After the elimination of Michael Schumacher due to the debris that broke the aileron, Ferrari was unlucky even after the race in Argentina: one of the cars that were transported to the airport was badly damaged because the truck crashed into a pylon. Nevertheless, on Wednesday, April 10th, 1996, Ferrari completed about 220 kilometres of testing at Mugello, with the F310 and Eddie Irvine on board. Stops to change an engine and a water leak. Best time was 1'28"8. The tests, after the gearbox controls, will resume on Thursday with Michael Schumacher and the new engine. Thursday, April 11th, 1996, in addition to continuing tests with Ferrari, Michael Schumacher confesses to the weekly Bunte:
"If I ever have a child, he won’t be born in Germany. Who guarantees our safety in Germany?"
Asks the driver, two times World Champion who, recently, received death threats from groups close to the PKK, the extremist party fighting for the independence of the Kurdish people. Better South America, in perspective at least:
"I dream of three children and a farm there".
In the meantime, the Ferrari driver confesses that he is preparing a relocation from Monaco to Switzerland. There is no mention of returning to Germany: too much curiosity, too high taxes, little or no security.
"I, too, have the right to a quiet private life, which unfortunately is no longer possible in Germany".
"How complicated the tax law is".
The Graf Clan’s champion laments that he certainly has in mind the judicial misadventure, not yet ended:
"I prefer the rules in force abroad".
Not to mention that:
"Most of my earnings come from foreign companies".
"Why should I pay taxes in Germany?"
In short, a double guilty insolvency, is the accusation of Michael Schumacher to his country: Germany does not guarantee neither personal nor even fiscal peace, which is even less. In Switzerland things will be better, even than how they have been so far in Monaco: recently, the German champion was accused by the public television of his country of tax evasion against France, and therefore forced to leave Monte-Carlo. His habitual residence, according to the ARD transmission, would be a villa on the Côte d'Azur: the French tax authorities would then be paid taxes on annual earnings that the German press - regularly denied by the person concerned - estimates to be at least 50.000.000 DM, between engagements and sponsorships.
Nevertheless, Michael Schumacher rejects the accusation and reassures fans who entrust him with national dreams and pride:
"I feel German, I’m not going to take a foreign passport and not even dual nationality".
He guarantees in the interview; but the decision to emigrate for the second time is final.
"In Switzerland I look for a relatively normal home, no castle. As long as it’s close to an airport because my workplace is around the world".
In the interview, which is publicized by Bunte in the entire cover, Schumacher also addresses his work at Ferrari: a theme, the latter, subject of daily controversy in popular newspapers, alternating moans of anxiety ("But that helps our Schumi?") sudden enthusiasm ("Ferrarissimo Schumi"), depending on the speed and resistance of the car during the tests.
"I will return to victory soon, in the middle of the season I will certainly succeed".
Michael Schumacher promises, that - on request - he does not renounce to a meticulous list of the problems that afflict the car of Maranello: engine performance does not go well, in Jordan and Williams the air is sucked much better through the side walls of the cockpit; aerodynamics needs to be significantly improved; he could not sufficiently test the engine, at Estoril for example, where he only tested four or five times due to the rain. And now that the World Champion sees himself overtaken in the race, after passing them all for two years, how do you feel?
"How to overtake a Ferrari, I know from my two years of victories. The fact that it’s happening now, but with reversed roles, is an unpleasant experience for someone accustomed to winning".
Things will change, but for now we must be realistic:
"Ferrari goes on, but I have always warned: don’t expect any surprises. If people at home hope the opposite, it’s their problem".
However, the latest news for Ferrari ahead of the upcoming European Grand Prix is not very positive. The Maranello team was forced to change its plans: for the tests scheduled in Monza, the old gearbox will be used since the new one of the F310 continues to show failure. It is the only information that filters from the racing team, after just the problems at the change of conception had made them miss the tests scheduled for Thursday. Ferrari's technicians are analysing the case and have not yet decided on the causes and possible solutions. For the moment, it was decided to continue the work with the F310 driven by Schumacher, which will carry out a race simulation, testing the evolution - more powerful - of the new V10 combined with the 1995 gearbox. Friday, April 12th, 1996, Michael Schumacher will take ten minutes and a lot of patience to get out of the paddock of the national circuit of Monza. Surrounded by a crowd of fans, the German champion, at the wheel of his strictly red Fiat Coupé, is forced to shake hundreds of hands and sign as many autographs as possible. He leaves smiling, the Ferrari driver, for the great show of esteem by the public (3000 paying) came to attend a practice session that turned out to be boring and interrupted in advance. The long run, the race simulation, started at 2:30 p.m., ended at 4:45 p.m., after 31 of the 53 laps. And for the moment, the latest evolution of the V10 engine failed. There was a drop in power and the technicians preferred to close the test before the engine broke down. In total Schumacher, also considering the morning’s tuning tests, completed 44 laps (the fastest in 1'27"814, Coulthard’s pole in 1995 was of 1'24"461), equal to 255 kilometres.
According to the parameters of Ferrari, to homologate an engine for a race, you have to do at least 450 kilometres. During the evening, the engine is sent back to Maranello for exams. But Schumacher himself dispels all worries, revealing a small Ferrari secret:
"What we tried this time is not the engine for the Nürburgring race, but what we will have to mount for Imola, Sunday, May 5th. That’s the reason behind that time. In Germany, we will use the V10 that Larini has successfully tested at Mugello in recent days".
Ferrari, therefore, already has several evolutions of the new engine. And the data obtained during the tests of these days (first with Irvine, then with Schumacher), according to the technicians of the Maranello team, are not entirely negative. In fact, there were clear improvements in terms of maximum speed. And problems related to the new gearbox will be solved. The F310 should therefore face the next European Grand Prix with the hope of doing better than it did in the first three races of the World Championship.
"I feel neither disappointed nor frustrated. The situation is exactly what I expected. We have many new solutions to put on track, little by little. The circuit of the Nürburgring should suit our cars and we can aim for the podium. Before the season began, we set ourselves the goal of winning at least two races, and then aiming for the title in a year. There are still thirteen races to go, we will be able to do that and there will be no major mistakes".
There is confidence, despite everything. And Schumacher should test again at the Mugello on Monday, April 22nd, before leaving for Adenau. Talking about the future, the wind tunnel that will be built in Maranello for Ferrari will be beautiful and very sophisticated: the company, in fact, tries to combine aesthetic and technical requirements in designing its new wind tunnel. An avant-garde plant that will be finished at the end of January 1997. Investment: 15.000.000.000 lire. In a period of great challenges, both industrial and sporting, Ferrari cannot not stay behind. Aerodynamics has become too important both in racing and in the manufacturing of road cars not to take a decisive role in the dream factory, in the realm of mechanics and engines. Luca Montezemolo, who presented the initiative on Monday, April 15th, 1996, entrusted the design of the building to a world-famous architect: Renzo Piano, 59, from Genoa. The reason for this choice is simple: the president of Ferrari wants to equip the company with a decisive weapon for the future. And prepare a building that is also a testimony of the historical link that unites it to Maranello and the territory that houses it. The gallery, unlike the existing ones, will not be closed inside a building. It will be inserted on the ground, in the area where Ferrari is building its most modern systems. It will be built by Dioguardi SpA, specialized in engineering works with high technical content, with plants of the German company TLT, leader in the sector. The plant will therefore also be a symbol and a construction to see or visit. In the gallery you can try models in scale to 65% or even 1:1 on speeds close to 300 km/h, with movable carpet. All possible situations will be simulated, both for the grand touring vehicles and for the Formula 1 cars. The reference to Formula 1 involves Luca Montezemolo, who draws up a balance on the first three races of the season.
"There’s a climate around the Ferrari that I don’t like. Excessive tension, searching for mysteries and striking news. Interpretations that are often far from reality. We are aware that we presented the F310 late. But this was also a year in which almost everything had to change, starting with the new V10 engine. On this matter, it seems to me that our technicians did a very good job. For the car, I admit that I expected something more. We started without development. Despite this, the results were good. Two third places in Australia and Brazil. And in Argentina, if a piece of debris hadn’t damaged the wing of Schumacher’s car, we would have got on the second step. We’ve always been ahead of most of our rivals, apart from Damon Hill, who we had already pointed out as the big favourite for the title. And now, after being criticized for having spent a lot of money to secure Schumacher, people let us know that we get some results thanks to Michael’s contribution. That is why we have taken him, and I hope he will do even more. The relationship between the driver and the team is excellent, the German champion has a professional and constructive approach that everyone values a lot".
Then he concludes:
"As for Irvine, last year at Jordan he was almost always faster than Barrichello, who is considered a very good driver. Being Schumacher’s teammates is no picnic. Ask the various Patrese, Brunelle, Herbert and Verstappen, which is now considered an emerging phenomenon and which Benetton had left behind because it was beaten by the German. Having said that, I repeat that the goal of 1996 is to win at least one race more than last year. Let us work and you’ll see that we will get there. And in 1997 we will be more ambitious".
Meanwhile, however, Michael Schumacher says he is convinced that the Formula 1 World Championship, as for the 1996 season, will be won by Damon Hill:
"Williams' Englishman has the best chances and can no longer be reached".
But the president of Ferrari, Luca Montezemolo, continues to talk about the Formula 1 World Championship, at the Motor Show, saying:
"We put a lot of effort into it, now we expect results. The engine is fine, but there is work to do on the chassis. I’m satisfied with Schumacher and Irvine. Barnard? He has a contract until August 1997. People must be able to work in peace".
A confirmation, therefore, for the English technician after in recent days someone had spoken of disagreements and a possible divorce. Ferrari, meanwhile, continues testing with Michael Schumacher, at Mugello, ahead of the European Grand Prix. Irvine also made his debut on the Tuscan track. The appointment is at 1:00 p.m. on Thursday, April 25th, 1996, but Michael Schumacher is a bit late because the sun has come out, and the tests have continued a bit longer.
"Don’t be afraid".
Says a mechanic in a red jumpsuit.
"This is a professional. Everything must be done right. The work and then the interview".
Italians, professionals, first they fear them, then they venerate them. Don’t worry. Michael Schumacher will be kind the right, good the right. Not like school. Carla Eckert, his English teacher, said he was not the best:
"Sometimes he even tried to be smart, and one day I caught him copying. Now, when I hear him speaking so good English, I wonder how he learned it".
How did he do it, Schumacher?
"Because I had to".
Here is the first secret of a professional. He already knows his luck. And it is not to be good, or the best. It is that he does well what he wants, what he loves. This is the luck of life, and we can all have it. It is enough to have a big heart, enough to love something.
Schumacher likes to run on a car, that is all. And what is Ferrari?
Is that really why you chose it?
"I know that seventeen years ago, there was someone who won with Ferrari. I want to try to do the same. I want to win again, with a Ferrari. It’s a challenge with myself".
And when will it begin?
"Well, realistically, it will only be possible mid-season. To win a Grand Prix, I mean. Not before".
Who took the biggest advantage: Schumacher associating his name with the myth of Ferrari, or Ferrari securing the best driver on the market?
"It’s always been fifty-fifty, right from the start. And even today there’s great collaboration between us. There is a lot of work behind the scenes of a race. The public only sees it, people don’t know all the fatigue that is required to prepare it".
Let’s take stock. Satisfied or not?
"I didn’t have many expectations. And now I have to say that I’m quite satisfied with things".
How long does it take to get tired of a car?
"A car or a team? I don’t know how long it takes, because the first time was last year. And the reason I did that is because I had already won. I couldn’t overcome those limits any more, and I came here to put myself to the test. As for the machines, then, I’m never satisfied with a car, I just think about improving it".
What about a woman?
"Hey, I’m married. I could never get tired of my wife".
What is speed for Schumacher?
"I don’t think speed is what it’s like to drive a race car. 300 km/h equals 100 km/h in a normal car. You notice the speed of a normal car because you see the faces of those around you when you get past them. In a racing car, you notice it when you have to change, for example in a corner. Changes of mind are what give you strength, power, not speed itself".
You gave some money to charity, sold photos of the wedding to the children of Bosnia, contributed to UNESCO’s campaigns against drugs and racism. What is your political idea?
"My idea is to try to change things that go wrong. Because the world is very odd. I make a lot of money and I want to help people who can’t survive, all the poor people in the world. People like me have a duty to do it".
What do you think of Germany?
"I’m happy to be German, but I’m lucky because I can choose the place where I want to live. Careful, though. Many people would take my answer wrong. There. I have no problem with Germany, and I’m happy to be German. But I’m not a fanatic".
What about Italy? Have you begun to get acquainted with it?
"Not much. But I love the landscape now. Great. If I didn’t do this job, I’d like to move to this countryside. It’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen".
Does Schumacher know what fear is?
"It’s not what you feel driving a race car. I’ve had a lot of accidents, two were terrible. But I’ve never been scared. The fear I had later, once, was when I came down, and I realized that I could not breathe for the hit taken. During the accident I was only worried about the car and the people in the stable who might be pissed that I broke it. I’m much more afraid when I walk, when I ride a bike. The feeling is that people get used to these things and don’t recognize the limits. And so you may think I’m weird, that it’s more dangerous to drive. Instead, nothing scares me as long as I’m within my limits. We all must stay within our limits. Fear is simply what is beyond".
Patrese told a journalist in 1993: look, this Schumacher is a phenomenon. Along with Senna. Is it true?
"For me, Senna has always been a phenomenon. Unfortunately, I will never put myself in his position".
What was the best day of your life?
"When I married Corinna".
And the ugliest one?
"Imola 1994. The death of Ayrton Senna".
What did you feel?
"I don’t want to talk about this. It happened. Fatality. Many strange coincidences, many unfortunate episodes. Fate, I believe one must do the things he loves the most. The rest is already written. If Senna had survived, he would still be a driver. And this is beautiful. Because we are happy when we drive, we make people happy when we drive. Then, I believe that things are written in fate. We all have to die, there’s no point in hiding it".
Does Lawyer Agnelli wake you up in the morning like he does with footballers?
"No. You can see that he understood the importance of sleep for someone who has to run in a car".
What about lawyer Montezemolo?
He must have understood...
Niki Lauda once said: There must be something else in life, instead of constantly doing laps on the track. What do you think?
"He’s right. Life is not driving on a circuit. But doing what you like, what you want and what makes sense. For me, it makes sense to run and help other people. I know I won’t drive forever, and the hardest part of my life will start when I have to quit".
Damon Hill said that Schumacher is the number one driver, have you read it?
"Congratulations to him".
What does Schumacher say?
"If I say I’m number one, it’s stupid, and it’s stupid even if I don’t say it".
But other than Schumacher, who’s the best?
Is Schumacher shy?
"Why are you looking at me like this? No, I’m not shy".
But in the end, who is Schumacher? One who prefers to run or win?
"Both. Sure. I can’t win without running".
Meanwhile, on the eve of the European Grand Prix, from Williams they say:
"We have made little progress, we are confident".
But Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger reply:
"Benetton now goes stronger, they can also win".
And even in Ferrari they claim that:
"The car has improved".
As for the European Grand Prix, which will be held at the Nürburgring circuit, after three consecutive victories of Damon Hill, opponents are looking for revenge. It’s logical and normal. However, it won’t be easy to beat the English driver. Jean Todt explains:
"Our goal is the podium. We can dream of something more, but we don’t know. The data reported by the Mugello tests assure us that the F310 has increased performance. But we have no indication of our rivals. We must wait for the results of the track".
The Ferraris will have the 1996 gearbox, with the original suspension, several aerodynamic changes, and a slightly better engine. It seems that the problems concerning the rear end, which was too unstable, have been solved. On Wednesday, at Mugello, the rain prevented Michael Schumacher from performing a race simulation, which will be carried out by Nicola Larini as soon as possible. Meanwhile, the promising Giancarlo Fisichella will return to Minardi, who has a contract for three races, with the possibility of extension. It will be a particularly sad eve for Alain Prost, given that on Thursday, April 25th, 1996, his 70-year-old father died, suffering from cancer. Friday, April 26th, 1996, Michael Schumacher sees the front row and Germany, already all in favour of Ferrari, goes crazy. In fact, 200.000 spectators have been announced for the European Grand Prix, which takes place at the previously mentioned Nürburgring circuit, the temple of German motoring. In the stands there is a wave of red flags but he, Schumacher, preaches calmly.
"I repeat, here we aim for the podium. To win, we will have to wait until mid-season".
The World Champion reiterates this in an official statement, since the men of Maranello do not present themselves to the ritual interviews. In fact, Williams appears, overall, still out of reach, although in the last qualifying round, that sly Michael will somehow try to excite the crowd by trying to get the pole position. But the ease with which Damon Hill gets the best free practice time offers little hope. The Englishman always runs with the same tires (with the peak being, at the start, the employment of rain tires on the dry track to avoid deteriorating the slicks) and does not find the slightest problem. In contrast to his teammate, Jacques Villeneuve, who in the role of apprentice (he had never seen this circuit), does not go beyond the P12. To tell the truth, also Schumacher does not look only for chronometric feedback and uses only one set of tires. As usual, the Ferrari driver prefers to make the car progress step by step:
"It’s not bad, the things we tried at Mugello are positive, but there’s still a lot to do, because we gained a few tenths and not seconds".
Of course, performance and reliability are not found on the track. They are always the result of enormous efforts. And if the Ferrari has improved, the others never stop. The problem - incidentally - is often more serious for the pursuers than for those in the lead. Williams, for several years, has changed few details on his cars. These are generally evolutions, tried until boredom before being taken into the race. The example of this situation comes from Benetton, which last year won almost always: lost the best driver, forced to renew, the team led by Flavio Briatore is a bit reeling. Alesi is in P6, Gerhard Berger in P14. Stuff peculiar to the slums of the ranking.
On Saturday may change everything, but the French and the Austrian admit, disconcerted:
"We tested in Jerez with excellent results. We thought we had made a step forward. Instead, the car behaves in a strange way, it reports a considerable understeer, it’s very difficult to adjust, complicated".
Life is hard for Eddie Irvine, the other driver of the Maranello team. The Northern Irishman, accomplice also an engine with some problems, slips in P15. How difficult to be Schumacher’s teammate. Between the two, there is a difference of about 1.5 seconds. Too much. And it cannot be a consolation that in the past this also happened to the various Jos Verstappen, Riccardo Patrese, Martin Brundle, Johnny Herbert, and J.J. Letho. Michael grinds everything: it takes nerves of steel to resist him, otherwise you fall into terror and the nights become filled with nightmares. Says Niki Lauda, back again and not without emotions to see the place, the old track, where about twenty years ago he had his terrible accident:
"Michael is an amazing driver, because unlike everyone else, he can work on multiple fronts. He’s currently developing chassis, aerodynamics, engine, and gearbox. And the pressure at Ferrari is always very high, as back in the day. If I had to give Schumacher some advice, I would tell him to learn Italian. Not so much to speak it, but to understand it. He has already understood how to work in Maranello, but he could use a more direct contact".
In short, compliments are not spared to the champion, but they are deserved. Jean Todt himself dotes on him. If then Michael can make the miracle and start in front of everyone, it will be a triumph. For Germany and for Ferrari. For the moment, the gap from Hill is exactly 0.479 seconds (1'20"853 the fastest lap of the English, at an average speed of 202.857 km/h). You must go even harder, push more on the accelerator. The ideal time is close to 1'18"0, if the track does not turn into a quagmire. Ferrari president Luca Montezemolo will arrive in Adenau on Saturday evening. Will he find a gift waiting for him? Apparently not, since Saturday, April 27th, 1996, in qualifying, Williams builds a wall between them and those behind. An impalpable obstacle, made of space and time, against which, however, the dreams of opponents are shattered. Honestly, you cannot understand if it is the English team to improve or if the others are getting worse. The fact is that at the European Grand Prix, the World Champion Michael Schumacher, ahead of his fans, will be forced to chase, starting in the second row. Aiming to get on the third step of the podium. Because Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve seem unreachable. The Englishman, who reached pole position number 14 in his career (the third in a row this year), aims - with excellent chances - for an extraordinary poker. In case of victory, it would be the fourth success of four races. Ayrton Senna, Juan Manuel Fangio, Jochen Rindt, Alain Prost and Michael Schumacher have achieved this result so far. Best did only Alberto Ascari (9), Jack Brabham, Kim Clark, and Nigel Mansell. And sorry if these names are not enough for you. It was all too easy for Damon Hill. A few laps and he scored a time of 1'18"941, averaging 207.707 km/h, which mortifies the ambitions of all opponents. Only the little Villeneuve, with the same car, manages to get to less than a second behind (exactly 0.780 seconds). All the others suffer abyssal detachments. In line Schumacher, Alesi, Barrichello, Coulthard, Irvine, Berger, Häkkinen and Frentzen. Schumacher probably suffers. With the third place, the German driver has to say goodbye to the gift he wanted to make to the president Montezemolo, arriving soon to the track, as announced. Farewell to the miracle that would have triggered the party of the multitude of fans. The red flags of Ferrari and the German ones with the driver’s name move only for the wind. Although the Nürburgring always feeds the flame of hope. Says Jean Todt, head of Scuderia Ferrari:
"In the race, Michael will be closer to the Williams".
It is possible. But he, Schumacher, imperturbable, hiding every trace of emotion, even if inside he may have so much anger.
And he makes no predictions. He avoids promises, he limits himself to a cold analysis:
"We are more than a second away from Damon Hill. On this circuit, a driver can’t make a difference, it’s too easy. We have grip problems. You want to know if I mind not shining in front of my audience? I knew the situation perfectly well when I signed the contract for Maranello. So I am neither surprised nor frustrated. You just have to work".
Then the champion offers hope:
"We know which areas of the car we need to intervene in. I have confidence. It takes time. We’ll be ready to win mid-season. So yes, I already see the light at the end of the tunnel".
Evidently, the German driver knows things that non-experts do not know. But one thing is certain: the F310 project, this year’s Ferrari, is not working. It is true that everything is new. Chassis, aerodynamics, and engine. But it is also certain that John Barnard, the English technician in charge of designing the single-seater, still got it - as they say - wrong. It is mainly the aerodynamics that are being accused. So much so that in Maranello they are working to prepare a new nose (taller) and perhaps also less bulky side air intakes. Remember that the difference in the lap between the best engine and a decent one can be a few tenths of a second. The mechanics and especially the body can be worth 2–3 seconds. A slight consolation for Ferrari (which can also count on Eddie Irvine, placed in an honest P7), that the others are not better. Alesi had to do miracles to get back into P4. The Frenchman ended up off track trying the impossible with a Benetton divided between understeer and oversteer. And Gerhard Berger just limits the damage and slips into the fourth row. Heavy detachments also for the Jordan of Barrichello, the McLaren of Coulthard and Häkkinen. In short, everything plays in favour of Damon Hill, even the inexperience of the team-mate, Jacques Villeneuve, who will be forced into a role of squire, to collect what remains. The story of the Williams team is known. But it is worth telling it again, in summary. In the early '70s, Frank Williams was a former driver who struggled to get by. He ran cars, but he had an iron will. And in 1977 he managed to start his own team and make his Formula 1 debut the following year. In eighteen seasons, he won 86 races, 5 world drivers' titles, 7 constructors’ ones. And he also threw away a lot of possible results for pride and stubbornness. A tenacity that did not block the English manufacturer even when, in 1986, he was the victim of a terrible car accident.
Now he lives in a wheelchair. At the races he is followed by a nurse, to eat he must be fed by someone. He owns a personal jet, and is among the hundred richest men in Britain, third in the Circus of engines, behind Bernie Ecclestone and McLaren’s Ron Dennis. But what are the secrets of the Williams Grand Prix Engineering LDT, which this winter has moved from the traditional Didcot headquarters to an advanced factory in Growe, in Oxfordshire? A deep knowledge of mechanics and aeronautics combined. And an iron working method. It is no mystery that England is the world centre of motor sports. In addition to being the European leader in flight technology. And because modern single-seaters are actually reverse-engine jets, Williams has managed to excel. Since its foundation, the technical director is Patrick Head, a 30% partner in the company. A name that fits perfectly, because this solid character is really the head, that is the brain of the team. He designs, invents, studies. But his great ability is to also do school. He manages to make the group work by delegating the tasks. So much so that in these years dozens of technicians have been blown to Williams, but they have always been replaced without problems. Since 1990, the responsibility for the designs has been entrusted to Adrian Newey, defined as a brilliant designer regarding aerodynamics in particular. The Williams, in fact, spending 13.500.000.000 lire, has equipped itself with a very sophisticated wind tunnel. And the team considers the data from this facility so important that, when they cannot use it for some issue, they do not hesitate to send their specialists to the Swift Aero Tunnel in S. Clemente, California, one of the most modern aerospace research centres in the world. But this would not give similar results if Frank Williams and Patrick Head did not manage the team methodically.
Everything is planned in the short, medium, and long term. When active suspensions arrived in Formula 1, Williams had been testing them for seven years. And an automatic transmission was ready when it was banned. The car, which is now called FW18, is practically always the same, that is an evolution of the previous models. It is the theory of small steps, never an adventure. And the results can be seen. On Sunday, April 28th, 1996, at the start of the European Grand Prix, Damon Hill sprints very badly, losing several positions; even Michael Schumacher does not have a brilliant idea, while the Benetton drivers - Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger - remain almost stationary on the grid, blocked by the incorrect operation of the new manual front brake locking system. Jacques Villeneuve is in the lead, followed by David Coulthard and Rubens Barrichello; Michael Schumacher is fourth, Damon Hill only fifth. Jacques Villeneuve immediately began to gain ground, while David Coulthard kept behind the pursuers; further back, Jean Alesi eliminated himself already during the first lap in a daring attempt to overtake Mika Salo, while Gerhard Berger must return to the pits to replace the tires, ruined in the disastrous start. At the end of the fifth lap, Michael Schumacher makes a small mistake at the last corner and Damon Hill takes advantage to pass him on the main straight; the Englishman then tries to overtake Rubens Barrichello, but it resists the attacks of the rival thanks to the good top speed of his Jordan. Meanwhile, Olivier Panis tries to overtake Eddie Irvine, slowed by technical problems; the two touch and retire, taking the escape route. The retirement of the two allowed Heinz-Harald Frentzen to move up to seventh, behind Mika Häkkinen and Michael Schumacher. Shortly before the start of the first series of pit stops, Damon Hill suddenly slows down, feeling an irregular behaviour on the part of his car; during his refuelling the Williams technicians control his car for a long time, sending him back to the track in the middle of the group. After a few laps, in an attempt to overtake Pedro Paulo Diniz at the Dunlop hairpin bend, the British driver arrives long at the braking, the two touch and end off the track; so the Williams driver is, no less, tenth. Jacques Villeneuve kept the lead without any problems, while behind him Michael Schumacher overtook David Coulthard and Rubens Barrichello (the latter slowed down by a problem with the fuel line) and chased the Canadian. Jacques Villeneuve, however, managed the situation effectively and despite the advantage over his rival fell below the second during the last laps, Michael Schumacher never managed to attempt a real attack. Villeneuve went on to win for the first time in his career ahead of Schumacher; in the meantime, Damon Hill recovered from the rear, but remained stuck behind David Coulthard, who finished third at the finish; Rubens Barrichello finished fifth, while his teammate, Martin Brundle, is sixth thanks to the withdrawal of Frentzen and the two Stop & Go inflicted on Mika Häkkinen for exceeding the speed limit in the pits. When he arrived in Formula 1, at the beginning of the season, he said:
"I didn’t come to watch".
Jacques Villeneuve kept his word. After risking winning - he was slowed down by an engine problem in the last laps - on his debut in Australia, he stepped on the top step of the podium in Germany. In his fourth race. The Canadian was the best at the start and led the race almost always. Sixty-seven laps without the slightest mistake and to think that he had never seen, before Thursday, the track of the Nürburgring. Jacques Villeneuve, who resembles Father Gilles only for his small stature, is a boy of an incredible coldness: he does not risk when it is not the case, he avoids rash statements, he drives with his brain more than with his foot. Five minutes after a success that would have overwhelmed with joy and emotion any other driver, the Canadian says:
"When one has won the Indy 500, the most important and famous race in the world, everything else does not count. This is just another victory".
Immodest? No, disconcerting. Jacques soon learned to exploit Williams' superiority. In fact, when he is wrong, he tries not to repeat the mistake. So he was the quickest at the start, taking advantage of the apparent difficulties encountered by Hill (a clutch problem). From that moment, he drove as if he were the only one on the track.
For 41 laps, he had behind him a fearsome and experienced rival like Michael Schumacher. At the beginning, the duel took place at a distance, with the Canadian in great advantage. Villeneuve took a margin of about ten seconds. And on that advantage, he built his success.
"I knew that with the potential of my car, the victory had to come. And I also enjoyed it. The season is still long".
Now, Damon Hill is starting to worry. Everything went wrong for the Englishman: from the start to a collision on lap 28 with the Ligier of Diniz who stupidly pulled a break. And, knowing Frank Williams, who also on this occasion, as a great sportsman, will leave his drivers battling among them, there will be fun in the next races. But the builder already seems to be in love with his new star:
"He’s a great kid".
Not to mention that from the San Marino Grand Prix to Imola, Villeneuve will no longer run on unknown tracks. Except for the Budapest circuit that he never saw, elsewhere he will be at home. From the beginning of his career, in Italy in 1988 when he was engaged in some tourism race with Alfa Romeo, Jacques has attended all the racetracks that will host the World Championship. And he will be a dangerous opponent for Damon Hill, who, however, remains the big favorite. If Williams has straightened Hill’s crooked day with Villeneuve, if Ferrari has taken a step forward with Schumacher, if Coulthard has conquered his first podium with McLaren, the unlucky Benetton, has experienced one of its most difficult days in recent years. Alesi’s race lasted only one lap, while Berger’s race was characterized by a useless chase. Both drivers were put off indirectly by a problem that occurred at the start. The Benetton are in fact equipped with a special electronic system that works as a handbrake. Once inserted, it prevents cars from moving if the track is sloping. Explains Gerhard Berger:
"The wheels remained stuck, and I was forced to go back to the pits to change the tires that I had unpacked".
And Jean Alesi also says:
"The system didn’t work".
However, the team leader, Flavio Briatore, is not too convinced:
"With such starts, we don’t go far. And to say that Gerhard was among the fastest after. We could have won. The only positive note comes from the fact that we improved performance".
But the Benetton disaster does not end here: Alesi is fined 2500 dollars for crossing the track on foot after hitting Mika Salo’s car to recover positions. Then another 10.000 for running away and not showing up in front of the sports stewards who wanted an explanation. Another $10.000 fine was imposed on the team for failing to take the driver to the race direction. In total, that is $22.500. There is no shortage of money, but the Frenchman’s ears will certainly whistle. And maybe not only those.
"Come and find me at the hospital or at the airport. No, I’m kidding, I still don’t know if I’ll stay until the end".
Luca Montezemolo said before the race. Then the president of Ferrari stayed.
"I suffered a lot, too much".
Says Montezemolo, after going to congratulate Frank Williams.
"If you stop ten laps from the end, you look like a fool. Everything went great, we’re happy".
At the end of the race, happiness is also painted on the face of Michael Schumacher, as if he had won. The German speaks for a long time:
"I’m very satisfied, for me, the mechanics, the team, in front of my audience. Honestly, I was aiming for third place, I took second. I didn’t expect to be this close to the Williams. I also thought that I could win, as happened last year, when I overtook Alesi in the final laps. But it was not possible, I lacked speed in the straight. I studied for a long time a way to overtake Villeneuve at the chicane. But I was never close enough to try. And twice I even went straight. Unfortunately, I lost valuable ground at the start when I remained behind Coulthard and Barrichello. I realized I was faster than them, but I had to stay behind. At the exit of a bend, I also had excessive oversteer. My Ferrari broke down, Hill took my trail and went in front. Let’s just say I could have earned something after the pit stops, but I also found myself in traffic. If I were back on track in first place, maybe I could have won. But I’m not sure, in any case it’s okay".
Spontaneous question: now in Imola, in six days, will there be a Ferrari first place?
"No, I don’t think so. That track is not particularly suitable for our car. The bottom is a bit bumpy, there are jumps. We must be patient, we must wait. But we are coming".
But there will be a more powerful engine...
"I don’t think that will be enough. We have several problems to solve, we must work in several areas, especially aerodynamics. I’m confident, but it will take a little more time".
Montezemolo is again included in the driver’s analysis:
"If we hadn’t been delayed by Coulthard, we could have tried to win. I wasn’t expecting a Ferrari that strong anyway. The result is dedicated to the fans, it is a bit for Schumacher and a lot for Ferrari. It’s a nice injection of confidence. There is all the motivation to continue to commit to the maximum. Even if you have to do it with enthusiasm and humility at the same time. I also really liked Villeneuve. We had thought about contacting him at the time, but we were still negotiating with Schumacher. And we are happy to have concluded. We will try to give him a competitive car soon. We know where to operate. Our biggest problems are the snorkels, that is, the engine air intakes that don’t send a sufficient flow. And then we have to review the aerodynamics. Now we are the first behind Williams. When we recover a few tenths of a second, we will talk about it".
The president of Ferrari compliments the drivers, who in a very short time brought the V10 to be reliable and at a good level. A few words also for Irvine, who left the scene on lap 6 due to an electrical problem, which led him to collide with the Ligier of Panis:
"Eddie will have a chance to make up for it. He’s a good driver, he can prove it".
In fact, the Northern Irishman does not lose his smile and good humour. His teammate is magnificent:
"Michael is from another planet. I honestly don’t know how he does it, he’s too good. A phenomenon. If he had a Williams, he would have won by doubling all the opponents".
It is not a compliment neither for Ferrari nor for Villeneuve. But the intention is good. Meanwhile, Damon Hill is once again in the crosshairs after the European Grand Prix. He is accused of mistakes he has made in the past, he is considered a good lead driver, but a modest driver in the middle of traffic or if he is put under pressure. The British helot defends himself by talking about bad luck, but the biggest accusations come from two of his colleagues, with whom he had to deal in the race. The Brazilian Rubens Barrichello, who finished fifth half a second behind the Briton, is pretty strict:
"With Damon I conducted a good duel at the end, however I must say that he made strange manoeuvres. Sometimes he leads the car to places you don’t expect. Behaviour that damaged my trajectories but also his".
Another Brazilian, Pedro Paulo Diniz, increases the dose:
"On lap 28, Hill made an absolutely unpredictable manoeuvre to try to overtake me, but it ended too long. He then braked late, hit the curb, and couldn’t set the curve well. To try to avoid the collision, I had to widen on the gravel".
But the British driver defends himself, saying:
I had problems with Barrichello because the car began to behave strangely. I thought I had a puncture or that there was a fault. I went to the box, where I lost a lot of time to have them checked out".