#591 1996 British Grand Prix

2023-01-02 23:00

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#1996, Fulvio Conti, Translated by Alice Simonin, Translated by Francesca Zamparini,

#591 1996 British Grand Prix

On Tuesday, 2 July 1996, while Ferrari goes through a troubled day of tests at the Autodromo Nazionale di Monza (this time because of the rain), Giova


On Tuesday, July 2nd, 1996, while Ferrari goes through a troubled day of tests at the Autodromo Nazionale di Monza (this time because of the rain), Giovanni Agnelli, while in Roma where he takes part in a round table about the monetary union, tempers the delusions of the last days. After yet another setback in France, The Lawyer hopes that a bit of serenity returns in Maranello. Approached by reporters, the Fiat honorary chairman, among other things, also makes some jokes regarding Formula 1:


"I think that I will go to Silverstone the next July 14th. Until then, I won't see the team, and I hope that there’s a little more cheerfulness than there is now". 


Is it all Jean Todt's fault, the GES manager?


"In Italy, someone is always to blame: Todt, Sacchi or someone else". 


The test-team, meanwhile, had arrived in Monza with the aim to grind kilometres, but it has been undermined by the bad weather. At the end, Nicola Larini completes 24 laps in total, out of which only 15 on the dry asphalt, the best time in 1'29"8, a tracking with little meaning given that the Tuscan development driver used the car with the old low nose, testing for the first time a brand-new 7-speed gearbox and a new rear suspension that should be used when the modified rear aerodynamics of the F310 will be completed. Some setbacks force the Tuscan to make contrived stops. Nicola Larini, during the breaks, defends Jean Todt: 


"The team boss is not to blame for what happened in Magny-Cours. So far, he tried to put together a valid team and fought to have a champion like Schumacher. He managed to prepare a cocktail that will be able to make Ferrari win the World Championship. Sometimes, to try to get performance, you overlook some details that unfortunately at times make you end up like last Sunday in France. But around Maranello there's always a great pressure that leads to exaggerating every difficulty".


On track, other than Ferrari, Sauber is also present and, with Heinz Harald Frentzen behind the wheel, does 14 laps with the best time of the day in 1'28"6 (at an average speed of 234.447 km/h) using a Ford V10 engine equipped with new exhausts. From Wednesday morning onwards, Michael Schumacher will be in the Ferrari, and, among other things, he will also have the task to debut for the first time the final evolution of the 10-cylinder engine, which should then be used - within around a month - in Hockenheim. Michael Schumacher is programmed as a computer: his life at least is, as a great sports professional, super paid. The clock controls every minute of the driver's day. Check-in at the circuit at 8:00 a.m., tests from 9:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., lunch, private interviews, three laps with the Ferrari F50 for a photoshoot, regenerating nap, press conference, tests from 4:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m., dinner, then rest. But, when it comes to bring forward his convictions, the German champion can also be an excellent defence lawyer. He becomes human, he comes alive, he speaks volumes, he goes deep, he attacks. Even if he were in front of a judge, he would not be intimidated. And he shows that he is not at all restless after what happened at Magny-Cours. 


"I haven’t changed my mind about Ferrari. The Italian press is the only one to have seen the impending disaster. It's clear that I'm disappointed, as is the whole team. But the negative reaction was exaggerated. When Hill, leading in Monte-Carlo, broke the Renault engine of his Williams people did not kick up a fuss. Whoever makes a fuss is because they don't understand anything about Formula 1 or because they want to hurt the Maranello team". 


So, there is no blame to be laid... 


"No. We started the season with everything new: car, engine, gearbox, driver. We did better than expected, even with a little luck. In the last two races, we were targeted with bad luck. Regarding myself, a piston collapsed, among other things produced by an external supplier. When, one month ago, we won in Barcelona, we were the kings of Italy. Now, we've become the world's dumbest".


So just bad luck and no responsibility for Todt? 


"It makes me laugh. Jean is the best team manager that I've ever had. He has to stay. Only those who want to destroy what Ferrari has done so far can ask to send him away. But that would be crazy, I can't believe it". 


Here, the Tifosi have displayed a banner on the grandstands: Schumacher you are great, don't leave us, even if Ferrari would deserve it... 


"On the one hand, I'm glad, because six months ago they wouldn't have said that. But it's not right, we're a team, we lose, and we win together. I can’t just get the credit, and Ferrari gets the blame. People read certain newspapers too much, they should understand better". 


Schumacher, therefore, keeps having the utmost confidence. 


"Obviously. We have a lot of work to do, but I'm convinced that we will soon be reliable and competitive. And we'll be able to get back to winning, probably a couple of races still, as expected. There are many new things coming on the car. Right now, I'm testing the 7-speed gearbox. I already wanted it when I was with Benetton. After two year they have prepared it, but I wasn’t there any more. I asked for it at Ferrari and here it is ready. The mistake, if anything, was that we wanted to rush things a little bit, because we were running late from the start. We've set ourselves the goal to arrive at the top within two seasons of time. If we don't make it, then they'll be right to criticize us. At the moment, however, we need to push all together, as we did until now". 


You have a really intense test program, are you not afraid of getting too tired? 


"I had great holidays last winter, and I'll have others next winter. It's true that I've never worked this much. In two years with Benetton, I hadn't completed the kilometres I did with Ferrari in six months. But I'm glad, actually the more tests we'll carry forward, the more chances we'll have of making progress".


The race at Silverstone is in two Sundays. What do you expect?


"It's a track that I love, on which, however, the Englishmen do the majority of their tests. Thus, they will be the favourites. But we'll defend ourselves well, even if the main updates on the F310 will come later. There's a modified suspension that will however have to go well with different aerodynamics. And also the last evolution of the engine that we'll test after Silverstone".


Agnelli and Montezemolo will also be there in England... 


"That's nice. Their presence will protect us from the external attacks. I thank them for their ongoing support".


On Wednesday, Michael Schumacher completes 59 laps (around 340 kilometres, more than a Grand Prix), setting the best time in 1'27"19, a record for the F310, without looking for performances. A good start for the rescue. Sauber is also present at Monza, which with Heinz-Harlad Frentzen, not very satisfied, sets a time of 1'28"12. 


"I'm satisfied with the work that we did in these two days, even if we still had some problems. Everything is going on according to plan". 


Says Michael Schumacher, at the end of the Ferrari tests carried out on Thursday, July 4th, 1996. The German driver, who will still be on track again on Friday to test a rear wing specifically studied for the next Italian Grand Prix, ends his day setting a time of 1'25"195, quite close to the time of 1'24"462 that had allowed David Coulthard to claim the pole position with his Williams last year. 


"But more than top time results, what matters is that we've improved our top speed, one of the disadvantages that was putting us behind since the beginning of the season, and that the F310 with the 7-speed gearbox becomes more drivable in terms of engine, that's what I like". 


After saying positive notes, we move on to the negative ones. In the morning, Schumacher tries to complete the simulation of an entire Grand Prix to above all control the mechanical resistance of his car. But the test is stopped after around 100 kilometres out of the 300 scheduled because of another engine failure. Even from this failure, however, Maranello's technicians draw points of interest. 


"It probably comes down again to the seizure of a piston. We have to disassemble the power unit to be sure of it. However, if the assumptions are correct, we're facing an issue like the one that had stopped Michael during the formation lap in France. At this point, we can assume that we're dealing with a lot of pieces which present problems. Careful control will allow us to discard them to avoid other surprises". 


In the morning, two hub carriers, which are part of the new rear suspension, had also been replaced on Schumacher's single-seater. And in the late afternoon, the engine had again reported a drop in power, probably due to the feeding system. Things that happen during the tests and that will improve the quality of the material used in the next races. Sauber also continues to work with Frentzen, who completes 46 laps, the fastest one in 1'28"80, while Johnny Herbert only completes 23 laps, but thanks to a time of 1'27"81 he ends up being faster than his teammate. On Friday, July 5th, 1996, Ferrari leaves Monza with a positive report: they came close to the unofficial track record and are assured that the new 7-speed gearbox, unlike the engines, is completely reliable. Michael Schumacher says he is satisfied of the balance and set-up work:


"Also because we've been driving in race configuration"


The German driver, however, does not like the siege against him by the Tifosi (6,000 in the two days and a half of the ones present at the racetrack): in the late morning, exasperated, he asks the security guards to remove everyone from the pit zone. Schumacher gets out on track at 9:00 a.m. and completes 49 laps (282.730 kilometres) coming close to the time set by David Coulthard in qualifying in 1995 (1'24"462): the German driver sets a time of 1'24"83 at an average speed of 244.865 km/h. A few minutes before 11:00 a.m., Michael Schumacher gets out on track to do a simulation of parts of a race: the German driver does 15 laps without stopping, then a rear wing specifically studied for the fast Monza track is mounted on the car. 


Two laps are enough for the driver to understand which advantages it will possibly be able to give him in September. In addition, the technicians mount a different clutch from the one used at Magny-Cours, and manufactured in England, on the F310 single-seater, which does not seem to create problems. On Wednesday, July 10th, 1996, Michael Schumacher will get back on track at Imola to perform tests with the new suspension. But the latest delusions have not been forgotten and Michele Alboreto, a former Ferrari driver, believes he has pinpointed the ones responsible for it: 


"It all started with the decision to revolutionize what had been the Ferrari philosophy: that is to say, to transform a huge team, which looked like a true family, into a two-headed team. One, that develops the engines, stayed in Maranello. The other, that studies the chassis and the rest of the car, immigrated to England". 


John Barnard is the main one under accusation: 


"He required to work at his house. But he's slow, all the new solutions are late: the cars break down because Ferrari has to develop the car during the championship. While we all know that the races are won in winter with good tests". 


But Barnard is not the only one to blame, according to Michele Alboreto: 


"Todt has a great Rally experience. But he understands little of Formula 1". 


Alboreto is pessimistic: 


"At Ferrari, there are only executives who want to move as little as possible because they're afraid of making mistakes. That don't take responsibility for drastic and, perhaps, unpopular decisions, which would be needed. Instead, they just get by, blaming their lack of results on bad luck". 


On Saturday, July 6th, 1996, Bernie Ecclestone is the victim of a bad adventure: the British manager gets attacked outside his house, in London, beaten to death by two pickpockets who fled with his wife's ring, encrusted with diamonds. The president of the Constructors' Association is taken, painfully, to Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, where they find a broken cheekbone. Ecclestone is 65 years old, one of the richest men in England, and lives with his young wife Slavica in a lavish downtown house. The couple is attacked at about 11:30 p.m., as they return home. Ecclestone is beaten while he tries to defend his wife.


"The deal is not far off. When things are clear, there is no reason to wait. We like to work together. I see a good future for myself and the team. I have great confidence in the team". 


Despite the controversies surrounding the Scuderia Ferrari, Michael Schumacher is ready to extend his contract with the Maranello team until 1998. He says it on Wednesday, July 10th, 1996, at Imola (with Todt), where he drives until 9:30 p.m. with two cars, testing a series of new solutions that will not be used at Silverstone, during the British Grand Prix, but later, in Germany. 


"I'm confident for Hockenheim, but I think we can still face difficulties at Silverstone". 


Only downside of the day: the clutch. Best time: 1'28"02. Ferrari against everything and everyone: against the curses, against the missteps of Montreal and Magny-Cours, against the tradition which always has it that Michael Schumacher is beaten in England. However, the Maranello team, which will welcome Giovanni Agnelli and Luca Montezemolo for encouragement on Friday morning, did not aim to win the tenth round of the World Championship. The stated aim is to end the race well and, possibly, go on the podium. There is no need to get one's hopes up, even if hope – as they say – is always the last to die. It is clear, however, that Jean Todt and his men, coming from a very difficult period, hope to win. The strength, for now, remains Michael Schumacher. The car, the F310, does not seem to have the winning twist yet. As the German champion explains it. Relaxed, smiling, in the mood to joke, the German driver is not only a fury on the track, but a real blessing to the team. 


"We've been testing many new and interesting things these days. But we don't want to rush things any more. All the material will be tested in the factory and the real leap forward will take place in the next race, in Hockenheim. For this race, above all, efforts have been made to regain the lost reliability".


Does that mean that there will be a defensive Ferrari and not an offensive one? 


"In Formula 1, we never know. Anything can happen. But we need to be realistic: arriving among the top three would already be an important result to regain momentum and morale. Let's not forget that the English teams test at Silverstone. They know all about the circuit, most importantly, they have already prepared the set-ups of the single-seaters and are ready to deal with any type of conditions that will happen during free practice and the race. For us, it will be difficult, especially today, the first day. Tomorrow will be different. I know the track very well, it will be about adapting the car". 


However, this does not seem to be the most suitable track for Schumacher... 


"The strange fact is that I really like Silverstone. But my best result here was a third place in 1993. The following year I got disqualified, last season I had the crash with Hill while I was leading, and Herbert won. I really hope I can forget the past". 


So let's talk about the present. It has been said that you could extend your contract with Ferrari until 1998 and that negotiations are well under way. 


"It's true. I actually signed this morning, maybe last night. Jokes aside: we're close to reaching an agreement. I enjoy being in the Scuderia and I think that Ferrari is happy with me. By the way: it's false what someone wrote. I have no contact at all with Mercedes, although I don't think Formula 1 will end in 1998". 


Schumacher already earns a huge sum. Do you want more to stay longer? 


"One always tries to ask. I'm trying to raise the price, they're trying to lower it. In the end, we'll reach an agreement. But it's not just about money". 


What will be the most difficult part of the next race? 


"Given what has happened so far, the start. We worked on the clutch, we know what the issue is, but it's not completely solved yet. However, at Magny-Cours, I could not test how the start would have gone…". 


To prepare the British Grand Prix, the Maranello team did extra hours. After the piston failures, due to a material defect, Ferrari had to disassemble all the engines already ready and change all the pieces. In addition, the electro-valve of the gearbox, which had stopped Irvine in France, was also operated. The latest tests in the factory and at Imola would suggest that these problems have been fixed. And in order not to take risks, they preferred not to bring the updates to the practice. It seems incredible, but Damon Hill, the main contender for the win, keeps thinking of Ferrari as his main rival anyway. The Englishman is especially worried about Schumacher: 


"He has seven lives, like cats. You always expect to see him in crisis, and he rises stronger than before. It's true that we have the advantage, but let's not forget that the German has been training at Silverstone for four years. If there is one that is scary, it's him".  


Huge problems for Forti, the team of Alessandria, who made his debut in Formula 1 last year. After having sold 51% to Shannon to secure funding, in order to bring the development programs forward, the Italian constructor found himself having to question all the roles inside the team. So the funding, for now, has stopped. And on Friday, Cosworth, the engine supplier, does not mount them on the cars. Andrea Montermini and Luca Badoer will be forced to stay stationary in the pits. Every promise is a debt: Giovanni Agnelli had said that he would come to visit Ferrari, engaged in the British Grand Prix, and he keeps his word. The Lawyer arrives at Silverstone during the course of Friday morning, July 12th, 1996: hair in the wind, hazelnut jumper, back from having seen his sci-fi sailboat at a construction site in Northern Europe, the Lawyer stops for over an hour at the pits. During the first session of tests, joined by chairman Montezemolo, Agnelli talks with executives, technicians and with the drivers. 


"My presence is not a warning sign, but a sign of affection and support. These tests aren't much fun, but they're interesting. It seems to me that the car is pretty good". 


Yes, but Williams... 


"Well, it's the best single-seater. It's the big favourite. I also think Hill's a little underrated as a driver. And he also knows this circuit perfectly. The World Championship is in his hands". 


What is the difference between Williams and Ferrari? 


"For the Maranello team, the problem is the development. For the past two or three years, the English team has gone on a track and has immediately been ready. Ferrari, instead, has to adapt every single time. Here, it will be even more difficult. But I very much hope for the Hockenheim race and for 1997". 


What will happen with Schumacher? 


"Regarding Schumacher, everyone wants him, but I think that he'll stay with us for a long time". 


Does Michael Schumacher make Fiat sell more cars in Germany? 


"Our sells in Germany are good. I don't think that it's the driver's merit".


How did you see the team after the recent crisis? 


"I noticed that the drivers, Todt and Montezemolo, work as a team". 


Are they worried about the failures of the last two races? 


"No. Rather, I understand that there are difficulties in developing the car. However, I repeat, I've come because the moment is quite difficult. It's now certain that Ferrari will not be able to fight for the title. But we expect another two or three wins. We'll also confirm Irvine. He's good, and he's tough to be an assistant to the German. The Italian drivers? Let's give them time to evolve". 


The visit is over, Agnelli leaves. At the end of the tests (the best time for Villeneuve, after having put new tyres on, fifth for Schumacher (but he is confident), the siege also started around Luca Montezemolo. 


"We're in the wolf's den, and it's going to be very hard to hunt him down. But for Ferrari now, the most important thing is to find reliability. At best, we'll try to get on the podium. Anyway, I am happy because during the tests in Monza and Imola we tested a lot of new updates that we could adopt in Germany. It's crucial for us to continue to work together and to put aside unnecessary emotions. We have no revolution scheduled and no hunt for the culprits has been opened for what has happened lately. I was very angry after Magny-Cours. But, I repeat, we must reflect, remembering that we started with a completely new car. I am pleased with the development of the V10 engine, but the working method and the organization still need to be improved. The delay of the F310 has cost us dearly". 


An accusation against Barnard? 


"No, it's a matter of fact. The car was created late and had problems. This has forced us to make a continuous pursuit. But we're already working for '97. I can confirm that we're negotiating to extend the contract with Schumacher. Maybe it'll cost us more: we had taken it for a piece of bread, I hope it doesn't become a whole loaf". 


Everything seems to be heading towards a recovery for Ferrari. However, during the course of the day, Bernie Ecclestone had a strange sortie in the Ferrari pit. The president of FOCA says that it will be necessary to support Jean Todt for the team of Maranello to return to winning ways. The possibility of a fabulous offer to the French manager to switch to another team (McLaren-Mercedes, ndr) is going around. According to Ecclestone, the danger for Ferrari is that if Todt were to leave, he could take Michael Schumacher away with him. In the evening, Luca Montezemolo strongly denies this last allegation. On Saturday, July 13th, 1996, in the same circuit where, as a child, he followed the exploits of his dad Graham, Damon Hill faces an important chance to win the World Championship. If the Williams driver wins for the seventh time since the start of the season, who will still be able to take the title away from him? A cataclysm would need to happen because his rivals (only Jacques Villeneuve, Michael Schumacher, Jean Alesi and David Coulthard still have a remote mathematical chance of overtaking the Englishman in the standings) could find themselves in a position to recover. But the championship will probably have to look for other points of interest. To start with, Damon Hill claims the pole position, the number 17 of his career, the number 6 of this year. Nice fight, his, with Jacques Villeneuve. In the end, with a time of 1'26"875, completed at an average speed of 210.177 km/h, the thirty-five-year-old son of art from London winds up the discussion. 


However, the annoying Canadian is only behind by 0.195 seconds, and he will do everything to beat his teammate in the race. Frank Williams, who does not claim to impose team orders, is labelled in the name of sportsmanship. And, in fact, Damon Hill admits:


"I expect a tough race, because Jacques is someone who never gives up". 


Behind both Williams, there is the Ferrari of Michael Schumacher. As he had announced, the German took the pole of the seconds. And it is not a small thing. A talented driver and a good car evidently, since behind them remain McLaren, Benetton and Jordan who also carry out most of their tests on this circuit, once the temple of speed. However, Maranello's team hopes to recover the reliability in the race immediately. The best result, always with at least decent performance, would be the one of bringing both cars to the finish line (Irvine starts from P10). The atmosphere at Ferrari, after the visit of the Lawyer Agnelli and the presence of Luca Montezemolo, seems serene. Even Bernie Ecclestone's controversial remarks on Friday ultimately serve to glue together the tiles of a mosaic that was in danger of breaking apart. In response to a question on the matter, Michael Schumacher says:


"If Todt were to leave, it wouldn't be good. Meanwhile, Ecclestone speaks in a personal capacity. I can only repeat what I explained at Monza: our team manager is important, so far, he has worked well, and the team would come out destroyed if such a situation occurred. In that case, I admit that there would be no reason for me to stay at Ferrari". 


Informed of the driver's statements, Jean Todt replies: 


"I can only be proud if a champion of his worth and a correct person like him has such a high regard for the work I do". 


Later, during a press conference, the French manager returns to talk about the affair, starting from far away.


"This is the second time I've ever had a bad time reading the Italian newspapers. I think that the attacks on Ferrari after the bitter delusions of Montreal and Magny-Cours have been exaggerated. But I don't have low morale for that reason, even though I don't sleep at night. My morale is only linked to the results". 


So the rumours of a possible divorce are unfounded? 


"I don't like to answer the allegations, but I can say that I respect Ferrari and I respect the contracts. Mine will not expire this year, nor will it expire next year. When I'll eventually leave, I'd like to leave a winning Ferrari and not just thanks to Todt, but to everyone's work. I'm taking responsibility. If a piston breaks, it's my fault, because a manager's task is to put the right people in the right places. If there are mistakes, it means I've made a mistake. Something has been done, but there is still work to be done". 


Finally, the intervention of Luca Montezemolo comes: 


"A useless story came up. I'm staying, Todt, who's tied up with us until at least '98, and Schumacher are staying with me. The important thing is to work serenely, united".


On Sunday, July 14th, 1996, at the start of the British Grand Prix, Damon Hill did not get away well and is down to P5; Jacques Villeneuve, Jean Alesi, Mika Häkkinen and Michael Schumacher, in that order, are now running ahead of the Englishman. While Villeneuve immediately starts to build up a significant gap on his rivals, the German driver of Ferrari already retires on lap 4 because of a hydraulic problem; only three laps later, Irvine, who had moved up into P6, is also forced to retire for a technical problem: for the Maranello team, this is the third double DNF in a row. Ten minutes after the start of the British Grand Prix, the shutters of the Ferrari pit are lowered. Goodbye dreams of glory, of revenge, of recovery. Goodbye to the points, the podium, the good position finishes. They start from scratch again. Zero in profit for the Maranello team. The first to speak is the Northern Irish driver, visibly altered by yet another delusion. 


"It's a shame. And it's a disaster for Ferrari. I've never had a good one here at Silverstone since 1989. A similar thing had happened to me in Formula 3000". 


But even the good Eddie finds the strength to react. And he adds, leaving everyone astonished: 


"We'll be back next year. With a great car. And we'll wipe them all out". 


In the meantime, Damon Hill remains blocked behind Mika Häkkinen, not managing to overtake him; the Englishman complains about drivability problems with his Williams, on which a wheel nut loosens over the course of the race. The team does not realize the problem and during lap 27, the Englishman's car has a sudden reaction at Copse corner, ending his race in the run-off area. Leading the British Grand Prix, in the meantime, Jacques Villeneuve does the first of the two refuelling he had anticipated; thus, Jean Alesi, who started with a one-stop strategy, takes the lead. When the Frenchman also goes into the pits, Jacques Villeneuve pushes to the limit, going back on track leading with a good advantage after having done his second pit-stop. In the meantime, Jean Alesi starts to have brake problems, having then to retire at seventeen laps from the end; the second position thus goes to Gerhard Berger, who meanwhile overtook Mika Häkkinen when the latter did his second refuelling. But the Austrian is too far away to worry Jacques Villeneuve, who takes the second win of his career ahead of Gerhard Berger, Mika Häkkinen, Rubens Barrichello, David Coulthard and Martin Brundle. At the end of the race, Benetton issues a report against the Williams of the winner, claiming that a strip of the front wing is not proper. In fact, it should be more rounded and thicker in the spirit of technical standards. But the sports commissioners argue that having been approved at the beginning of the year, the aerodynamic appendix has to be considered legal. And Benetton withdrew its appeal. Jacques Villeneuve had to overcome two moments of fear to win the British Grand Prix. The first one at the start, the second one after having crossed the finish line. At the start, the Canadian showed strong nerves: he got away like a fury and took the lead. An act of strength that earned him success. The second lasted longer: the Williams driver had to wait a couple of hours before knowing if his triumph had been validated. In fact, Benetton issued a report concerning an alleged technical irregularity on the car of the young Canadian champion, which was ultimately rejected. And Flavio Briatore, discouraged, settling for the second place of Gerhard Berger, renounces to appeal. So the affair, which could have dragged on for a long time, even in court, is closed. 


"I'm going to make his life very hard; I'm not going to give up a single inch".


Jacques Villeneuve had told the day before. And he kept his words. At the lead throughout the race, without the slightest smudging and even without too much interference from the rivals. Jacques immediately pushed hard, trying to make the difference. And he took advantage of the fact that Damon Hill, in front of the home crowd and of an overflowing crowd (200.000 spectators in these three days) who was only waiting to see him on the highest step of the podium, perhaps betrayed by the pressure and the emotion, really messed up his start. Poor Hill. He had also made a statement the day before: 


"I love this circuit and the corner that I love the most is Copse". 


At Copse, his dreams were broken. He went off-track with the brakes locked. Then, he said that a wheel bearing had burned. All he had to do was greet his fans with wide hand gestures. And as sportspeople, they applauded for a long time. But for Damon, it was a day as bitter as Ferrari's, remained practically at a standstill once again. The Londoner could really take flight in the standings, accumulate an insurmountable advantage, so much so that he put his feet up for the end of the season. Some good position finishes would have been enough, after all. But now there is a fierce rival at only 15 points and everything can still happen. Also because Villeneuve never hid his intentions. 


"At the beginning of the season, there had to be a certain team game. Frank Williams really cares about the Constructors' World Championship. We're largely in the clear on those standings now. Then I can handle it on a par with Hill. Relations are good with Damon. But I must warn him: from now on he will have to be careful. Because I have every intention of making the gap in the standings disappear quickly. Fifteen points are not a problem". 


Arrogant or overconfident? In the battle of nerves between sons of art, Villeneuve is certainly the most gifted, even if Hill remains the favourite. There are still six races to go before the end of the season, and the championship spices up when it seemed to be off. However, this does not mean that the race was exciting, spectacular, or uncertain. As always, not a single overtake, everything was decided in the pits with a Williams clearly superior as usual. Gerhard Berger finished second, ahead of Mika Häkkinen. Benetton and McLaren appeared in slight recovery. Jean Alesi, unfortunate as usual, after having also been the leader for seven laps (thanks to the stop of Jacques Villeneuve to do the tyre change and the refuelling), he was driving towards a deserved second-place finish when he was stuck, also because of a brake problem, which destroyed the bearing of a wheel in the end. And Jean had to sadly come back to the pits. But Ferrari was especially missed in this race, who for the third consecutive empty stroke also lost second place in the Constructors’ ranking in favour of Benetton. Jacques Villeneuve is now polarizing the attention. First at the Nürburgring, in the European Grand Prix, in spring, winner at the home of his rival Damon Hill. Not bad for a young man who started in Formula 1 this year. And if things go that way, it is not impossible that Damon Hill won't have to find another seat next year. At the same time, the hope of seeing Michael Schumacher able to steal the title from Damon Hill has now vanished, but that of seeing a car from Maranello win a Grand Prix, as in Spain, no. What is going on? Montezemolo, who had joined Giovani Agnelli at Silverstone on Friday, says: 


"We also try to understand what happened. During these last weeks, we tested and retested the cars, we did tests, we simulated a race at Imola. And during the free practice of the British Grand Prix, no particular problems had emerged. Then, it's the case of Schumacher's car, a screw is off and crashes the gearbox". 


And it blows everyone's nerves, reopening trials more or less summary against the Maranello team. Unstable reliability, lack of preparation, bad luck, technical problems to be solved, faulty materials, the delays of the designer John Barnard? There is a curious fact in these last terrible Sundays of the Maranello team: the retirements occurred in the very first stages of the race. Cold shots, by surprise. It happened in Canada, in France (the huge smoke from Michael Schumacher's engine during the formation lap before the start), at Silverstone (fourth lap for the German, sixth lap for Irvine) in the Grand Prix won by Jacques Villeneuve with the usual Williams. A singular repetitiveness, those who are in the business know well that any mechanical trouble tends to emerge during the race (just like it happened to Jean Alesi). Giovanni Agnelli, who followed Schumacher's and Ferrari's tests with interest and curiosity at Silverstone, is also disconcerted. The Lawyer makes it known: 


"Of course, one is surprised by such a case and has to ask himself many questions". 


Which questions? It is a delicate subject, but surely in the Formula 1 world these continuous fulminating retirements of Ferrari have surprised some observers. Breaking is normal, but like this... Schumacher states: 


"Three stops, three different causes". 


Some suspicions emerge. No one, rightfully, wants to use bad words like sabotage (who, how, why?) but there is a sense of anxiety, of discomfort. Montezemolo cuts short: 


"Right now, the biggest mistake would be to lose our mind or to get discouraged. Be sure we won't fall into this mistake. And it's not just us that have problems. Mechanical failures happen to everyone. Think of Silverstone, Hill, and Alesi, who broke the wheel bearings". 


Nerves are fine, in short. Luca Montezemolo understands the anger and disappointment of the Ferrari Tifosi. Because there is also anger and disappointment in Maranello. And they send their message: 


"You still have faith in us. We won't give up". 


The words of Michael Schumacher apply especially to the Ferrari chairman. In recent weeks the German champion has intensified the pace of tests, fought bitterness with the work, reiterated his attachment to the team and his managers. 


"We can, we have to win, we have to work thinking about the 1997 World Championship".


The problem for Ferrari is that the public is sick of waiting. The title won by Jody Scheckter (1979) is a memory that fades year after year, there is the desire to see the Maranello team back at the top. Losing always hurts, but losing like this hurts even more. 


"My name is Michael Schumacher. Unfortunately, I'm not the magician David Copperfield. So, don't ask me why these things happen. Motor racing is like this: you fight to look for performance, and you can be stopped by a grain of dust. A Formula 1 car is the most sophisticated vehicle that exists in the world. It's assembled and reassembled several times in a day. So, negative surprises are always lurking. Unfortunately, we stumbled into a very bad time". 


The German driver, in a white T-shirt and khaki pants, had already finished a series of interviews by the time the race was over. Amid grimaces, sighs, nervous movements of the shoulders, as if oppressed by a huge weight, Schumi spoke at length, almost wanting to free the brain from any impurity. But at the same time, the champion seems steady, determined. Around Ferrari, like at the bedside of an ill person, there were all the media. Nobody cared about the race any more. Michael Schumacher says, trying to also give a technical explanation, after having waited himself to know exactly what had happened:


"I lost the fluid in the gearbox hydraulic circuit. I stayed with the sixth gear locked and the engine idling. And I came back to the pits. Once again, this is a deliberate failure. That is to say that it's never happened. I don't know if it's the fault of the one who assembled the piece that didn't work, but that's not the most important matter". 


So what should we talk about? 


"We can talk realistically about the situation at Ferrari. Unfortunately, what happened can take away the motives. Especially for the team. It's as if the world collapsed on you. It's also hard for me. But I know that in two weeks we'll be on track, and we'll be competitive. We've got interesting things to put on the cars. I hope to do a couple of laps more than this time…". 


Even in a not so good period, Schumacher finds a way to make jokes. And to present trouble with an allegorical example:


"It's like when you fall down the stairs. You ask yourself: was I unlucky? Did somebody push me? Or did they set a step? The truth is that we have a problem, and it's a big one of reliability. But it would be wrong to speculate about it. And, by the way, I don't accept it". 


Sentences, these, that might lend themselves to heavy illusions. But Michael then stressed that it was just an attempt to explain his mood. What can be done to prevent such incidents from happening again? 


"Our technicians know what's gone wrong. The problem is to understand why, and then take all the necessary measures so that the failure doesn't occur again. In short, we must act quickly and try to stabilize the situation. We don't have any other choice". 


But are there any specific reasons to justify so many missteps during the races? 


"We did tests at Monza and Imola for hundreds of kilometres. And apart from an engine failure that we've been expecting, there hasn't been a single problem. Here, on Friday and Saturday, we drove with extreme regularity. The race comes and we immediately stop. The first thing that comes to mind is this: when you look for the limit - and this is especially true in racing - you get in trouble". 


It is difficult, in this way, to convince the Ferrari Tifosi who have never been so disappointed. What can you tell people who saw what happened on TV? 


"What I've said more than once. That I'm very optimistic. That we'll get through this difficult moment. Already at Hockenheim, the performance of our cars, as we have many important updates to use, will be superior. But it's clear that if something goes wrong, even if you have the fastest car, everything becomes useless". 


To then have a precise explanation of the reasons for the retirements, it is necessary to wait for the arrival of Jean Todt, after the examination of the technicians on the cars. With a stiffened face, but also at least apparently calm, the GES manager, accompanied by the engineer Giorgio Ascanelli, technical director, tries to find the words to comment on yet another bad day: 


"I'm superstitious, but I don't believe in bad luck. And yet, after two trips like this, I just think of haunted races. It's precisely at these times, however, that one must use their head. It would be pointless and unfair to wipe everything and everyone out. For a month and a half, we've been leaving the circuits with such bitterness. What we're expressing is not the true value of the team. Schumacher has an exceptional character, he remains serene, even if he obviously is quite disappointed. It's true that this is what racing is all about, but incredible things happen. We just have to look forward, learning another harsh lesson. And hoping to have really hit rock bottom".


It is Giorgio Ascanelli, pragmatic and confident, who provided the results of the analysis carried out on the cars: 


"There was a leak of fluid contained by the hydraulic circuit on Schumacher’s car. It is a special liquid that is loaded in the factory in an aseptic room, because it has to be very pure. It operates at the pressure of 200 bar and makes the gearbox work. The inlet fitting became loose. It can be a manufacturing defect or a geometry mistake [in simple terms: the cap has loosened, ndr]. Regarding Irvine, the bearing of a drive shaft collapsed, the oil came out and caught fire on the exhausts". 


But the technical director continues: 


"Back to the hydraulic system, it's never disassembled on track. The one we had on the German driver's car was running since about 300 kilometres. We usually replace them prudently after 2.000". 


Someone asks: so is it sabotage? 


"You make me laugh, even though I don't want to. The truth is another: our car is fundamentally fragile. After a season start not to be disliked and having done twenty-seven test sessions, the performance was improved each time. But that's exactly why everything that's new automatically becomes risky. When you turn the page completely, you start from scratch. And the F310 with the 10-cylinder engine is the newest car that Ferrari has ever done in recent years. This means that, by improving performance, every single element is brought to the limit of resistance and can break". 


That is a precise and detailed reason. But, even if Ascanelli is careful not to say so, at this point the accusation concerns the English designer John Barnard who, with his team, designed the car. Completely new and late. In short, Ferrari would be competitive (Schumacher, in three full laps completed, set the eighth-fastest time of the race and would have done one only pit-stop, so it was also heavy because of the fuel in the tank) but it does not happen in the end. There are many pieces, you will have to wait when they will all be reliable. As it had happened after Montreal and after Magny-Cours, Ferrari does not stop. From Tuesday to Thursday, the Maranello team will still be at Monza. Three full days of work with Michael Schumacher and one, yet to be defined, for Eddie Irvine. The Northern Irish driver was initially not planned but, given the situation, it was decided to operate on two fronts. The German will probably take care of the development of the car, while his teammate will be entrusted with the complete simulation of a race. In view of the race on the fast circuit of Hockenheim, Ferrari should approve important innovations on the F310. At the rear of the car, there are new aerodynamics, a redesigned suspension, and a 7-speed gearbox. But there will be other small changes that should in theory clearly improve not only the performance but also the roadholding and the use of the engine. In order to especially allow Irvine to express himself to the maximum, which he has not been able to do so far, since he has always found the single-seater not very suitable for his driving style. Will this commitment be enough to reverse the situation, since performance is not the thing being blamed, but reliability? Question for now unanswered: there is always the threat of bad surprises around the corner. Ferrari pays for the desire to win, the culture of the first place. And there is someone who knows this problem better than everybody else. Fired by Maranello in the fall of 1991, Alain Prost, four-time World Champion, speaks with hindsight. 


"It's the euphoria effect. In my opinion, Schumacher's win in Spain has brought more harm than good. Ferrari thought they were in sight of the aim. And so, they rushed things. And then mass innovations, emotional strains, the desire to overdo. I don't know exactly how things turned out in the last three races, but I can think that after the tests and the qualifying, on Sundays you look for that extra something you need to win. And then you do little adjustments, you change things. The Formula 1 single-seaters are very delicate. Raising them up or lowering them by a millimetre is enough to move backwards, to have problems, and to cause unintended failures". 


The question naturally arises: is Ferrari on a bad path again? 


"No. But they risk taking a step backwards. As a driver I'd rather retire for a failure than lose two seconds per lap as it was happening in recent years to Berger and Alesi. The fact that the F310 is becoming competitive is the most positive fact, the basis on which to work with calm and serenity. Certainly, in Italy it's not easy. It moves from exaggerated exaltation to drama too quickly. When Ferrari goes badly, improvised censors come out. They give out advice, remedies, solutions. And they're often people who've never seen a race car and barely recognize a sewing machine from one for making coffee. Unfortunately, public opinion has much weight on Maranello. These are not things that concern me, but I would say to Montezemolo, to Todt and their men to go ahead on their own path. It won't be easy if there are more disasters because the environment is boiling, but it's the only successful way". 


So, Alain Prost is positive, as is the most direct interested, that is to say Schumacher. But strong dissent does not lack: above all, many disappointed Tifosi, like never before, even in the worst periods. A sense of discouragement, of helplessness. People (with Barnard in their sights) are wondering if it is possible not only to finish a race, but even to start it. Of course, there are also voices of experts. Like Lauda's one, who, commenting on the race for a German television, criticized Todt, judging him to be the real responsible for any trouble. But it is known that the former Austrian driver, who also knows Ferrari well in every aspect, does not get along with the French manager by whom he was left aside. In any case, only the next races will be able to provide a valid answer to the questions that are on everyone's mind. 


©​ 2024 Osservatore Sportivo


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