These are tough times for the privacy of Michael Schumacher and Jean Alesi, the two great disappointed drivers of the Monaco Grand Prix. The Ferrari driver has consoled himself with his old love, the go-kart, in the Oleander track of Taggia (he attends it as soon as the commitments allow him), but he had to deal with the onslaught of a few curious and photographers. Which, however, could not approach the ace of the steering wheel for the iron vigilance of six policers. Schumacher, however, appeared very upset by so much attention. All this while in Antibes, colleague Alesi was lashing out at a paparazzo who wanted to steal some moments of intimacy with his girlfriend. The photographer was sued by the former Ferrari driver for violating private life. The following week, at Mugello, the first day of testing for Ferrari takes place with Eddie Irvine (66 laps) who will be joined by Schumacher on Wednesday 29th May 1996. The Ferrari driver is experimenting with different set-up solutions for the F310 that will be used in the second half of the World Championship and in the Spanish Grand Prix, in Barcelona. After a good first day, Ferrari is unlucky in the tests: on Wednesday, a plastic bag ends up in the air intake of the F310 of Irvine, forced to stop at the pits with the engine off. Schumacher’s reserve car also spends more time in the pits than on the track. Already in the morning the two cars have problems with the hydraulic circuit that controls the main functions. Paella, gazpacho, tortillas? None of this: arriving in Catalonia, at the Montmeló circuit, Thursday, May 30, 1996 Michael Schumacher is satisfied with a Modena mortadella sandwich. Rigorous as always, the German driver is not attracted by the tasty Spanish cuisine but spends the whole day with Ferrari technicians and mechanics to prepare the strategies for the Spanish Grand Prix, seventh round of the World Championship, which will start Friday, May 31, 1996 with free practice. Schumacher will never say it, he will not confess his torment. But the exit of the track, after a thousand meters of competition in Monte-Carlo, has remained impressed. Consider that episode as a stain in his dazzling career, although he repeats that certain road accidents cannot be eliminated a hundred percent:
"The risk of making a mistake always exists. The important thing is to learn and not be repeat offenders".
Two consecutive pole positions, at Imola and Monte-Carlo. Can the result be repeated here?
"I really like the track. We did some tests at Mugello, a track similar to this one, with wide and fast corners. We’ll try to do our best, but we can’t assume anything. We’ll see. We’re closer to Williams, but there are others. I’m used to fighting, that’s what I like most about this sport. So we’re comfortable".
There is much talk about the Schumacher-effect that has done Ferrari good.
"I don’t agree. I like other drivers ask for things, we want more powerful engines, competitive cars. However, not all teams are able to respond to our needs. If the results come in, it’s everyone. The important thing is to find a match that works. And this seems to be our case. Great progress has been made. I believe that in the future we will be even stronger".
The World Championship is almost at the halfway point. You said that from mid-season forward Ferrari could win. Is it the right time?
"I never said it would happen in the fifth rather than the eighth race. In theory we could have already achieved the goal in Monte-Carlo. But that doesn’t mean this is the time. As for the World Championship, Ferrari has reached a very good level. Nothing is decided yet, although Damon Hill now has a remarkable lead in the standings, in terms of points".
Can you believe, or dream, that Ferrari can win on Sunday?
"I wouldn’t be a Formula 1 driver if I didn’t aim to win every race, if I didn’t think so. And I think so".
Apparently the Maranello team does not bring anything different to Barcelona on the F310, except for the arrangements prepared in the last tests at Mugello. There is no lack of news in other teams. Cesare Fiorio leaves Forti to return to Ligier as sports director. At the same time, the Alessandria team found a rich Irish sponsor and officially announced the signing of the English coach George Rayton, former collaborator of John Barnard. Friday 31st May 1996, surprisingly, Eddie Irvine is the fastest at the end of the free practice. It had never happened, since the 30-year-old Irish landed at the court of the Maranello team. With one lap in the final minutes of the two free practice sessions, the Northern Irish driver set the best time of the day. Significant that behind him there are Barrichello and Panis, two excellent drivers who, however, do not normally occupy the very first places. Says Eddie, now called Edmund, smiling like a lottery winner:
"It’s a random result. I fitted new tyres and because the tyres on this track last almost nothing, I got on top. But I have no illusions. I don’t think I’ll be on pole at the start of the Spanish Grand Prix. Nor do I think I will win the race: a mess should happen because I arrive first. As for Panis in Monte-Carlo".
The truth is that these Friday tests without qualifying do not offer any reliable indication, if you do not look between the timelines. Teams and drivers use them to make experiments, prepare the arrangements, maybe to make pretattica and confuse the ideas to opponents. So much so that in the paddock there is a spontaneous intention to propose to Ecclestone to change the rules again. And to restore the qualification in two days, maybe averaging the best times of the two days. To avoid that, in case of rain, on Saturday, the majority of the protagonists are sheltered from the pits. However, there are data to work on. In more or less similar conditions Hill (P4) and Schumacher (P5) - the only best not using two sets of tyres - remain at 0.001 seconds one from the other: 7.3 centimeters difference. This means that Williams and Ferrari are currently on equal terms. Which would be nice if Michael hadn’t calmed his tempers, as is his custom, showing a bitter grimace.
"I was behind Williams for a few laps, and I have to admit that Hill’s car is very neutral. Damon doesn’t make a correction with the steering wheel. We are forced to adjust the trajectory all the time. Our set-up is still not in place. Hopefully we can find better adjustments this morning. I don’t attribute much meaning to free practice placements. However, it seems to me that the situation is quite balanced, so a good close battle can be expected".
Promises of battle, then, nothing more. Also because in this situation someone can play hide and seek. Like McLaren, far from the best. And Benetton, which however does not hide that it still has some problem developing the cars of Alesi and Berger. The best will still be squeezed on Saturday, when no one can stand around the corner and look. In the day of little or nothing, two news and an extra indiscretion. The first: Claudia Peroni, the Mediaset box voice, has been disqualified for a day by the FIA, to be outside the area assigned to her in Monte-Carlo, here she will have to work in the rear, from the paddock. The second concerns Berger and the allegations of sexual harassment by an Australian girl. The case was rejected because the woman suddenly withdrew the complaint, refusing to say whether she received compensation to renounce the case. Finally, it seems that Osamu Goto, Japanese Ferrari technician, could return to Honda at the end of the season. It should not be a serious loss: he is currently employed as a track engineer and not as a designer in Fiorano. The Williams are ready on the launch pad. And since they are two missiles, there is nothing strange in comparison. With astronauts Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve, they aim to win the Spanish Formula 1 Grand Prix in Barcelona. Saturday, June 1, 1996 the Englishman wins the pole position, the fifteenth of his career with track records (1'20"650, at an average of 211.000 km/h, shattered the previous of Schumacher who last year with Benetton had turned in 1'21"452). And his Canadian teammate is next to him, in the front row. The others? All behind, struggling, running for defense. It is not surprising that the English team dominated qualifying. But the ease with which Williams gets incredible lap times and the weight of detachments inflicted on opponents are disturbing. Schumacher, third, is about a second away, Alesi and Berger, 1.5 seconds, Irvine (still a good sixth) even further. Not to mention Barrichello, Panis and companions, divided by chronometric abysses. For Hill it could be a good opportunity to produce the final break in the standings.
Fortunately Formula 1 always gives doubts to keep interest high. On the head of Damon Hill hang in fact the rivalry with Jacques Villeneuve, who is not at all convinced to leave the pace without fighting, and the unknowns related to the race strategy, with the heat, the pit stops and any unforeseen events. Last but not least the one concerning Renault engines: after the engine failure at Monte-Carlo, which cost Hill a sure victory, there was another in practice at Silverstone and on Saturday a third in the Canadian car during free practice. In short, a few pathmas to face along the way remains. And Damon himself, in the press conference, confirms that he fears mechanical failure. But rivals remain cautious. Todt says very realistically:
"We can aim to finish on the podium and finish in the points with the other car. Honestly you can not think of an attack race".
Considerations shared by Michael Schumacher, who also offers a technical explanation:
"Third place at the start was the best we could hope for. On this type of circuit all our aerodynamic problems came out. The engine is fine, we are competitive, but not enough".
In this regard, the week after the Grand Prix, Imola will test important innovations on the F310. There will be a new nose - raised - and then changes will follow for the whole body and wings. An admission, with no possibility of replication, on the mistakes made at the time of design. To the wind tunnel these innovations seem to have offered interesting data. But it will be necessary the concrete feedback of the track. If the results are good, the Maranello team will do everything to have the cars partially updated in Canada, in two weeks. The aerodynamic problems also plagued Benetton. With the same engine as Williams, Berger and Alesi are too slow. And the design of the car, which has already undergone tormented changes in suspension, is put under accusation. This, however, does not make Flavio Briatore lose his optimism. The Italian manager also assumes a resounding result for the race:
"We always leave to win. Which is not excluded even on this occasion. Second and third row are a good position to fight to the end. Bad that goes we will look for points".
A forecast that the pragmatic Berger does not agree with:
"We’ll have to fight Ferrari. But if something doesn’t tip over, we will soon see in our rearview mirrors the threatening figures of the Williams who want to double us".
A great perspective. Unless - as has been said - there are unforeseen events, from tyres to engines. Talking again about the Imola circuit, more than two years have passed since the death, in Imola, of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger. Twenty-five long months of difficult investigations, checks, rumors, testimonies, interrogations. Now the investigation, entrusted to the judiciary of Bologna, seems to have finally come to an end. Prosecutor Passarini is about to launch a barrage of indictments. Matter, if not hours, a few days. While the accident that cost the life of the Austrian Simtek driver, the proceedings could be dismissed as a tragic racing event, for the end of Senna would have emerged responsibilities. The warnings should reach manufacturer Frank Williams, designer Patrick Head and a couple of team technicians and mechanics. According to the defense of the British team, the steering column would have broken after the impact with the wall (and in fact even the prosecution can not prove that the column has completely broken before the impact, but only later). Those responsible for the runway were also charged: according to the public prosecutor’s opinion, it was established that the necessary safety conditions did not exist at the Senna accident site. So notices for the president of the company that runs the plant, attorney Bendinelli, the race director and other executives.
From the evening of Saturday on the Catalan circuit begins to fall a heavy rain, which continues until Sunday, June 2, 1996. The warm-up session on Sunday morning takes place, contrary to what had happened on test days, on a wet track. The drivers used the morning to get familiar with the track and try to find the best possible setup. On this occasion Heinz-Harald Frentzen is the protagonist of a bad accident, going off the track and crashing against the barriers at over 170 km/h. Despite the collision the German driver comes out unharmed from the car and will take part in the race. However, given the situation some drivers ask for the delay of the start and initially it is thought to start the race behind the safety car, but later, as the circuit is equipped with modern water drainage systems, it is decided to start the race regularly. During the training lap, Mika Salo remained on the starting grid and was forced to start from the last position. At the start, however, the visibility in the middle of the group is almost nil and several collisions occur, which cause the withdrawal of David Coulthard, who collides with Olivier Panis, and Giancarlo Fisichella, who in the rear tampona Pedro Lamy, and is in turn bumped by Ricardo Rosset. In the lead of the race, meanwhile, Jacques Villeneuve manages to get a good start, as well as Jean Alesi, who is followed by Damon Hill, Gerhard Berger, Rubens Barrichello, Eddie Irvine and Michael Schumacher; The German driver himself had problems in the starting phase with the clutch, therefore he loses several positions. Eddie Irvine, meanwhile, is the victim of a spin that forces him to retire, while Michael Schumacher, at the Repsol corner, passes Rubens Barrichello, getting into fifth position. Damon Hill also left the track on lap four, but managed to get back behind Michael Schumacher himself. The Ferrari driver is clearly the fastest on the track and on lap 5 he overtook Gerhard Berger. The German driver then starts to recover on Jean Alesi, with a rhythm of about 4 seconds per lap, and on lap 9 the Frenchman passes. After three laps, the Ferrari driver also overtakes Jacques Villeneuve and takes the lead. Michael Schumacher maintained an unapproachable pace for everyone, gaining three seconds per lap on the pursuers; in the meantime Ukyo Katayama retired, due to an electrical problem (lap 8), imitated on lap 12 by Damon Hill, author of two other off-piste. The English driver loses control of Williams and bumps into the pit wall.
Schumacher’s domination is such that the second fastest lap in the race, scored by Rubens Barrichello, is even two seconds slower than his; no one is able to keep the pace of the German driver, despite from mid-race onwards the Ferrari driver is slowed by an engine problem. During the 16 lap Mika Salo, who had been stationary on the grid with Tyrrell and had started from the pits behind everyone, was brought back with the black flag, disqualified for having taken the reserve car. During lap 17, Martin Brundle, with his Jordan, also retired due to a differential break. On lap 24, the first series of stops began, with Schumacher returning to the pits to refuel and starting again in the lead, with 23 seconds ahead of Jacques Villeneuve. Eight laps later he was imitated by Jean Alesi, who managed to overtake Jacques Villeneuve, stopping on lap 36. In second place, Rubens Barrichello, who has yet to make his pit stop. The Brazilian made his refueling stop on lap 42 and, once back on track, was third, just ahead of Jacques Villeneuve, who passed him at the first corner. At the end of the pit stops Michael Schumacher leads the race with more than a minute ahead of the pursuers, ahead of Jean Alesi, Jacques Villeneuve, Rubens Barrichello, Gerhard Berger and Heinz-Harald Frentzen. Within a few laps, however, both the Brazilian (lap 45, differential) and the Austrian (lap 44, spin) are forced to leave, as well as Jos Verstappen (lap 47, spin), who had recovered to the fifth position. There were no further changes until the end of the race and Michael Schumacher took his first win with Ferrari and his 20th in his career, finishing ahead of Jean Alesi and Jacques Villeneuve; Heinz-Harald Frentzen finished fourth, followed by Mika Häkkinen and Pedro-Paulo Diniz, sixth and last of the drivers at the finish. After taking Juan Carlos, the King of Spain, for a drive on the track in the morning, Michael Schumacher put the crown on his head and took on the role of Kaiser of Formula 1, also confirming himself as the lord of the rain. A beautiful and unexpected victory. In Monte-Carlo the German had taken pole position but had immediately finished against the guardrails. In Barcelona he was in third place in the grid and started badly, but he won. His first success with Ferrari. Schumacher, how does it feel?
"I’m happy, ecstatic. Hopefully, you always dream of first place. But on the eve there were no premises to win here. We weren’t fast enough, the Williams seemed impregnable. The water changed everything. It’s incredible. In the previous wet race we struggled to stay on track. Here our car proved perfect. An extraordinary seal that allowed me to recover the initial disadvantage almost with ease".
Is a success with Ferrari special?
"It is a great joy. I desired it. But for me it is not a special emotion, as it could have been for Alesi last year. For him it was the first success, I have already experienced these chills twenty times. So I have no dedications to do. We have shown together that we have made the right choice. Although there is still a long way to go. However, this is a nice tonic injection that will give us wings for the future. This time we won thanks to some favorable circumstances. But nobody gave us anything. I hope that we will be able to do this again as soon as possible under normal conditions. In Canada in two weeks we will have news about our cars and we should be much more competitive".
How was the race?
"Saturday I would not have bet a penny on one of our statements. The results of the qualifying did not emerge great possibilities. In the warm-up, however, I realized that the car in the wet was fine. With the technicians we studied some more adjustments. Everything worked out for the best. I was able to push as hard as I could. And I can assure you that I got into it with the accelerator and the steering wheel. Every lap the track situation changed and I had to study new trajectories".
Then there was an electrical problem with the engine...
"Yes, I noticed it on lap 33. I heard a strange noise. So it seemed like everything was back to normal. Finally, the performance worsened but, fortunately, they remained constant in the last laps. The engine was going 8-9 cylinders and I lost about ten kilometers of top speed. I was afraid that something strange would happen. I was frozen. But everything went smoothly until the end".
But the day opened in the worst way.
"A difficult start, indeed a disaster. When I engaged the clutch, it did not work and I almost turned off the engine. I had to repeat the whole maneuver. In a moment they passed me several cars. I was lucky because nobody hit me. I realized how hard it is to get behind when it rains. You can’t see anything at all. Then I got used to it and I started to spin well, thanks to a good strategy. Obviously the estate was always on the limit and there was the danger of losing control. But I have always driven with relative prudence, especially in dubbing".
Where can Ferrari go?
"Let us have no illusions. There is still a lot of work to do. We have problems to solve, that was the first step. And I don’t even dream of finding rain in Montreal on the next appointment. Wet races are always unpredictable".
That Sunday, the Sunday of Luca Montezemolo, president of Ferrari, vice-president of the Bologna Football Club. He enjoyed it all, intensely, with growing enthusiasm, one triumph after another. First that of the cars of Maranello in Barcelona, certainly the most exciting. Then, at the stadium, that of the rossoblu promoted to Serie A after 5 years ("An ideal pairing, it’s fine, even if the weights are different..."). Congratulations. Montezemolo is at the center of the world, with that phone that never stops ringing. They call everyone. President, how did you experience Schumacher’s ride?
"In my house in the hills of Bologna, in front of the television, alone. I don’t want anyone, no people who talk or ask questions; at most I can stand my son".
Tell the truth, didn’t you go to Spain for luck, or didn’t you believe it?
"I chose not to go all the time. The truth is that on television I understand more things, I see everything. I believed this time. Because I talked to Todt after the warm-up and he assured me that the car, in the wet, was good. You don’t give opponents 3 seconds per lap if you don’t have a great car".
Then that bad start...
"What a rage. Just see it’s another bad day, I thought. Unfortunately we still had those clutch problems that we can not solve. Same trouble for Irvine".
But the show started.
"Michael was great. He did an anthology race, a history of the car, because there were only six of them: exceptional both as daring and as intelligence. And those two overtakings, first to Alesi and then to Villeneuve were wonderful. The incredible thing is that when he was in front, alone, he gave more than three seconds to the others on the lap. In 10-15 laps he got to a minute. What a show".
Is there more Ferrari or more Schumacher in this triumph?
"I have always fought for the role of the pilot, because this is fundamental. But let me tell you, it was also the victory of a car that went very well, after 2 pole positions. It was a clear demonstration of superiority, in the wet, in very difficult conditions".
It was a great success. A rematch?
"I say a full victory. Even the team that did not miss anything; perfect the two tyre changes and strategy. Rematch? I’m more pleased to have a driver like Schumacher because many, at the beginning, have us and have criticized. Today everyone realizes how much we did well to take this sample".
What did you say on the phone?
"I repeat now: I have to say thank you first of all to him. I felt elated, he was very happy. He repeated to me, rightly: it is a victory that I wanted, suffered, sought and deserved. All true. He did not win because the others stopped. He made overtaking, and all without the slightest mistake. To close with a minute of advantage it takes a fantastic car and an extraordinary driver".
Is Barcelona a goal or a starting point?
"I might recall that in 1975 the run-up to the World Championship began with Lauda with a victory in the Spanish Grand Prix. But I prefer to be consistent with what I said at the beginning of the season. We want to win two or three races. Then we will see".
Hill has 17 points advantage, few: can you dream?
"We’ll see soon. I don’t do as some coaches say: let’s live in the day. I say that, objectively, we must see today how many improvements we can still make on this machine. Because undoubtedly in the dry we are still not up to the best. That said, let’s not forget that we started to win, after the placements with merit".
"To Todt and all the team men, because the crescendo was big. This victory comes from afar. They worked a lot and well. I can’t wait to be at the office because I know we’re still missing something from Williams. I also know that success is the best medicine, the best incentive to work more. A very important week of tests awaits us, in Imola, to improve even more".
First Juve, now Ferrari: Lawyer Agnelli will be happy.
"Happy is to say the least. He is enthusiastic. In fact, fans deserve a special dedication. Including the first. They had passion and patience, which are fundamental".
As it is easy to imagine, at the same time as the victory in Spain, the festival in Maranello and throughout Emilia Romagna is on. The streets of the country where Ferrari is based are filled with car carousels a few minutes after Schumacher’s Ferrari had crossed the finish line of the Spanish Grand Prix. And the church bells of Maranello ring for a long time on the initiative of Don Elio Belloi, parish priest and great fan of Ferrari:
"Shortly after 4:00 p.m. a group of young people arrived at the parish asking me loudly to ring the bells. Could I not? It seemed right to celebrate with them. It was a great victory, the credit is to Schumacher and the rain. But this success goes beyond the simple sporting fact. For the inhabitants of Maranello it means daily bread, honest work and wealth for all".
And he runs away, Don Belloi, because the Mayor and the Marshal of the Carabinieri are waiting for him who pose for the souvenir photo together with dozens of fans in front of the Ferrari Club of Maranello, one of the main meetings of the fans of the team together with the legendary bar Nello, has always been the center of all fans. Here we discuss at length, we make small hours analyzing minute by minute and lap by lap, every Grand Prix. But it soon became clear that there was an air of victory. When Nello himself, in the face of superstition, began to offer drinks. Yet there were still 50 laps left in the end. Schumacher, meanwhile, travelled with extraordinary confidence to the finish line, gaining precious seconds on every lap, and erasing the memory of what happened at Monte-Carlo.
"Drive very well".
Nel sentences until, two laps from the end, he puts on the red Ferrari cap. It’s the signal: now the game is done. Schumacher crosses the finish line and Nello uncorks yet another bottle. Outside the party goes crazy, moves up to Modena, that similar celebrations sees them only when it is the Italian national football team to win. And German tourists are also celebrating, more and more numerous now that Schumacher is racing with the Ferrari and that were disappointed when he ran to Imola. And then all in Modena, to hear the bells, this time played by Don Sergio Mantovani, the chaplain of the drivers.
"We’ve been waiting a year for this moment, we almost got rust on the bells and also on the ropes".
The tension at Ferrari grew as the end of the race approached, even if there were smiles. The liberation from what could have turned into a nightmare, in the absence of a victory now enjoyed and practically certain, came only when Schumacher, approaching with his car #1 to the pit wall, crossed the finish line under the checkered flag. Then happiness broke out, an irrepressible joy. When the German driver entered the closed park, for the verification of the cars, after making the lap of honor waving his arms, he ran towards the mechanics. And he embraced them all, one by one, like so many brothers. Then he lifted Jean Todt and the party continued with the technicians. The engineer Lunetta, in charge of the German car, has learned by phone that the president Montezemolo will buy the Vespa that had promised him at the first victory this year. Nobody, in public, sheds a tear. But nobody hides the great satisfaction for this result. Says Jean Todt, at the end of the race:
"It was a fantastic race, very difficult after a critical start. However, given what had happened in Monte Carlo, I was confident, I knew that we would come to win soon, that things would turn right. We had moments of concern. From lap 25 with telemetry we realized that there was a problem with the engine. But the data thankfully did not indicate any serious problems. The last few minutes were very long. Schumacher is a great driver. Only a strong man like him can admit Monte-Carlo’s mistake, take all the blame. It is nice to work with him, because he always thinks in the positive".
The sports manager adds:
"It took some time to get to this day, but it was worth it. I’m used to winning, in my career I have achieved success in all fields, but this is special. But life goes on and we have to work hard to win again".
The engineer Giorgio Ascanelli, technical director of Ferrari, also excited while trying to hide under a tough skin his feelings, explains the problem that made the engine run 8-9 cylinders.
"At first we thought about the rupture of an exhaust manifold pipe. In this case we could have had serious damage as the heat leaked could compromise the electronic part of the gearbox management. When we were able to check the car we realized that it was probably an electrical problem that we will see better in Maranello in the coming days".
It seems that the inconvenience was generated by the humidity and the water that would have put in crisis two candles, blackened for an irregular operation. This problem will also be the subject of in-depth studies in order to avoid any recurrence. Ferrari does not stop: from Tuesday, June 4 to Friday, June 7, 1996 the same Schumacher will be on track at Imola. To try, in addition to the steel gearbox that will replace the titanium too fragile, will be above all an important aerodynamic novelty. For the first time a test will be carried out on a new raised nose such as those of Williams and Benetton. It will be the first step towards a deep renewal of the F310. Unfortunately, the car was not immediately competitive. By the way, the Maranello team had to use almost all the budget available for the racing team and will have to deal with the money still available. In short, the means are not unlimited even for Ferrari. In the four days of practice on the Romagna circuit should not be used Eddie Irvine but the Irishman will probably train at Mugello the following week, before leaving for Montreal. The Northern Irish driver went off the track on the second lap of the Gran Premo of Spain:
"I lost control and I ended up on the lawn. I could have left if the car had not ridden a bump. So I retired. I am happy for Michael and I hope that from now on with less pressure things can be good for all of us".
Towards evening Michael Schumacher leaves, with his own jet, for a well-deserved vacation day. But just before he tells him that King Juan Carlos had told him all the secrets of the track. Of course he says it as a joke. But then he adds:
"Since it brings me luck, I’d like to invite him to Canada".
The stated goal was to win a mid-season race. At the seventh race, one before the turning point of the championship, Ferrari and Schumacher hit the en-plein. For the Maranello team it had not happened for a year: since the 1995 Canadian Grand Prix, when Jean Alesi prevailed. The German driver had the last success in November with Benetton in Japan, where he also won his second Formula 1 World Championship. Michael Schumacher, helped by a single-seater that on this occasion supported him in full, gave everyone a driving lesson. The extraordinary control, the ability to maintain a remarkable coldness at every juncture (as, for example, when Verstappen’s Footwork was turned in front of him), a tactical sense that is no longer to be discovered. Each curve is an emotion, a small skid, a shot, between huge trails of nebulized water. The lord of the rain. An immediate and total revenge on the mistake made at the start of the Monaco Grand Prix. To erase any negative traces in the memory. A sign that Schumacher is not only a great driver but also a solid boy who does not let himself be harmed by misadventures. The best response to criticism that never came but that could leave if it had happened another similar episode. It was a bad weather day. Low clouds and heavy rain from morning to night. In between a Spanish Grand Prix that was almost a test of offshore motorboats. Chain accidents (without consequences, even if Frentzen in the warm-up had destroyed the Sauber against a low wall, remaining for a few minutes under shock) and important eliminations. Damon Hill paid the highest price. The Englishman, despite having the fastest car available (and perhaps was betrayed by the excessive confidence in the middle) made three mistakes one after the other. And he ended up watching the race from the pits.
Second consecutive retirement, after Monte-Carlo’s blameless one. But now the figures speak against him. Williams' driver has 17 points ahead of Villeneuve and Schumacher. A good margin, but it is reduced compared to the first part of the World Championship. And it is well known that Damon Hill is not a driver who likes to be pressured. Having to fight with the team-mate always in ambush, and especially with the German champion, could put him in trouble. Especially on the psychological level. It must be said, however, that Villeneuve is showing his limits of experience. All right if it’s a quick ride. But the young Canadian will still face too many unknowns to be included this year among the real dangers for Hill. This is a particular role for Schumacher, if Ferrari will give its driver a more competitive car in the next races. The Spanish Grand Prix also showed that in reality there are only three top-level teams at the moment, namely Williams, Ferrari and Benetton. McLaren is too erratic, Jordan, Sauber and Ligier can only take advantage of favorable circumstances, but they are not dangerous. Analyzing the results of the qualifying, it would seem that the team of Hill and Villeneuve has made another step forward in terms of performance. The gaps inflicted on the timed lap were very heavy. The designer Patrick Head and especially the aerodynamic Adrian Newey have mounted on their cars a new bottom and a different rear extractor profile, which has certainly given advantages. And soon there will also be an electronic differential, which could become the ultimate weapon. The Benetton is always there, with a very aggressive Alesi and a Berger who loses. The Frenchman attacked well and took an excellent second place, while the Austrian went off the track in lap 45, when he was in fifth position. The times of repetitive victories seem to be long gone. However, if there is a team that can fit in the fight for the title, provided that the car is improved, it is the Anglo-Italian one with a Italian license. Damon Hill says at the end of the race:
"It was a terrible, terrible day for me. I made two minor mistakes and one fatal. But given the environment, to be honest, I’m glad I got out without any physical damage. The situation was very, very dangerous. Nothing was visible. I was very fast in the morning warm-up. When the two of them started to overtake me, my problems started. I tried to recover and ended up out. Everything had gone so well in the rest of the weekend, that this negative result saddens me even more than the lost points".
The English driver does not talk about the World Championship, and does not make predictions about the future. On the contrary, Jacques Villeneuve seems particularly happy with his third place, as in another race in the rain, in Brazil, he had finished off the track while fighting with Alesi.
"I have improved a lot, even if I still have to learn".
But on him there are threatening shadows: Frank Williams, confiding in a friend, said he was a little disappointed by Jacques, who seemed more competitive. On the podium, in second place, Jean Alesi climbs, refreshed but not completely satisfied, because the Frenchman seeks his first victory with Benetton. And seeing Schumacher win with Ferrari, for sure, didn’t gratify him much. But, in his clarity, Jean indirectly compliments the rival:
"Schumacher was too fast to think about fighting with him. So I’m happy with my placement that at this juncture is the maximum result I could achieve. My car suffered from aquaplaning and I almost went off the track more than once. The rematch to the next race".
On Tuesday, June 4, 1996, Michael Schumacher will be regularly working on the track at Imola with his Ferrari. The German driver has reserved a half day of rest. On Sunday evening, just arrived home in Monte-Carlo, he toasted with a non-alcoholic beer.
"Then I went for a walk with my dogs, Jenny and Floh. And I thought about the race. What happened. At that moment, for the first time, I realized that I had raced one of the most beautiful races of my career. But it wasn’t just the success of the driver. We won that first place together, me and the team".
The German champion usually, when happy, proves it at the end of the Grand Prix. He is exalted in the lap of honor; he shakes his arms leaving the steering wheel; he jumps like a cricket on the podium; he waters anyone with champagne. In Barcelona, after performing the ritual, it was cold in the interviews. No particular dedication, few references to emotions. Perhaps he was very tired. Or had already discharged the terrible tension of a test conducted on the razor’s edge. But when he recovers, Monday morning, he utters a sentence that says everything about his character:
"We are not yet in place, we have to improve. The car is too sensitive and its behavior varies from circuit to circuit".
An invitation to Ferrari. Schumacher does not say so, but he sees for the first time the possibility of entering the fight for the World Championship, and wants the car to grow with him. The Maranello team in this sense does not need any push. Monday, June 3, 1996, at 8:30 a.m., a meeting is immediately held to launch the short-term programs. Even in the workshop you do not waste time to celebrate success. It is nice to hear the statement made by the lawyer Agnelli:
"Adding a comment on the qualities of Schumacher seems to me totally superfluous. The victory in Barcelona is a great satisfaction for all the Racing Team that has worked so much in recent years and has also gone through difficult times. There is still much to do, but I hope this is the beginning of a good season".
The first affirmation of the Ferrari-Schumacher duo echoes, of course, also in Germany. Sensational, is the headline that opens the news of one of the most important broadcasters. And also a newspaper, the Bild, which in recent months had insinuated doubts about the choice of the driver to drive for Ferrari, finds positive notes:
"Schumacher drives Italians crazy".
The success of the German driver does not surprise the experts. Riccardo Patrese, former teammate of the German, says:
"He is a phenomenon, he can achieve any result".
And Bernie Ecclestone finds an immediate economic response:
"This success is very good for our sport, as image, prestige and also in terms of the interests of all the teams. We had been waiting for him for a long time. Already in Monte-Carlo they had come close to doing the job, for me it’s fine".
Even Frank Williams, rival this time beaten, comments on the result.
"I said I feared the return of Ferrari with Schumacher. And I wasn’t wrong. For me drivers are employees, but it must be recognized that not all are equal. As a car enthusiast, I admire Michael who is very good".
There are, however, cold and slightly acidic judgments. Like that of Flavio Briatore:
"They deserved the win, him and Ferrari, because they were the fastest. It’s better to have Michael than to lose him. But I have no regrets. We will win too. I think, however, that this time the car has made the real difference".
For Jacques Villeneuve. the only notable fact of the Spanish race concerns him directly:
"I don’t care much about Ferrari. The important thing is that now the World Championship is more open and interesting".
With Michael Schumacher, Ferrari grinds miles. At Imola, the World Champion performs tyre tests: 76 laps, more than the distance of a Grand Prix.
"A job that could very well do a test-driver. But right now I prefer to do it myself. It’s a push for me and the team".
As soon as he arrived at the circuit, Schumacher shook hands with all the mechanics, then began to work. Only one unexpected stop in the morning. Schumacher stops because there is a dog in danger along the track. During the interval, the German driver gives an interview. One more comment on the victory in Spain.
"The most important thing is that they didn’t give us gifts. When Damon Hill got out, I was already over it. We were the fastest and it was amazing. I’m glad I won the first race on Ferrari that way. My father told me he was proud of this success for Maranello. And it made me realize that people love me more, that fans are happy. And seeing it on television, I got excited".
What was the most striking factor?
"The ease of overtaking. I would never have believed it. We made small adjustments on the car and it was fine. It was important".
President Montezemolo says he saw a famous Senna race at Donington on wet Sunday.
"The situation was a little different, closer to last year’s Spa. The success came sooner than I expected, but already in Imola we were close".
Is the World Championship more open now?
"Now aiming for the title is not a mirage. I can’t say for sure that I will win, but I can think of it. If Hill fails again it will be a big help. But let’s not forget that when Damon is in the lead he makes fewer mistakes".
Can you make a prediction about the next races and say in which circuits Ferrari will be favored?
"Better not make predictions. I didn’t hit the last two".
Would it have been possible to win the World Championship with Ferrari in 1995?
"No, I would have stopped 13 times like the others. But last year Maranello’s car was much better than the wet Benetton".
What are the plans for the rest of the season?
"So far we have been working mainly on the reliability of the car. Now we continue and go hand in hand with the development to increase performance. I expect great progress, it would take an average improvement of one second per lap. Williams at the moment is still the car to beat. We hope that Jacques Villeneuve will give us a hand, removing points from his teammate".
Do you always trust designer John Barnard?
"He is working on the car for 1997".
Are you always satisfied to be at Ferrari?
"You ask me that?"
Did you make the team better?
"It’s nice to think that people think that I can do everything myself. Instead, there are so many of us working in the same direction. What we did on Sunday is the best medicine, even for me".
As they say: winners and happy. Wednesday the tests will continue with new mechanics (the gearbox remade, steel) and aerodynamics.