#592 1996 German Grand Prix

2023-01-01 23:00

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#1996, Fulvio Conti, Translated by Carmen Maria Petrillo,

#592 1996 German Grand Prix

The last key to the Ferrari defeats is of a purely esoteric nature. It would be an old curse that would never stop its harmful effect. It’s curious, h


The last key to the Ferrari defeats is of a purely esoteric nature. It would be an old curse that would never stop its harmful effect. It’s curious, however, that to speak freely about it is a priest. And not just anyone, but the parish priest of Maranello, the priest who rings the bells at every success of the Ferrari cars, the last time, Sunday 2 June 1996, on the occasion of Schumacher's victory at the Spanish Grand Prix. Regarding this, Don Erio Belloi says:


"I state that I don't believe it, and here in the village we laugh about it. Yet, in 1979, it seems that a woman -the mother of a worker who had just been fired at a Ferrari factory- had cast an anathema: If you won’t immediately rehire my son, you will never again win a World Championship, and one of your drivers will be killed. Unfortunately, she seems to have got it right".


In May 1982, during practice for the Belgian Grand Prix, Gilles Villeneuve, Enzo Ferrari's favorite driver, lost his life. And, after Jody Scheckter's success in 1979, already mathematical at the time of that curse, no Ferrari driver has ever again succeeded in the World Championship. The Maranello team won only a few constructors titles. How to break that curse? 


"One could try to exorcise Ferrari's racing department".


The elderly priest blurts out, jokingly. We will see what President Luca Montezemolo plans to do. Meanwhile, we simply note Don Belloi's own intention to raise the white flag. 


"At this point, after three consecutive embarrassments, I think I will put the yellow and red banner back in a drawer. Waiting for better times to come".


Curse permitting.


"The atmosphere at Ferrari is better than what people think. The problem is that the car arrived late, and it wasn't right. The team is working hard to make the F310 competitive, and its reliability is suffering".


Says Eddie Irvine, moving on to far more serious matters, at the end of tests conducted on Tuesday, July 16, 1996, at the Monza circuit. 


"The tests were good. We used three load levels on the car, we used the 7-speed gearbox and a couple of new elements on the engine. I did what I had to do. From Wednesday we will also have the new diffuser available, which should allow us to improve. The car for the moment always has the same behavior, it is nervous in the middle of the corner and has understeer and oversteer".


The Irishman adds: 


"We cannot think about stopping development and at the same time improving the car. I don't feel more pressure anyway. There are many problems, but you cannot put the blame on one person. Doing a few laps every race, unfortunately, cannot solve the problems. This is not a good situation".


Still, Irvine completes 68 laps, equal to 394 kilometers (more than the distance of a Grand Prix), with the best pass across the finish line in 1'27"78, about a second better than when he had practiced in April. Eddie also stumbles into a spin at the Roggia and goes off track twice, without consequences, at the first chicane. After the last run off the track, the car slowly returns to the pits with a messy gearbox and an oil leak. But overall, as the driver points out, the day is positive. The circuit is closed to the public and the journalists are locked in the press room until the end of the session practice. On Wednesday, July 17, 1996, Michael Schumacher arrives and -perhaps exhilarated by the Tour- at the end of free practice, he runs away on a bicycle, riding a Bianchi. However, before that, the German completes his day of testing, which ended a bit early because the F310's engine does not work well. At a certain point, the excursion on two wheels, in the park and on provincial roads, worries the Ferrari men. But the driver returns after two hours, satisfied with his sporting feat (70 kilometers). Why the improvised escape? Did people recognize you? 


"No, I was going too fast. I wanted to make the kilometers I missed with the car. All kidding aside: there wasn't much work planned. I took care of the set-up of the car and tested some tires. The real test is today. We will try to simulate a Grand Prix, with all the material we have available. The 7-speed gearbox? We are evaluated whether to use it, after Tuesday's problems". 


But are the new aerodynamic solutions positive?


"I had already said that the results are good. I confirm that".


During testing you did well, during the race you didn’t. Three hypotheses: testing is not thorough enough; it's not true that you have no problems; or the people coming to the races are not up to it? 


"Three wrong questions. We did a lot of simulations before the Gran Prix races. We also had some inconveniences. But the biggest difficulty is that in trying to do an endurance test you can never push to the maximum. The third assumption is totally unfounded. I have the utmost confidence and esteem in the team".


Is it possible that Schumacher is pushing to seek performance more than reliability? 


"Those who know me know that this is not my goal. All season long my priority has been to fine-tune the car. Unfortunately, it quickly became clear that the F310 had problems, and we had to work on two fronts. Maybe we should get back to a normal pace".


Is it a difficulty to have two headquarters, in Italy and England? 


"Of course, a single racing department would be better. But this situation also brings advantages: in Britain we can make use of Formula 1 technology, which is highly developed there. We have a completely new single-seater and perhaps at the beginning of the season we were lucky. So now we are suffering".


Is the real Ferrari the one driven by Schumacher or the one starting from the fifth row with Irvine? 


"We got three pole positions and one win. And we will win more races. Eddie doesn't practice enough and can't express his full potential".


How can you tell the fans that the last part of the World Championship will be better? 


"You wait and see. We cannot guarantee it, but I am convinced. And we will prove it".


Suspicions of sabotage were generated at Silverstone after his words. 


"I read it in some German newspapers. It bothered me. I never even thought about it. We have an explanation for everything that happened. The only doubt is still about the racing failure. But in Maranello they already have two possible answers to explain what happened".


How do you see, from the outside, the fight for the world championship between Hill and Villeneuve? 


"It’s beautiful, I like it. The championship is reopened. I knew from the beginning that I would not be in contention. But it's close to my heart to finish the year well so I can start the next one better".


At Silverstone there was a talk of extending the contract with Ferrari until 1998. Have you changed your mind? 


"No. The negotiations continue. The signing is not imminent, but I hope I have every reason to go beyond 1997".


Is it true that you also had an offer from Williams? 


"That's a joke. I talked to Frank, but maybe he was looking for my brother Ralf".


What do you think of Barnard? 


"John will design the car for next year. It will have to be ready soon. And it won't be totally new. He will try to bring back the good things from this one and improve the things that don’t work. We have to learn from our mistakes".


Do you think you still have a chance for the title? 


"I'm preparing for the World Cycling Championships…".


Meanwhile, Gordon Murray visits the Ferrari department. The South African designer is a well-known figure in Formula 1: he had designed the Brabhams that won two World Championships with Nelson Piquet. Then the engineer had moved to McLaren. Now he is responsible for the touring cars that run in GT races. Given the problems with John Barnard, there was some thought of contact for an employment in 1997. But Ferrari points out that Murray met with Piero Ferrari to discuss GT racing regulations. In fact, a participation of the F50 in endurance testing is under consideration. The following day, on Thursday, July 18, 1996, Michael Schumacher completes a Grand Prix simulation without the slightest problem. Mission accomplished, at least in practice. Jean Todt is present. 


Twenty-six laps, a stop for fuel and tires, 26 more laps. The German is very fast. Especially in the final, when he scores a time of 1'25"54, about one second less than the best race pass marked in the 1995 edition of the Grand Prix. There’s just one regret: Ferrari prefers to use the six-speed gearbox, leaving in the workshop the seven-speed gearbox that would have been useful on fast circuits like Hockenheim. However, after signing dozens of autographs and shaking hundreds of hands with fans that throng the paddock gates, Michael Schumacher says:


"I’m still satisfied. The F310 proved to be more stable and consistent in performance, among other things, we used the engine that was fitted on Irvine's car at Silverstone. So, we covered more than 400 kilometers".


With modified aerodynamics with a different diffuser and new rear suspension, Ferrari seems to have taken a step forward. 


"Of course, I would’ve liked to have the 7-speed gearbox, because it would have given us other small advantages. But we would have taken risks on reliability, and right now that’s not the case. We need to get till the finish line and get there well. That is our immediate goal".


The decision on the gearbox was made in Maranello. The problem that had occurred in Tuesday's testing advised to wait. Now, however, there’s the German Grand Prix. And for Ferrari these will be days of trepidation after the latest accidents. At Fiorano they are working in forced stages to check all the material.


"It is true that I will be under pressure. But I'm not worried: some of my best races were precisely when the tension was highest".


On Thursday, July 1996, on the eve of the German Grand Prix, Michael Schumacher smiles but does not speak. Jean Todt does, however. The Ferrari Sport Management boss admits he is afraid:


“We are afraid. A month ago everything was under control. Now there is no certainty. We are trying to find solutions to the troubles that have happened to us lately. The technicians have modified the cars. But we are still not sure if we have plugged every leak. It's disturbing".


What changes have been made to the F310s? 


"Many. In terms of the hydraulic system, the clutches were strengthened. Then there are larger bearings, reinforced oil pans, new gearbox gears. In addition, there are the aerodynamic improvements involving the floor, the extractor and a different rear suspension. Everything looks good on paper, but we have to see on the track. In the last three races we’ve done very few kilometers…".


Is this a difficult time? 


"This is the most difficult I have ever gone through in my career. Only in 1985, when I made the new Peugeot 205 debut in rallies, I had so many problems. In addition, we are in Germany. And the Germans expect from their Schumacher a great performance. I really hope that on Sunday I won’t have to speak before 3:30 p.m., that is, before the race is over".


By all accounts, the failure is not just technical. Some speak of discontent and tension within the team, of cutting heads. Some argue that Todt is too hard on his men. 


"Ferrari is always under pressure. Enormous pressure. But within the team, we work together. We have reinforced the quality control department, which needs to grow. The new manager is Gambini, who comes from industrial management. One mechanic left because he started his own business, and the experienced Benassi works twenty-four hours a day in the racing department. Me being too harsh? No, I am excessively tender".


What are the plans?


"The car for 1997 will have to be ready soon. And John Barnard will have to make full use of the new equipment we have in Maranello. With Schumacher there are no problems, he is smart, he wants to be with us. Irvine? For now his situation is not a priority".


Meanwhile, a Hill case breaks out again. British newspapers write that Frank Williams has reportedly considered the German driver Heinz-Harald Frentzen as next year teammate of Jacques Villeneuve, who is already under contract. Damon Hill -the championship leader and the eventual World Champion- is expected to look for another team. Behind that, there is the usual mid-season tug-of-war: the driver wants more money, but Frank Williams is unwilling to give it to him. In any case, the driver dampens the controversy, saying: 


"I am fine with Williams, we are a good team. Let's think about the championship first".


On Friday, July 26, 1996, landing on his home track, Michael Schumacher is forced to return to his school desks. And to learn a lesson from his teammate Eddie Irvine. The Northern Irishman is third in free practice (the fastest time is set by Gerhard Berger, driving a Benetton-Renault that seems to be back at racing, second is David Coulthard in a McLaren-Mercedes), while the German champion places only in P7. While it is true that by now these Friday tests have an entirely relative significance, it is equally clear that something did not work in Schumacher's day. As indeed the Ferrari driver himself explains:


"I couldn't adjust my car, especially on the jumps that are numerous on the track. I'm optimistic because we have good potential, but I think I'll take a look at the set-up of Eddie's Ferrari to find some ideas that will allow me to have a good qualifying".


Long live honesty, which is not for everyone. The public in Germany -that has been rather disappointed so far with the Atlanta Games- reserves an extraordinary welcome to its darling. Firecrackers at every Schumacher’s appearance, applause, ovations. And many, many people in the stands: at least 120.000 people are expected on Sunday. And all eyes will be on Ferrari #1.


"Unfortunately, I was only able to run about 20 of the 30 laps allowed, because I always stopped to study the set-up. I also had a little problem on the gearbox control, but that did not affect the result. On the bumps the car was uncontrollable. But I'm sure the situation will improve".


Actually, for now, it seems ascertained that the changes made on the F310 (new floor with extractor profile and redesigned rear suspension) favored Eddie Irvine's driving style more than Michael Schumacher's. The German wants the car to fit well with the front end, and he cares little if the rear end sways. But if the understeer becomes excessive, he can no longer push hard and dose the throttle as he is used to. The numbers prove this theory. Schumacher and Irvine both used new tires, as did David Coulthard and Martin Brundle, so they raced in perfect parity. But Irvine, who gets the top speed of the day on the longest straight (337.5 km/h), was able to unload his Ferrari's wings more, and he was quicker in all the intermediate surveys. The German, on the other hand, lost 5 km/h to 8 km/h at every point on the track. Which is not usual. Just as it is not usual for Damon Hill to place in P8, about a second off, even though it was only free practice. The British driver is under pressure after rumors of his departure from Williams at the end of the season, however things turn out. Damon, however, also claims to have clear ideas for improvement. Facilitated by the fact that Jacques Villeneuve -who had never seen the circuit- is even in P11. Meanwhile, Flavio Briatore pulls off another big score. The Benetton manager, in his dual role as Ligier owner, announces that he has signed an agreement to extend the supply of Mugen-Honda engines for 1997 with an option for 1998. Very important move because the Japanese company is considering an official return to Formula 1. Briatore gets the almost free supply of powertrains (several teams were willing to spend insane amounts of money), but more importantly, he prepares for the future: while Renault announces its retirement at the end of next season, the Honda engine may end up on the Benetton. On Sunday, meanwhile, a new chapter will open for sports on television. For the first time, thanks to pay-per-view, wealthy Germans who can pay for a subscription to the Df1 network will be able to watch the race interactively in their comfortable seats. With a remote control they will be able to change images, choose to follow their favorite car and driver, and get all the race data in real time. To organize the broadcast, Bernie Ecclestone has spent several tens of millions of dollars, employing more than 100 technicians using 100 tons of equipment that is moved from circuit to circuit. 


Just one problem: there is dissatisfaction. Televisions (such as Italy's Rai and France's Tf1) that have paid huge sums to have exclusivity in the coming years are not happy at all. And speaking of the race, Damon Hill will start ahead of everyone in the German Grand Prix, after having set the fastest lap in qualifying that determines the starting grid. But the leader of the World Championship standings breaks the rules and would deserve the cancellation of all the times achieved. In this case, he would have to be disqualified or, at most, to start from the last row. What happens? Damon Hill does not stop -between 1:34 p.m. and 1:36 p.m.- at the technical control located at the pit entrance. Where a red-light signals drivers, drawn by lot, to turn off their engines and subject their cars to various checks, from weight to heights. Nearby, there is Minardi's sporting director, the Frenchman Fred Dhainault, who is marking all the checking and notices the scene with certainty. Seeing that the time settled by Damon Hill in the final excludes its driver Giovanni Lavaggi from the race, the Italian team files a complaint. But the stewards reject it (it seems that one of them told he passed in front of the red light while Damon Hill was passing) after long discussions, claiming that the rules were not broken. Not a word more. Previously, even in recent races, other drivers who had stumbled upon the same omission had been immediately punished. Apparently, double standards are used in Formula 1. For second-tier drivers there is no mercy, for those who count, alternative solutions are always found. But the fact remains that Damon Hill deserved this pole position -the 18th in his career and the 7th of the season. The British driver achieves this ambitious goal at the end of a fantastic qualification. Up to a minute from the end, Michael Schumacher is in the lead, acclaimed by an impressive crowd. In his last, desperate attempt, the German is overtaken not only by Damon Hill, but also by Gerhard Berger. To achieve this result at his rival's home, the Williams driver is forced to set a time of 1'43"912, racing at an average of 236.380 km/h, on what remained the fastest circuit in the championship (David Coulthard in a McLaren is reported by the photocells at 341.700 km/h).


In any case, the drivers set times very close to each other and at the end of practice the top four places are occupied by four different cars - Williams, Benetton, Ferrari and McLaren - enclosed within 0.7 seconds. Given the length of the track and the fact that Damon Hill has risen above everyone, the margins are really minimal, and a very tight, uncertain race can be expected. With the usual decisive game of refueling. At Hockenheim, usually not many cars make it to the finish line. Engines are always at full throttle and overheated brakes usually lead to numerous retirements. Not to mention that high heat is expected in Hockenheim. How does Ferrari present itself in this situation? Michael Schumacher affirms:


"I wish I could say I am optimistic, but unfortunately in motor racing there is never any certainty. We had positive tests at Monza and here, over the past few days, we haven't had any major problems. The car is not perfect but it's working well. Let's start to get to the finish line, then we'll see. I would be happy to see the chequered flag". 


The reliability nightmare therefore always looms over the cars and the Maranello team, which places Eddie Irvine in P8; the Northern Irish driver also tests without encountering too many problems, except to have worsened his performance from free practice to qualifying. It will be a tough challenge with Benetton, for the first time since the start of the season in a prominent position. Bad stories meanwhile for little Italy. Minardi's misadventures aside, Giovanni Lavaggi's exclusion for not having set the necessary qualifying time is something of a record. It was since 1973 that there had not been a race without a tricolor driver: twenty-three years ago, in fact, Arturo Merzario and Nanni Galli did not participate to all the World Championship races. It was a difficult time, aggravated by the situation of Forti, which is now embroiled in legal proceedings with its former partners and forced, at least for now, to stay at home. Shortly before the start of the German Grand Prix, the bomb psychosis involves Formula 1 Circus too. And it’s no surprise, unfortunately. In the wake of what happened in Atlanta Olympics, mythomaniacs and idiots indulge themselves and it is important to be careful. So, at around 1:00 p.m., an hour before the start of the race, Allisters Watkins -the FIA's chief press officer- announces to the microphones that someone has phoned the circuit's switchboard to announce that a bomb has been placed in the circuit's press room and that it would explode at 3:00 p.m. Everyone is confused, but the announcement is greeted with a certain apparent calm. Fortunately, it is just the work of a mythomaniac or someone in the habit of making pranks of very bad taste. But it must also be said that the organizers do not take the warning too seriously. Indeed, media representatives in the temporary structure installed behind the pits are asked to check all their luggage and to be careful: 


"Check for any abandoned bags or briefcases". 


Then, some policemen go round the hall -checking everywhere- without finding any irregularities. In any case, the majority of the journalists and photographers present (around 400) prefer to leave the hall before the appointed time, returning to the hall at around 4:00 p.m. after the race is over. The affair -although with a happy ending- is nevertheless very impressive. And it shows how fear can easily spread in such cases. And how to certain actions there is no defence.


On Sunday, 28 July 1996, at the start of the German Grand Prix Damon Hill gets off to a bad start and is overtaken by both Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger; at the end of the first lap the Austrian leads the race ahead of his teammate. Damon Hill, Michael Schumacher, David Coulthard, Jacques Villeneuve and Mika Häkkinen follow. The race continues rather linearly, with the first three drivers gaining a good margin on the pursuers, led by Michael Schumacher; the leader of the World Championship, who set off to make two pit-stops, is clearly faster than the two Benetton drivers - whose strategy envisages a single stop - but is unable to overtake them on the track. The English driver refuels a first time on lap 16, then takes the lead when the Benetton drivers make their pit-stops; at this point Damon Hill pushes hard and when he is back on track he is ahead of Jean Alesi, but still behind Gerhard Berger. The Austrian driver seems to be able to control the situation easily, despite Damon Hill quickly recovers the disadvantage and gets behind him, but with three laps to go the Renault engine of his Benetton breaks down, forcing him to retire. Damon Hill thus wins his seventh victory of the season, ahead of Jean Alesi, his teammate Jacques Villeneuve, hometown idol Michael Schumacher, David Coulthard and Rubens Barrichello. Who's afraid of Damon Hill? Now, everyone. An extraordinary race allowed the British driver to win the German Grand Prix for the first time. On Michael Schumacher's track, the leader of the World Championship standings showed that he can do whatever he wants, supported by an always fabulous Williams. In one fell swoop, Damon Hill managed to counter the attacks of his teammate, Jacques Villeneuve, and to suppress the ambitions of a Benetton that had become competitive again. Gerhard Berger, in the lead with two laps to go, was forced to retire due to an engine failure, Jean Alesi was placed in P2 after he has always been fighting for the top positions. The eleventh round of the World Championship also marked a partial recovery for Ferrari. Not a very rich balance for the Maranello team, however Michael Schumacher's P4 marked an important turnaround after three consecutive retirements. The curse is broken.


 The German champion had to run an armored, defensive race (and this was clearly seen by the lap times) that certainly did not please him, just as it did not please the 140.000 fans present at Hockenheim. However, the German still deserved applause, just for the fact that he was able to sacrifice himself to get to the finish line. That is, to achieve what was his primary goal, as well as that of the team. Eddie Irvine, on the other hand, for the fourth time in a row did not finish the race, retired on lap 35 of the 45 scheduled because of the breakage of a gearbox that has never stopped giving trouble since the beginning of the season. Thanks to Benetton (and a very bad start by Damon Hill, the 35-year-old Londoner's only flaw during a perfect weekend) the race was spectacular and uncertain. Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger - at different times- decided to make a single refueling and tyre change. Damon Hill, knowing he had on a superior car, opted instead for a double stop. Perhaps the Williams driver’s tactic would not have been so lucky if Berger, after leading for 31 laps, had not been forced to retire due to the spectacular failure (a big smoke that also blackened the car of Damon Hill, who was following him like a shadow) of the engine. But to be a champion you also need a bit of luck. And Damon still showed that he deserved it. Not to mention that he was attacking the Austrian closely and that he would still have had two more laps at his disposal to attempt a thrilling overtaking move. Less brilliant, on the other hand, was the performance of the McLaren, which relied on speed to impress those in front of the screen. Light cars from the start with little petrol and big risks. So much so that Mika Hakkinen, having fitted a more powerful and slightly modified Mercedes engine, had to retire on lap 14 - after having already made a pit-stop - due to a gearbox failure. His team-mate, David Coulthard, held out until the end. But despite two stops that made him quicker than the Ferrari of Michael Schumacher ahead of him, he was ultimately unable to overtake the hometown idol. In the final laps, with brushstroke trajectories that delighted the crowd, Michael Schumacher held off the Scotsman, who was fifth at the finish line. Now 21 points ahead of Jacques Villeneuve, Damon Hill is winning the battle of the sons of art. 


The Englishman, now at his 20th victory and number 7 since the beginning of the year, shows that he is not a half-measures person: out of eleven races, three times he has been forced to retire and on only one occasion (the European Grand Prix at the Nurburgring) he had to settle for a fourth place. Otherwise, he has always won. And he is on his way to becoming one of the all-time greats, having just equaled Michael Schumacher. Damon Hill, who usually controls himself, loosen up at the end of the race. And he is also a bit confused.


"I am really happy to have won for the first time in Canada".


Then, in front of the astonished faces of his interlocutors, after thinking for a moment, he recovers:


"In Germany". 


This is evidently a Freudian slip. The Englishman is certainly thinking of Jacques Villeneuve - a Canadian - his only real rival in the title fight. 


"Everything went very well, my Williams was fantastic, I only had one scary moment. When the engine of Berger's car suddenly broke down, I didn't immediately understand whether it was his or mine, as close as we were. Luckily a great smoke came out of the Benetton and, in a split second, I was sure he was the unlucky one this time. I went to the right and realized that I had won. However, I must admit that I don't know if I could have overtaken the Austrian. He was going very fast in the mixed section, and he was collecting such a big margin that I couldn't pass him at the braking points in the chicane".


The championship? 


"There are still five races left, let's wait. However, I can say that the next one, in Budapest, will be on a track that I like a lot". 


Opponents warned. No drama, however, at Benetton. Flavio Briatore says: 


"That's how racing is. We are just satisfied that we have improved".


It is an unhappy time for Gerhard Berger. After retiring ('Under my helmet, I cried') two laps from the end due to an engine failure while in the lead during the German Grand Prix, the Austrian driver also has a nasty surprise on his return home. His private jet -a Citation 3- is seized by the Austrian customs authorities. The Benetton driver is accused of not having reported to the tax authorities an expense of 150.000.000 lire, incurred to repaint the aircraft in green. While the plane is stopped as a precautionary measure, Berger denies all charges, claiming on the one hand that, as far as the tax authorities are concerned, he is a resident of Monte-Carlo and on the other that the aircraft belongs to a company registered in Liechtenstein. It goes better for Jean Alesi, who climbs to third place in the ranking, overtaking Michael Schumacher. The German Ferrari driver would have wanted to put on a show, to fight at least for the podium if not for victory. In front of the tens of thousands of red flags with his and Ferrari's name on, the German would have liked to have a storming race. But - and here lies the strength of a great champion - he restrained himself. Schumacher remained behind the scenes, engaged in a difficult and anonymous race, even forced to suffer a searing overtaking move by Jacques Villeneuve. Yet, at the end of the race he did not show any bitterness and disappointment. 


"We had worked a lot with the team in the past week. It would have been unfair and negative to waste it all with reckless behavior, without thinking about the result. I wanted to get to the finish line and I did. I also made a small mistake at the start and had to look around not to make a mess. Of course, if I could, I would’ve done better. But it was not possible. There were some brake problems, starting from lap seven. And we had to prioritize reliability at the expense of performance. You saw what happened at Irvine. That means that our problems are not yet solved, that we have to keep working hard".


There was also the risk of a pit collision with Villeneuve's Williams... 


"It was more an impression than a real risk. The clutch was not working properly after the pit-stop and I had to take my foot off the throttle. That's why the Canadian came close to me. Anyway, I hope that this fourth place is a new starting point. The fans have been wonderful. They understood and I say thank you to them". 


But the gap to Hill -41 seconds- was heavy.


"Yes, but even if the result didn't show it, the car in general was better than in the last races, apart from the brakes, which, as I explained, gave me a lot of trouble. We have to continue step by step, you'll see that little by little we'll be there".


The race was also attended by Luca Montezemolo, who had arrived on Saturday evening. The Ferrari president, firstly, made it official that Eddie Irvine will drive for the Maranello team again next year. In recent days there had been rumours that the Northern Irish driver might not be confirmed. Evidently the focus is on team stability. 


"When I saw that Irvine was slowing down, I thought: if Schumacher also stops, I will shoot myself. Our goal was actually to get two cars to the finish line, so I can't be completely satisfied. But at least we took a small step forward".


Was there an order to run safely, for example by decreasing the engine speed? 


"If it were possible I would do it every race. I believe that in Budapest we will make further progress and that in a month -in Belgium- we will be even more competitive. Spa is Schumacher's favorite track and we hope to please him. I am very sorry for Michael, he would have liked to make a good impression here, and also for Berger, who would certainly have won if he hadn't broken his engine. Also because Hill would have been a fool to take the risk of an impossible overtake".


A few words from Eddie Irvine: 


"I smelled burnt gearbox oil and realized it was over for me. I also wanted to do more, but I was having troubles with the brakes. This track is deadly. The brake discs cool down at 330 km/h, then you're forced to push the pedal hard. I think almost all the drivers had these problems. Apart from that, I too am convinced that Ferrari is on the right track". 


Among the thousands of VIPs in the pits, there’s also tenor Placido Domingo, a big Ferrari fan. 


"When I can, I come to the races to support my favorite team, otherwise I always watch them on television. I cannot say that I am satisfied, but I understand the situation. And I am pleased that a champion of Schumacher's value behaves as the team expects him to. A true professional. With the fourth place you can neither speak of a cue nor a treble. At the moment the Williams are superior, and Benetton is also recovering. Ferrari had to race with a certain prudence and did well not to force the situation".


Graduated in diplomacy, the Williams team - last Friday - had issued a statement: 


"Our driver for 1997 is Jacques Villeneuve, for the second one we will see".


And after Damon Hill's seventh win, the leading team in the Formula One World Championship is not too upset. Frank Williams says: 


"I am sad for Briatore, losing a race like Berger did is frustrating. But I am happy because we have increased our lead in the Constructors' Championship".


Not a word of praise for his driver. Then Jacques Villeneuve lays it on thick:


"Twenty-one points difference is a lot. However, there are still five races to go and anything can still happen. One thing is certain: I won't give up. I can promise that there will be a battle, a tough challenge until the end of the championship. Everything is fine with Hill. In the sense that he does his business and I do mine". 


Poor Damon Hill. The British newspapers put him in a bind, publishing rumours according to which Williams has already signed the 29-year-old German driver Heinz-Harald Frentzen - considered as Michael Schumacher's alter ego - for next year. But the real problem is financial. Considering himself a potential World Champion, Damon makes strong demands: 


"If Schumacher earns $40.000.000 a year with all his business, I want at least half of that". 


But Williams does not hear. He had already thrown out Nelson Piquet at the end of 1987 and Nigel Mansell in 1992 for the same reasons. Excessive demands. And they had all been World Champions with his cars. So, Damon Hill will have no help in winning the title. On a practical level, however, Jacques Villeneuve's feat is desperate. To take the World Championship from his teammate, it will not even be enough for him to win the five remaining races. In fact, if Damon Hill finishes second every time, he will remain one point ahead. Young Jacques must therefore hope for some misadventure for the Englishman, unforeseen retirements, breakdowns, accidents. And, in the meantime, Damon Hill -breathing a sigh- says: 


"I am relaxed, I stay focused on racing. Maybe next year I will only play golf. But I don’t care at the moment. I can wait, we will see who has the upper hand".


©​ 2023 Osservatore Sportivo


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