Almost everywhere around the world, circuit by circuit, if you look at Ferrari’s latest victories, always the same name appears. That of Alain Prost. Here, in 1990, the French champion sealed the Maranello team’s last success in England. And on the Silverstone track, in the last ten years, Williams won six times. Therefore, the Grand Prix starting on Friday, July 14th, 1995, with the first round of qualifying, looks difficult for Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger, veterans of the disappointing French test. Admits the French driver:
"It’s true, it will be tough. In France, it was such a wet blanket, a drenched one. Up to that point, we had always grown accustomed to quite different results. Fortunately, the reasons behind the setback are understandable and explainable. We were unable to prepare the set-up of the cars. In addition, since the beginning of the championship, we’ve been having traction problems. And at Magny-Cours, traction is crucial, because of the characteristics of both track and asphalt".
Now Silverstone is next. With what prospects?
"It’s a risky race. The British teams have been testing here all year round, also last week. They know the circuit like we know the Fiorano circuit. So, there’s a chance that even cars that normally don’t challenge us too much, like Jordan and McLaren, could have unpleasant surprises in store. Not to mention Benetton and Williams".
So, will we see a toned-down Ferrari?
"No. But we must be careful not to make mistakes. The first day of practice will be very important to find the right setup straight away. If the others set very fast times, we shouldn’t let ourselves be scared, but rather work calmly".
If it goes wrong, goodbye dreams of glory, that is, what everyone thinks…
"This is not true. I continue to be focused on the championship. I’m convinced that we can fight until the end".
However, we also need some basics, improvements.
"We’ve got something new. Especially regarding aerodynamics. These days, Larini’s testing has allowed us to try several different parts that seem to work well. There are changes in the rear, the chute, and the side belies are narrower. We’ll see. I like this track very much".
Now one would expect the Schumacher-Hill duel, which has been a matter of discussion lately.
"We’ll see that as well. As for the controversies between the Englishman and the German, I find them useless and stupid. They only create dangerous animosity. It would be better to avoid them".
Schumacher, however, said that if Alesi was in the Williams, he would have a more difficult opponent to deal with…
"I’m not that stupid to seriously reply to that statement. I don’t think he said it to compliment me. He just wanted to spite Hill".
Speaking of spite: in an interview, Berger made it known that he had basically been reappointed by Ferrari, while he pointed out that it will be more difficult for Alesi.
"Did he really say that? I spoke with Montezemolo in Rome not a long time ago. He told me to stay calm. And I am very calm. I’m waiting".
"I don’t know".
Meanwhile, the statement made by Patrick Faure must be noted. The president of Renault Sport praises Alesi and says he is interested in the French driver. Michael Schumacher and Damon Hill do not like each other and are not friends. But it must be noted that in the controversy that has recently arisen, some of the tabloid media played a significant role. In Germany, by using an interview of Hill in which he said that the German is a clone, a copy of a champion, one agency translated the word clone with clown. In this regard, on the eve of the British Grand Prix, the Times writes of Benetton and Ferrari’s interest in Hill for 1996. Both Maranello team ("The news is totally unfounded") and the Italian-English stable deny it. From Benetton, they say:
"We are satisfied with our team and haven’t yet thought about the future, only about winning the drivers’ and constructors’ titles".
But Schumacher replies:
"I don’t think Benetton is interested in Damon, if anything, he would be the one asking for Benetton. He said they are a product of the sponsors because he doesn’t have any. And I think it will be difficult for him to find a team in 1996".
On Friday, July 14th, 1995, Damon Hill makes happy 10.000 fans more than last year (50.000 in attendance, 37.000 paying, not bad for a working Friday), who arrived at the circuit to support him in his challenge with the rival, Michael Schumacher. But it is not too much of a blow for the German. If no thunderstorm will define the starting grid on Saturday, let’s also expect the German’s reaction. Only 0.273 seconds separate the two rivals, and the Benetton champion says he has a chance to snatch pole position from Damon Hill. All this despite the black clouds swelling over Schumacher’s head. They do not directly concern the sport, but rather his private life and specifically his earnings. The German finance is investigating him as it had already done with tennis player Steffi Graf and other celebrities. At issue are his Monégasque residence (one must live at least 178 days a year in the Principality to be entitled to own one) and the payment of taxes in Germany. The driver is suspected, when on the French Riviera, of residing in the villa of manager Will Weber, who is in France. And because of this, agents examined Weber’s own offices and homes, confiscating dozens of documents. Nevertheless, the Hill-Schumacher battle on track is safe. Only David Coulthard could be the gooseberry, according to the times he set during the first round of qualifying. In fact, Ferrari appears to be quite far behind. The placings are decent (Berger fourth, Alesi sixth, preceded by Herbert) when one considers that the Maranello team had not tested in Silverstone for a year. But the gaps start to weigh: Berger is 1.533 seconds behind Hill, while Alesi 1.750 seconds. Since the French Grand Prix at Magny-Cours, there has been a widening of the gap in performance. Two are the different explanations. One is the one suggested by Gerhard Berger, endorsed by Jean Todt. The other is that of Jean Alesi. Says Gerhard Berger:
"Since the French Grand Prix, the Renault engine made a step forward in terms of evolution. Our car is not bad, but its characteristics don’t suit all circuits. We’ve found reliability, the maximum power is very good, but we lack torque".
"We struggle at low rpm, and this is in addition to the lack of traction that the 412T2 presents. I’m neither disappointed nor pessimistic, because compared to last year we made significant progress. And on many tracks, we can perhaps get satisfaction. But this is the current situation. This is a beautiful and difficult track, and if you’re forced to ask for more aerodynamic pressure to have better drivability, then you will lose in performance. Let’s hope for rain, because in the wet I don’t fear anyone".
Meanwhile, Agip, technical partner of Ferrari, Minardi, and other teams, says it may leave Formula 1 due to the lack of freedom in the research. But the statement reports that it especially dislikes the FIA’s homologation and controls methods on petrol. Too informal, without precise standards. Nothing is known about the composition of approved fuels, and on-track examinations during Grand Prix are carried out occasionally, seemingly at random. Agip wants clear rules. And it is right, because otherwise suspicion and doubts after what happened in Brazil may seem well-founded. On Saturday, July 15th, 1995, a classic day of English rain drenched the starting grid of the British Grand Prix. All the drivers remained in the positions they got on Friday, with Damon Hill on pole, Michael Schumacher on the front row next to his rival, then David Coulthard, Johnny Herbert, Jean Alesi and so on. Nonetheless, at least between downpours (the threat of bad weather continues even if it should be less likely on Sunday), we discover the truth of Formula 1. The Devil is not Damon Hill, whose nickname is actually ‘The Demon’, but Michael Schumacher, the authentic Lucifer of the tracks. This is what we learn from the words of the English Williams driver himself:
"I’m tired of starting up front and finishing second in the race. We’re always faster in practice, then things change during the races. And it’s not a matter of strategies or pit stops. Unfortunately, Benetton always manages to find a better solution".
If we talk about Benetton, of course, the reference is to Michael Schumacher, since so far, the other driver, Johnny Herbert, is not very helpful. Damn Schumacher, then, capable to turn the tables when he wants. And, indeed, the German is very confident and optimistic:
"If it wasn’t raining, I could have beaten Hill’s time. But it doesn’t change much, it would have been just a little personal satisfaction. The important thing is to get the 10 points in the standings. In such way, we’ll close the issue about the World Championship as soon as possible".
It seems that Schumacher is in a hurry to bring his second title home, so that he can think about his future without any added problems. Including his marriage to Corinne, scheduled for September. Nevertheless, although being investigated by the IRS in Germany, Michael wishes above all to make good use of his successes. The Sun, a tabloid newspaper, publishes the news that the champion from Kerpen has asked Benetton for 16.000.000 pounds to renew his contract. Flavio Briatore smiles but does so through gritted teeth. Not without reason did he seek, in the days leading up to the British Grand Prix, even sponsors in India.
"It will be a thrilling race, a detective story, because the gaps that separate us are minimal".
And this is also what everyone is hoping for, because if there is a repeat of a race like the one of Magny-Cours, it will be a boredom. Then, Ferrari does not seem competitive. After the progress shown since the beginning of the season, it seems like it stopped. Berger fourth, Alesi sixth, with heavy gaps. The men of the Maranello team admit that Renault, having focused for years on engines and engines only, thus with an enormous expenditure of means and energy, has taken another step forward. Jean Todt explains:
"We have to work on the 12-cylinder, on the dyno and on track, more than what we’ve done so far. We can make it up, but we must work hard".
By the way, on Saturday, with the wet weather, Ferrari could not study the track and thus the necessary adjustments that the cars required as they would have liked. Berger is therefore very cautious in his predictions and declares that for now only the starting position can be known, the fourth place. On the other hand, as usual, Alesi is more optimistic.
"I found a good set-up thanks to the help of John Barnard. He’s the one who designed the car, and he knows very well how the tuning should be done. This is the first time that this happens, and I’m very happy".
Jean Alesi is also not complaining about the fact that the FIA, after Agip’s letter of protest to clarify the petrol regulations, thinks well - as a response - to do only one check. On Alesi’s Ferrari. With Agip fuel. On Sunday, July 16th, 1995, at the start of the British Grand Prix, Damon Hill makes a good start and holds the first position, while Michael Schumacher is overtaken by Jean Alesi, who started splendidly from P6. At the end of the first lap, Damon Hill is followed by Jean Alesi, Michael Schumacher, David Coulthard, Johnny Herbert, and Mika Häkkinen. Gerhard Berger, author of a bad start, is alone in P8. In the early laps, Jean Alesi brakes Michael Schumacher’s run-up, and Damon Hill takes advantage to pull away: in fact, after 12 laps, the Englishman has a 14-second lead over the Frenchman and the German. David Coulthard and Jean Alesi are the first to stop in the pits, while Gerhard Berger (lap 20, due to a failure in mounting a wheel after the pit stop) and Mika Häkkinen (lap 20, for an electrical problem) must abandon the race. Damon Hill stops on lap 22 and exits 9 seconds behind Michael Schumacher, who has a one-stop strategy as opposed to the Englishman’s two. In third position is now Johnny Herbert, who, thanks to the pit-stop strategies, managed to pass Jean Alesi and David Coulthard, now fourth and fifth. On lap 30, Michael Schumacher makes his one-stop and returns to the track 20 seconds behind his rival, Damon Hill. Johnny Herbert is quietly third, while Jean Alesi and David Coulthard fight for fourth place. Damon Hill gains up to 25 seconds on Michael Schumacher and makes his second stop on lap 40, then returns to the track with a 2-second delay from the German. On lap 45, being on new tires, Damon Hill tries to pass his rival, Michael Schumacher: the two drivers arrive at the Bridge downhill, then enter the Complex. Hill tries a very difficult attack at Priory, touching his rival and thus sending both into the escape route.
The two contenders are forced to abandon the Grand Prix (the disastrous contact will be considered a normal occurrence by the race-by-race management), and for Damon Hill it is a huge-missed opportunity, given his pole position and that, on new tires, he was significantly faster than Michael Schumacher. In the lead was Johnny Herbert ahead of David Coulthard and Jean Alesi (the Scot passed the Frenchman by taking advantage of a better strategy at the second pit-stop), followed in the points zone by Mark Blundell, Rubens Barrichello, and Oliver Panis. David Coulthard overtakes Johnny Herbert, but meanwhile receives a Stop & Go penalty for exceeding the speed limit in the pit lane. The Scot serves the penalty on lap 50 but is now excluded from the fight for victory as he returns to the track in third place, distanced by Johnny Herbert and Jean Alesi. With two laps to go, the cars of Mark Blundell and Rubens Barrichello, fighting for fourth, come into contact. The Brazilian retires, while the Englishman is allowed to continue despite having a damaged left rear end. Johnny Herbert wins the British Grand Prix and triumphs for the first time in his career. The British Benetton driver proceeds Jean Alesi, David Coulthard, Olivier Panis, Mark Blundell, and Heinz-Harald Frentzen at the finish line. It is back to bumper cars. Like in the good old days of Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna. In Silverstone, Damon Hill rammed Michael Schumacher and both ended up in the sand. Thus, for the second time this season, an outsider won. Ater Jean Alesi in Canada, here was Johnny Herbert, who played the prophet in his homeland, winning the British Grand Prix. And he gave Benetton the first success by one of its second drivers, an impossible feat for Patrese, Brundle and Verstappen since the German champion has always been around.
In what was certainly the most eventful race of the season, Ferrari was seen again in the upper reaches of the standings. Alesi took an unlooked-for second place and, taking advantage of Michael and Damon’s exit from the scene, recovered fundamental points in the World Championships standings, which sees him third, three points behind the Englishman and 14 behind the German. If we look at the placings and the gaps in qualifying, Alesi’s second place in round number eight of the Formula 1 World Championship constitutes an excellent result for Ferrari. Especially after the disappointment of the French Grand Prix. However, if one wants to delve deeper, it is possible to see how the Maranello stable is still far from where it would like to be. The performance of the 412T2 is always at a good level, but the gap that needs to be closed against Benetton and Williams is notable. All things being equal, that is, with two scheduled pit stops and therefore less gas in the tank and reduced weight, the Frenchman took (considering the fastest laps) a second off Hill. And 0.5 second lost to Michael Schumacher, who had more fuel on board. These are the alarming data, along with some of the mishaps that too often happen in the pits. Jean Todt admits:
"We can’t hide the fact that the circumstances in which the result occurred were fortunate. We weren’t flawless during the pit stops, and we’ll have to work on this to prevent certain episodes from happening again. Alesi had a beautiful race, but unfortunately, we had to slow him down at the end to prevent him from aggravating a problem that affected the engine of his car".
In fact, Jean Alesi did not have a chance to catch up with Johnny Herbert, despite having 15 laps to spare after the accident between Damon Hill and Michael Schumacher, and 9 after David Coulthard’s penalty for exceeding the speed limits (120 km/h) imposed in the pits. Jean Alesi explains:
"There was a drop in oil pressure and if I had kept pulling, I would have risked throwing everything away. Second place is good for me. I think I made a good start and all in all no one ever passed me on track. It only happened during the pit stops and that demoralized me a bit. When I finally got back on track, I was fifth, and it was hard to keep the motivation high. The car was well-balanced, and the six points I got are good for the standings. But we still need to focus on the development of both the single-seater and the engine".
An excellent result for the Maranello team, which - on the other hand - still made a mistake in the pits, penalizing itself and poor Gerhard Berger, now haunted by bad luck.
"Another disaster in the pits, this is the fifth time this happened this year. In addition, I always have a problem with the clutch, which is also why I had a bad start, dropping from fourth to ninth place".
With his left front wheel badly fixed, the Austrian was forced to retire, while he could have finished, as things turned out, on the podium behind his teammate. The overall result, however, was mainly determined by the accident between the two great Formula 1 rivals. And, just as last year at the last race when Schumacher had thrown his rival out in Adelaide, this time it was the Londoner who made the mistake. Unintentionally, no doubt, attempting an impossible overtake. The accident occurred during lap 46 at Priory corner (the Priory house). In the game of pit stops, two for Hill and one for Schumacher, the Benetton had come out ahead by just more than a couple of seconds over Williams. But Damon, who had been the last to change tires, was faster and thus, in a very short time, he caught up with his opponent. And at the first opportunity, he tried to take the lead. But he miscalculated everything. He entered the inside of the corner at excessive speed, did not break and, like a guided missile, hit the Benetton that was on his right path. Both cars, by then unhinged, ended up caroming off the track. Schumi and Hill climbed out of the cockpit, knocked the dust from their overalls and took off toward the pits, looking at each other ruefully, but from a distance. Said Michael Schumacher, angrily:
"It was unbelievable, I can’t think about it. He’s a fool and tried to make a stupid overtake. But maybe he had no other chance than trying that desperate manoeuvre. He was faster at that moment because he had fresh tires. But I knew that, by keeping him behind, in a couple of laps the tires would have started to deteriorate, and he would have had no chance than overtaking me".
Pursued by the hard gaze of Frank Williams, accompanied by his wife Georgie (who is expecting their third child in these hours and had left the house in the morning to come and witness her husband’s possible triumph), Damon Hill leaves Silverstone without speaking much.
"It was a racing accident. Of course, I thought it would have ended in another way. The World Championship, however, is still open".
That is correct: the challenge for the title, with nine races to go, may continue. But, in the half-misfortune, Schumacher and Benetton have reaped more. The German’s lead remained unchanged, and the Anglo-Italian team consolidated its leadership among constructors. Says Flavio Briatore:
"This partly consoles us. In any case, Hill’s behaviour was crazy. We had once again put in place the right strategy and were sure we would have made it. Instead, Schumacher was taken out. Long live Herbert".
On the other hand, Johnny Herbert is the picture of happiness. He repeatedly kisses his little daughters Amy and Chloe and tries to do the same with his wife Becky, a pretty blond girl, who is, however, about six inches taller. And he has a hard time on his feet. Not far away, the pilot’s parents smile and applaud, while selling T-shirts and souvenirs at a stall inside the circuit. Johnny goes back and forth shaking hands, getting pats on the back. He limps on. It is the memory of the terrible crash in 1988, at Brands Hatch, when he was racing in Formula 3000. A run-off off the track in which he risked losing his legs certainly slowed his career, at a time when he was considered the most promising British driver.
"Today, I forgot everything. It’s amazing to win in front of your own fans. It's my first success in Formula 1, at the age of 31, but it came in the best way. I shocked even the bookmakers: in the betting, they were giving me 25 to 1, and I didn't even think about it. With Schumacher on the team… Michael is anyway a friend, an inspiration to look up to. A driver like Senna, Prost, Mansell. Of those who demand everything from a team but also give a lot. You can only learn from him. He congratulated me. Alesi, too, who was with me in Jordan. The best day of my life".
On the other side of the fence is David Coulthard. Third, but he could have won.
"Unfortunately, the speed control system broke down in the pits. I tried to go slow, but obviously it wasn’t enough. And they penalized me with a Stop & Go. It could have been my race. I’m sorry, but I’m convinced that I’ll have other opportunities".
At least a new name rose to prominence. And a vibrant race was experienced, with a few twists and turns, although overtaking still lacked (two failed attempts, first Hill hit Schumacher, then Barrichello hit Blundell). As if that was not enough, Michael Schumacher was not only knocked out off the track, but at the end of the race he was also handed an official caution by the stewards (who did not distinguish between drivers, also blaming Damon Hill, Rubens Barrichello and Mika Häkkinen, protagonists of another collision). For once, he seemed to be innocent. At least that is the impression of most people about the accident between Michael Schumacher and Damon Hill. However, there are also some experts who support this theory: the crafty German may have caused the collision by breaking early.
And that is a hypothesis to consider. Knowing the character of the German driver, one might think that rather than getting beaten by the Englishman, he preferred a damaging solution. After all, by finishing both off the track, the advantage is his, since the gap in the standings remains unchanged, and another race is gone. Whether it was Damon Hill's glaring mistake or Michael Schumacher’s cunning, it is now open war between the two drivers, on and off track, starting from last year in Adelaide. Both could still win the title. Michael made a mistake while in the lead and hit a little wall. His Benetton ended up on the other side of the circuit and re-entered the track precisely when Hill’s Williams was passing. Carambola, Benetton eliminated immediately, the Englishman’s car stuck in the pits shortly thereafter with a bent suspension. Only Schumacher knows whether that was an accidental or deliberately provoked accident. It seemed that between the two great rivals, a kind of mutual esteem was born after that episode. The next day they were seen having breakfast together, as if nothing had happened, or as if Damon had accepted the adverse fortune, without giving responsibility to the Benetton driver. Instead, it was not over. Since the beginning of the year, the two drivers has been teasing each other: they felt and understood that they were destined against each other. At Magny-Cours, the German accused the Englishman of unsportsmanlike behaviour, for a manoeuvre that seemed unfair to him. Since then, the situation has become serious: one controversy after the another, with a series of accusations. First says Damon Hill:
"Schumacher is a cloned driver, the product of sponsors".
Then, Michael Schumacher replies:
"He says that because no one wants him, he’s a loser".
But the Englishman’s immediate response comes:
"Michael talks a lot, meanwhile I beat him in qualifying".
The Benetton driver continues the skirmish:
"I’ll see you in the race, and in 1996 Hill will struggle to find a team".
On the weekend of the British Grand Prix, Michael Schumacher had to put up with the booing from British fans. But during the three days of the next Grand Prix, to be held in Germany, it will be Damon Hill’s turn to face the German fans in Hockenheim. And there are already those who say that, discreetly but also with the utmost care, the police will have to protect the London driver. One wonders if in Formula 1 the leading drivers will sooner or later come to blows. Thinking only of recent times, it is enough to recall what happened between the last three World Champions: Alain Prost, Nigel Mansell and Ayrton Senna did nothing but create states of tensions, make actual accusations (Nigel and Ayrton even went so far as to beat each other up), to the point of causing dangerous accidents. Perhaps racing at 300 km/h entails a type of relationship that is difficult to handle with calm. But the game is very risky, so much so that it justifies the tough attitude of the sport’s authorities with all drivers, both guilty and innocent. With the aim of preserving themselves, hoping not to have to implement the threats of disqualification. For Formula 1, this would be another defeat.