#580 1995 Japanese Grand Prix

2023-01-09 23:00

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#1995, Fulvio Conti, Translated by Francesca Zamparini,

#580 1995 Japanese Grand Prix

The World Championship has already been won by Michael Schumacher. But everyone wants to win the Japanese Grand Prix. The new champion to assure Benet


The World Championship has already been won by Michael Schumacher. But everyone wants to win the Japanese Grand Prix. The new champion to secure Benetton the constructors' title; Damon Hill for a partial ransom, and even Jean Alesi still willing to bet on a surprising Ferrari. For Karl Wendlinger, on the other hand, it would be a victory to defeat fear, to show that he returned to being the driver and the boy of a year and a half ago, before the terrible accident in Monte-Carlo, which put 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 drivers 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 Sauber to make way for the French Boullion. A painful but fair decision. Wendlinger was no longer a promising champion, but a wreck. Every corner, the terror, the nightmare of an accident, the memory of that cursed Thursday of last year, when he hit his head against a guardrail in Monte-Carlo. He could not 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 him to come 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. Hour after hour, day after day, I found myself. Or at least, I think I’ve recovered 100%. 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 the race. For me, only the sensations and the chronometric performances will count. If I’m 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 not. I don’t even want to think about it. I want to get into my car without torment. Moreover, in these difficult days I’ve even tried to forget my situation, the future. I just wanted to get back to normal life. Motorsport would have eventually come later. Now I’m here, and I start from scratch, I have forgotten everything. I feel a new motivation as if nothing ever happened. This is very important".


And if it fails, if the experiment reveals that the bad memories were, are, just hidden in a corner of your memory, that fear still exists?


"I would be very sorry, but at that point 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 who is the best. Waiting to shuffle the cards after Adelaide, for the 1996 season. Schumacher will by the way be in Maranello a day early to test the Ferrari for the first time. It was thought that Friday, November 17th, 1995, might not be the happiest day, so the test will happen the day before, Thursday, November 16th, 1995. With the hope that it will bring good luck. Friday, October 27th, 1995, nobody wants to back down.


Indeed, the penultimate race of the Formula 1 World Championship seems to desire to become a real challenge to the last breath. On the one hand, Michael Schumacher decided to reaffirm his supremacy and 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 we hit the main goal. 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 having beaten him hard. To those who asked him if there had been a clarifying meeting between them, the German driver replied:


"We met only in 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’s 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 nevertheless on a rough stage with his team, Williams. Between rumours and radio-box denials, people claim that the marriage between the thirty-four-year-old Londoner and Williams will not last long, especially if Jacques Villeneuve keeps 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 (the Frenchman went off track in the morning, with a subsequent rupture of the front suspension. Because of that, Jean does not exclude a possible failure of the car, even if the team, data in hand, claims the opposite. And again, Gerhard Berger against a curb, ruining a shell), Ferrari disputes one of the best qualifying of the season. At the Japanese circuit, the chassis of the 412T2 and the VI 2 engine seem to be possessed by the effects of a restorative injection. And we also see McLaren, which uses a special Mercedes engine (an evolved model of which only two example have been produces) that Mika Häkkinen and Mark Blundell will not be able to mount in the race. In short, there is a whole fervour that make the final championship glowing, even if the games are closed. 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 by. Only Alesi, more stubborn than ever during practice, is seen in the Benetton pits more than those of Ferrari, yet still saying he is in love with the Maranello team and would like to win another race for it. 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 in terms of car and engine development in 1996. On the track, however, everyone will do as pleases to 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 show. However, the races that conclude a championship have always offered surprises and the result remains open. Michael on the hunt for points for the constructors’ title, but also for the record of nine victories in a single season, which he could match in Suzuka and then beat in fifteen days in Australia.


Therefore, Saturday, October 28th, 1995, Michael Schumacher shows, if there were still doubts, to be a driver who always goes to the maximum. After getting rid of the thought of the world title, yesterday the German took the satisfaction of getting another pole position, 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 setback for Williams, with the English also preceded by Jean Alesi and Mika Häkkinen, as well as for 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 teams and roles. Jean, however, triggers yet another controversy:


"The car worked well, but I didn’t feel comfortable. I was forced to drive while trying not to think about the worries from Friday’s accident. The team didn’t give me the explanation I wanted about the suspension that broke on that occasion. There was no clarity".


Calm but firm, the reply of Jean Todt:


"A thorough investigation was carried out, and we found out that the suspension strut collapsed after the impact with the escape route sand. Alesi was able to verify on the data provided by telemetry that the break occurred the moment he was travelling 80 km/h slower than he had done at the same point in the previous laps. Which means he’d already been slowed down by the same run-off. We would never have made Alesi go back on track if we had even the slightest doubt. Alesi is very tense, and we try to understand him. It’s difficult to digest a separation after five years".


Ferrari, in the meantime, 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 joined McLaren this year. He could be the person to entrust the German car for tuning during the races. Finally, there are two frightening accidents on the second day of testing. In the morning, Mark Blundell left the track with his McLaren, destroying the front of the car. Doctors prevent him from taking part in qualifying because they find him in shock. The most serious accident, 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 doctors found a fractured rib and an infringement of the fourth dorsal vertebra. To increase the tension, the statements made by Lauda to the Sueddeutsche Zeitung bounce back to Suzuka. The Austrian is critical about 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 when we stayed in the fifth. You start to see the way to the summit, but this could have happened faster if less emotional choices had been made". 


On Sunday, October 29th, 1995, the track tarmac will remain wet for most of the race, which means that lap times will be slower than the previous days of qualifying. 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 pays with a 10 seconds Stop & Go during lap 3, then returning to the track in P10. The Frenchman’s teammate, Gerhard Berger, also anticipates 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 tires, as the track starts to dry. Back on track, the Frenchman begins 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 stops at the pits to mount slick tires, making Mika Häkkinen the leader of the race for a single lap, as the Finn also goes back to the pits. Jean Alesi’s recovery is interrupted when his car spins off track in an attempt to overtake Pedro Lamy’s Minardi, after the Frenchman had managed to climb up the standings to second place, overtaking Damon Hill on the outside in the final chicane in lap 10. Alerted by the pace of Jean Alesi, the rest of the competitors also return to the pits to switch to slick tires. During lap 15, the two Jordan drivers touch each other: 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 is involved in another collision at the chicane on Git 20, when Heinz-Harald Frentzen hit him from behind. Irvine continues without damage, while Frentzen is 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 mounts dry tires. 


Jean Alesi is 6 seconds ahead of Michael Schumacher when his Ferrari 412T2 suffers an apparent differential break on lap 25. During lap 31, Michael Schumacher stops in the pits for the second time, returning to the race in second place behind Damon Hill. During lap 33, Schumacher scores the fastest lap and regaines the lead on the next lap, when Hill stops in the pits. Behind the two leading drivers, Mika Häkkinen and David Coulthard are third and fourth respectively before refuelling in the pits. The Scottish driver stops at the pits six laps after Häkkinen, and returns to the track in third place, ahead of the Finnish driver. Johnny Herbert follows in fifth place after the second round of pit stops, ahead of Eddie Irvine. After the second series of stops, the rain starts to fall again on the circuit, but only at the end of the Scoop Curve. Williams' drivers are second and third until Damon Hill exits the track at the exact Spoon Curve two laps after his pit-stop, damaging the front wing and returning to the track in fourth place. Shortly after, Damon Hill returns to the pits to let his team replace the damaged wing. The English driver returns to the track in fifth place, but receives a penalty of ten seconds for speeding in the pit lane, paid with Stop & Go. On lap 39, David Coulthard also makes the same mistake as his teammate by running through the gravel at the Spoon Curve, but at first it seems that the Scottish driver can 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 are also the victims of mistakes at the Spoon Curve but manage to complete the race. Completed the 53 laps, Michael Schumacher wins the Japanese Grand Prix, followed by Mika Häkkinen, 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, the most balanced of all won. 


Travelling as fast as an armoured car with his Benetton, passing unscathed among all the dangers that made the majority of his rivals retire, 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. Therefore, Benetton is Constructors’ World Champion, with the result reinforced by the third place of Johnny Herbert, preceded on the podium by the revived Mika Häkkinen, 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 constructors’ titles. While Schumacher, with his 19 success in career, won the ninth race 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 had at his disposal seventeen races against the normal sixteen.


"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’t say that Alesi seriously worried me. But in any case, I was forced to push 100%. And then on this track I saw a very competitive Ferrari...".


The other side of the coin, on this day, is Damon Hill. Bad in qualifying, in a fight with his team, the Englishman was the protagonist, in negative terms. 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 when 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 had just come back that he already spun 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’s no easy way out of this, you just have to keep going. The easiest thing to do is to give up, and it would probably be less painful that way, but that’s not an option. While we were in the race, we were competitive, and I had a shot, I suppose, all the time I was on the track. But things took a massive turn for the worse, I’m afraid. I drove through the rain and the second time I spun off, I think it was oil rather than rain related. It’s not a glorious end to the season, but the ingredients are all there and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t 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 good. 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 track and at our factory, as well as for partners, starting with Renault and Elf. Next year many things will change, but I think we’ve chosen well: Jean confirmed to be a very fast driver able to win. Of course, if his car breaks down, there’s nothing he can do. We will try to give him the right means to express all his talent, so far still unexpressed, in my opinion".


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’t win. Indeed, I fear that in 1996 it will not always be a piece of cake. 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 technical level?


"Both. We don’t want to throw money away, but we will spend enough. We are very curious 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 sides with regard to the engines, since 1997...


"It was a surprise. It usually takes a couple of seasons to find a perfect chemistry. We’re very satisfied with the relationship with Renault. And we’re careful to make it even more strong. There are conditions for an expansion of the activity in other fields".


Maybe you can predict the release of a Renault Benetton production car...


"I 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 just saw in the last race what Michael’s worth is. And his skills are not limited to driving, but also to the work he does throughout the year with the team in tests. But now the thing is set, and we can’t complain. However, not only one man won, but the group. For us, it’s a new challenge: to continue winning even without the German champion".


Meanwhile, you’ve got Alesi and Berger.


"I think it’s a nice line-up. 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 he seems to have matured but has not lost the desire to race".


And Alesi also seems to be in good shape, according to what has been seen in Japan.


"I can’t say that I know Jean well. I’ve seen him from the outside so far, as the driver 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 he’s got nothing to envy to anyone".


And speaking of Ferrari, the bitter taste in the mouth is now the usual for the Maranello team, after a promising start to the season and the victory in Canada. Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger still retired. And this is annoying because the 412T2 turned out to be more competitive than usual, up to a 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 an early start: 10 seconds of Stop & Go after a few laps, a very heavy disadvantage. However, Jean, in the 25 laps, put on a show. The track was wet from the rain that fell until just a few minutes before the start. As the asphalt started to dry, Alesi asked to return and change the tires, mounting slicks. In a few laps, he recovered over 30 seconds and reached the slipstream of Schumacher.


"I run wild because I felt that an injustice occurred. The formation is downhill and only two feet I couldn’t press simultaneously brake, accelerator and clutch. I wanted revenge for the disappointment of Monza, but it went wrong, once again".


Alesi thought he was forced to stop because of a broken crankshaft. In truth, the bearing between the differential and the axle had broken. A very robust piece that is changed only for precaution every 2500 kilometres. It is not excluded that the fault was caused by the spinning of the Frenchman after a risky overtake attempt on 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 (retired 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 on the wheel. Given the severity of the controls on early stars at the green light, the team should have known better. 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.


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