1996 FIA Formula One World Championship - Round 7|
Grand Prix of Spain
Circuit de Catalunya, Barcelona
Another wet race following dry practice session, promised much by way of excitement, yet failed to deliver the goods after a reasonable first 20 laps.
Before the Race
Friday and Saturday were both dry, and although there was a high probability of rain, the sun shone on qualifying and Hill took pole, ahead of his team mate and the Ferrari of Schumacher. Qualifying, generally followed he usual pattern, although special mention should go to Herbert and the outqualifying of his team mate Frentzen (the first one to do so in 3 years).
Ricardo Rosset brought up the tail end of the field yet again and must be counting the days until he is thrown out of the seat and replaced. The talk is of F3000 Super Nova driver Kenny Brack taking the seat before the end of the season, although facing Jos Verstappen on equal footing is sure to make him look decidedly lack lustre as the Dutchman goes from strength to strength.
All this aside, Sunday morning arrived (as Sunday mornings usually do) and the rain fell. Warm-up was the usual run of drivers getting a feel of the conditions and sorting out setups, until, on lap 23, Heinz-Harald Frentzen ran wide on the last corner and spun his Sauber-Ford backwards into the tyre wall at a speed approaching 110 m.p.h. Fortunately, the German was unhurt, walking away unaided, but the car was missing 3 corners and he had to use the spare for the race.
As the cars lined up on the grid, there was talk of starting the race behind the pace car as the conditions were very bad and the already slippery track was not getting any better. The rolling start, like in Indycars and NASCAR, would probably have meant Damon Hill keeping his Williams in the lead as the cars behind struggled in his spray, but unfortunately for Damon it was decided to start without the car and see how things went. On the warm-up lap, Mika Salo's Tyrrell-Yamaha (sporting new aerodynamic wishbone shrouds) broke down and he was obliged to start the race from the pitlane in the spare.
When the lights went out, Hill was slow getting off the line, but compared to Schumacher he looked like greased lightening. The German World Champion seemed to have broken down, so slow was his start, but luckily for him the damage was limited to dropping to sixth (although he was lower than this for a short time). Villeneuve got into the corner first and Alesi second, with the next three being Hill, Berger and Irvine. Somewhere in the background, hidden by the spray thrown up by the cars, Lamy (Minardi-Ford), Rosset (TWR Arrows-Hart) and Coulthard (McLaren) all had accidents with someone and walked back to their garages without completing a lap. Lamy's team mate Fisichella also had serious damage to his car and ended his race at the end of the lap. David Coulthard and his McLaren team mate had an awful weekend, both qualifying well down on where they would expect to be and never managing to match the pace that they promised at Imola. On the second lap Irvine spun into the gravel and managed to beach his car when trying to drive out (one of the only drivers to fail to rejoin after visiting the kitty litter). In addition to all this, Monaco GP winner Olivier Panis brought his Ligier-Mugen Honda into the pits and retirement for an unknown reason.
At the end of lap 1, the top 6 positions were Villeneuve, Alesi, Hill, Berger, Schumacher and Barrichello, but this wasn't to last for too long. Within two laps, the slippery track had taken two of the British contingent unawares and both Johnny Herbert and World Championship leader Hill had spun off into the gravel and managed to rejoin, albeit having lost places. In Hill's case, he lost 2 places and found himself behind Schumacher's Ferrari who was, in turn, making up ground on Gerhard Berger's Benetton. On lap 4, unsighted by the television cameras, Schumacher made his move on Berger, passed him and started to make up ground on the lead pair who were moving ahead of the trailing group.
For the next few laps, the field ran in pretty much the same order, with Brundle celebrating his birthday with a trip to the gravel (although again managing to regain the track). Schumacher, as was the case so often in 1994 and 1995, seemed to be in a race of his own as his slashed the lap record by over 2 seconds as he chased Alesi. Indeed, by lap 7, he was threatening to overtake the Benetton, swarming all over the gearbox at nearly every corner. Damon Hill chose lap 7 to make another trip to the gravel and, yet again, drove out having dropped to 8th. Shortly after this, Ukyo Katayama made a terminal trip to the gravel trap, undoubtledly not the birthday present he had in mind. The following lap was Schumacher's moment to attack Alesi and he drew level with the Frenchman on the approach to the second gear Seat corner. In the wet conditions, it looked unlikely that either driver would make any serious attempt to outbrake the other and risk a spin, so Schumacher took the place and sped off down the road to catch Villeneuve's Williams.
At the end of lap 10, Hill enacted a carbon copy of Frentzen's spin and although he managed to avoid the serious damage that happened to the Sauber, his race ended right there. This lap was to prove costly for the Williams team as, on the approach to the Seat corner, Schumacher passed Jacques Villeneuve, whom, it must be said, never really managed to sort out his wet setup to his satisfaction. Hill admitted that while he was usually as good as anyone in the wet, he had made three mistakes and he'd have to work out what went wrong and hope that his championship chances didn't suffer.
So, there were, by this time, only 12 cars left on the track and Schumacher seemed to have the race stitched up as he pulled out almost 4 seconds a lap over the French-Canadian driver. So, on lap 15 the leading 6 were Schumacher, Villeneuve, Alesi, Berger, Barrichello and Frentzen, with the Ferrari 14 seconds in front of the Alesi/Villeneuve battle. Laps 15 and 16 saw Verstappen, Salo and Diniz all perform in their own brands of Formula One ballet somewhere on the track and all three rejoined without much fuss, although the spin was either the cause, or caused by, a bigger problem for Salo and he retired in lap17.
Lap 18 and as Brundle went across the line to start another lap, his gearbox failed, forcing yet another birthday boy into retirement. Brundle is another driver who needs to improve in the remainder of the season if he is to stay in F1 next year. 10 cars left and it didn't look unlikely that, with another 47 laps remaining, another Monaco style result was not out of the question. The field, on lap 21 was: Schumacher, Villeneuve, Alesi, Berger, Barrichello, Frentzen, Verstappen, Hakinnen, Herbert, and Diniz bringing up the rear (surprise, surprise). Having said this, Herbert reduced the field further, spinning into retirement later on lap 21.
Schumacher was over 40 seconds ahead as he pulled into the pits on lap 24 for what most people considered an early stop. Early or not, he was running at least 3 seconds faster than anyone else and was just over 20 seconds ahead of Villeneuve as he came out after a 7 second stop.
For the next 8 laps, the race continued with every driver staying in formation as the conditions worsened. On lap 32 Alesi pitted and dropped to 7th place, but, more importantly for him, he was clear of traffic and able to turn in some laps that were faster than those he'd been doing behind Villeneuve. Lap 34 saw Berger, Frentzen and Verstappen visit for fuel and tyres, with Villeneuve stopping 2 laps later (lap 36). Although the Williams pitcrew managed to get him out in 2 seconds less than Alesi's time, he came out just behind the Benetton, Alesi's time running alone clearly having been worthwhile.
Lap 40 saw Diniz pit and 43 saw Schumacher pitting for the second, and final, time. Usually, the pitstops can give a bit of excitement, but for once, most of the field stayed as it was. Berger, however, manged to loose his position to the Jordan-Peugeot of Rubens Barrichello. This situation didn't last for long as, on lap 46, Barrichello called in a problem with his gearbox and the team brought him in to see if they could do anything for it. What happened next seems to be different depending on who you listen to, but according to the BBC team, Barrichello ran one more lap then pulled in to retire. Whilst he was getting changed out of his wet overalls, the team decided that the car was capable of running again and Rubens had to get back in. Back in the car, he drove out of the pitlane and promptly broke down within a lap, but still earns respect for the team and himself for having a bash anyway (for the record, Gale Force records this differently and I am unsure which is correct at the time of writing).
Lap 47 saw Berger retire, alledgedly spinning and being unable to extricate himself from the gravel trap and was followed on the next lap by the Arrows of Verstappen, who was clearly unhappy with his lapse in concentration.
So, lap 50 and there are only 6 cars left running. These are Schumacher, leading Alesi by 65 seconds, who was in turn ahead of Villeneuve by 7 seconds, who was trailed at 28 seconds by Frentzen, who was, finally, leading Hakkinen and Diniz (every car in the points).
I would like to say that the final laps were interesting, but the field circulated in the same order until the end. The Alesi-Villeneuve battle promised much, yet delivered little by way of excitement, with both cars evenly matched and the gap stationary at around 2.5 seconds.
The race may be remembered for Schumacher's first Ferrari win and the way in which it was done, but he was to only driver overtaking and, for the most part, the race was very, very tedious after the excitement of Monaco.