On Thursday, April 4, 1996, Formula 1 landed in Argentina. And for the first time it does not find Juan Manuel Fangio, who died in August at age 84, waiting for it. He was motor racing's great sage, perhaps the best driver ever, certainly the most titled with his five world titles. He had won here four times, from 1953 to 1957, driving Maserati, Mercedes and Ferrari. The role of godfather of the race was therefore assumed by Carlos Reutemann, now a senator and a possible candidate in the future for the country's presidency. Reutemann, who also has distant Italian roots (one of his grandfathers was from Alessandria), still has Ferrari in his heart a little:
"We hope he will make a good impression, he always has a lot of fans from us".
In reality, the Maranello team's chances of winning are not many. There is talk of a possible podium, a third place as in Australia and Brazil, behind the impregnable Williams. On Wednesday evening Schumacher was received along with Irvine by President Carlos Menem, who was with his daughter Zulemita. The German gave him a helmet (yellow) and the Argentine number one told him:
"I would like you to win, but i know its going to be hard".
Michael's answer was immediate:
"You can't do anything special?"
Hello, Menem, too, replied, smiling:
"I have prepared a special presidential decree".
Jokes aside, Ferrari in theory should do better than in Brazil. That is, always be behind Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve, but fear the other competition less. This is based on the characteristics of the track, which is slower than the one in Sao Paulo and should also have the track less undulating. The conditional is a must because the asphalt may have deteriorated. In any case, on the F310s of Michael Schumacher and Eddie Irvine there will be no technical changes. The old gearbox, which is more reliable, will always be fitted, waiting to return to the original version in the European Grand Prix to be run on Sunday, April 28, 1996. In this regard, good news comes from Mugello. Larini runs 670 kilometers in two days, also beating the track record that belonged to Jean Alesi (in 1995, with a time of 1'27"5). On Thursday, Larini covered 88 laps (over 400 kilometers) turning in 1'27"2 and saying he was satisfied with the work done:
"We made a small but important step forward".
Schumacher, on the other hand, back from a short vacation in Patagonia, is beginning to understand what it means to be at Ferrari:
"The pressure is enormous. On Monday I went to an almost uninhabited place and found journalists and cameras everywhere. Not to mention the fans asking me for autographs as I raced on the beach. The popularity of the Maranello team is incredible and gives you a special charge. But one should not dream: we will be competitive later".
More optimistic Irvine:
"I am confident, I like the circuit and it is suitable for our car. We can get a good result. And there could always be a clash between the two Williams…".
Eddie Irvine, always positive, is not lacking in humor. Unwilling to laugh, on the other hand, championship leader Damon Hill.
"Obviously I'm not thinking about the title because we're just at the beginning. But I have to take advantage of the situation. My rivals are still a little late with their cars. I don't see that Benetton, Ferrari, McLaren and the others can have caught up in these few days. Good opportunity, then, to give the standings another shot in the arm. A nice tic-tac-toe would please me, although I will have to contend with my teammate Villeneuve. However, I am convinced of my chances; Jacques all in all, as good as he is, is still an apprentice, although he learns very quickly".
A Damon Hill therefore ready to take advantage of the situation to strengthen his position in the standings. Also because on Friday, April 5, 1996, the battle in Buenos Aires is no holds barred on the first day of practice for the Argentine Grand Prix. For being only free practice, the drivers go wild, on a very difficult track, dirty and full of jumps. A show made of road exits, spins, braking to the limit, fortunately without damage even to the cars. In the end minimal detachments, with the usual Damon Hill at the top of the time list, but with only a 0.1 second lead over Michael Schumacher, and 0.3 seconds over Jean Alesi. It is still Williams that leads the time charts, but Ferrari, at least seemingly, seems to be making progress. After all, the men of the Maranello team had made no secret that the characteristics of the track would give the F310s a better chance. And despite too many depressions due to asphalt failure, the German was able to push hard. Even he, however, does not remain free of mishaps, although he managed to complete the program in the 30 laps allowed by the regulations.
"Once I went straight under braking and on two occasions I had good caroms. The fact is that I had too much understeer. However, it is difficult to complete a perfect lap because the track conditions do not allow it. It only takes one slip to make a mistake. Other than that, I am quite satisfied, because we did not have the slightest problem all day. For qualifying I am confident, but let's wait. It is unrealistic to think about pole position, and it will also take a lot of luck to get on the front row. Here, I would already be happy with second position".
Less satisfied is Eddie Irvine, who goes no further than P12, 1.6 seconds behind his teammate and testing the race setup, so with plenty of gas in the tank. But when the Northern Irish driver works on the setup for qualifying, he is faced with the same problems he had in Brazil: unstable car in the rear, with little traction and decomposed under braking. Radio-box says that Ferrari got interesting information from Mugello (where Larini tested) for adjusting the electronic programs. In any case, Jean Todt, head of Ferrari's racing team, appreciates the overall result, exclaiming:
"Finally, a ray of sunshine".
The tests also confirm the progress made by Benetton and McLaren compared to the first race in Australia. Alesi, also like Berger who ended up in a spin, says the car is improving lap by lap. The Austrian, on the other hand, is still cautious and it seems that, for some peculiar reason, he is not going through a moment of great harmony with his French colleague. Some problems for Villeneuve as well. Very brilliant in Melbourne, the Canadian has experienced his first disappointments in Brazil. He obviously lacks the necessary experience, as well as track knowledge. On Friday, among other things, Jacques entered two depressions of the track too violently, his Williams almost blew up, and the driver, in landing, suffered a bagging of the vertebrae, so he is now suffering from a severe headache. More than decent behavior of the small Italian racing teams. Minardi with Lamy is in P14, while Forti, although occupying the last two places, runs regularly and, for the moment, is not in danger of being excluded from the race. Meanwhile, a new war is brewing between the drivers' association, the GPDA, and the FIA. In a communiqué issued in recent days, the racers let it be known that they will not accept, next year, to pay for a superlicense. Rather, they are demanding insurance coverage from the FIA in case of an accident. FIA president Max Mosley, heard on the matter, says he is not against it, but he does not want to have McCormack's agency, which has taken over the drivers' association, as an interlocutor. On Saturday, April 6, 1996, Michael Schumacher fails to take pole position, but he certainly alarms his rivals. The German Ferrari driver will, in fact, start on the front row in the Argentine Grand Prix, alongside Damon Hill, who for the thirteenth time since the beginning of his career has been the fastest in qualifying (1'30"346 on the lap, averaging 169.707 km/h). A real threat to the leader of the standings, on a track with many difficulties for overtaking. It will not be easy to surprise the Englishman at the start, but not impossible either. And if Michael manages to pass Damon Hill at the first corner, the race will become more complicated for the Williams driver. Schumacher proves, if it was still necessary, that he has enormous talent. During the course of the morning, the German driver did indeed go off the track twice but also performed some spins and managed to tame the red car: exceptional was his ability to control the car even in borderline conditions. Coolness, lightning-fast reflexes, driving skills, all expertly dosed and mixed. Suffice it to say that Eddie Irvine (who was unable to fine-tune his Ferrari, even finding traffic on the track in fast laps) only gets P10, being 1.5 seconds slower than the German. The same happened between Michael Schumacher and his teammates at Benetton.
"I am happy to be at the top of the grid with Hill, especially because it was a surprise. I was thinking second row, third place with some luck. Instead, until five minutes into practice I was in the lead. And Damon passed me by just two and a half tenths. This does not mean that we have cancelled the gap with Williams. We knew we could make a good impression here, but the F310 went better than expected".
But even so, Michael Schumacher is under no illusions about the race:
"It will be hard and difficult, as always. Very important is the start. Whoever takes the lead on the inside of the first corner will immediately have a major advantage over the others. This is a circuit where you can't leave the line even an inch, otherwise you risk ending up in a spin".
But, in short, has this Ferrari made any progress?
"The car is the same as in Brazil, with different adjustments. We know a lot of work still needs to be done. There is not just one thing to change, but it is the overall package that needs to be reviewed in detail. At the moment it is not possible to estimate if, how and when interventions will have to be made. We will have to wait for the return to Europe".
But in the meantime, Ferrari is gambling its first chance for victory. These days the cars have had no particular problems, and Jean Todt hopes that reliability will not fail right at the race. It may be decisive, as usual, the strategy of pit stops, which last week, in Brazil, due to bad weather, had been brilliant. Says Jean Todt in this regard:
"The asphalt conditions are disastrous, reasoning that anything can be expected. Our realistic goal is to get on the podium. If something more comes along, so much the better. However, Hill and co. are strong".
Indeed, the Hill-Villeneuve pairing, which holds Michael Schumacher in a kind of vice grip, appears more fearsome than ever. Not forgetting, it goes without saying, Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger following the Williams drivers and the German driver's Ferrari with the Benettons. Further back are the Jordans and McLarens. In the front rows (with the seventh time) is the increasingly surprising Jos Verstappen in the Footwork. Also of note is the P14 of 20-year-old Brazilian Tarso Marques in the Minardi. Completing the group are the Forti of Luca Badoer and Andrea Montermini, qualified without too much fear. The support of an experienced person like Cesare Fiorio is paying off. For years Patrick Head, partner and technical manager of Williams, has dominated the scene: his cars are winning again this year. His assessment of the opponents is therefore interesting. Who will be Williams' strongest rival?
"Still Benetton, because they have the same engine as us, good drivers and good engineers. It is the most dangerous".
What about Ferrari?
"It still seems to me to be going up and down. It will be interesting to see at the European circuits, the fast ones, whether it will rise to the occasion. It seems to me that it still has a lot of work to do. In contrast, Schumacher is an extraordinary driver who can make a difference. Here to stay on the track he drives like a Rally driver".
"Hard to make predictions. Jordan is growing, but we don't know if it will be consistent. McLaren has problems, but it could solve them. It will take a few races to understand better. We, however, will not stand by and watch".
On Sunday, April 7, 1996, at the start of the Argentine Grand Prix, Damon Hill held the lead, fending off Michael Schumacher's attack; Jacques Villeneuve, on the other hand, got off to a terrible start, slipping from third to ninth position. The Canadian immediately begins to make a comeback, overtaking Mika Häkkinen, Jos Verstappen, Rubens Barrichello and David Coulthard in the first nine laps; however, the Canadian is unable to overtake Gerhard Berger's Benetton, getting stuck in fifth position. Damon Hill progressively gains ground on Michael Schumacher and after the first series of pit stops remains in the lead with about a 4-second advantage over the German; followed, more distant, by Alesi, Berger and Villeneuve. On lap 24, Pedro Paulo Diniz attempts to lap Luca Badoer, but the two come into contact and the Italian's Forti takes off, landing with wheels in the air; Badoer is unharmed, but race management sends the Safety car onto the track. Some drivers, including Diniz himself, take advantage of this to refuel; on the Brazilian's Ligier, however, the fuel nozzle remains open and some gasoline ends up on the engine and exhausts, and when these catch fire, the car bursts into flames, but Diniz emerges from the cockpit unharmed. The Safety car remains on the track until lap 32; Damon Hill begins to pull away from Michael Schumacher again, while behind the two the order remains virtually unchanged. On lap 33, Tarso Marques tries to pass Martin Brundle, ending up crashing into him violently: both are out of the race. A little later, Damon Hill passes the scene of the accident, firing some debris at Michael Schumacher's car, which barely grazes the German driver's helmet; one of them hits the Ferrari's rear wing, cracking it. The Ferrari driver continues to spin, except to retire for precautionary reasons on Lap 46. In the meantime, the second series of pit stops begins; Jean Alesi has the engine of his Benetton shut down, losing the chance to fight for victory and having to cede the position to Gerhard Berger. The Austrian, although unable to undermine Hill, seemed on his way to second position when a suspension failure forced him to retire. Behind Damon Hill thus finishes Jacques Villeneuve, who takes second place ahead of Jean Alesi, Rubens Barrichello, Eddie Irvine and Jos Verstappen, who brings the first point of the season to Footwork. In Argentina Damon Hill seizes his third consecutive success: a race downhill, leading from start to finish. So much so that he said:
"I only had one problem, the on-board radio not working".
Scoring full points in the World Championship, 18 points ahead of his downsized teammate, Jacques Villeneuve (second, more by luck and weakness of rivals than by his own merits), Damon joined Stirling Moss as the number of victories: 16 in his career. Damon Hill admits the superiority of his own car and reveals that he owes part of his magic moment to his new physical trainer who made him adopt the cross-country racer's diet. Lots of protein during the week and then almost complete fasting on the two pre-race days.
"Physically I feel great".
In fact Hill is a decent driver who was gifted by fate the Williams-Renault. A car that allowed Jacques Villeneuve, at the start slipped for a mistake in tenth position, to get on the podium after his teammate and ahead of Jean Alesi. Damon, if some rival does not put him under pressure, does not make mistakes. So now, who can think of beating him?
"The championship is still very long. Ferrari and Benetton are growing, improving. I got off to a great start but I still have to sweat for the title".
But things are not quite that way. It is true that the Benetton of Alesi and Berger has improved and that Ferrari, on a track like Argentina and with a driver like Schumacher, can give the impression of getting closer. But the upcoming European circuits probably won't change that. Benetton will test in Jerez and Ferrari will be from Wednesday in Monza (first with Irvine then with Schumacher) to try a more powerful engine and different solutions, returning to the original F310 gearbox.
However, it is difficult to reverse the power ratios immediately. Not least because there is no shortage of mishaps in the two teams at the moment. In Argentina Schumacher stopped on lap 47 after holding second position for a long time. On his car the upper part of the rear wing broke off. The car lost grip, Michael was passed by Alesi: unavoidable retirement. Underlying the episode was also what someone called an unknown. The failure was caused on lap 34 by a piece fired right on the wing from Damon Hill's car ahead of the Ferrari.
"I saw it coming and lowered my head, it could have hit me".
It was probably a part lost from one of the two cars that had collided moments earlier: the Minardi of Tarsus Marques and the Jordan of Martin Brundle. The F310's wing gradually bent until it broke. The controversy, triggered by Jean Alesi, comes shortly afterward. The Frenchman was the protagonist of a serious mistake during his second pit stop, causing the engine to turn off (as had happened to him last year at Monza): a mistake that robbed him of second place and perhaps even the possibility of attacking Damon Hill. Jean, therefore, who was following Schumacher at the time, said at the end of the race:
"I warned Briatore over the radio that the wing was coming off for him to tell Ferrari. But the people in Maranello generally don't mind these things. In 1995 at Spa, after a suspension had broken, a mechanic had suggested stopping Berger for a check, but they didn't. That's why I'm glad I left the Maranello team".
But at Ferrari they adamantly deny that they deliberately left Schumacher on the track in that condition. While Flavio Briatore admits that he did not hear Jean Alesi's message, the Maranello team explains that engineer Lunetta noticed what was happening on lap 45 and warned the driver to return. But Schumacher wanted to continue, until he realized shortly after that it was impossible. What emotions for the Argentine Grand Prix crowd. On a circuit where, by the very characteristics of the track, very slow and with wide run-off spaces, the dangers are really reduced to a minimum, two spectacular accidents caused so much fear. And given a warning: in Formula 1 one must always be careful with regard to safety. The talk is not just about the cars (which today are truly built to offer an exceptional level of protection to those behind the wheel) but about the behavior of certain drivers and certain rules of the game. First and foremost, under indictment is the superficiality with which racers are admitted to races and the limits of certain technical and sporting rules. The great and, in the end, fortunate protagonist of two episodes with dramatic implications, Brazilian Pedro Paulo Diniz, 25. The son of a very wealthy merchant, Diniz boasts no particular merits, other than having brought millionaire sponsors, first to Forti and now to Ligier. The South American, on lap 25, in an attempt to overtake violently bumped the lapped Badoer. The impact was so severe that the Italian's Forti rolled over in the dirt off the track. Tells the Italian driver, at the end of the race:
"It's unbelievable, it would have only taken a moment longer and I would have let him pass. Instead, I found myself with the car in the lead. And to make matters worse, the stewards, regardless of the fact that my legs were stuck in the cockpit, tried to forcefully pull me out. So I risked breaking some bones when I had just saved myself. I was really scared".
A few minutes later Diniz himself, whose Ligier had not been damaged in the collision, risked a terrible death. Having made a pit stop with refueling, the Brazilian resumed the race. But suddenly his car was enveloped in a huge and frightening blaze and spun off the track, stopping on the sand on either side of the asphalt. Moments of terror, a firefighter fell to the ground in his haste to intervene, then Pedro climbed out of the fire-wrapped cockpit and ran for his life. What had happened? Apparently the aircraft-type valve closing the fuel tank had failed. Gasoline leaked out, ending up on the overheated engine exhaust and exploded.
"I saw something scary in the rearview mirrors, and I was just in time to stop. I don't know how I managed to get out of the cockpit because I was terrified. I got away with a slight burn on one hand but it was an experience I will never forget".
This is the second time such a case has happened since Verstappen's case with Benetton in 1994. Control systems will need to be further reviewed, and quickly. Two words also for Martin Brundle, experienced driver, 36 years old, 144 races under his belt. Nice guy, on the track he is a beast. To rebuke an attack by Marques in the Minardi, he saw fit to plant a big brake early. So he was rear-ended and both drivers had to retire. When will the stewards crack down on bad drivers?