Hill Continues His Brazilian High
Damon Hill once again fought of all the opposition, including a stomach bug and lack of radio contact with his pit crew, to gain his third win of the season so far. After grabbing pole in the final minutes of qualifying, he led the race from start to finish, despite having his lead eroded after a spell behind the safety car. Villeneuve fought back after an awful start to take second, and Alesi managed a fine third, only two seconds behind the young Canadian. Verstappen proved that you don't need mega-bucks to do well and finished in the points, many of the top cars having retired during a race of high attrition.
Damon Hill took his thirteenth career pole in fine style during the dying minutes of qualifying, but the session nearly belonged to Schumacher. In a car that team mate Irvine described as "the worst car I've ever driven", the reigning world champion eventually took second place and provided Ferrari's strongest qualifying performance yet this year.
The circuit was sunny and dry throughout the session but a strong breeze was blowing sand onto the track and causing a distinct lack of grip. The drivers also had to contend with some severe bumps that were causing the cars to jump about nervously. With the lack of traction on the circuit, most cars waited until half way through the session to begin their runs and typically, Schumacher was one of the first out. The German was sliding his ill handling Ferrari around as if in a rally, but set fastest lap fairly early in the session and later improved it to 1m30.598s. The Ferrari was obviously a handful, with Irvine struggling to post a competitive time and eventually ending up tenth. Damon Hill was struggling to match Schumacher's times, and was momentarily displaced into fourth by team-mate Villeneuve. Hill waited until the last few minutes before going out on his second set of tyres, and scythed his way round a crowded circuit to eventually set a pole grabbing time of 1m30.346s. Villeneuve ended another weekend of gradually learning the circuit, ending up a respectable third.
The Benetton pairing of Alesi and Berger performed well, eventually finishing fourth and fifth. Alesi was lucky to be able to set a competitive time, completing the session in the spare after losing control at the flat out Ascari bend.
Verstappen was driving superbly, and used his under funded Arrows-Hart to great effect, eventually beating the McLaren drivers into eighth and ninth on the grid. Equally impressive was the time of Marques, taking the Minardi to fourteenth despite his lack of experience in the car. With the top six separated by just over a second it was promising to be a good race, especially if we were to have a repeat of last years atrocious wet/dry conditions.
Final Qualifying Times
1 D.Hill Williams-Renault 1:30.346 2 M.Schumacher Ferrari-Ferrari 1:30.598 3 J.Villeneuve Williams-Renault 1:30.907 4 J.Alesi Benetton-Renault 1:31.038 5 G.Berger Benetton-Renault 1:31.262 6 R.Barrichello Jordan-Peugot 1:31.404 7 J.Verstappen Arrows-Hart 1:31.615 8 M.Hakkinen McLaren-Mercedes 1:31.801 9 D.Coulthard McLaren-Mercedes 1:32.001 10 E.Irvine Ferrari-Ferrari 1:32.058 11 HH. Frentzen Sauber-Ford 1:32.130 12 O.Panis Ligier-Mugen Honda 1:32.177 13 U.Katayama Tyrrell-Yamaha 1:32.407 14 T.Marques Minardi-Ford 1:32.502 15 M.Brundle Jordan-Peugot 1:32.696 16 M.Salo Tyrrell-Yamaha 1:32.903 17 J.Herbert Sauber-Ford 1:33.256 18 P.Diniz Ligier-Mugen Honda 1:33.424 19 P.Lamy Minardi-Ford 1:33.727 20 R.Rosset Arrows-Hart 1:33.752 21 L.Badoer Forti-Ford 1:34.830 22 A.Montermini Forti-Ford 1:35.651 All cars within 107% time of 1:36.670
In the end the weather on Sunday was dry and warm, and conditions were ideal for racing. The Benetton drivers had headed the morning warm-up times and were confident for the race. The Williams team, in comparison, were a bit further down the field, but claimed they were just concentrating on race settings and avoiding competition. The slippery conditions, and bumpy track surface, meant the teams were expecting a high attrition rate during a race that was expected to last almost two hours.
As the lights went out, Hill made his customary good start and held the lead into the first bend. Villeneuve had clutch problems, and was swamped by the field whereas Coulthard, making a superb start from ninth on the grid, was up to fifth by the first corner, ahead of Barrichello. At the end of an incident free first lap, all the cars had managed to make it round and the order was Hill, Schumacher, Alesi, Berger, Coulthard, Barrichello, Verstappen, Hakkinen, Villeneuve, Irvine, Frentzen, Brundle, Katayama, Herbert, Panis, Marques, Salo, Badoer, Lamy, Montermini, Diniz, and Rosset.
Villeneuve, now ninth, took advantage of the cars being bunched up ahead of him and began to calmly dissect his way through the field. He had made his way up to sixth, behind Coulthard, by the end of lap 5 and was soon looking for a way by the McLaren.
Salo was the first car to spin, on lap 7. He lost numerous places at the start of what was to be a disastrous afternoon for the Finn. After a several long pit-stops to deal with a problematic throttle he gamely opted to continue round, but eventually retired on lap 47. Team-mate Katayama faired somewhat better, managing to sneak past Brundle at the first corner on lap 17. He too was to retire, though, and later pulled off the circuit whilst in seventeenth place with a lack of drive to the rear wheels.
Villeneuve eventually squeezed past Coulthard on the first corner of lap 9 and set about closing his 12s deficit to the leaders. Hill, Schumacher, Alesi and Berger were running in close succession, and constantly exchanging fastest laps. They appeared unable to pass each other though, and continued to run in formation whilst opening up a large gap to the rest of the field.
Verstappen was continuing his impressive run in seventh, but lost the place as he slid off at the Senna Curve on lap 15. He managed to drive across the grass and continue, but was now back in eleventh.
The leading cars were beginning to lap backmarkers at this point, and Hill aggressively sliced his way through the traffic, increasing the gap to Schumacher. Villeneuve was now 15s ahead of Coulthard, but wasn't making much impression on the remaining 14s gap to Berger.
As Hakkinen retired with a suspected broken throttle on lap 19, it was beginning to appear as though most of the top cars were on at least a two stop strategy. Schumacher was the first of the top four to stop. He took on fuel and tyres in a time of 7.1s and dropped to fifth, just ahead of Villeneuve. Alesi was in next time round, and returned to the track right in the middle of the battle between the Williams and Ferrari cars. Schumacher held the line ahead of Alesi into the first corner and the Benetton driver was lucky to be able to remain fourth, with Villeneuve swarming all over him into turn two.
Hill, now 10s ahead of Berger and 24s ahead of the battle for third, came in for his first stop on lap 24, the Benetton crew bringing Berger in on the same lap. Hill took on a lot of fuel but his lead enabled him to rejoin in first. Berger was less lucky, losing several places and coming out behind Villeneuve. The Williams driver came in next lap round, though, and Berger regained his fourth place behind Alesi, who was really beginning to apply pressure to Schumacher.
On lap 28 the cameras switched to the Senna S. The Forti of Badoer was off the circuit and on its roof, having flipped during a battle with a Ligier. As Badoer struggled out of his inverted car, the marshals appeared reluctant to assist him. They eventually escorted the unlucky driver off the circuit and began to remove the debris, the safety car coming out to control the pace of the field.
As the cars closed up behind the Clio many teams, including Jordan, used the opportunity to make their one and only fuel stops. This put them in a good position, able to now run to the end of the race. With the laps behind the pace car closing the field up, and most of the top teams needing to stop once more, the one-stoppers were looking good to be challenging the top runners for points.
The Williams pair suffered contrasting fortunes from the outing of the safety car. Villeneuve was able to close his gap to the front runners, but Hill was unfortunate to lose his hard earned five second lead, and must have been under tremendous pressure in the cockpit.
Meanwhile, at turn two, the Mugen-Honda engine of Diniz let go spectacularly. Whilst spinning off on its own oil, the car suddenly erupted in flame as fuel leaking from a broken pipe caught fire. As sheets of flame leapt into the sky, Diniz quickly vacated the car and ran to safety. The fire soon flared down, and was eventually put out by a token marshal. Whilst race marshals are usually a tough breed, ready to rescue drivers despite the most appalling dangers, the majority here were beginning to seem very unenthusiastic about assisting anyone in trouble.
The safety car eventually pulled off on lap 32, and the cars continued on one more lap in an orderly procession. Even this lap was a thriller as Frentzen slid off at the second corner, possibly on oil from the earlier conflagration.
The order was now Hill, Schumacher, Alesi, Berger, Villeneuve, Coulthard, Verstappen, Irvine, Barrichello, Lamy, Herbert, Marques, Brundle, Panis, and Montermini as the field set off to run the remaining half of the race.
On the first flying lap Brundle took Marques, but two corners later the Brazilian appeared to miss his braking point and rode up the rear of the Jordan, totally destroying its rear wing. Marques was an instant retirement and Brundle had to face the task, yet again, of explaining another unfortunate Did Not Finish to his team. As ever the two drivers had differing opinions, Brundle claiming Marques hit him after “brain fade”, and the Brazilian claiming Martin had slowed intentionally.
The top five cars, meanwhile, were again able to pull out a substantial gap to Coulthard. Hill was driving superbly despite the bad turn of events, and set a succession of fastest laps to try and reopen his gap to Schumacher. On lap 37 he broke the existing lap record and, by lap 40, had built up a 3.5s lead.
As Schumacher came in for his second of two stops (after a change of strategy from the original three) on lap 41, Alesi was promoted into second and the Benetton driver made good use of the clear track ahead to try and close the gap to Hill. Schumacher was making an early stop, taking on a lot of fuel, and eventually rejoining in eighth behind Verstappen and Irvine.
Fifth placed Coulthard was having a lot of trouble keeping Irvine and Verstappen behind him, having to deal with an ill handling car, and both drivers soon made it past. The most impressive of the two moves was definitely Verstappen's. At the first corner he easily squeezed his way past the more heavily funded McLaren, proving the capability of the car and confirming his own driving skill. With backing from Tom Walkinshaw the Arrows team may finally begin to make a gradual climb to the top echelons of the sport.
Alesi was the next of the top runners to make his second stop, but stalled his engine after being dropped off the jacks. He rejoined behind Schumacher, and ahead of Barrichello and Herbert. Schumacher's rear wing had been damaged by a stone unwittingly flicked up by Hill during the safety car period, and a crack was becoming more visible as each lap passed. Eventually the top half came off, and the resulting loss of downforce meant that Schumacher had to let the three cars behind him pass, and then pull off into the pits to retire. The German was naturally disappointed after a strong showing throughout the weekend, "It was a shame because the car was quite good and I am sure I would have finished on the podium, not far behind Damon Hill. We will see how things go in the next race at the Nurburgring, a track that should suit the characteristics of the Ferrari quite well."
Berger came in on lap 48 allowing Villeneuve to make it a Williams one/two, all be it with a gap of 12s between the two cars. When Villeneuve came in for his second stop, he was only 29s ahead of Berger and lost the second place. Hill was 31s ahead of Berger when he came in for his stop, however, and this allowed him to rejoin in first.
Hill continued to lap around the 1m30 mark, and was able to consistently maintain his lead to Berger. The Austrian, however, was having trouble with a suspected puncture and pulled in to the pits again for a new set of tyres. It turned out to be a suspension failure and the Benetton driver pulled off the circuit a lap later. Berger said after the race, "I am very disappointed as everything was going so well. The car was perfect, I was comfortably ahead of Villeneuve and I thought it was going to be my race." Team-mate Alesi was still trying to close the 6.6s gap to Villeneuve in second, and set the fastest time of the race with 1m29.413s.
As the race entered the final laps, it appeared that Barrichello's one-stop strategy may not have been the best way to go. He was nearly out of fuel, and the team were considering the possibility of a "splash and go" if it appeared that Irvine would be able to close the 15s gap. Irvine and Alesi were having their own fuel worries however, and they both pulled off the circuit on the slowing down lap.
Hill had no such worries, and carried on to take the chequered flag in his usual enthusiastic style. Villeneuve and Alesi were the other two podium finishers, just 12s behind. Irvine continued to be the better points scorer for Ferrari and finished fifth behind another superb performance by Barrichello, taking fourth place despite fading brakes. Verstappen finished off another promising weekend, and eased the financial worries of the beleaguered Arrows team by taking the final point and the consequent FOCA travel benefits.
Hill said after the race, "Naturally I'm delighted to have pulled off three wins at the start of the season. It was a bit disappointing to have the incident where the pace car came out, but it worked out in the end." The win was his sixteenth, and he was now level with the win total of Stirling Moss, whose birthday he shares.
It emerged that Hill had problems in addition to those on the circuit. Damon had been suffering from a dodgy stomach for much of the weekend, and it made his victory seem even more impressive. "When I drove the car into the garage I just had to jump out of it and find a toilet. I was just hoping I'd been able to make it through the race. I have not been able to hold any food down the past couple of days and was unable to load up on carbohydrates." He also had been unable to communicate with his pit crew, as the radio on his Williams had developed a fault.
Jean Alesi complained of a lack of passing opportunities, "At the start we were just able to follow each other, we were never able to try anything. On this track it is so difficult to get the right line and the right grip. I am very happy to have finished on the podium. I lost a lot of time on my second pit stop: I moved away very suddenly and I stalled the engine."
Damon then predicted a repeat of last years close Nurburgring event in three weeks time, "The other teams are closing up. It's going to be hard work from now on."
1 D.Hill Williams-Renault 1hr54:55.322 2 J.Villeneuve Williams-Renault + 12.167 3 J.Alesi Benetton-Renault + 14.754 4 R.Barrichello Jordan-Peugot + 55.131 5 E.Irvine Ferrari-Ferrari + 1:04.991 6 J.Verstappen Arrows-Hart + 1:08.913 7 D.Coulthard McLaren-Mercedes + 1:13.400 8 O.Panis Ligier-Mugen Honda + 1:14.295 9 J.Herbert Sauber-Ford + 1 lap 10 A.Montermini Forti-Ford + 3 laps
DNF G.Berger Benetton-Renault lap 55 Suspension DNF M.Schumacher Ferrari-Ferrari lap 45 Rear wing DNF P.Lamy Minardi-Ford lap 38 Differential DNF M.Salo Tyrrell-Yamaha lap 35 Throttle DNF M.Brundle Jordan-Peugeot lap 33 Accident DNF T.Marques Minardi-Ford lap 32 Accident DNF HH.Frentzen Sauber-Ford lap 31 Spun DNF P.Diniz Ligier-Mugen lap 28 Engine fire DNF U.Katayama Tyrrell-Yamaha lap 27 Gearbox DNF R.Rosset Arrows-Hart lap 23 Fuel pump DNF L.Badoer Forti-Ford lap 23 Accident DNF M.Hakkinen McLaren-Mercedes lap 18 Throttle
1 D.Hill 30 points 2 J.Villeneuve 12 points 3 J.Alesi 10 points 4 E.Irvine 6 points 5 M.Hakkinen 5 points 6 M.Schumacher 4 points 7 G.Berger 3 points M.Salo 3 points R.Barrichello 3 points 9 O.Panis 1 point J.Verstappen 1 point 1 Williams-Renault 42 points 2 Benetton-Renault 13 points 3 Ferrari-Ferrari 10 points 4 McLaren-Mercedes 5 points 5 Tyrrell-Yamaha 3 points Jordan-Peugot 3 points 6 Ligier-Mugen Honda 1 point Arrows-Hart 1 point