The Monaco Grand Prix was followed by tests on the Montmelo circuit, just a week before the sixth round of the calendar. In Barcelona, during the three days of testing from 14 to 16 May, Ferrari accelerated its times and tested the new Step 2 engine with both Schumacher and Irvine. The exhaust manifolds, which at first showed some cracks already at two hundred kilometres, at the end of the last tests, with the engine at 450 kilometres, no longer had this problem. Another aspect of the engine that is constantly being improved is the electronic management. In the beginning the software was not satisfactory, while after the latest tests it has improved allowing more acceptable performance.
"Every time we use it, it always goes a little bit better, but obviously we are never satisfied".
Says Schumacher, who at the Barcelona circuit is looking for good set-ups for the race:
"We don't have engine problems but car problems. If it were up to me I would cut this car in two, save one half and throw the other away. Honestly, I look at things realistically and here, after three days, I'm not going fast at all. We're struggling to be competitive but we're still there. I'm a second off in race trim and a little bit more in qualifying trim. We are trying a lot of solutions, even new tyres, but we are always more or less in this situation".
Then, talking about the issue of the Ferrari engine not being ready, Michael admonishes the press:
"Enough with this story of the step one or step two engine. They are more or less equivalent and the engine is not our problem. Maybe with step two we can gain something. Shall we say a tenth of a second? Maybe two? What do we take the other eight seconds off? With the set-up and everything else we can take off another tenth, and then what? We're still behind. Looking at the other cars that are running here, I don't have any illusions. On the starting grid in a week I could be on the third or fourth row, maybe even ninth, so I'm not happy, even if I do better in the race. I have no illusions here, but neither for Canada or France. Then we'll see how the car goes with the changes planned for the Grand Prix in France, but maybe something could even slip up at Silverstone".
Following a start to the season that contrasted with the many expectations during the winter, Flavio Briatore announced a decisive reaction from his team, Benetton, which had sunk into anonymity after Gerhard Berger's illusory podium finish in Brazil. At the end of the test sessions, Jean Alesi is placed immediately behind the dominant Williams, also hoping to return to the limelight after the horrible Monegasque weekend; above all Jacques Villeneuve, who has lost the leadership of the championship to Schumacher's advantage.
Nicola Larini, on the other hand, will not be able to aim at redemption, who, a bit like Benetton, had deceived at the wheel of the Sauber in Australia, gaining a promising sixth place, after which he showed serious shortcomings in the confrontation with his teammate Johnny Herbert. Larini's lacklustre performance in Monaco was the last straw, and the Swiss team decided to sideline him in favour of another Italian, Gianni Morbidelli. Larini returned to his role as test driver at Maranello. Buoyed by his first place in the championship and his dominant win in Monaco, Schumacher was not content to get back behind the wheel of the Ferrari for testing, and incredibly decided to take up football to satisfy his desire to play a team sport:
"I've always been a football fan: Aubonne - a third-class Swiss team - contacted me to support the team and I agreed to join a club in the region where I live. When I was a kid I played in a German club with my brother Ralf, but once I started with cars I didn't have any free time anymore and I gave up football. I am a fan of Cologne, even though in recent years they have not been among the best teams in the Bundesliga".
Then a bit of self-criticism:
"Drivers' contracts do not contain any special clauses. Nothing is stopping me from playing football, it was fun, but I need to train harder and better to make a good contribution on the pitch. In practice, I didn't see the ball and I also missed a possible header goal. I'd better not change sporting activity for now".
And speaking of what remains his main occupation for now, the German does not seem too optimistic ahead of the Spanish Grand Prix:
"It would be positive to get points. This circuit doesn't suit our car, we can't balance the car and this puts the tyres in crisis because they work with the wrong temperatures: understeer on entry, oversteer on exit and a few laps later, we are already in crisis. It's nice to be ahead of everyone in the standings, and there's motivation to try to stay there. Unfortunately it is important to stay first at the end of the championship. The fight is open, it will all depend on how our car adapts to the different circuits and the changes that will be introduced on it".
And to conclude, he is reminded of his first victory in a Ferrari suit, achieved on the Catalan circuit the year before:
"It's a nice memory, the track was flooded with water, it was raining like in Monte Carlo a fortnight ago. The Ferrari has a remarkable grip in the wet; of course, if a good rainstorm were to arrive at the right time on Sunday, I would be more confident. Having a good starting position on the grid will not be easy, apart from Williams, also Benetton, McLaren and Jordan could be very strong".
Welcoming the drivers since Thursday is an unbearable heat, which consequently offers as main concern what will be the actual behaviour of the tyres on a track that is already severe with them. In the meantime the Benetton's recovery during the tests, as well as the doubts expressed by Schumacher, seemed to be confirmed on Friday: Alesi got the fastest time in free practice followed by Jacques Villeneuve, while the Ferraris ran very little to save tyres to be used in qualifying and race, and placed seventh and tenth, showing at least for now that Schumacher's pessimism was anything but a pretext.
Speculation about possible changes of seats for the top drivers continues, a consequence of the many contracts expiring at the end of the season. The news of the day is offered by the German newspaper Bild, which, however, enjoys national distribution, which speaks of a possible landing of Schumacher in McLaren thanks to the intermediary action of Mercedes. On the subject of this alleged negotiation, the German driver jokingly confesses:
"'Yes, it's true, but the negotiations are already over because they've just given me a Mercedes SL six-thousand cubic capacity, eight-cylinder, made especially for me. But I also have all the Ferraris I want. I've got a company 456, which I use for my travels, I've got a 550 Maranello that I won on a bet, I've got a personal 355. Oh yes, I also have a Fiat Daily van to take my dogs and go-karts in. I liked this Mercedes and I wanted to have that too. That's all. That's all nonsense from the newspapers".
Unsubstantiated rumours, especially because, among the top drivers, the two-time world champion is the only one with a solid contract with Ferrari, and as Jean Todt has also claimed, the only contact his driver has had with Mercedes in recent times has been for the purchase of a 600 SL and nothing else. Being on the subject, the French team manager also armours, albeit with less conviction, Eddie Irvine's seat:
"There is a three-year contract until the end of 1998, with the right to exercise an option by Ferrari. At the moment nothing has been decided yet".
Alain Prost, on the other hand, in his ambitious project of creating a team capable of fighting for the title, besides courting Villeneuve with insistence, seems intent on bringing Damon Hill on his side, above all if the situation of Arrows should remain the present one, that is a disaster. Not only has the reigning champion not yet won any points, but he has not yet seen the chequered flag. For Prost, recreating the couple formed in Williams in the '96 season would undoubtedly be a great blow, but for now, only rumours are circulating.
Instead, Williams' supremacy in qualifying is a certainty. After the short parenthesis of Frentzen at Montecarlo, Villeneuve returned to lay down the law and conquered the pole position, with the German box mate completing the first row. The revived McLaren and Benetton instead share the second and third rows with Coulthard and Alesi preceding Hakkinen and Berger. The scariest fact, however, is the net second that Coulthard pays from the Canadian poleman.
"We may have been in too much of a hurry to focus on computerisation because that is the future. But perfecting the electronic differential, like the computer-controlled four-wheel braking system, proved to be more complicated than expected and we lost precious time".
Flavio Briatore was delighted, and went on to say:
"We had grown up together, we and Schumacher, as is only possible in a small world like ours. With us were the technicians who are now at Ferrari, the car that won the title was the product of that growth. Now we work with experienced drivers like Alesi and Berger, but they have other stories. Our slowdown was an inevitable price but when I think about the new cars and the new technologies that will make them race, then I'm really optimistic. Cars are moving towards total electronics. In August we will also have our own wind tunnel in England in addition to the one in Ferrara and two new aerodynamic technicians. Today's car belongs to the past, as Alesi and Berger are drivers of the old generation. The future is a new page to be written and we have all the credentials to write it well".
In Ferrari, on the other hand, Schumacher limited the damage as best he could but was seventh, while Irvine was eleventh.
"I'll take a second and a half off the Williams and start on the third or fourth row".
Schumacher had said after Friday's practice. But at the end of qualifying the gap in seconds is almost two. And as if that wasn't enough, the much-discussed and much-anticipated step two engine also broke down, due to the failure of a connecting rod.
"We have to be realistic. I'm going to try to have a good race to get in a good position and get some more points, but we can't really talk about winning, I don't think so. And don't ask me about the engines again because I'm fed up, with one or the other it doesn't change anything, the real problem is the aerodynamic efficiency of the car".
Jean Todt points out:
"However, with a full tank of fuel, the gap decreases a lot and then many other factors come into play".
"We also improved on last week's tests, but it wasn't enough. The Williams are going much, much faster".
Then, when asked why a connecting rod broke on a decisive day like Saturday, the French manager replies:
"It was probably old. The whole engine was old, it had exceeded six hundred kilometres. After all, we can't mount brand new engines for one day's practice like we can for the race. It would take too many at this rate".
On the other hand, smiles are returning to the McLaren house, which in qualifying was able to take advantage of a new Mercedes V10 with 775 horsepower (35 more than the previous one), but which will be left to rest for the race, as it is not yet reliable over long distances. The performance of the two Anglo-German cars is still to be verified. Villeneuve gloated immediately after taking pole:
"I enjoyed this qualifying, especially at the end when I set the best time. It was hard but I enjoyed it".
Frentzen was a little less satisfied:
"I liked it too, but at the beginning when I was leading. I'll try to make up for it in the race".
For Williams there are ten poles in a row, also considering the final part of the 1996 season; to jeopardise their monopoly on Sunday there are only the unknown tyres, which could lead to various strategies. For many there is even talk of three pit stops, so surprises are just around the corner.
On Sunday, the suffocating heat is slightly relieved by a strong wind that rages over the circuit; there is also a slight risk of rain, but it will not materialize. It will be sunny throughout the race. Shortly before the start Jean Alesi is interviewed on the grid, and the Frenchman takes the opportunity to praise the work done by his team:
"The team has worked hard and brought a lot of new things here to improve the performance of the car. I'm very happy about that because it gives us the chance to get back to fighting for top positions. Hopefully, this can be the start of a comeback for Benetton".
The start of the race presents some hiccups during the reconnaissance lap, as first Gerhard Berger remains planted at his pit stop, then Ralf Schumacher a few moments before the start turns off the engine and starts waving his arms to attract attention. It becomes necessary to postpone the start, so the mechanics return to the track to repeat the whole procedure, which causes a delay of a few minutes and a reduction of one lap in the race distance. The Jordan's driver has to start last, while Berger is lucky, who thanks to the young German's hitch can get back his original starting position.
Finally the race begins. At the start, Coulthard and Schumacher stand out and at the first bend they chase the pole man Villeneuve; the Scottish driver of the McLaren tries to take the lead of the race at the first braking, but Villeneuve resists with a great braking, keeping his position and Coulthard, maybe too concentrated on who is in front of him, at the Repsol is surprised on the outside by Schumacher, who thanks to a brave manoeuvre conquers the second place, after starting from the seventh box.
At the end of the first lap, Villeneuve leads the way ahead of the Ferrari driver and Coulthard, then they are closely followed by Alesi, Hakkinen and Frentzen, who has a very bad start and is already slightly detached from the leading quintet. Already from the first few laps, it was clear that Schumacher did not have the pace to keep up with Williams, nor to resist for too many laps the attacks of Coulthard, who was soon joined by Alesi and Hakkinen. The Ferrari didn't keep up the pace, favouring Villeneuve's escape. In the meantime, Coulthard goes crazy to find an opening on a circuit where overtaking is not easy at all, with a Mercedes V10 that despite the wake taken by the car in front is not able to allow him to get alongside Schumacher at the first bend.
The German's difficulties are such that at a certain point Villeneuve gains three seconds per lap, recording times of 1'22 against the 1'25" of the direct pursuers. Michael defended himself with courage, he broke away at the first bend and on one occasion the duellists avoided contact for a matter of centimetres, then on lap 14, Coulthard finally managed to overtake at the end of the long main straight, the only point where he had managed to make himself dangerous up to that moment.
It was a sign that Schumacher had run out of tyres, so much so that Frentzen and Herbert also rejoined him. At the Ferrari box, they look at the times, then tell Schumacher by radio that the first stop will be brought forward from lap 20 to lap 15. Together with the Ferrari driver also Coulthard stops: the times of 6.0 seconds for the ex-Williams and 7.4 seconds for Schumacher suggest a three-stop strategy for both.
The situation is different for Villeneuve, Alesi and Panis, who lengthen their stints and consequently seem to opt for just two stops. The one who struggled most of all to manage the tyres was Frentzen, whose performance of the day ended with four pit-stops and out of the points zone, was pitiless if compared with that of his box mate. An anomalous blistering, due to a non-ideal set-up, made the second position obtained the day before completely useless. Mika Hakkinen was also in crisis, who after his first stop managed to gain position on Schumacher and Alesi, promptly given back during a second stint to forget for him, ruined above all by a few too many blocks with which he ruined his tyres
Villeneuve's undisputed leadership of the race was only slightly challenged by Coulthard, who, taking advantage of a moment of the race when he had a car with little fuel onboard, reduced the gap to less than two seconds, but just when it seemed that an interesting battle could start, McLaren went back to the pits for the second of the three scheduled stops.
It was the two-stop strategy that proved to be the winning one, implemented by the drivers who arrived on the podium at the end of the race. At this point, a more than discreet Olivier Panis stands out, started from the twelfth position. The Frenchman of Prost set a great pace, also favoured by the Bridgestone tyres that once again proved to work better than Goodyear and to suffer much less from the abrasive track. It is emblematic the overtaking on Coulthard at the 40th lap at the Repsol curve, valid for the third place, because while Prost flies with the Japanese tyres, at the end of the lap Coulthard has to come back immediately because his Goodyears are finished.
Third place becomes second place when Jean Alesi returns to the pits on the 44th lap, and Panis, thanks to an excellent overcut returns to the track ahead of his compatriot. But it wasn't over yet, because Panis continued to push to catch up with Villeneuve, who was thirteen seconds behind at seventeen laps to go. With an average of one second gained at each passage on the finish line, the enterprise does not seem impossible. The final attack also for Schumacher, who after his third pit-stop gets closer to Alesi to look for an unexpected podium.
Panis' dreams of glory, however, met an unexpected obstacle: Eddie Irvine. In a race to say the least anonymous that attests him in the tenth place, the second Ferrari's driver, at the moment of being lapped, doesn't step aside, and on the contrary, closes the door suddenly when Panis tries to jump inside. The innumerable seconds lost by the Prost driver behind the Northern Irishman favour the rejoining of Alesi and Schumacher, so that Panis, from hunter, becomes prey. Meanwhile, Alain Prost rushes furiously towards the Ferrari pits to protest.
A few laps pass, and only when Alesi too makes eloquent gestures of frustration directed at Irvine, the race direction inflicts a Stop&Go of ten seconds on the Ferrari driver, who, before serving his penalty, is finally overtaken. Jacques Villeneuve wins for the third time in the season, ahead of Panis and Alesi, who can hold Schumacher back in the final stages. The German, fourth, together with Herbert and Coulthard closes the points zone, and with these results he gives back first place in the world championship to his rival Villeneuve, again first with 30 points, +3 on the German driver.
The prize-giving ceremony is characterised by the presence of Ronaldo on the podium, who cannot give any trophy to Schumacher after the exchange of a Barcelona shirt and a Ferrari cap between the two before the race. There is, however, the man who is powerfully back on top of the world championship after a performance of absolute level, and who during the press conference is logically beaming:
"It's great to get back to winning ways, especially because with the whole Williams-Renault team we have been working hard since the beginning of the season. Yes, we've also had some good results, but considering our competitiveness there have also been opportunities we've wasted and where we could have won, and I have to say that after the gross mistakes in Monaco a win was needed. We did a lot of testing over the winter here, and to be honest the car didn't behave as well as it did in testing, although you have to say we had different tyres. Having to put up with this stifling heat was difficult, but having Michael second blocking the others in the first part of the race helped us a lot. Michael did me a big favour with that very fast start, he overtook dangerous rivals who he then kept away from me because he was slower. Our strategy was two stops from the start, we knew it was risky for the tyres, but generally there is a greater risk of something going wrong when you have to make multiple stops. I wasn't too worried about Panis at the end: I had a reassuring gap and I had to manage the tyres, so there was no point in pushing at that point. If he had come closer than he should have I could have accelerated. In any case, congratulations to Olivier, he didn't start in the first position but despite this, he arrived on the podium, which is remarkable".
Afterwards, Jacques, talking about Irvine's behaviour, rejects the responsibility of what happened during the race to the Maranello team:
"I heard that Irvine slowed down those who were about to overtake him, it's a game that Ferrari plays, a bad game, not professional. You can see the blue flags, someone must have told Irvine to slow down those behind. I think they told him from the pits to help Schumacher's comeback".
Then a quick thought about the next Grand Prix, which he will race in front of his fans:
"Last year was a good race for us, but we didn't manage to win, so hopefully we can do it this time".
Visibly satisfied also Oliver Panis, who among other things is also rather diplomatic (much more than his team manager Prost will be) about the Irvine affair:
"I'm very happy, qualifying was complicated because we had too hard tyres, but in view of the race I was optimistic. Already in the warm-up, the tyres behaved great, without any sign of blistering. Of course, we hope to improve in qualifying, but right now changing tyre type would mean sacrificing some of our competitiveness in the race, because these tyres are fantastic over long distances. It's fine to improve the starting position, but obviously the race is more important than qualifying. My goal for the championship is to try and finish in the top five, that would be a great result for me and the team. It's going to be tough, but the car is really good, plus we'll have a new engine for the French Grand Prix which will allow us to go even faster. Eddie is a great driver, but I really can't understand his behaviour, it wasn't necessary at all. But, you know, talking to him is an impossible task".
Jean Alesi also has to say something on Irvine:
"In the final Schumacher didn't worry me. What worried me was Eddie Irvine, a very strange driver in my opinion! It was quite difficult to overtake him, especially because Michael was behind, ready to take advantage of any opportunity he had. I raised my arm several times to point out the impropriety to the stewards, that's no way to behave".
Infuriated, to put it mildly, Alain Prost, who doesn't give a damn and attacks Ferrari:
"If Olivier or Shinji had been in Irvine's position, I'm sure they would have had a penalty much earlier. I don't think it's fair on the other teams to allow that kind of behaviour. A lapped driver slowing down others to favour his team-mate; that's my point of view, and I think it's not fair at all. We demand fair treatment. I went to Todt to protest, to tell him to tell his driver not to obstruct Olivier, as he was lapped. Jean is a friend, but I think Ferrari should have intervened. I don't like this behaviour, it's not sporting and it's not fair".
Undaunted for his part, Eddie Irvine:
"I saw the blue flags, but I thought they were for Trulli's Minardi, which was ahead of me; Panis was close to me in the first part of the race, so I didn't think he was lapping me but was fighting with me. The team didn't inform me that he had a lap to spare. I feel sorry for him".
Supporting the Northern Irish driver's argument is obviously Ferrari manager Jean Todt, who states:
"Irvine was far behind, he was about to lap a competitor in turn, he didn't understand the situation well but when we told him on the radio he immediately stepped aside".
After which he goes on to say:
"I prefer to say anyway that we are still leading in the Constructors' Championship, we limited the damage we expected. We had big tyre problems, but we're not the only ones. Now we're thinking about Canada, but I'm not going to say anything, it's better not to make predictions because things change from one day to the next".
In an atmosphere that is not exactly peaceful, Schumacher has other things to think about, but considering the premises of the weekend and the final result, he can see the glass half full. The German starts talking about his lightning start, also favoured by the choice of using new Goodyear tyres, which, however, as anticipated by the supplier, would have caused a greater degradation:
"I had a good start, not great, as I think I had even better starts, I'd say it was more the drivers around me who started badly. I was lucky to have a clear track, with nobody bothering me on the straight and at the first braking. This allowed me to push as hard as I could, exploit the slipstream and move into third place, and then pass Coulthard to move up to second".
But on lap five Schumacher's tyres began to seriously deteriorate, so much so that his lap times went up:
"I suffered from blistering on the rear tyres and struggled so much to keep the car on the track and ahead of the others, I was sliding like I was in the wet! After that, there were battles that we have won on other occasions. Usually, we adopt good strategies that allow us to gain positions, but unfortunately this time it was the opposite. Unfortunately it can happen. Initially we were on two pit stops, but we had taken into account the possibility of switching to three. In any case I arrived first among those who stopped three times. In the race I have to say that the consumption of tyres was higher than expected, so much so that on the seventh lap the tyres were already covered in bubbles. This first set was a new one, but the others also presented a lot of problems. In the end, I even feared I might have to make a fourth stop. Why did Ferrari use up so many tyres? That's something we need to understand. We're not the only ones who want to find out, because everyone else had problems with this excessive consumption. Anyway, it was the first set of tyres that deteriorated so quickly, while the third set, for example, was better".
Even at the end of the race, Michael was struggling with his tyres. However, the German driver does not despair:
"A fourth place is still good. It's easy to say afterwards that maybe I could have taken one more point, but I wasn't able to attack anyone. We did the best we could in these conditions".
Of course, the doubt remains that the scorching start wore down his tyres. But Michael replies:
"I don't know now, but what was I supposed to do? Start slowly and stay in seventh place? That's not how you do racing. A gap opened up and I went into it. It's a racing eventuality and I took advantage of it, but I didn't expect to have such a big drop in performance on lap seven. The idea was to make the first stop around lap 20 or so, but we weren't sure if we would be able to get there, so we were prepared to change plans, which we did. However, I have to say one thing: I am the first classified among those who made three stops, everyone in front of me made two. On the other hand, I don't think one less stop would have improved the result. If I had saved a pit stop, theoretically I could have made up the gap. In practice, however, I would have gone slower and perhaps I would not have done anything".
Launched by his third success in the championship, Villeneuve could be approaching his home Grand Prix in the best way, if it wasn't that the Canadian, in the week of approach to the event, had to reckon with the International Automobile Federation, which, led by Max Mosley, doesn't deny itself and shows not to like at all any kind of critical comment from the drivers towards him.
In the meantime, big changes are looming over Formula 1. The announced British restrictions on cigarette sponsorship of the sport will, according to Bernie Ecclestone, force the cancellation of many current Grand Prix and the creation of new ones. The twelve current European Grand Prix would be reduced to four, while four Asian Grand Prix and three new European ones would be created.
Davide Scotto di Vetta