The World Championship has already been won by Michael Schumacher. But everyone wants to win the Japanese Grand Prix. The new champion to assure Benetton the constructors' title; Damon Hill for a partial ransom and even Jean Alesi still willing to bet on a surprise Ferrari. For Karl Wendlinger, on the other hand, it would be a victory to defeat fear, to show that he returned to being the pilot and the boy of a year and a half ago, before the terrible accident in Monte-Carlo that brought him, in a deep coma for almost two weeks, between life and death. Wendlinger, 27, an Austrian from Kufstein, was part of Mercedes' junior Wunderteam. He was part of the magnificent three, along with Shumacher and Frentzen. Michael has become a champion, Heinz-Harald is now one of the most valuable pieces of Formula 1, now closely linked to Ford. Karl, on the other hand, with his respectable child face grown too fast, has to start over. He had resumed, clamorously, at the beginning of the season but after four races, just before the Monaco Grand Prix, he had preferred to leave the Sauber to make way for the French Boullion. A painful but fair decision. Wendlinger was no longer a promising champion, but a larva. Every turn the terror, the nightmare of an accident, the memory of that cursed Thursday last year, when he went to beat his head against a guardrail in Monte-Carlo. He couldn’t go on like this and he had the courage to admit that it was better to leave, to go home and get cured. Karl Wendlinger said today that Sauber has called back for the last two races of the season:
"I’ve spent all these months rebuilding myself physically and psychologically. I thought I was recovering. Instead it was a mistake to go back to racing so early. I went to Willy Dungle, the specialist who had treated Niki Lauda. Now for now, day after day I found myself. Or at least, I think I’ve recovered a hundred percent. In recent days I did 80 laps in Nogaro and 100 at Mugello. The results were encouraging. That’s why I accepted my team’s proposal".
With what objectives?
"I haven’t set myself any goals for qualifying or running. For me, only the sensations and the chronometric performances will count. If I am not too far away from my partner Frentzen and the others, I will already be happy".
But have you made plans for next year?
"Absolutely none. I don’t even want to think about it. I want to get into my car without torment. Moreover, in these difficult days I had even tried to forget my situation, the future. I just wanted to get back to normal life. Motoring eventually would come later. Now I am there and I start from scratch, I have forgotten everything. I feel a new push as if nothing had ever happened. This is very important".
And if it fails, if the experiment reveals that the bad memories were, are they, just hidden in a corner of memory, that fear still exists?
"I would be very sorry, but to this Minto I would definitely abandon. Ours is a sport, if we can call it that, that takes your soul. I don’t do it for the money, even if it’s important. Mine is a different challenge, an intimate story, even if it’s gone public. If all goes well we will meet again, otherwise I will disappear in anonymity, perhaps dedicating myself to another activity".
Wendlinger against himself, then, while top-drivers will seek success, yet another battle to define the best. Waiting to shuffle the cards after Adelaide for 1996. Schumacher, by the way, will be in Maranello a day early to test the Ferrari for the first time. It was thought that Friday, November 17, 1995 might not be the happiest day, then the test happens the day before, Thursday, November 16, 1995. With the hope that it will bring good luck. Friday, October 27, 1995 nobody wants to back out.
Indeed, the penultimate race of the Formula 1 World Championship seems to want to become a real challenge to the last breath. On the one hand Michael Schumacher decided to reaffirm his supremacy and to bring to Benetton the necessary points for the constructors' title. On the other the pursuers led by Damon Hill. The German champion is categorical: he wants to win the Japanese Grand Prix:
"Now I can run without inhibiting brakes, completely relaxed, because now the main goal we have hit. I think I will enjoy it as it has never happened before".
Michael Schumacher has Damon Hill in his sights. The Benetton driver wants to ridicule his opponent after beating him hard. To those who asked him if there had been a clarifying meeting between them, the German driver replied:
"We met only at the toilet".
It seems that Schumacher and Hill, on Sunday in Aida, after the statements in the press conference have almost come to blows. The English driver says:
"He is a hypocrite. Publicly he makes people think he is the most correct driver in the world, but in the race he behaves like a thug. Next season I will make his life very difficult".
Damon is also breaking up with his team, Williams. Between rumors and denials radio-box claims that the marriage between the thirty-four year old London and Williams will not last long, especially if Jacques Villeneuve confirms the promises made so far. In addition, there are many of them who want to take advantage of any favourable situation. Among them Gerhard Berger and Jean Alesi. Despite some problems (a Frenchman went off the track in the morning with a subsequent rupture of the front suspension, for which Jean does not exclude a possible failure of the car, even if the team in hand claims the opposite, and a blow against a curb of Gerhard Berger that ruins a shell) Ferrari disputes one of the best qualifying of the season. The chassis of the 412T2 and the VI 2 engine seem to have found in the Japanese circuit a tonic injection. And we also see McLaren, which uses a special Mercedes engine (an evolved model produced in only two) that Mika Hakkinen and Mark Blundell will not be able to mount in the race. In short, there is all a fervor that make the final championship glowing even if the games are done. It is also a psychological battle, which anticipates the themes of 1996. Drivers want to give demonstrations, while already thinking about the changes that will come. Only Alesi, more stubborn than ever, while in practice he frequents the Benetton pits more than those of Ferrari, still says he is in love with the Maranello team for which he would like to win another race. But behind them are David Coulthard, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Eddie Irvine and Olivier Panis, all looking for glory. In particular the Northern Irish driver of Jordan, also about to move to Maranello. Michael Schumacher says he expects a concrete collaboration from him to develop the car and engine in 1996. On the track, however, everyone will make their own comfortable and try to seize the opportunities that will arise. In short, friends in the pits, enemies in the race, as will happen in tonight’s race. Hard to predict: Michael Schumacher remains the great favourite, thanks to his tactical skills and the fast pace he always manages to support. However, the races that conclude a championship have always offered surprises and the result remains open. Michael hunted for points for the team title, but also for the record of nine victories in a single season that he could match in Suzuka and then beat in fifteen days in Australia.
Therefore, Saturday, October 28, 1995 Michael Schumacher shows, if there was still need, to be a driver who always goes to the maximum. After taking off the thought of the world title, the German takes the satisfaction of winning another pole position yesterday, the tenth of his career, the fourth of the season, thus giving a further slap to Damon Hill, in a day that among other things marks an unexpected step back of the Williams, with the English also preceded by Jean Alesi and Mika Hakkinen, and David Coulthard overtaken by Gerhard Berger. Alesi will start in the front row of the Japanese Grand Prix, next to Schumacher. A challenge in the challenge for the two drivers who next year will exchange team and roles. Jean, however, triggers yet another controversy:
"The car went well, but I didn’t feel comfortable. I was forced to drive by removing my worries from Friday’s accident. The team did not give me the explanations I would have liked about the suspension that had broken on that occasion. There was no clarity".
Calm but firm the reply of Jean Todt:
"A thorough investigation was carried out and we found that the suspension strut gave way after the impact of the escape route sand. Alesi was able to verify on the data provided by telemetry that the break occurred the moment he was traveling 80 km/h slower than he had done in the same point in the previous steps. Which means he’d already been slowed down by the same outage. We would never have returned to the Alesi circuit if we had even the slightest doubt. Alesi is very tense and we try to understand him. It is difficult to digest a separation after five years".
Ferrari is looking for reinforcements. A track designer and technician seems to be on his way to Maranello: he is an experienced English engineer who has already worked in Benetton with Schumacher and who has joined McLaren this year. He could be the person to entrust the German car for tuning during the races. Finally, there are two frightening incidents on the second day of testing. In the morning Mark Blundell left the track with McLaren, destroying the front of the car. Doctors prevent him from taking part in qualifying because they find him in shock. The most serious incident, however, has as its protagonist Aguri Suzuki, who just on Sunday should have announced his retirement from racing. The Japanese violently hit the barriers protected by piles of tires with the back of his Ligier and is transported by helicopter to the hospital, where he is found fractured of a rib and an infringement of the fourth dorsal vertebra. To increase the tension, the statements made by Lauda to the Sueddeutsche Zeitung bounced back to Suzuka. The Austrian is arguing with Schumacher:
"If you have something to say about my work, why don’t you talk to me instead of the press?"
On the future relationship between the world champion and Italian fans, Lauda says:
"The problem will be solved when Schumacher succeeds. Then they will love him".
As for his work at Ferrari, Lauda explains:
"Today we are in the second row, after three and a half years we stayed in the fifth. You start to see the way to the summit, but you could have done it faster if you had made less emotional choices".
Sunday, October 29, 1995 the track surface will remain wet for most of the race, which means that lap times will be slower than qualifying the previous days. Although there are 24 cars qualified for the race, only 22 will start, since Aguri Suzuki will not be able to participate in the event due to the accident of the previous day, while Roberto Moreno’s Forti breaks the gearbox. For the first time since the Japanese Grand Prix took place in Suzuka, tickets for the race have not sold out, despite the presence of three Japanese drivers. The race starts at 2:00 p.m. All drivers choose to start with wet tires since the track is wet from the rain that fell during the morning. At the start of the Japanese Grand Prix Michael Schumacher keeps the lead of the race. Jean Alesi, who started alongside Schumacher, is penalized for having anticipated the start; the French driver will split the penalty by 10 seconds, through a Stop & Go, during lap 3, then returning to the track in P10. The Frenchman’s teammate, Gerhard Berger, also anticipated the start and received the same penalty. During the first lap Gianni Morbidelli is the victim of a spin at the first corner, after his Footwork-Hart is hit in the back by Karl Wendlinger’s Sauber-Ford. During lap 7, Jean Alesi stops at the pits to switch to slick tyres, as the track starts to dry. Back on track, the Frenchman began to recover ground constantly registering fast laps; the first of which is 1'54"416, five seconds faster than the competitors. During lap 10 Michael Schumacher stopped at the pits to mount the slick tyres, giving the lead of the race to Mika Häkkinen for a single lap, as the Finn also went back to the pits. Jean Alesi’s recovery was interrupted when his car spun off the track in an attempt to overtake Pedro Lamy’s Minardi, after the Frenchman had managed to climb up the standings to second place in lap 10, overtaking Damon Hill on the outside in the final chicane. Alert by the pace of Jean Alesi, the rest of the competitors also return to the pits to switch to the use of slick tires. During lap 15 the two Jordan drivers come into contact: Rubens Barrichello loses control of his car in the area of the last chicane when he tries to brake later than his teammate Eddie Irvine. Barrichello hits a wall and damages the rear wing of his car. Later, Eddie Irvine was involved in another collision at the chicane on Git 20, when Heinz-Harald Frentzen hit him from behind. Irvine continued without damage, while Frentzen was forced to return to the pits to mount a new front wing. At the head of the race, Jean Alesi is faster than Michael Schumacher, even if the German lead is on dry tyres.
Jean Alesi was 6 seconds ahead of Michael Schumacher when his Ferrari 412T2 suffered an apparent differential break on lap 25. During lap 31 Michael Schumacher stopped in the pits for the second time, returning to the race in second place behind Damon Hill. During lap 33 Schumacher scored the fastest lap and regained the lead on the next lap, when Hill stopped in the pits. Behind the two leading drivers, Mika Häkkinen and David Coulthard are third and fourth respectively before filling the pits. The Scottish driver will stop at the pits six laps after Häkkinen, and will return to the track in third place, ahead of the Finnish driver. Johnny Herbert followed in fifth place after the second round of pit-stops, ahead of Eddie Irvine. After the second series of pet-stops, the rain starts to fall again on the circuit, but only at the end of the scoop curve of the track. Williams' drivers were second and third until Damon Hill exited the track at Spoon Curve two laps after his pit stop, damaging the front wing and returning to the track in fourth place. Shortly after, Damon Hill returned to the pits to let his team replace the damaged wing. The English driver returned to the track in fifth place, but received a penalty of ten seconds, to be discounted by Stop & Go, for speeding in the pit lane. On lap 39 David Coulthard also made the same mistake as his teammate by running through the gravel present at the Spoon Curve, but at first it seems that the Scottish driver can only get out with slight damage. However, while braking for the 130R, the next corner, the gravel that entered the sides flies out, causing the Williams driver to lose control of the car, blocking his car in the gravel. Meanwhile the Williams team invites Damon Hill via radio to accelerate and increase the pace, before serving the Stop & Go in the pits, but during lap 40 the British driver is the victim of a spin at the Spoon Curve and retires from the race without having served the penalty. Mark Blundell, Eddie Irvine and Heinz-Harald Frentzen were also the victims of mistakes at the Spoon Curve but managed to complete the race. Completed the 53 laps, Michael Schumacher wins the Japanese Grand Prix, followed by Mika Hakkinen, aboard McLaren-Mercedes, Johnny Herbert with the second Benetton-Renault, Eddie Irvine with the Jordan-Peugeot, Olivier Panis with the Ligier Mugen-Honda and Mika Salo with Tyrrell-Yamaha. It was a crazy race, but in the end it won the most balanced of all.
Traveling as fast as an armored car with his Benetton, passing unscathed among all the dangers that eliminated the majority of his rivals, Michael Schumacher played his ninth symphony. The initial rain that affected the Japanese Grand Prix did not stop him, a desperate but spectacular and useless pursuit of an almost heroic Alesi and not even the traps placed along the track in which David Coulthard and Damon Hill fell, on Williams' darkest day. Benetton Constructors World Champion, therefore, with the result reinforced by the third place of Johnny Herbert, preceded on the podium the revived Mika Hakkinen, with McLaren, after an operation of appendicitis suffered fifteen days before, that had forced him to miss Aida’s race. A full result for the Anglo-Italian team: drivers and brands title. While Schumacher, at the top 19 in his career, won the ninth success of the season, equalling the absolute record set by Nigel Mansell in 1992. And the German will have the opportunity to beat the record in two weeks at Adelaide, becoming the driver who has won more in one season. Although this year he will have had at his disposal seventeen races against the sixteen of the norm.
"I’m happy. First the World Championship, then in one stroke, the pole position, the first place and the constructors' title. I can’t ask for more. It was a fairly easy race, without any problems. I think this could be a unique season for me".
Aren’t you afraid of a sudden awakening, changing teams in 1996?
"It’s early to say. Let’s wait a bit and see. In the race I can not say that Alesi has worried me seriously. But in any case I was forced to push one hundred percent of my chances. And so on this track I saw a very competitive Ferrari...".
The other side of the day is Damon Hill. Bad in qualifying, in a fight with his team, the Englishman was the protagonist in a negative. First he was overtaken outside by a great Jean Alesi in recovery. Then he went off the track. He returned to the pits to change tires and on returning to the circuit he exceeded the speed limits along the pit lane (139 km/h against 120 km/h imposed). When he was given a 10-second penalty with Stop & Go, Hill didn’t have time to come back, which was already back, definitely, spinning in the sand. Finally, because he was unable to comply with the Commissioners' sanction, he also received a fine of $10.000. A really nice weekend.
"Just when you think that it couldn't get any worse, it does. There is no easy way out of this, you just have to keep pressing on. The easiest thing to do is to give up, and it would probably be less painful that way, but that is not an option. While we were in the race we were competitive and I was in with a shout, I suppose, all the time I was on the track. But things took a massive turn for the worse, I am afraid. I drove through the rain and the second time I spun off I think it was oil rather than rain. It is not a glorious end to the season but the ingredients are all there and there is no reason why we should not get into the winning habit again".
Flavio Briatore, Benetton’s team manager, makes a mocking statement:
"Everyone has what they deserve. The race for us was very nice. We saw two Great Drivers, Schumacher and Alesi, who are certainly the best drivers in Formula 1 at the moment. The World Constructors' Championship is an Extraordinary Prize for our people who work on the track and our workshop, for partners, starting with Renault and Elf. Next year many things will change, but I think we have chosen well: Jean has confirmed to be a very fast driver in Able to Win. Of course, if his car breaks down, there’s nothing he can do. We will see to give him the right means to express all his Talent, So far for me still unexpressed".
Alessandro Benetton still looks like a boy just out of university. But, in addition to being the head of some important family businesses, he is the president of Benetton Formula, which manages the automotive team. A commitment that follows closely through Flavio Briatore, but this time, taking advantage of a business trip, he wanted to witness the triumph of his team.
"A huge satisfaction, because ours is among the youngest teams of Formula 1. I think that more than that you can not win. Indeed, I fear that in '96 it will not always be Sunday. We will have more difficulty repeating ourselves because there will be two or three fearsome teams: Williams, Ferrari and McLaren".
Briatore says that Benetton has already planned to win until 2000...
"We hope to be on top for many years. Meanwhile we enjoy this magical moment".
Formula 1 is becoming increasingly competitive and expensive: will you have the means to stay at the top?
"We will make available to Benetton Formula everything that is needed to continue to be the number one".
Investment on a human or a technical level?
"In both areas. We don’t want to throw money away, but we will spend enough. We have an attitude of great curiosity for each new project, we will focus a lot on technology".
You won the World Drivers' Championship last year with Ford as your engine partner. This year you repeated yourself with Renault. Will you continue? It is said that Williams is ready to change the flag with regard to the engines, since 1997...
"It was a surprise. It usually takes a couple of seasons to find a perfect chemistry. We are very satisfied with the relationship with Renault. And we are careful to make it even more important. There are conditions for an expansion of activity in other fields".
Maybe you can predict the release of a Renault Benetton production car...
"You can’t say that".
We come to the painful notes. Schumacher’s departure. His father, Luciano Benetton, said that he almost felt physical pain letting the German driver leave, but that it was inevitable.
"We still saw in the last race what Michael was worth. And his skill is not limited to driving, but also to the work he does throughout the year with the team in tests. But now the thing is done and you can not complain. However, not only one man won, but the group. For us it is a new challenge: to continue winning even without the German champion".
Meanwhile, you’ve got Alesi and Berger.
"I think it’s a nice pair. They’ll start even, then we’ll see. The Austrian has already been with us in the past, achieving, among other things, the first victory of Benetton in Mexico in 1986. Now it seems to have matured but has not lost the desire to run".
And Alesi also seems to be in good shape, according to what has been seen in Japan.
"I cannot say that I know Jean well. I have seen him so far from the outside, as the pilot of another team. Briatore and our other leaders believe in him. He will find a team ready to support him and a very serene environment. I believe that in terms of speed, grit, regularity and determination in the race has nothing to envy to anyone".
And speaking of Ferrari, the bitterness in the mouth is now the usual taste for the Maranello team, after a promising start to the season and the victory in Canada. Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger still retired. And the fact is annoying because the 412T2 turned out to be more competitive than usual, up to dream of a victory or a good placement. But things started badly and ended worse for Jean and Gerhard. They both started with a penalty for early start: 10 seconds of Stop & Go after a few laps, a very heavy handicap. However Jean, in the 25 laps, gave show. The track was wet from the rain that fell until a few minutes from the start. As the asphalt hinted to dry, Alesi asked to return and change the tires, mounting slicks. In a few laps he recovered over 30 seconds and led in the wake of Schumacher.
"I went wild because I felt an injustice. The deployment is downhill and I with only two feet could not press simultaneously brake, accelerator and clutch. I wanted revenge for the disappointment of Monza but it went wrong, another time".
Alesi thought he was forced to stop because of a broken crankshaft. Actually, the bearing between the differential and the axle has broken. A very robust piece that is changed only for precaution every 2500 kilometers. It is not excluded that the fault was caused by a spin that the Frenchman made in an attempt to overtake risky Minardi Pedro Lamy.
"I don’t know if I could have passed Schumacher, but it was possible. And I’m sorry I didn’t have the opportunity to try".
Even Gerhard Berger (stopped while in P9 after the Stop & Go by the malfunction of an electronic sensor) complains about the penalty he suffered. And he makes an unpleasant joke against Ferrari:
"We hope this will continue next year".
But it must be said that the Maranello team is to blame for what happened at the start: Benetton and Ligier have a sort of electronic push-button handbrake for uphill and downhill starts. McLaren and Arrows have the clutch at the wheel. Given the severity of the controls on the shots anticipated at the green light, you could also think. Ferrari, meanwhile, completes the team for 1996 by scoring another major blow: the second test driver, alongside Nicola Larini, will be the British Mark Blundell, McLaren’s current driver.