#590 1996 French Grand Prix

2023-01-03 23:00

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#1996, Fulvio Conti, Translated by Valentina De Sanctis,

#590 1996 French Grand Prix

On the eve of the French Grand Prix, in Magny-Cours, Michael Schumacher dares in the Shell Ferrari Challenge of karting, the international press journ


On the eve of the French Grand Prix, in Magny-Cours, Michael Schumacher dares in the Shell Ferrari Challenge of karting, the international press journalists in a race. Five teams from Italy, France, Great Britain, Germany and the International will qualify and meet the World Champion in the final. Needless to say, even in this case Schumacher leaves no escape to anyone. The World Champion imposes himself, on Thursday, June 27, 1996, giving a show. Michael had arrived at Magny-Cours, where the French Grand Prix weekend opens on Friday, minutes earlier on his private jet. Until 6:00 p.m. he had stayed at Mugello to complete the Ferrari tests.


"I feel ready for a new challenge. The rehearsals went well. Above all, we should have solved the friction problem that has caused us so much trouble so far".


Have you only worked on this particular one?


"No, I also prepared a good set-up for the trim of my F310. We have not found any revolutionary things, but more progress has been made. I am quite confident, even if the track isn't favourable to our cars".


The driver didn't want to reveal secrets, but the radio box also talks about some mechanical innovation. Something that should increase performance.


"We’ve shown that we’re close to the Williams. Canada's result does not take text. Let's start again, from the victory of Barcelona".


Jean Todt finally says that all the troubles that have into the last race were analysed and at least on paper resolved:


"The clutch is new, better and more reliable. The system that controls the pressure of the gasoline was reinforced and we were able to ascertain that the imbalance of the brakes in Montreal was caused by a cable that was too short".


Meanwhile, there is only talk of the abandonment of Renault at the end of 1997 and the withdrawal of Elf, already at the end of this year. The teams involved are Williams and Benetton. At Magny-Cours, the manufacturer and Briatore were at Renault. They wanted guarantees on the announced commitment and were asked not to leave the French company before the end of the contract. We only talk about new suppliers and at the forefront is Honda: one king is dead, and another is made.


"A hard track to interpret. So far we have not found any valid adjustments on our cars".


So Michael Schumacher summarises the first day of free practice of the French Grand Prix, which ended with the P5.


"The asphalt is slippery and my Ferrari is sliding, with unpredictable reactions".


For this reason, the World Champion asks the technicians of the Maranello team to work overtime: if it is necessary everyone, including the driver, will spend the nights in front of the computers to study the best tuning of the single-seater.


"Last year I found the ideal set-up in the Sunday tests. Then I won".


However, Michael's prediction does not seem to be based on optimism:


“It will be easier for Germany to win the European Football Championship, even though it seems to me that the Czechs are going strong”.


A possibility at Magny-Cours is however linked to weather forecasts. Thunderstorms are expected and a situation similar to that of the triumph of Montreal could be repeated. The result of the first tests, apart from Schumacher's feelings, must still be taken with the right precautions. The best time achieved by Hakkinen says that perhaps McLaren has made some progress. Panis' second place with the Ligier makes it clear that the French team is ahead of others in fine-tuning, given that the Magny-Cours track is the one where he tries every day. However some use new tires (Hakkinen for example), and others disguise themselves, this is the case of Williams, who has Hill sixth and Villeneuve seventh. The Englishman, nevertheless, goes off the track and damages his car, while the Canadian, as usual, has to learn the trajectories on a track he does not know. In short, a nebulous, precarious situation. And the system adopted by Formula 1 this year is being put under charge. In the past, there were two qualifying rounds, one on Friday and the other on Saturday. For 1996 it was decided to dedicate the first day to free practice, to force everyone the next day to push the maximum even if the track were to be flooded with rain. The purpose of these new rules, dictated above all by television needs (to have a maximum audience on Saturdays), makes Friday useless and boring. So there is an air of frond at the paddocks, with many teams and especially the sponsors disgruntled. Flavio Briatore, always volcanic, has already prepared a relaunch plan:


"We qualify in the two days, with the sum of final times to determine the grid. So we will force everyone to spit the soul every time we go on the track, with great effect for the show".


It will be presented at the next Formula 1 world council, but it's hard to change anything before 1997. The Benetton manager also complains that the Engine Circus is too close to the public. Entering the pits or the paddock is forbidden for non-emptied people. Once upon a time, there was the presence of beautiful girls to colour the environment. Now the divers also leave girlfriends and wives at home so as not to lose concentration. Briatore says:


"Instead you have to do the opposite. I will propose the election of Miss Box in every race, otherwise, we will fall asleep".


Visionary proposals aside, on Saturday 29 June 1996 we are witnessing a record-breaking Ferrari in every sense. Maranello's cars will start in pole position in the French Grand Prix with Michael Schumacher and last place with Eddie Irvine. The German flies, setting a new record of the circuit, his teammate (who was in P10) is stripped of all time and the organisers allow him to participate from the bottom of the deployment, two sides of a medal, on a day full of lights and shadows. On the one hand fantastic performance and on the other a spectacular accident (fortunately without damage) by Jacques Villeneuve and a case already more unique than rare for the North Irish driver, whose car is irregular at the technical tests during qualifying. A flap, indeed a deflector, attached to the suspension parallel to the bodywork, located in the front right of the single-seater, is 15 millimetres higher than allowed, just enough to trigger the sanction and cause nervousness and tension in the boxes. On his second attempt, Schumacher amazed everyone, scoring a time of 1'15"989, averaging 201.344 km/h. The track limit, obtained last year by Hill with Williams, was 1'17"225. To give an idea of Ferrari's progress, in 1995 Alesi, fourth had turned in 1'18"761, which means an improvement of about 2.7 seconds. The drivers all jumped on the track to beat the German driver and Villeneuve exaggerated, coming out strong from the Estoril curve, the fastest on the track.


 The young Canadian ended up with his Williams on the grass and not being able to brake, because the lawn is wet from the rain that fell in the morning, the car, at about 250 km / h, touched the wall for a few hundred metres, caracoled jolted and slammed against the tires, flying in the air and returning to the track with a detached wheel The driver is still in the cockpit when he passes at high-speed Coulthard's McLaren which avoids a terrible impact for a few centimetres. A few moments later Schumacher also arrives but is already slowed down by the yellow flags. He tells shortly after Jacques Villeneuve at the pit:


"I thought I would make it back on the trajectory and I didn’t take my foot off the accelerator. What a bang. At the moment I don't feel pain, but I'm afraid I'll have some problems in the race. But I wasn't scared. In Formula Indy, I had two worst accidents".


Jacques says he doesn't look like Dad Gilles, who had been nicknamed the pilot for a similar flight in Japan in 1977, but with tragic consequences (two dead spectators). After half an hour of stopping to remove the Williams scrap and put the guards back in place, the carousel started again. He went down the Irvine track when the North Irish driver returned to the pits, he was stopped for the technical checks that take place at random. It was immediately realised that something was not working in the right direction. The second car was brought to the Ferrari stand and the men of the Maranello team lowered the dampers. Jean Todt explains later:


"Unfortunately, we mounted an air flow deflector whose measurement had been wrong at the production stage. We removed all the others (ed: there are four for each car) and they were regular. We pay hard for our mistake".


The explanation of the Racing Management manager of the Maranello team does not convince Patrick Head, the technical director of Williams.


"One of our designers had seen that the piece was too high. As far as I'm concerned, I think the highest deflector can give advantages, evaluable in half a second of the lap".


Of the opposite opinion, however, Harvey Postlethwaite, former Ferrari engineer and now team principal at Tyrrell:


"For me that element taller than 15 millimetres is useless".


Head's assessment is theoretical because all cars are different from each other, and you can't calculate any advantages or disadvantages only on an optical basis. Schumacher's remains an exceptional performance, the German driver the third pole position of the season, and for Ferrari, the number 117 in history sets a new record. Michael Schumacher affirms :


"I’m surprised because, after Friday’s rehearsals, I wasn’t satisfied with the trim of the car but we changed the settings and I could also have been faster if, on the third attempt, I hadn't been stopped by the Villeneuve accident. The race? It will be difficult: it is one thing to be the best on a lap, another in a 306-kilometre-long race. I can only say this: that Germany will give the most to Wembley in the European Football Championship and that I will do the same in the French Grand Prix".


Schumacher would also like, in his way, to score a goal. But the German driver and Ferrari will have to deal with fierce rivals. The English teams and Renault did not like to be overtaken in qualifying. Hill wants to win, to increase the loot in the standings. And there's also the threat of rain that could mix up things, between pit stops and different strategies. In short, even in France, the show is guaranteed. On Sunday, June 30, 1996, for the second time in a row, Schumacher's Ferrari has a problem during the reconnaissance lap: in this case, after only two kilometres, the engine broke on the German's car, and the reigning World Champion is forced into a resounding retirement even before the race begins: for this reason, this Grand Prix turns out to be (for now) the last one, in the history of Formula 1, without a World champion in the starting grid. Freed from his rival in pole position, Damon Hill sprints well, keeping the head of the race ahead of Jean Alesi, Mika Häkkinen, Gerhard Berger and Jacques Villeneuve; the Englishman immediately begins to gain a substantial margin over the pursuers, while his teammate, after over-performing Berger during the first lap, attacks Häkkinen's third place. During lap 6 Eddie Irvine, who started last, is already in P15 but has to return to the pits with the gearbox blocked. The drivers proceed in this order until the first series of pit stops, opened by Alesi on lap 20, and closed on lap 30 by Villeneuve, who manages to pass Mika Hakkinen. After their respective pit stops, Hill is still in the lead, ahead of Alesi, Villeneuve, Hakkinen, Berger, and Coulthard. 


Throughout lap 37 Jacques Villeneuve also overtakes Jean Alesi, then scoring the fastest lap in the race several times in an attempt to get closer to his teammate. However, Hill manages the lead without any problems, even after the second round of refuelling started on lap 42, getting the sixth victory of the season ahead of his teammate, the two bearers of the Benetton and the McLaren-Mercedes. At the end of the race Herbert, who arrived in P11, was disqualified due to some irregularities found in his Sauber, at technical tests, it turns out that the Swiss car has a deflector higher than allowed by as much as 15 centimetres (that of Ferrari was 1.5 centimetres). However, it's an aerodynamic appendix different from that of the Maranello team: if it had been moved back 2 centimetres it would have been regular. Commissioners are inflexible and immediately afterwards they also hit Benetton with a fine of $10.000 because two mechanics, during the stops at the garage of Alesi and Berger's cars, had settled in an area considered dangerous. Ferrari fans are disappointed: another negative Sunday for the Maranello team. After the double retirement fifteen days ago in Canada, they were hoping for a nice victory in France. Instead, Michael Schumacher, who had taken pole position on Saturday, even stopped in the reconnaissance lap, the one that brings the drivers to the starting line. Ed Eddie Irvine retired after ten minutes. For Schumacher a problem with the engine, and for Irvine a valve of the gearbox control system. So the run became a triumph for Williams and a walk for Damon Hill, who splashed in the lead, keeping the lead to the finish line (except for a short interval with teammate Villeneuve for the pit-stops). Second place Villeneuve, third Alesi. Hill is getting closer and closer to the world title and with a big smile at the end:


"Out of the fight Schumacher, everything was easy for me".


Long live sincerity. The German champion admits:


"When I heard the engine was finished, I got angry. I was furious, I wanted to eat my car. Then, I regained serenity. We need to look to the future and continue to work with the utmost commitment. It is by solving these problems now that we could think of the 1997 world title".


But how can such events happen? Ferrari has committed to the spasm to improve the performance of the cars and reach Williams. Probably, it paid for this growth in terms of reliability, that is, the tightness to the effort by all the elements of the car. Jean Todt is demoralised, also for the story of the irregular fins on the Irvine car, but President Montezemolo calls him, telling him that precisely in these moments we must be united and look ahead. 


On Monday there will be the technical summit in Maranello, then a series of tests and tests in the Monza circuit. Ferrari in the French Grand Prix opened the door wide to rivals. And in the large space left by the Maranello team slipped into order, in a kind of liberating dance, two Williams (Hill and Villeneuve), two Benettons (Alesi and Berger) and also the McLaren pair (Hakkinen and Coulthard). A negative Sunday, a bitter defeat as heavy as it is. In Canada, the German driver had left last for a gasoline pressure problem, then retired for the rupture of a half-axis. His teammate in the previous four races has dropped out three times, ranking only in Monte-Carlo, detached from Olivier Panis, after a collision with Hakkinen and Salo. Then, in Irvine's roadmap, a retreat in Spain for the headline on the second lap on the wet track and the same end in Montreal with a suspension on the ground ten kilometres from the road. Let's say there is no single problem, and perhaps the fact is even more worrying. It is the prices that are paid in Formula 1 to be competitive and at this point, one wonders if it would not have been better to settle for the programs of the beginning of the season when we talked about the second championship to prepare for the conquest of the World Championship in 1997. Schumacher makes no fuss. No scenes, at least in public


"What we had was a new problem, never recorded in the race this year. In the first part of the championship, the car had been more reliable than we could have expected. Now we are in line with all the trouble that could have come. As I said in Canada we must not break down, but keep doing our best. I am also sorry for the team that has worked a lot. We knew this was going to be an apprenticeship season".


At 3:00 p.m., while the other competitors passed lap 41, Schumacher left the Magny-Cours circuit. On the jet staff, he reached Monte-Carlo to watch on television the Wembley challenge between Germany and the Czech Republic. Someone asked him if he didn't care to see how the run ended, Michael replied:


"No, I prefer to go home and watch my dog".


After the end of the race and Hill's victory, Jean Todt popped out of the Ferrari motorhome. The head of Sports Management, with a gloomy face, said:


"It was the saddest day of my entire long career in motor racing. We still don't know what happened to Schumacher's car engine because having not even completed a lap we don't have telemetry data. We will have to disassemble it but we can guess that it was a serious problem".


In Italy we are now discussing the position of Arrigo Sacchi (coach of the Italian national team) since Ferrari is considered the national engine team, do you think someone can ask for his resignation?


"I will accept any decision from my bosses".


Shortly thereafter, as mentioned, President Montezemolo called.


"I am embittered and disappointed, but I know the team is doing its best and we need to stick together".


So, for the moment, no head to cut. Although it weighs the episode of the outsized deflectors that led to the Irvine recession in last place. It's established that it was a mistake in reading the regulations in designing the aerodynamic appendix. This means that in the Maranello team, something is still not working well. He certainly did not celebrate the anniversary, of Jean Todt, who landed at Ferrari on July 1, 1993. After living in Magny-Cours what he called, the saddest day in my long career in motorsport, the head of Sports Management has been busy examining the troubles that have resulted in one of the worst disappointments in recent years for the Maranello team. The abandonment of Schumacher, who was supposed to start in pole position, in the reconnaissance lap and the retirement of Irvine, with the change blocked, shortly after our nightmare episodes. Ferrari fans had never been seen so tired and critical of their favourite team. Despite knowing that at the first positive result faith and enthusiasm will be rekindled, last Sunday the Ferrari Myth suffered a jolt. Regardless of life that is, the Formula 1 World Championship, continues. The fact that there is no time to cry is positive.


"When I saw Schumacher’s Ferrari engine explode I was scared. I was afraid of slipping on the oil scattered on the asphalt. And I didn't see well because I also had a lot of them on my visor. Then for a second, I realised that the whole run would change for me. All I had to do was get a good start".


And that's how it went: Damom Hill, alone in the front row, took command and no one saw him again. The sixth victory of the season, out of nine races for the Englishman. And it's also about the number 19 success in his career, which brings him to the Olympus of the best, just behind Schumacher (20) and drivers like Piquet, Lauda and Fangio. Damon, 25 points ahead of the standings over Villeneuve, started winning the World Championship. And it would be the first time that a champion's son (his father Graham won the title in 1962 and 1968) has centred on such a feat. However, it's hard to determine if the merits are all Damon's. Surely Hill is a great driver but the supremacy of his Williams plays a decisive role in leading to these results. This is demonstrated, on this occasion, by the second place of a rookie, albeit of quality, like Jacques Villeneuve. The Canadian competed with his neck imprisoned in a small bust, after the bad accident on Saturday. However he had no difficulty detaching all the other opponents, the detachments inflicted on the placed also speak clearly: 46 seconds at Benettons of Alesi and Berger, 1'02"0 at McLaren of Hakkinen, one lap to that of Coulthard. Hill and Villeneuve did what they wanted, without even having to take risks. Even Renault (which achieved a historic result: for the first time the four cars on which its engines were mounted were placed in the top four places) seems to be amazed. Bernard Dudot, technical director of the French company, says:


"We supply Williams and Benetton with identical four powertrains. The difference is made by the chassis, the aerodynamics and possibly the drivers. I don't understand Alesi's criticism that these days has continued to mumble about the malfunctioning of our 10 cylinders".


Jean Alesi, although happy to be on the podium for the first time in a French Grand Prix, says he did not get along very well with his Benetton:


"I struggled with the car for most of the race. It was only perfect at first, then the brakes started not working and even behind there was something wrong. For this reason, I could not resist the overtaking of Villeneuve which easily overtook me on lap 37".


Returning to Hill, he said he was still cautious about the World Championship:


"Of course, I'm in a great location. After the two missteps of Monte-Carlo and Montreal, I certainly didn't expect to recover so quickly and in the best way but the season is still long. In recent years it has been seen that you can't rest assured, that there is always someone who can provide surprises. Now, however, I would love to win the next British Grand Prix at Silverstone".


But who could be the potential rival at this point?


"Well, to give an example, Jacques Villeneuve. I'm sure he'll continue the battle until he's mathematically lost".


And the Canadian, just to not give rise to doubts, answers: 


"That's for sure. I won't give up until the end".


Frank Williams is clear:


"There will never be squad orders between my two drivers. The one who goes stronger will always win".


No tactics even at Benetton. Alesi and Berger challenged each other without exception for third place, resulting at the end of the race the only real reason for interest being a bit spectacular. But both had some problems and in the end, the Austrians gave up trying to overtake. Flavio Briatore declares at the end of the race:


"We're happy with the result, even if it's not the best. If Jean hadn't had a hard time with the brakes, he would have gone another way. Then, in the last minutes, it was useless for Berger to take risks: however, he could not reach Villeneuve".


If the World Championship seems to be now, at most, a family issue between Hill and Villeneuve, the Circus of Formula 1 is already thinking about the future and Important news is announced. The first is the incoming of a second tyre supplier who will join Goodyear in 1997. It’s is now known that it is the Japanese Bridgestone. Tests have already been carried out at Suzuka with a Ligier driven by Verstappen, then at Silverstone with the Footwork. From Monday, for the first time, there will be a confrontation right here in Magny-Cours. On track still the Footwork with the Bridgestone and the Ligier with the American tyres. It will be interesting to compare the times of the two teams, even compared to those obtained this weekend. However, in the longer term, the real war of the next few years will be about engines; And this is the second news : after the announcement of the withdrawal in Formula 1 by Renault, (conditioned by a possible rethink should the management of the French company that is about to be privatise change), many teams have set out in search of new engines. It's no mystery that Honda is almost ready to come back and in the front row, there would be the Williams. The Japanese giant decided to invest hundreds of millions in racing. A hundred kilometres from Tokyo is in the advanced phase of construction of a circuit of enormous size, on an area three times larger than that occupied by the Suzuka track. It will host a long track for Formula 1 and also an oval for the Indy. Among the rumours circulating in the pits, is also that of a possible entry of Volvo into the world of Grand Prix. The Swedish company would buy Hart to run on its own. Sunday's heavy balance sheet won't affect Ferrari's plans. On Monday, July 1, 1996, in Maranello, a meeting of the technical summit is held to study the problems that forced Schumacher and Irvine to forfeit. As for the gearbox stuck in the Irishman's car, it was immediately discovered that it was caused by the failure of a valve regulating the hydraulic system of the gearbox itself. More difficult to find out the inconvenience that caused the engine to collapse on the single-seater German. Says Eddie Irvine:


"I am stunned because with an engine equal to Mugello I had done a test longer than a race, at a lap speed higher than that planned to play the Grand Prix".


In this regard, however, to be emphasised, once again the positive behaviour of Schumacher, who before travelling to Monte-Carlo had said:


"The more breakups there are, the more we learn for the future. This is also used to prepare for the next year".


In this regard, President Luca Montezemolo, attending the morning meeting, confirms his position by harshly recalling the men of the team that ran to their responsibilities and at the same time reiterates the need to remain united, to maintain the environment calm. On the wave of emotions from many sides, Todt's head was also asked. However, Ferrari is not a football team, but a much more complex and numerous group. And the coaches available are not found in the dozens as happens in the world of football. Characters able to lead a Formula 1 team are counted on the fingers of two hands and most of them are also the owners of their respective teams. So, even if you wanted to, it would be difficult to replace the French manager who has specific skills almost unparalleled. It's certain that if certain situations were to repeat (especially incredible cases such as the mistake in the design of the flow deflector of the F310), then some drastic measure would be inevitable. After all, Todt himself clearly says that he is ready to accept any decisions of his superiors. As for the breakups that occurred during the French Grand Prix, they are part of the game. Even if we can no longer speak only of chance, of fatality, when failures come on a repeat: something is not working. The real problem with Ferrari is that when you have to make up for a delay accumulated over the years, the rush becomes a bad councillor. Mechanics find some solution that improves performance and everything is used right away, without perhaps carrying out all that cycle of tests that would be necessary. Also, this year the Italian team, the only one that does everything alone including the engine (and debuted the new V10), started late. When you realised that the F310 had flaws, it was already time to run. That certainly caused problems, take the last two withdrawals for example. The engine failure in Schumacher's car was caused by the failure of a piston. The gearbox block on the Irvine single-seater resulted from the failure of a plumbing valve. Only more thorough checks and lengthy tests could avoid, at least in part, these drawbacks. Schumacher also wanted to see clearly, to know what had happened. The reasons for the engine failure were explained to him by telephone. Once again, the German driver had a positive reaction:


"From every mistake, from all the problems that arise we must take advantage. I’m sorry to throw away the results and disappoint people but a winning and flawless car is not invented overnight. You have to work and not get discouraged. A race was won in Spain also because we got the car adjustments and strategy right. Now we have to do our best to win again. The goal was to win two or three first places throughout the season. Well, we still have to achieve two full results and then we will".


Therefore, Ferrari will be on track in Monza as early as Tuesday, July 2, 1996, with Larini and the test team. On Wednesday the 3rd and Thursday the 4th of July 1996, it will be Schumacher's turn again. Try a new seven-speed gearbox to be used on fast tracks (such as Hockenheim and Monza in fact) and a more powerful and elastic evolution engine. The famous Step 2 is expected to debut in the Grand Prix of Germany on Sunday, July 28, 1996. The aerodynamics are also at work. Aside from the irregular deflector injury, the new raised nose is just part of the changes that will be made to the F310 throughout the season. A new bodywork, a different bottom with an extractor profile and the rear wing will have to arrive while it seems that Barnard, in England is preparing a modified suspension.


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