#583 1996 Brazilian Grand Prix

2023-01-11 00:00

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#1996, Fulvio Conti, Translated by Flavia Delfini,

#583 1996 Brazilian Grand Prix

With a new gearbox (or rather, the old one from 1995) fitted to the F310, Ferrari prepared to tackle the double South American engagement: back-to-bac


With a new gearbox (or rather, the old one from 1995) fitted to the F310, Ferrari prepared to tackle the double South American engagement: back-to-back, on Sunday 31 March 1996 and the following Sunday 7 April 1996, the Brazilian Grand Prix in Sao Paolo and the Argentine Grand Prix in Buenos Aires were scheduled. The modification of the car was advised by prudence rather than performance. The tests carried out by Michael Schumacher at Fiorano probably still revealed reliability problems with the transmission, so it was decided to play it safe. The Maranello team, therefore, aims to seek concrete results in a start to the season that has confirmed the delay in preparation accumulated for various reasons during the winter. John Barnard is certainly an excellent designer, but his exasperating fussiness almost always takes its toll. The English technician and his team wanted to design a new gearbox that had to be revised in some details that were showing weaknesses. This is why the Racing Department decided together with Barnard to take the step back. It is clear that the German driver, as well as the team, while accepting the running-in period with Ferrari, would still prefer to rack up a few points rather than take risks. There will be no technical changes in the second and third races of the Formula 1 World Championship.Therefore, considering the characteristics of the circuits, Michael Schumacher and his teammate, Eddie Irvine, should theoretically be less competitive in Brazil, while they could improve in Argentina, compared to the Williams. Speaking of the British team, there is a lot of expectation around Jacques Villenueve. After his excellent debut in Australia, the Canadian driver will also have to confirm himself against his co-equipier Damon Hill. The young Villeneuve will have the added handicap of not knowing the tracks and this will be a point against him. But the wily Jacques, with the excuse of going to rest at the villa in Angra dos Reis that was Ayrton Senna's secret hideaway, may have been racking up lap after lap on the Paulist circuit in recent days. Clay Regazzoni is also talking about Formila 1 on the eve of the Brazilian Grand Prix. The nice old man from Ticino repeats the same accusations every time. He says that motorsport is badly managed (and he has a point), that it has become just a TV game show, that Bernie Ecclestone doesn't give a damn about the public, that the Monza track has been transformed from a temple of speed into a temple of banality with lots of chicanes. Then he attacks Jean Alesi:


"He still hasn't understood how to drive in Formula 1".


He hypothesises a year without satisfaction for Benetton and Briatore, he says that Damon Hill is a very strong driver, but incapable of fighting in close duels, that Villeneuve has understood that you have to drive with your head as well, and that Luca Badoer, the only Italian driver with great talent, is wasted by making him drive invalid cars. As usual: all wrong, all to be redone. Meanwhile, however, on Friday 29 March 1996 São Paulo prepares to welcome the Formula 1 Circus. The liveability problems of the world's second most populous city (16.800.000 inhabitants counted for sure by default) are still enormous and perhaps unsolvable, but there are timid signs of recovery. Even the Interlagos circuit, named after Carlos Pace, has been repainted. And above all, the asphalt of the track, which last year had created problems with jumps and various imperfections, has been redone. It is here that the World Championship resumes with the second race of the season. After Jacques Villeneuve's domination and Damon Hill's victory in Melbourne, the chase for Williams opens. A game that, one assumes, the pursuers will not be able to win. All the predictions are in fact for the British team, with the question mark over the challenge between the young Canadian driver and his team mate. Villeneuve, by the way, has been criticised by the Brazilian newspapers in no small measure for having granted a single interview, at great expense, exclusively to Rede Globo. The emerging star of the motor racing circus does not seem to be held in high regard even by Michael Schumacher, the reigning World Champion. In an article published in Welt am Sonntag, the German draws up his ranking of the six drivers he considers the best of the moment: Irvine, Frentzen, Salo, Hakkinen, Barrichello and Alesi. Excluded among others are Villeneuve, Hill and Berger.


"This does not mean that the unnamed cannot win. This is my personal assessment based on driving values. If one has a missile-car, one can also look very good".


No names, but clear indications.


"The Williams are the cars to beat. That's obvious. I don't think the rivals, including us, have caught up quickly. In Australia, in the race, we were a second or so behind. But that didn't surprise or disappoint me. We already knew that we were behind. On the other hand, we were ahead of others who we would have expected to be stronger".


Speaking of delays. There was talk of problems with Barnard. And how is it going with Todt?


'Everything is great, it's easy to work with Jean, we are going in the same direction. I chose Ferrari for certain reasons and I must admit that I like the challenge more and more. It will be nice to grow together. I still have a good margin for improvement too".


If they presented Schumacher with a paper to sign to finish all the races?


"Where's the paper? I'll sign it now. No, all joking aside, the situation is what it is. In recent weeks we've been focusing on reliability. The new gearboxes were cracking, we discovered this in Melbourne and the data was confirmed in the Fiorano tests. It was decided to use the 1995 ones. So don't expect a more competitive Ferrari here and in Argentina. The improvements will come when we manage to put everything together: engine, chassis, gearbox and aerodynamics".


Here, the engine. How's the V10?


"Better than I would have expected. It's consistent, solid. But I honestly can't make a serious comparison with the Renault I was using last year. Until our car is right, all talk is useless. Hard to understand. A V10 has more vibrations than a V8 or a V12, but we can't say whether for example the brake system failure in Australia was caused by this factor or by a series of negative concomitants. We have to wait until we can push to the maximum".


And the story of the lowered cockpits of Williams and Jordan?


"We still don't really know what benefits that solution gives. We just hope we don't have to find out with an accident that they are not safe. We have worked hard and well on safety".


What does Schumacher expect from the weekend?


"To be able to work well and get a good result. Hopefully we won't have any new problems - that would already be a good starting point".


It was the birth of a son with Down's syndrome that radically changed Damon Hill's life, giving him the drive to achieve success. This was told by the British driver's wife in an interview with the Sun newspaper. When Ollie was born seven years ago, Mr and Mrs Hill were a young couple with no money. He was just starting out in motor racing and Georgie was working as a fashion designer.


"Sometimes we were so desperate, Damon would look under the carpet to see if there was any forgotten money. In 1989 the birth of Ollie, was a big shock: everything changed overnight, Damon felt it was his duty to do everything to provide for us. He committed himself and became successful".


Now Hill is a millionaire, living with his family (two more children were born: Joshua and Tabitha) in a beautiful mansion:


"We are rich but he hasn't changed: he is still the man I fell in love with years ago".


The weakness suffered by Ferrari's Northern Irish driver Eddie Irvine, on the other hand, is of a different kind, as his older sister Sonia, his personal physiotherapist, reveals.


"Eddie is not afraid of anything except one thing: acupuncture. He's a tough customer, but I don't give up; in the end he gives in and I win: am I the big sister or not?"


A lot of words are spent on the super-licence taken out by Alain Prost, but the French driver specifies that it was indispensable for him to be insured during the tests he carries out for McLaren. But some speculate that, for publicity reasons, Alain might take the start of the Monaco Grand Prix. As said, in Sao Paulo Damon Hill is looking for an encore: after his lucky victory in Australia, the English driver is the big favourite at Interlagos. It will almost certainly still be a family fight between the Williams drivers, even if, on Saturday 30 March 1996, Jacques Villeneuve fails to repeat his Melbourne exploit and this time will have to be content with third place on the grid. Villeneuve does everything to be the fastest. At the end, while lapping on times similar to those of his teammate, Damon Hill, the Canadian driver goes off the track and loses his front wing, hitting the ground. The Williams driver is however good at controlling the car without suffering any further damage. But the Canadian is a thoroughbred fighter and will certainly not suffer passively the advantage gained by his team-mate, who obtains pole position (number 12 in his career) by lapping in 1'18"111, at an average speed of 197.810 km/h. Jordan-Peugeot makes its debut on the front row and somewhat surprisingly, but not too much, thanks to Rubens Barrichello, the progenitor of a line-up of Brazilians seeking the legacy of Ayrton Senna. Mad with joy, the Italian-born driver put into practice his knowledge of the track and the qualities of a car on the rise, given the sixth place of his team-mate, Martin Brundle. Ferrari still started on the second row, thanks to a feat by Michael Schumacher, who at the last minute went from P6 to P4, overtaking Jean Alesi by 0.010 seconds. Only in P10, on the other hand, was Eddie Irvine, who paid the price for not having practised on Friday due to an early morning off-track, during which he had seriously damaged the Ferrari. The Northern Irishman, moreover, had to drive the reserve car in qualifying, because there had been a petrol leak on his. For the Maranello team, the result was in line with cautious expectations. The engineers had predicted that the characteristics of the circuit would not allow progress, also because the more reliable 1995 gearbox was fitted, which caused aerodynamic changes at the rear of the single-seater. At the end of the tests, says the always serene Michael Schumacher:


"Considering the current situation, it didn't go badly. I hope to score the first points with Ferrari, to put a small base for the future, when we will make progress. The important thing is to finish the race, hoping that no new or different problems crop up. Certainly the 30 °C ambient temperature doesn't help us much. The tactics to be adopted in the race will also be important, but if nothing special happens, the two Williams are absolutely out of our reach. A third place, in theory, is the maximum goal we can aim for at the moment".


In the days leading up to the Brazilian Grand Prix John Barnard, Ferrari's British designer, was the subject of numerous accusations. According to his detractors, he would be the main cause of the Maranello team's problems. The engineer appears, however, very calm.


"There is work to be done to improve the F310, but it is normal to have problems to solve dealing with a new car. We have interpreted the safety regulations according to its spirit, as far as the protections for the driver in the cockpit are concerned, so we think we have acted in the best possible way. And we also decided to mount the gearbox used in the 1995 championship for a couple of races, so we made some radical changes. But I repeat that the base of the single-seater is good, we are on the right track. Within a short time, therefore, will come the results that all Ferrari fans expect".


Benetton also took a few small steps forward, so that will have to be taken into account. But it must be said that Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger, after literally dominating Friday's free tests (using new tyres that the others were not using), had a lot of trouble. In the morning, the two went off the track and the Austrian destroyed the front end of the car: this explained Gerhard's P8, which meant he no longer had time to make a valid set-up. Jean, in qualifying, hikes through the grass to avoid two marshals who recklessly push Pedro Paulo Diniz's Ligier down the track. But the Frenchman says that the set-up of his car was not good. The race will be long and difficult. Also, as mentioned, it is very hot and the test will be very difficult and demanding for everyone. Tyre changes and refuelling are the usual pitfalls. The Forti team with Luca Badoer and Andrea Montermini, who qualified, will also take to the track: it is almost a victory for the small Italian team. Clamorously disqualified, instead, the Ligier of Olivier Panis and Pedro Paulo Diniz who, having gone off the track, let themselves be pushed by the marshals, but the manoeuvre is forbidden. The drivers tried to lodge an appeal, but only Panis's was accepted, the Frenchman was thus reinstated, while the Brazilian, on the other hand, was forced to watch the race from the pits. On Sunday 31 March 1996, about half an hour before the start of the Brazilian Grand Prix, a violent downpour hits the circuit: although the track conditions are critical, the race is not postponed and the start takes place regularly. At the start Damon Hill holds the first position, while behind him Rubens Barrichello is overtaken by both Jacques Villeneuve and Jean Alesi; the English driver immediately gains a big advantage over his pursuers, taking advantage of the fact that he is the only one with a clear view. In the meantime Jean Alesi puts pressure on Jacques Villeneuve, whose experience in the wet is very limited; the Benetton driver, however, has to watch out for the attacks of Rubens Barrichello, who tries to overtake him already on lap 7: the Brazilian pulls alongside his rival at the first corner, but arrives long and has to let him pass.


The manoeuvre is repeated, identically, on lap 10 and lap 11: Barrichello overtakes his rival at the first corner, but has to give way again at the next corner. On lap 27 Jacques Villeneuve was stuck for a few corners behind Andrea Montermini's Forti and Jean Alesi took advantage of this to attack him on the straight opposite the pits: the Williams driver tried to resist, but ended up off the track and retired. Five laps later Jean Alesi also runs off the track, staying in the race but having to give up his position to Rubens Barrichello; the Brazilian, however, returns to the pits too early, having to mount the wet tyres and then return to the pit lane and put on the dry ones. Back on track in P4, behind Michael Schumacher, Rubens Barrichello tries to attack him, but his attempts are unsuccessful and on lap 60 the Brazilian goes off track, retiring. At this point the top three positions were largely consolidated, with Damon Hill going on to win with a comfortable lead over Jean Alesi and even a lap more than Michael Schumacher; fourth was Mika Häkkinen, who preceded compatriot Mika Salo after a long duel. The last point is won by Olivier Panis. Well played, Mr Hill. Second victory for the Englishman with Williams.But on the podium with the undisputed leader of the World Championship standings also finished Jean Alesi and Michael Schumacher, in that order. The first time for both of them in swapped teams, Benetton for the Frenchman and the German in the Ferrari. Hill did nothing wrong this time, Jean and Michael instead put on a show. On the contrary, young Jacques Villeneuve paid the price for his inexperience and perhaps also for the excessive praise he received after his debut in Australia, when he ended up off the track for trying to be clever with Jean Alesi. The race, surprisingly, took place half in the rain and on a flooded track. A sudden and unexpected near-tropical storm even put the Brazilian Grand Prix in doubt. But then the asphalt dried out and everything returned to normal. And in the end, not without twists and turns, prizes for almost everyone, with only 11 out of 22 cars completing the race, and 12 drivers classified. If there was still a need, there was further confirmation of Williams' current dominance. A big lead over their rivals, so much so that it gave the impression that the winner Hill did not struggle much to impose himself. At most Damon was more committed to not losing concentration than to forcing the pace. 


The wet start also gave him such a margin in terms of seconds that after about fifteen laps the game could be considered over. Only a mistake on the part of the 35-year-old Londoner or a breakdown could have deprived him of his 15th success, which led him to finally overtake his father Graham Hill, who had stopped at 14 successes. Damon Hill now has a 14-point lead over Jacques Villeneuve and Jean Alesi. Not bad after only two races. And we come to the other two protagonists. Alesi, who has always been a tightrope walker in the rain, once again showed all his qualities as a fast and courageous driver. But it must also be acknowledged that Benetton took a few steps forward compared to the Australian test. The Frenchman was the only one to more or less maintain Damon's pace (17 seconds at the finish), making only one pit stop. Certainly the wet weather has contributed to the Avignon-born driver's result, but the car has improved, even if problems still remain. So much so that Gerhard Berger retired because his car's engine was badly tuned and the Austrian was not competitive. Michael Schumacher's value to the Maranello team can be seen in the German's placing. Third place is certainly more due to the German than to the F310. Michael did not make a mistake. He drove well in the wet when the car was balanced. He did not take unnecessary risks by trying impossible overtaking moves. Then he attacked in the middle section when it came to recovering after the first pit stop. In the last third of the race, clearly slower than Rubens Barrichello, the German driver repelled the Brazilian driver's attacks. 


At the moment when Rubens overtook, Schumacher took advantage of the fact that his opponent had spread himself too wide and overtook him again. The Jordan driver, who was surprised, then made a fatal mistake by going long and ended a race that could have seen him on the podium in the dirt. It was a shame, because both in qualifying and in the race he had been among the best up to that point. Two third places make up the balance for the Maranello team at this point. Momentary reliability was found (Irvine also reached the finish line, but in P7, because his single-seater was not easy to keep on the road) at the expense of competitiveness. The old gearbox works, but there is a lot of work to be done. The designer John Barnard has promised a series of interventions within a short time. For the European Grand Prix the new gearbox should return, together with more advanced aerodynamics.And it cannot be ruled out that a more advanced version of the engine will also arrive. However, one should not underestimate the fact that the engine developed by Martinelli's team is already running quite well. Sauber, which also has new engines with the same fractioning, has broken the engine on both cars. And it is not just any brand, but Ford, the world's second largest car manufacturer. Nor does Mercedes with McLaren shine too brightly, despite the prowess of a driver like Mika Hakkinen. There is no time to lose, however. If Williams is already a long way off, Benetton also appears to be on the upswing, at least from what could be understood in Brazil. But on the horizon Jordan also appears threatening. And Ferrari must get a move on, despite Michael Schumacher appearing serene at the end of the race, calm and even happy:


"Third place is the maximum result we could have aimed for. I predicted that maybe I would finish on the podium and that was it. Given the conditions in which we raced and the situation in general, honestly, it was not possible to go any further. I think I managed our chances well. The most positive note? We didn't break anything and that is another good result".


But the German, who is used to speaking his mind, does not spare any criticism, albeit constructive:


"The car, this F310, needs to be improved in all its parts. There is no doubt about that. Chassis, gearbox, engine, aerodynamics. We lose in all areas of the circuit: there is not a single piece of data that comforts us in this respect. On the straight, in the slow and fast corners, under braking, everywhere we were leaving a few hundredths or tenths. That's why we have to work, and a lot. Maybe it will be a little better next Sunday in Argentina, because in theory the circuit should be more favourable to the characteristics of our single-seater. But in the longer term we need decisive changes".


Schumacher also makes a list of the problems he had in the race:


"Car didn't handle well, some problems with the brakes, the gearbox on the steering wheel didn't always work perfectly".


And the race strategy?


"We decided to make two stops, because it was a roulette that depended mainly on the weather conditions. It could have been the right choice, instead it would have been better to stop only once. In the end, however, I could not have resisted Barrichello's attack. My car was set up for the rain and was very slow on the straight. However, the Brazilian came too long to overtake me and I was able to pass him. He made another mistake and ended up off the track. At the end I didn't pull any more so as not to take any unnecessary risks, no one was chasing me closely and it would have been stupid to try to avoid being overtaken by Hill just for reasons of pride".


Eddie Irvine, on the other hand, appeared disappointed:


"It was a difficult race for me right from qualifying. After the start, water must have got into the car because the engine started acting up. Then it started running well, but the set-up was unsuitable. I could have pushed a little harder, but I risked going off the line and spinning. This time I really didn't deserve to finish in the top six".


Damon Hill not only won, but also took the satisfaction of shooting a nice dig at his team-mate, Jacques Villeneuve:


"He is good, I thank him for the work he has done these days. Otherwise I think I had an excellent race. I talked a lot with the pits, over the radio. I was calm. I only got scared when I saw Barrichello's Jordan leave the track. I was afraid he was going to run into me. Apart from that, the situation was always under control. Although at the end I felt a bit of pressure from Alesi who was trying to catch up. Anyway, the season has started very well for me".


Jacques Villeneuve is not looking for excuses:


"I made mistakes, experience unfortunately cannot be invented in a few days. You just have to learn and try not to repeat mistakes".


Happiness and bright eyes for Jean Alesi:


"I am very happy even though it was a very tough race for me. You couldn't see anything and it was difficult to keep the car on the track. I fought a lot, exciting duels with Villeneuve and Barrichello. The car was very good in the wet and we can still improve it. But it is already important to have lapped everyone and to have finished not far behind Williams. If I had managed to start on the front row and if I hadn't also spun, maybe I could have been fighting for first place. But that's OK".


Ferrari's third place in the Brazilian Grand Prix is like a two-sided medal. On the one hand, Michael Schumacher's first podium with Ferrari, so a result that reflects the expectations of the moment. On the other, the negative side, even scorching, in some ways: the lap gap to the winner Damon Hill and the very modest performance of the F310 that forced the German champion to take a lot of risks in qualifying and to run a race of pure defence. It is not yet the moment to make trials (the delays accumulated by the Maranello team were known) but the situation appears worrying. From Maranello, on the phone, President Luca Montezemolo himself, particularly upset, issues a stark warning:


"We have given means and trust to Barnard and all the other team members. We now expect a winning car in the near future. Everyone must take responsibility".


Schumacher himself, after the race, expresses a clear and merciless judgement on the car:


"The F310 has to improve a bit in all areas, from aerodynamics to chassis, through engine and gearbox. We have to work hard and look for the right way to get positive results as soon as possible, also because our rivals are certainly not standing still".


So the new single-seater designed by the team led in England by John Barnard is already under indictment. The technician is not personally blaming himself, but he admits a few mistakes. His face is drawn, he is pale, he looks tired:


"It is true that we arrived late. The biggest problem so far has been with the gearbox. It was breaking down. So we were forced to use the one from 1995, which involves different aerodynamics at the rear. As for the protection for the driver in the cockpit, we prepared the best possible solution within the philosophy of the regulations. The gearbox problems are perhaps due to a number of concomitants, including the vibrations that are inherent in a 10-cylinder engine. We are strengthening it, we should be able to use it in Germany at the end of the month in the fourth race of the championship. In truth, the F310, unlike the previous model, is a very sensitive and critical car. The fact that we had to give up the planned configuration led to unprecedented problems. But we also want to investigate the aerodynamics and some changes are not excluded".


In the meantime, a dossier is being prepared at Maranello on Ferrari's merits and flaws, divided into three chapters. Here are the favourable notes: the team is working well on average (the race tactics were wrong for both Schumacher and Irvine, but guessing was almost impossible; the strategy, however, had been prepared together with the drivers); Schumacher is confirming not only his enormous capacity on the track but also his value within the team with a very constructive relationship and full collaboration; the engine is reliable and competitive even if its testing started late compared to Mercedes and Peugeot. But there are the negative notes: the delay with which the complete car was tested on the track weighs heavily; the interventions to improve it do not concern a single inconvenience, but several technical components; the interventions, which must be radical, risk upsetting the programmes prepared for the whole season, putting off the immediate relaunch. So there is tension at Ferrari, but the desire to emerge is not lacking. Says John Barnard:


"It is clear that I would like to be in front of Williams. If anyone cares about winning, it's me. So we'll try to fix that. I know where action has to be taken. The external criticism I've received doesn't affect me, it goes over my head. With Todt and with Ferrari the relationship is normal, good, of understanding and collaboration. If someone doesn't want me, tell me. I would have no difficulty in stepping aside, in leaving".


The English magician wants to appear calm and focused. But perhaps that is not quite the case: in reality, failure and criticism annoy him. It is to be hoped that pride will spur him on to try his best. A divorce, then, would do no one any good. In theory, for Ferrari, it should go better in Argentina, on a track more suited to fine-tuning the F310. And on Wednesday 3 April 1996 Nicola Larini will test in Italy with the new modified gearbox and a more advanced version of the engine. All that remains is to wait.


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