar race last weekend, it looked like the same thing had happened here. Imola, after the terrible pit incident in 1994, had a particularly slow pit-lane speed limit, but the fears were that this would not have been enough to prevent another tragedy striking the Italian circuit. It emerged that the fuel nozzle had fallen on the mechanicís arm and dislocated it. It once again proved that the pit crews have jobs equally as hazardous as the drivers, and that the various FIA safety commissions should not just be applying their thoughts to the circuits and cars.

Coulthard, currently in fourth place, had to end another superb performance by pulling off the circuit with a suspected hydraulic failure. The young Scot had proved himself worthy once again of the McLaren seat.

Hill, now leading Schumacher by 34s, was able to extend that gap further as the Ferrari was held up by the battling pair of Diniz and Hakkinen. This gave Damon an even bigger margin over the German, and he was able to come in on lap 50 and rejoin still comfortably in the lead. A riot by the partisan Italian crowd was probably abated when Hakkinen and Diniz were both brought in for blocking penalties on lap 51. Schumacher could do nothing, as he now lay some 22s behind the leading Williams with only twelve laps to run. The Ferrari was comfortably ahead of Bergerís Benetton in third though, and it looked as though the tifosi would have something to celebrate this year.

Villeneuve was eventually forced to call it a day on lap 57 when his right rear suspension broke. This was only the Canadianís second retirement this year, and the first through a mechanical fault for the Williams team. With Hill looking like continuing his 100% finishing rate, it appeared as though Williams had once again built a reliable entry. Four laps later Hakkinen provided the last of the retirements as he turned his McLaren off the circuit after an engine problem.

With only two laps to go it was looking as though the race would be another Williams-Ferrari one-two. As Hill crossed the line, with his fist jubilantly raised, to take his fourth win of the season, Schumacher was having a problem that threatened to lose him the second place. As the German crossed the line, it was in a cloud of tyre smoke as his right front wheel was totally seized, and rubbing along the circuit. Schumacher joked after the race, "The wheel locked up at Acque Minerali. I was really worried because I did not think the race was over." Berger was sufficiently far behind though, to enable Schumacher to finish second. As the Ferrari pulled off the circuit the crowd began their customary invasion. Whilst all fans understand the need to be as close to their hero as possible, the tifosi should have had better sense than to run towards Schumacherís car, as it was parked just after the start-finish straight. Cars were still coming round at racing speeds, and the track marshals began waving their yellow flags furiously to warn drivers of the impending danger. Berger commented, "I stopped the car straight after finishing because there were spectators all over the track and it would have be too dangerous to continue."

Hill was naturally delighted with yet another dominant win, "It was a great race. The tactics went extremely well. I must admit that moments before the race I was sitting down with Adrian Newey and saying, are you sure this is right. He said, yes it seems to work out, so I said we will go with that. The tactics were perfect." Asked about his ability to keep up with the leaders, despite his heavier fuel load, Hill continued, "I knew when Michael was in front of me what I had to do to stay in the fight, and things went well, particularly as David got in front - that helped a bit. I am absolutely delighted to have won here, it is great to get things back on course."

Schumacher sounded a cautious note about his second place, "I did not really have the possibility to win. In practice everything went very well but in the race it was obvious that the Williams, at least Damon's, were quicker than me." Asked further about the Ferrariís improved form, Schumacher said, "The F 310 is much improved but we still have a lot of work to do. If, in the next race at Monaco, we take the decision to use the evolution of the engine that we used here in qualifying, I think we can take another step forward. But I am happy with how things turned out today, above all because the atmosphere here in Imola is really marvellous."

Berger was pleased with his third place, and said after the race, "I am very pleased with this result. This year has been quite difficult for me and I have not had much luck. I had a few problems in the race, getting caught in traffic, but overall things were good. We are still able to improve the car but as each race goes things are getting much better for me."

Final Results

1.      D. Hill             Williams-Renault      1hr 35m 26.156s
2.      M. Schumacher       Ferrari                     + 16.460s 
3.      G. Berger           Benetton-Renault            + 46.891s 
4.      E. Irvine           Ferrari                   + 1m 1.583s 
5.      R. Barrichello      Jordan-Peugot            + 1m 18.490s 
6.      J. Alesi            Benetton-Renault         + 1 lap
7.      P. Diniz            Ligier-Mugen Honda       + 1 lap
8.      M. Hakkinen         McLaren-Mercedes         + 2 laps
9.      P. Lamy             Minardi-Ford             + 2 laps
10.     L. Badoer           Forti-Ford               + 4 laps
11.     J. Villeneuve       Williams-Renault         + 6 laps


Non-Finishers

DNF     O. Panis            Ligier-Mugen Honda          lap 54
DNF     U. Katayama         Tyrrell-Yamaha              lap 45 
DNF     D. Coulthard        McLaren-Mercedes            lap 44
DNF     R. Rosset           Arrows-Hart                 lap 40
DNF     J. Verstappen       Arrows-Hart                 lap 38
DNF     M. Brundle          Jordan-Peugot               lap 36 
DNF     HH.Frentzen         Sauber-Ford                 lap 32 
DNF     G. Fisichella       Minardi-Ford                lap 30 
DNF     J. Herbert          Sauber-Ford                 lap 25 
DNF     M. Salo             Tyrrell-Yamaha              lap 23


Fastest Lap: Damon Hill  1:23.981 on  lap 49

Championship Standings

1.    D. Hill          43 points   1.  Williams-Renault   65 points
2.    J. Villeneuve    22 points   2.  Ferrari            25 points
3.    M. Schumacher    16 points   3.  Benetton-Renault   18 points
4.    J. Alesi         11 points   4.  McLaren-Mercedes    9 points
5     E. Irvine         9 points   5.  Jordan-Peugot       8 points
6.    R. Barrichello    7 points   6.  Tyrrell-Yamaha      3 points
6.    G. Berger         7 points   7.  Ligier-Mugen Honda  1 point
7.    M. Hakkinen       5 points   7.  Arrows-Hart         1 point
8.    D. Coulthard      4 points
9.    M. Salo           3 points
10.   O. Panis          1 point
10.   J. Verstappen     1 point
10.   M. Brundle        1 point

Toby Waller
Send comments to: t.waller@sheffield.ac.uk