On Wednesday, August 16th, 1995, as expected, Scuderia Ferrari officially confirms the signing of German driver Michael Schumacher for the 1996 season, then Benetton officialises the signing of Jean Alesi. And finally, Williams announces that Jacques Villeneuve will race alongside Damon Hill. Two exact and meagre lines from Maranello, at 12:00 a.m., respecting a tradition that has lasted for forty years:
"Ferrari announces that it has reached an agreement on technical racing collaboration with driver Michael Schumacher for the 1996 and 1997 sporting seasons".
Two years, then. To win that World Championship that has been missing since 1979, the year of Jody Scheckter. An important investment for Ferrari, but less crazy than you might think. Firstly, Michael is currently the fastest driver ever, reigning World Champion with excellent chances to repeat the achievement. He can really make a difference. And he has already proved it. Last year, in the races in which he was disqualified, Benetton struggled to get into the points zone. From him, the engineers expect above all precise indications on how to develop the car and the engine next year. For these reasons, the 26-year-old German is expected to gain (the figures are not known) an enormous sum, about 35,000,000 lire per season. And he will also be able to exploit a small part of the suit and some personal contracts. The outlay will be compensated, at least in part, by the higher contributions paid by partners to Ferrari. If the plans are successful, it will be a bargain for everyone. In any case, Damon Hill also climbs the earnings ladder: Williams will pay him £6.500.000 per season. Evidently, this price escalation in sport is not going to stop. But the interests in Formula One are enormous, given that some of the biggest multinational companies and most prestigious car companies are involved in the motor racing network. As far as we know, however, Ferrari negotiated everything on its own. Schumacher reportedly signed personally or through his lawyers in mid-August. Many of the rumours surrounding this sensational step do not seem to correspond to reality. The contract between Schumacher and the Italian team does not provide the German with an actual first driving role. Ferrari has always offered its drivers identical possibilities. When Michael specifies that he will be number one, he sees this as natural, given his achievements. Before making this choice, Michael Schumacher had called Jochen Mass to ask for advice. Says the former German driver:
"Williams, with all the electronic aids, was fantastic, really easy to drive. Initially I told him: only with that car you can become World Champion. Later, Michael called me and told me he would drive for Williams in 1996. I thought it was great for him and for Frank, because I wanted him to have the best driver. But in the end, I told him that if he won, all the credit would go to Williams and not to the driver. So, I advised him to go to Ferrari. I remember saying to him: you have to go to Maranello, you have to get them out of the deep crisis they are in now. They have to become champions again with you, so you will be the king of Italy. A month later, he called me to tell me he was going to Ferrari. In the end, I thought Frank Williams considered it a silly move, but Michael will be much more respected if he wins the title with Ferrari".
And Jean Todt recounts:
"It was obvious that after Senna's passing, he was the driver to take. At the time, in Ferrari, the motorists were mad at the chassis, the chassis engineers at the engine, the drivers at the car. So, we decided to take the driver who was a reference to at least avoid this variable".
After Lauda, it was again the French manager who spoke to Willi Weber:
"So, I met Schumacher together with Ferrari's lawyer, Henry Peter. The decisive summit in my room at the Hotel de Paris in Monte-Carlo lasted twelve hours, it was late July 1995. The pre-agreement was signed there. There was always some knot to untie, and every time I phoned president Luca Montezemolo. I wanted to make sure I had the possibility to do what I was doing, since Ferrari was not my property".
A story confirmed by Luca Montezemolo:
"I had Niki Lauda contact him for the first move. He came to us at the right time. Three years ago it would have made no difference, we had neither the car nor the organisation".
And finally, the German driver's manager, Willi Weber, also recounts that at the 1995 Monaco Grand Prix there was an initial approach from Ron Dennis, who was motivated to bring Michael Schumacher to McLaren-Mercedes with an incredible offer.
"Think about my offer for a few days, Mr Weber. Then let me know through an intermediary whether Michael accepts it or not".
But Willi Weber has other ideas in mind, and tells Michael Schumacher:
"You know what Niki Lauda said about McLaren weeks ago...".
However, initially the German, pious man, is not of the same mind:
"Don't bring up that old story again, Willi".
But his manager replies, saying:
"Even a monkey can win with a McLaren, and now I ask you: do you want to be the successor of a monkey?"
The dialogue takes place in the middle of Lake Como, Italy, after Willi Weber and Michael Schumacher rent a boat. On board of the seagoing vehicle, the German manager has two handwritten A4 sheets of paper, entitled Ferrari and McLaren, with points about advantages and disadvantages.
"I ask you sincerely, Michael, why do you want to switch to McLaren?"
Michael Schumacher crosses his arms and replies:
"What question is that? McLaren is the winning team. And we can take it for granted that it stays that way and that we’ll win with their car. Look at Ferrari. It hasn't won a race in years. What am I supposed to do with that team of losers? All they do is fall behind".
But Willi Weber does not give up:
"But to win with a McLaren, what kind of performance is that? You get into a perfect car and cross the finish line first. And then what? Are you proud? I'll tell you: no. But let's say you do it in a Ferrari. It's a shit car, as we both know. But you turn it into a winning car. And then what? You're proud. Because you’re the creator of that success. Seriously, we should try with Ferrari".
Willi Weber, who clearly loves Ferrari, as he has been driving one for twenty years and can often be found travelling in the direction of Maranello, is clearly biased. Moreover, he just cannot see his driver in a McLaren. But Michael shakes his head, dissatisfied.
"But McLaren wants to make us an offer. As for Ferrari, we don't even know if they plan to".
Willi Weber thus manages to break Schumacher's heart:
"Well, we can find out. And I'll tell you something else. It's not about money, it's about your future. We're aiming high. If you win the title with Ferrari, then you can throw away your passport, because the whole world will know you. I need your decision in three days. Because then I must catch a flight to London or Paris".
Michael Schumacher looks at his manager, remaining silent for a moment, then nods and says:
"OK, Willi, if you say so... Get in touch with Ferrari".
The question that arises is: did Ferrari make the right move? One can only answer yes. With a star in the team, there will be great incitement and some shortcomings can also be resolved more quickly. And if Schumacher has signed, he will certainly have informed himself about future technical programmes. Now, the Maranello team has no more excuses. Even Giovanni Agnelli says so:
"With a driver like that, if they don't win, it will be their fault".
Meanwhile, Michael Schumacher is in Silverstone to carry out a series of tests with Benetton. The German driver wants his second title and is fully committed. At 1:30 p.m., he interrupts the tests and speaks, calm, sincere and cautious, with a bit of presumption.
"The plan is to win as soon as possible with Ferrari. I have seen the Maranello team's plans, and I like them. I think we can win a few races in the first year and aim for the World Championship in the second. I could have stayed where I am or switched to Williams. But Frank Williams prefers to invest money in other ways. There was too much difference between what I was asking for and the offer".
So, he went to Ferrari for money?
"There are two reasons. The first concerns a new challenge, new motivations. I had a great time at Benetton, but I had already hit all my targets. So, I changed, also because it seems to me that the Italian team can still grow a lot. The second, I'm not afraid to say it, is for the money. It's a lot, but I'll make my contribution, and it's right that my salary reflects my worth".
Will he be first guide?
"There’s nothing about that in my contract, as far as teammate is concerned. But I think they will talk to me about it. They wanted a number one and that's me. Ferrari wouldn't have sought me out if that wasn't the case. So, there's no doubt about it: I want to be the one who will benefit from the technical development of the car. Anyway, Berger will stay with us: he's looking for other teams, but he doesn't have a real alternative".
Did you also ask for other technicians to be hired?
"Right now, I'm not thinking about it. I’m convinced they have the right people, but I don't know the environment thoroughly yet. I’ll start immediately, after the end of the championship. These are the agreements. There are exactly three months to go. We will start in mid-November. In the meantime, I won't talk about Ferrari any more. I’m aiming at the World Championship with Benetton, and I’m focused on that".
Don't you think Williams with Hill will be favourites next year?
"Williams has always started as the favourite, at least in the last five years. But it hasn't always managed to win. In any case, it is obvious that it will have advantages since it’s an already well-run costume. We will have to work hard, with great concentration".
There are many comments on the news of Michael Schumacher's move to Ferrari. And they are almost all positive. Riccardo Patrese, who was the teammate of the young German driver in 1993, says:
"Michael is undoubtedly a great champion. When we were together, he sometimes gave me half a second, on other occasions one. We were even on a par in qualifying. He has an enormous sensuality, equal to the best of all time, from Prost to Senna. That year, the Benetton was difficult to drive, but Schumacher still managed to perform very well. In addition, he has a good character. On the outside, he may seem unpleasant and conceited. Instead, he’s kind and fair. For example, when I talked about the problems with our cars, he listened to me very carefully".
There is no lack of intervention from Niki Lauda. By now, the Austrian speaks with pleasure, although, as always, he is candid and shameless.
"Whoever wins with Ferrari becomes the greatest. Whoever loses with Ferrari becomes the biggest idiot of all time. I advise him to work hard because the Maranello team has not yet reached the level of Benetton and Williams. I really respect Alesi's qualities, but right now Schumacher is stronger".
More acid was the comment of Damon Hill, also present at Silverstone:
"It would be a mistake to consider the Schumacher-Ferrari pair out of the running for wins. But I think he’s made a big mistake. It will be difficult for him to tune up the Italian cars, in recent years no one has succeeded. Alesi and Berger are not inferior drivers. However, Michael did what he wanted: and I’ll be very happy to beat him".
Finally, Gerhard Berger's comment:
"If I stay, I’ll find it difficult to work with Schumacher. We don't understand each other well. I think there would be emotional disturbance. In any case, I asked for equal treatment. However, Ferrari was right to take him, right as gold. The Schumacher-Berger pair would be the best in the FI. Michael might as well take on the task of doing all the testing. I would stay at home. With Alesi I did almost all the work alone".
Jean Alesi, of course, is sorry.
"But by now I knew what the situation was, I was aware of everything. I could have even stayed. At this point, however, I feel free. After all, I wasn't kicked out, but I chose to leave. I would also have had a chance with Williams, but I had a fight with Frank, and I don't think the climate of that team suits my temperament".
Do you think that Benetton will continue to be successful?
"I’m convinced of that. I've always had a very good relationship with Flavio Briatore and the team's coaches and managers. Which, let's not forget, is also almost as Italian as Ferrari. The environment is serene, and I have matured. I’ll be able to give my contribution both in practice and in the race".
How will you face the rest of the season, with low morale?
"Why? For me, it doesn't change much. I’m a professional, I’ve already changed several teams. So, I’ll try to get the best results, even if in the light of the facts I will no longer be able to actively participate in the development of the car. There are seven races left before the end of the championship and there’s no reason why, after the success of Montreal, I wouldn’t win again. I’m someone who, by character, gives all. Of course, they will have to give me a competitive single-seater, because you can't just hope for luck".
Flavio Briatore adds:
"We’re also starting to face a new challenge. With Alesi's yet unexpressed talent and our experience, you’ll see that it will work out well. We’ll talk later about the other driver who will drive alongside Jean".
The driver market is now in turmoil. And important signings have already been made. Together with the Schumacher deal, which brought Alesi to replace him at Benetton, the confirmation of Damon Hill and the signing of Jacques Villeneuve stand out at Williams. The Canadian is the current leader of the Formula Indy championship, and with just 24 years old, he is considered a phenomenon. After three days of testing at Silverstone, Frank Williams, who has considerable experience in the matter, says:
"He’s an outstanding driver. He has impressed me".
Villeneuve, the son of art, is different in every way from his father Gilles. He looks like a boarding schoolboy, wears glasses, speaks five languages. He does not disappoint: he possesses calm and determination. He knows how to push the accelerator hard and accept a result without overdoing it. So far, he has never gone beyond the limits of his car, but always to the maximum allowed. In addition, he does not have the inexperience of Michael Andretti, who had only raced in America. Jacques Villeneuve knows almost every track in the World Championship, he has competed in Formula 3 in Italy and in Formula 3000 also in Japan. He should also be a dangerous driver for Damon Hill, although he may need a season to fully adapt. That leaves, among the top teams, a place at Benetton and one at McLaren. Berger claims to have chances in both teams, where he is truly appreciated. But radio-box says that next to Mika Häkkinen will go David Coulthard, while Benetton probably won't give him the money he asks for (a lot). So, the Austrian will either stay at least for another season at Ferrari (probable) or he will have to look for other options. Michael Schumacher's recruitment to Ferrari overall arouses consensus outside Italy as well. The international press emphasises how the marriage between the German driver and the Maranello team is decisive for the future of Formula 1 and the revival of a sport that appears to be in crisis.
Also, important for the media is the fact that the World Champion, despite having two choices, still wanted the Italian team, apart of course from the financial return. Behind the scenes, however, there is no lack of controversy, grumbling, and recriminations. The German newspapers, it is a well-known fact, have never been tender with sports champions who have been guilty of some fault. It is therefore logical that Michael Schumacher's move to Ferrari also triggered the interest of the German media, who do their utmost to give advice to the young driver, such as the Bild:
"Michael would do well not to learn Italian. He would then avoid understanding everything they say about him. What will he find at Ferrari? Heaven and Hell. They will kiss him, but they will also castigate him, and his private life will become even more transparent. Look what they did to Alesi who appeared naked in a magazine".
And to conclude, here is the final encouragement:
"Schumacher winning with Ferrari? It’s possible, but the new 10-cylinder engine manufactured in Maranello needs to be fast from the start, otherwise the Renault engine is still the favourite".
In France, Renault and Elf, Benetton's most important technical suppliers, do not like to be abandoned by their offspring. After losing Nigel Mansell and Alain Prost in the year following their world titles, history is repeating itself for the third time, assuming Michael Schumacher still wins the World Championship this year.
"Losing Michael Schumacher will certainly not change our plans".
These are the words of Patrick Faure, president of Renault Sport, who takes stock of the situation after the latest market events.
"A company like Renault doesn’t enjoy breaking its word, which is to supply the same engine to the two racing teams for three years, until 1997".
Faure therefore assures that Benetton will not be penalised compared to Williams, the other team to which Renault engines go. Rather, the president did not fail to make controversy from afar with Ferrari:
"We thought that, given the results achieved this season by Benetton and in particular by Schumacher, Michael would stay next year. Therefore, in agreement with us, Benetton made a higher offer than any other ever made for a Renault driver. Ferrari thought it appropriate to raise it strongly. We’re in a difficult economic situation, we couldn’t go any further".
"I have to remind you that a year ago the Ferrari management was geared towards cost reduction. Obviously, we don’t have to delude ourselves: as long as victory has its weight, everyone will pursue it with the weapons they deem most appropriate".
To conclude, the president gives the hiring of Jean Alesi the blessing:
"Possibly flanked by a German-speaking driver".
The Ferrari-Schumacher operation also has political-economic repercussions in Italy. On Friday, August 18th, 1995, Agip confirmed that it was going through a difficult time and was ready to leave Formula 1. The news had already been leaked for some time. The big oil company, which has been supplying the Maranello team since 1974, could retire. It is no longer a secret that the Dutch company Shell has long been trying to re-enter the world of Grand Prix. And it wants to do so, of course, with a top team. Having been Ferrari's partner for a long time in the 1960s, it has started negotiations, especially offering a considerable sum of money and guarantees on scientific and technical research. But Agip says: is the investment worth what it costs? We are talking about 60.000.000 lire a year spent on motor sports. All-inclusive, advertising, and promotional activities. The sum is considerable, but it should not be forgotten that so far, the returns have also been considerable, since it seems that the Eni company is expected to make around 3.000.000.000 lire in profits in 1995. No one wants to make the accounts of others, but the percentage invested, in relation to the average, is not disproportionate. Agip (and Elf agrees) is right, especially when it harshly criticises the actions of the FIA. Research is limited by the current regulations on petrols that can be used in Formula 1, thus giving no possibility of spill-over to normal production. The checks carried out by the federal technicians are discretionary and, above all, it is hard to see why the formulas used to manufacture the fuels should end up in the hands of people who might even use them for personal purposes. But that is not enough. The sponsors (not only the technical ones) are being left behind by Ecclestone to an incredible extent. An example: Agip rented a guest terrace at Imola for 400.000.000 lire a year. Since the English boss practically runs the San Marino Grand Prix, the demand has become absurd: 3.500.000.000 lire per year. The contract between Ferrari and Agip expires at the end of the year. But by the end of October, it must be renewed or cancelled. Shell is ready, it is said that the Dutch giant is also behind the Schumacher operation. It would be a shame if the Italian company gave up. It is true that costs have become very high, that many things in the regulations must be changed. However, the battle can only be fought from within.
Otherwise, withdrawal may have the flavour of an excuse. Meanwhile, while waiting to get back on track, the drivers are taking a few days off. Jean Alesi, for example, is in Capri, guest of Ferrari president Luca Montezemolo. Forty-eight hours after the announcement of the Frenchman's move to Benetton and the simultaneous arrival at Ferrari of Michael Schumacher, the meeting seems to bear witness to the fact that relations within the team are still serene and cordial and that the divorce in sight is being consummated peacefully, without friction. Alesi spends the day on Montezemolo's boat together with his Japanese partner Kumiko and Edwige Fenech, wife of the Ferrari president. The two couples have breakfast at the Lo Scoglio restaurant in Nerano, after which they stop in Positano. The Formula 1 World Championship starts again with 11 points. These are the points that divide Michael Schumacher and Damon Hill at the top of the standings. After the German's false step in Hungary, the Englishman has halved his disadvantage. Now he will come to Spa, from Friday, August 25th to Sunday 27th, for the Belgian Grand Prix, to try to close the gap again. Damon is charged up: before Budapest, Williams renewed his contract and will pay him about 20.000.000 lire a year, three times as much as he had received so far. These are good things for morale. The situation is different for Michael, however. The sensational announcement of the World Champion's recruitment for 1996 by Ferrari created quite a stir. And some controversy, too. As well as doubts about the policy that Renault, supplier of engines to both Williams and Benetton, may adopt. But let's not forget that Schumacher has a tough temperament. And that he feels at home on the Spa-Francorchamps track. On the Ardennes circuit, the boy from Kerpen (which is only a hundred kilometres away) took his first competitive steps and marked his bombastic debut in Formula 1 with Jordan. A prompt response in the World Championship is therefore to be expected. Damon Hill, among other things, believes he can take it easy. His teammate, David Coulthard, is now cut out, perhaps he will end up at McLaren. And, for next year, a coéquipier is also announced, who should not give him too much trouble: the rookie Jacques Villeneuve. But beware: the 24-year-old Canadian could become the classic snake nursed in Damon's bosom.
In the meantime, Williams signed him for a five-year contract, a sign that the British manufacturer is betting heavily on Gilles' son.
"He’s a driver out of the ordinary".
Said Frank Williams after three days of testing at Silverstone, rushing to offer him a 6.000.000 lira a year contract, to begin with. Why Formula 1 now? Hadn't he said he would have preferred one more year of experience in Indy?
"Those were my intentions, but there are two reasons that made me change my mind. The first stems from the fact that I have a real chance of winning the American championship. It won't be easy, but I'm in a very good position. Then, I have already won the Indy 500. In short, in the United States, I have already taken some great satisfaction".
And the second reason?
"It's simple. I was offered an unrepeatable opportunity. I thought I would have to start uphill, with a second-rate team. Instead, here I was, with an offer on a silver platter from one of the best teams. I drove the car, I liked it very much. I decided to accept".
To win straight away?
"Let's take it slow. Every year in Formula 1, as far as I know, a lot can change. I believe that Williams will always be at the top, however it will have to be seen. I hope I can train a lot during the winter. I need to get to know some tracks that I have never seen. And then, above all, to understand the atmosphere of the race, what the rivals are like".
A heavy legacy, the Villeneuve name...
"I've never given it too much thought. As I've already had the opportunity to explain, I saw my father mainly as a parent, I was eleven when he passed away, not as a driver. So much so that at first, I thought of being a skier. And I even tried it when I lived in Monte-Carlo, competing in many races in the Alps. But clearly, I had caught the racing bug, without realising it. I found myself sitting on a single-seater like another guy would sit on a football".
And then the number 27 on the Indy car...
"Well, that was a fluke. I don't believe in plots. Besides, I think I'm very different from my father. I don't try to go beyond the limit of the car. I just want to get close to it, always using my brain. It's nice to participate in the tuning of the car, to understand why you have to do certain things. The sensitivity in a driver lies in extracting the maximum out of himself and the car he has at his disposal. If a car is worth fifth place, placing fifth is equivalent to a win. If it's worth first, obviously success must not slip away".
Have you ever thought about Ferrari?
"Ferrari has Schumacher. I think he's very strong. You can't chase dreams, better to be concrete. Who knows, maybe one day. But that's not what interests me now".
Three languages spoken well, the look of a collegiate or career manager, fashionable glasses, hair always tidy. Jacques appears to be a driver in a double-breasted suit. But perhaps he is the future champion of the latest generation, and of a Formula 1 that has never been the garden of well-being. And Schumacher's move has done nothing to improve the mood. Particularly sour these days is Gerhard Berger, who is faced with the prospect of leaving Maranello or being second to the World Champion. On Sunday, August 20th, 1995, Gerhard lets off steam by giving an interview to Die Welt newspaper:
"If it continues like this, Schumacher will soon recall the Japanese Nakajima (retired, ed.), in Formula 1 to make sure he has no rivals in the team. I find it bizarre that the supposedly best driver always tries to have bad teammates".
Gerhard Berger says he has a 50-50 chance of staying with Ferrari:
"Especially as Maranello would not let Schumacher and me sleep in a double room".
However, if Nakajima will not return to racing, it is instead Alain Prost who might: the French driver, in fact, will take part in the tests for the new Mercedes engine, and it is not excluded that he may return to drive the McLaren in 1996. The agreement could be announced on Sunday, October 1st, 1995.
"I’ve spoken with Ron Dennis: it would be useful for both of us if I had a direct interest in the preparation phase of races and tests for a fixed period of time".
Meanwhile, Jean Alesi, after the announcement of Michael Schumacher's signing at Ferrari, is calm. And he promises, to the fans of the Maranello team, a spectacular farewell:
"A victory at Monza, that would be beautiful".
On the eve of the Belgian Grand Prix, Jean Alesi says:
"I knew about the negotiations with the German. Ferrari did everything to get him, and I’m going to Benetton. I’ll be in a young and winning team, a famous one. But I’m very sorry to leave Maranello, for the people and the fans. It's like changing family, very hard".
"No, I think I did my best. In five years, I've also had good moments and learned a lot. I'm happy to leave the team without quarrels. I was on holiday again last week with Montezemolo. For me, starting from 1996, Ferrari won’t be an enemy, but rather a rival".
But was there no chance of staying?
"Maybe yes. I thought a lot about whether I could stay with Schumacher. Then things fell apart. I had two possibilities: Williams and Benetton. For the first team, it was already a bit too late. Besides, because I believe in friendship, I bet on Benetton: I have a very good relationship with Briatore".
What would Alesi recommend to Schumacher?
"I would just tell him to give himself to the people who follow Ferrari. I think he will be surprised by how much the fans will surround him with warmth and affection. For the rest, he doesn't need any suggestions…".
A fabulous contract...
"Mine isn't bad, either. It's the best I've ever got in Formula 1. Among other things, I'll also be first driver. That's why if by chance Berger comes to Benetton, he'll have to help me, just as he'll have to lend Michael a hand if he stays at Ferrari".
A joke against his team-mate, with whom he admitted he had argued but also worked hard. Berger, for his part, is still arguing with Schumacher:
"He doesn’t show a sportsmanlike behaviour, he wants his team-mate to have less technical support than him".
Alesi, on the other hand, addresses Jean Todt with a dig:
"Montezemolo had asked him what I would do. He, instead of questioning me, answered for me".
In the meantime, on Friday, August 25th, 1995, it’s showtime on the track. Minus - perhaps - Andrea Montermini and Giovanni Lavaggi, since on Thursday, August 24th, 1995, the Pacifics are placed under seizure for an economic-judicial problem. Strange are the cases of life. In a particularly delicate moment of the season, in which the drivers' market held more sway than the races, Ferrari found itself ideally occupying the first three places on the provisional starting grid of the Belgian Grand Prix. In front is the uncertain Berger, in the middle the future Schumacher, behind the departing Alesi. A kind of sandwich in which the two current Maranello drivers squeeze the German champion, putting the two Williams of Hill and Coulthard behind them. Becoming complicated due to the ever-present Ardennes rain, which always wets the beautiful Francorchamps track, Berger takes a lucky shot: it helps, and in what manner, to conquer a pole position (albeit on Friday and therefore susceptible to change) just when one's career is at stake. On the strength of his experience, the Austrian waits until the last moment to push to the limit, when the asphalt dries. And with a precise and confident drive, he strikes the blow. As if to say: I am among the fastest in the world, too. But Berger not only presses his foot on the accelerator. He also speaks open-heartedly about Schumacher and Ferrari, that is, about his future in 1996. Nearly a confession, certainly sincere, even if the Austrian does not only use his experience to drive, but also to sign advantageous contracts.
"I love Ferrari. I’m the driver who has competed in most races for the Maranello team. And we both know what we want. An agreement can be found, in a day or ten, the important thing is to clarify matters".
But the relationship with Schumacher is not idyllic...
"There were misunderstandings, friction. He also had things to say with Senna. I made mistakes and Michael made mistakes. We talked too much. With Schumacher and Berger, however, Ferrari would have a very strong pairing. I know we have tough characters, difficult to manage, but if we work in the same direction, the team will have advantages. It's not necessary to be likeable, respect is enough".
Wasn't it better to talk directly to the German?
"No, it would have been useless. I still don't know if I'm staying. If an agreement is reached, then it will be better to sit down in front of a table, with a nice blank sheet of paper and start from scratch. No problem".
He will still be an uncomfortable teammate....
"Sure. It won't be easy to stay ahead of him. Just look at Schumacher on the track: very fast, concentrated, constant. However, I got used to it after driving with Senna, Mansell, and Alesi. He also has the advantage of being 10 years younger. But I can still be as good as him".
So, what does Berger ask Ferrari to stay?
"Equal treatment assured. It's not a question of being first or second driver, the important thing is to have the same tools. It would be illogical for Ferrari to do otherwise. In fact, as far as I'm concerned, it never has".
So there are no complications...
"I have several opportunities. I have to think it over, have guarantees. Then you can forget the whole past and start again with new motivation".
Gerhard Berger knows that in Formula 1 captain's stripes are earned through results. But he also rightly thinks about the vile money. And if Schumacher gets a fabulous salary, he also wants to dream. In the meantime, Michael becomes a money machine: on Friday, he announces that 100 helmets identical to the one he is using this year will be put on sale. All hand-signed. The price? 5.000.000 lire each. Not bad, if added to what he already earns. However, Alesi does not talk about money, upset about third place. The Frenchman says that he was also disadvantaged by a drop in engine power. Then he throws another dig at Jean Todt:
"I always give my best, and I’ll do so until the end of the season. I hope the team does the same, that they help me as usual. Montezemolo doesn't come to every race and unfortunately, he isn’t always in control of the whole situation".
On Saturday, Ferrari will fit the single-seaters with still modified engines, theoretically better than their predecessors. But at the same time, it will virtually do the rain dance: a downpour would secure the positions, the best of the year. During practice, there were also moments of fear, in fact, in the first free practice session, Johnny Herbert lost control of the Benetton on the wet track. After the Source corner, when accelerating, 150-200 km/h, Herbert ends up head-on on the right track protection wall. Then, with the car open at the front, he spins three times, grazing the guardrail on the left. In 1988, when he was racing in Formula 3000, he had a frightful accident at Brands Hatch, mangling his legs. He spent a year in hospital and underwent a long rehabilitation, but still today he is slightly limping. Says Johnny Herbert, who, having wrecked his Benetton, did not participate in the first qualifying session:
"Unfortunately, I relived those moments. Luckily, I was unhurt: now the single-seaters are safer with the axle of the front wheels in front of the pedals. But what a scare".
The following day, Saturday, August 26th, 1995, a sudden downpour, and a skilful team strategy resulted in an all-red front row. Gerhard Berger in pole position, Jean Alesi at his side. An en plein, the first of the season and right on the eve of the Italian Grand Prix, where the same thing had happened last year, with the two drivers in inverted positions. A result that gives impetus to the Maranello team, even if - as mentioned - help comes from the sky. The second practice session is also an authentic roulette. And the wheel brings out numbers 28 and 27, which - it is fair to remember - were already in first and third place after the first session in Friday's storm. What happened? As is always the case here, the threat of rain looms over Saturday as well, although the clouds seem far away. Ferrari has the merit of not lingering: Berger and Alesi, who went on track immediately, push hard. Gerhard immediately sets the best time: 1'54"392, at an average speed of 219.476 km/h. 0.239 seconds behind, Jean Alesi. At that same moment, the first drops of rain begin to fall. Cars spin (even Alesi, with his engine that stopped and therefore blocked him for the rest of practice), others slow down in order not to risk it. Then, the rain stops. And, little by little, the asphalt dries. The leading drivers return to the track to challenge the Ferraris. But just when the feat seems possible, here comes another burst over the area. Only Mika Häkkinen (McLaren), Johnny Herbert (Benetton) and David Coulthard (Williams), third, fourth and fifth respectively, managed to recover partially.
The two favourites were distant: Damon Hill eighth, Michael Schumacher (P16) in the hell of the eighth row. A very bad result. The German is really unlucky. In the morning, he is the protagonist of a spectacular accident: Michael is in the Stavelot corner when he violently hits a kerb. The Benetton breaks up and, despite an attempt at counter-steering, goes like a missile against the protections. Luckily, the German driver hits a pile of tires, grazing the more solid guardrail. Driver a little shocked but unhurt, car in pieces but repairable. In qualifying, Michael Schumacher first does a few test laps in the wet. Then, another attempt to check the track conditions. Finally, on the third outing, when he could perhaps even take pole position, he gets stuck with an electronic gearbox problem. And Hill? In the first four minutes, those of Berger and Alesi, Damon is slowed down by a Pacific when the track is still dry. Towards the end, with the last four drops of rain, he flies into a spin in the sand, furious. And will Ferrari win on Sunday? Anything is possible, because the race will be a lottery, even more unpredictable than qualifying. In terms of pure performance, the 412T2s are always inferior to Williams and Benetton. But on the scales, there are so many variables. The always dangerous start with a sharp bend after a few dozen metres. Strategies with pit stops. The possibility of rain (and being ahead will be an advantage). Engines, gearboxes, brakes, and tires are put to the test on a long and selective track, where overtaking is not as easy as it might seem. In short, a cocktail from which any flavour could come out.
"Tough race, but I would like to celebrate my 36th birthday, I turn 36 today, with a victory".
The Austrian scores his pole position number 11, and number 114 for Ferrari, thus writing a new record.
"I’m worried about the engine".
Adds Alesi, who breaks one in the morning on Saturday and finds himself with the engine off when he leaves the track. But better than them are Hill and Schumacher. The Englishman says:
"A day to forget, but at least I’m ahead of my rival".
The German adds:
"What a disaster. Let's hope for a Ferrari win and not Hill’s".
This is the first time Michael is really rooting for the Maranello team. But there are also many outsiders. The show is guaranteed. On Sunday, August 27th, 1995, at the start of the Belgian Grand Prix, Gerhard Berger makes his rear tires skid too much and paves the way for Jean Alesi and Johnny Herbert. Fourth is Mika Häkkinen, ahead of the Williams-Renault of David Coulthard and Damon Hill. Herbert immediately tried to pass Alesi: the French driver resisted at Eau Rouge, but on the Kemmel straight the Briton took the Ferrari's slipstream, moved to the outside and with a very deep braking took the lead. Alesi does not give up and continues to stay close to Herbert, while behind them, Häkkinen spins out at the Source corner and is forced to retire already on lap 2. Still on lap 2 Jean Alesi takes the lead, responding to Johnny Herbert who had overtaken him on Kemmel. The Frenchman is very fast and tries to increase his lead over his pursuers, while Gerhard Berger is in trouble: on lap 3 he resists an attack by David Coulthard, but on lap 4 the Scotsman and Damon Hill pass the #28 Ferrari with ease. But lap 4 became even more negative for Ferrari, as Jean Alesi returned to the pits believing he had a puncture, but in fact a suspension had broken on his single-seater: race over for him. Johnny Herbert thus took the lead, but the two Williams-Renault drivers put such pressure on him that he was forced to make a mistake. The Benetton Briton then makes another mistake at the Bus Stop, spinning out and blocking Mark Blundell: Eddie Irvine and Michael Schumacher take advantage of this. While up front, David Coulthard increased his pace followed by Damon Hill, while Michael Schumacher was fifth after a fine comeback, but struggled to pass Eddie Irvine, who was very fast on the straights. On lap 11, the German overtook the Northern Irish driver at the Bus Stop and launched himself in pursuit of Gerhard Berger. In the meantime, David Coulthard continued at a high pace, but on lap 13 he suddenly slowed down before Pouhon and stopped at the trackside: Damon Hill was the new leader. The Briton, as well as Gerhard Berger and Eddie Irvine, makes the first pit-stop, while Michael Schumacher stays on track for a few laps with the aim of setting a few fast laps. The German, after his refuelling, finds himself in second position with around 15 seconds to make up on Hill. Ferrari's day is bewitched, as Gerhard Berger suddenly slows down on lap 22 due to an engine problem, thus decreeing the double retirement of the Maranello cars.
Meanwhile, Damon Hill leads the race, but it starts raining at Spa. The race leader, as well as Irvine, Blundell, Herbert, Brundle and Panis, returns to the pits to put wet weather tires on. Michael Schumacher, on the other hand, remains on track with slicks. Hill's choice seems to be the right one, as in one lap he cancels the 5-second gap on Schumacher and reaches Benetton's slipstream. Damon Hill pulls alongside the German driver on the Kemmel straight and overtaking seems a formality, as it is pouring with rain and Michael Schumacher is on dry tires, yet the German lengthens his braking, moves to the outside of the corner and keeps his rival behind. On the next lap, Michael Schumacher tries to defend again with delayed braking, but ends up long and Damon Hill takes the lead. However, the rain stopped falling, the track gradually dried out and Hill struggled to keep his car on the track, so much so that he skidded noticeably: Michael Schumacher took advantage of this and took the lead again. Williams-Renault calls Damon Hill back to the pits to put dry tires on and refuel. Schumacher leads the race undisturbed ahead of Hill, with the Ligiers of Brundle and Panis and the Tyrrell of Katayama taking a gamble for a possible podium place (nothing to do instead for Irvine, whose car had caught fire during the pit-stop). But the rain returns to fall on the circuit and Katayama is the one to pay the price, crashing into Malmedy while he is in fourth position. The race management decides to send the Safety Car out, with Schumacher, Hill and the others returning to the pits to put rain tires on. At the restart, Olivier Panis spins and slides to the back of the pack. Damon Hill makes a mistake while trying to catch up with Michael Schumacher, but the Englishman gets much worse news: the race direction decides to penalise him with a 10- second Stop&Go for exceeding the speed limit in the pits. The Williams driver is second even after serving the penalty, but at the Source corner he spins out and Martin Brundle takes his position. Michael Schumacher continues his race quietly, in first position, while behind rages the fight between Mark Blundell, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Johnny Herbert and Rubens Barrichello for positions ranging from fourth to seventh. Barrichello managed to move past Herbert and Frentzen, then put his Jordan ahead of Blundell's McLaren. Hill pushed to catch Brundle and on the very last lap got into the Briton's slipstream.
Brundle closed the trajectory at the Source, but could do nothing against the power of the Williams-Renault on the long Kemmel straight. Damon Hill thus completed his run-up and finished the race in second place, but up front it was Michael Schumacher who was celebrating. He won the Belgian Grand Prix and took his sixth win of the season after a fantastic comeback, a perfect strategy and an applaudable resistance on Damon Hill in conditions of obvious technical inferiority. The German of the Benetton preceded Damon Hill and Martin Brundle on the Ligier-Mugen Honda over the finish line. Heinz-Harald Frentzen in the Sauber-Ford is in fourth place, followed by Mark Blundell in the McLaren-Mercedes, and Rubens Barrichello in the Jordan-Peugeot. This is how ended a race full of twists and turns, yet with the most predictable result, that is, with the victory of the best, even if this time he was not the favourite due to his bad starting position on the grid. Sixth win of the season for the Benetton driver, who takes the lead in the Formula One World Championship again. Damon Hill parries the blow, finishing second, preceding in order Martin Brundle, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Mark Blundell, and Rubens Barrichello. But now the gap between the two contenders for the title is back to being wary for the Englishman: 15. Everything happened, from the alternation of a dry and a wet track due to the rain falling at times, to accidents, with the side dish of spectacular duels. Then, a whole series of episodes that have been and will be discussed. Formula 1 considers itself a highly professional sport. Everything is governed by precise rules, designed with extreme fastidiousness. To the millimetre are even arranged the teams' huge motorhomes in the paddock, according to the styling that Bernie Ecclestone personally prepares from race to race.
But at the same time, incredible, disconcerting, pure amateur facts sometimes happen. It happened at Spa, when the safety car had to intervene on the track, i.e., a safety car that the race director decides to use in the event of danger, whether from accidents or bad weather. The latter was the case at the Belgian Grand Prix. The regulations state that if the cars start the race on dry asphalt tires, should it start to rain making it risky not to change the tires, the safety car must be deployed. This car installs itself in front of the race leader, makes him slow down and everyone else behind queue up. Overtaking is prohibited. Drivers can go back in to change the tires if they are not yet in line, or wait for the safety car to leave when the dangerous situation is deemed to have passed. In Belgium, however, everything happened. The race direction, instead of intervening at the right moment, i.e., in front of Schumacher who was leading, sent the car out as soon as the German had passed. First mistake. So, he had to turn on the green flashing lights indicating to the drivers that they could overtake. Some drivers did not understand anything and queued up anyway. So much so that the safety car driver had to wave his arm to pass. Second mistake. Then, it took three laps to find Schumacher, instead of waiting for him by going slower. Finally, when the car finally took its place in front of the German's Benetton, it delayed turning off the green signals, which could also have led Michael to commit an error by passing in front. The only thing that is certain is that the Benetton and Schumacher were the only ones who understood everything straight away, and the German came in to change the tires at the right time. One of the moves that eventually allowed him to win the race. And so, Michael Schumacher celebrates and plays down the controversy with Hill:
"I started sixteenth and got my sixteenth win. Maybe this is my lucky number. I didn't really think I would finish first, at most I thought I would finish in the points or on the podium. Instead, I scored one of my best wins, and with a huge gap on the second. I’m convinced I tricked my rivals by deciding not to stop and change the tires when the first drops fell. True, I took a risk, but in my situation, having started behind, it was the only way to make up ground. I remembered when, in the past, Senna had done the same thing successfully".
And the duel with Hill?
"It was tough, and our cars even touched. But it happened in slow corners where there was no real danger. I don't think there’s anything to object to. The one who made life difficult for me was especially Irvine. His car had a particular set-up, and I couldn’t overtake him. I had to study the best spot to pass him for a long time".
Was there also a bit of luck involved?
"Yes, you always need that. But I think above all, it was the strategies we adopted with the team that paid off".
"It’s still long and Williams is getting faster and faster. But I think we’re defending ourselves very well, without reverential fears".
Shortly before, when he had got out of the car, in the parc fermé, Damon Hill had approached Michael Schumacher with a determined air. Without taking off his helmet, the Englishman reproached the Benetton driver for blocking him not too correctly for two laps, when he had put rain tires on in the wet and the German was still on slicks. Then, Damon Hill repeated the accusations in a press conference.
"Michael, from the way he was behaving, still thinks he’s racing karts. He was zigzagging around the track like he was drunk. And in certain points we were also at 300 km/h. It wasn't much fun".
And the race?
"Ah, that was very exciting, full of difficult moments. Wet and dry, an impressive series of pit stops. Schumacher drove defensively and at the end, at the top of the Radillon hill, we touched wheels. I had to come in hard because he wouldn't back off. Then, I got the stop and go penalty for exceeding the speed limit in the pits during a pit-stop. That took away any chance I had of fighting for first place. However, I admit that the German did a great job by starting sixteenth and then winning".
Immediately afterwards, turning to Brundle, whom he had overtaken on the last lap, he said:
"Sorry Martin, but I just couldn't give up those points".
Michael Schumacher, protagonist in Belgium of one of the most beautiful victories that Formula 1 has ever seen, after an incredible comeback, defends himself against the accusations.
"Me unfair? Not true. I’ve already protested to the Federation. And Benetton has lodged an appeal".
As is well known, after Williams’ complaint, the German driver was suspended with probation for one Grand Prix after the race: in the next four races he must not commit any other offence like those for which he was judged. Reason: he allegedly obstructed Damon Hill's overtaking attempts between lap 21 and lap 23, when the track was wet due to the rain.
"I was following my line, trying to find the driest parts of the track, as I was on slicks. A line I was also following when I wasn't being closely followed by Williams".
But the stewards do not give in to him. The stewards, watching the video recording of the whole race made by the helicopter, note that the trajectory followed by Michael when he was alone is different from the one he took when Damon Hill tried to overtake him.
So, in the end, the verdict is handed down, with this motivation:
"Michael Schumacher is guilty of having infringed Article 1 and 1.c, Appendix L, Chapter 4 by repeatedly performing, with determination, manoeuvres intended to obstruct other drivers, with anticipated or abnormal changes of direction. Such behaviour was not showed on one occasion, but repeatedly, over a lap and a half".
Now there is this threat of disqualification pending. The appeal announced by Benetton, however, should be discussed in Paris at the first FIA tribunal meeting. Perhaps nothing will happen, but there are those who say that the judges might toughen the penalty, which for now is platonic.
"I don't get involved in events that could upset me. I forget, I cancel. I'm interested in winning races and aiming for the title, although I don't like to make long-term plans. People always ask me if I dream of winning five or more World Championships. To tell the truth, I’ll only go on racing as long as I continue to have fun".
For now, Michael outdoes himself and continues to amaze each time. With his incredible comeback at Francorchamps, he has moved up to fourth place in the ranking of the best drivers to catch up with Jackie Stewart. Great tactical sense, determination, the ability to coolly assess every situation and to seize every opportunity. These are the qualities, together with driving sensitivity and technical knowledge, of a true ace. Yet, the 26-year-old German driver sees more than just motor racing. For him, family is more important than sport.
"My wish is to stop when I'm not too old. And to raise children. You can’t ask more from life than to have children and help them grow up properly. Succeeding in this will be even more important than winning in Formula 1".
A two-faced character. On the one hand, the tough, even cynical champion, while on the other, the simple guy, bound to traditions. Not without contradictions. If on the track he has no compunction, he becomes a censor on the normal road. Asked what is the thing that bothers him the most when he drives his car, the Benetton driver replies:
"The people who are always on the left, obstructing traffic. These people often drive beyond their limits".
While talking about the winner on the one hand, mentioning the losers on the other, the battle of the Ardennes had started well and ended badly for Ferrari. After having conquered pole position with Gerhard Berger and second place with Jean Alesi in qualifying, for the team from Maranello the sentence of the race was merciless: both drivers were forced to retire. It was the first time in the season that neither driver reached the finish line. So, the worst result ever in eleven races held. And even on this occasion it was reliability that betrayed Jean and Gerhard, when the situation seemed under control, though. The Frenchman was in the lead and the Austrian seemed on his way to getting a few points. But the bitterness was outweighed by the tension in the team. The announcement of the hiring of Michael Schumacher for 1996 created an awkward situation. And Alesi, a boy with a heart of gold, but also a kind of matchstick that lights up at the slightest movement of air, can no longer hold himself together. So Jean, partly because he is deeply disappointed by a series of three consecutive retirements, fires off harsh accusations. First, he talks about the race:
"I thought I had a puncture. I went into the pits to change it. But when I got back to the track, I realised that the car was sitting behind. I stopped and bent down and saw that there was a broken rear suspension. This is the second time here, it had already happened two years ago".
However - he was told - the Ferrari was competitive and had made a great start, two fabulous overtakes with Herbert...
"Who cares, the only overtaking I would like to do is during the last lap, to win. Those are the facts. The truth is that I continue to do my best, while in the team, certain people don't do it for me".
Another accusation against Todt?
"I don't want to make controversy or overly acid comments now".
No desire to smile from Gerhard Berger either:
"I thought I would celebrate my 36th birthday in another way. Williams and Benetton are still out of reach, but we could have finished on the podium or at least taken points. Instead, I stopped because an engine sensor was not working. I tried to restart after changing the ECU, but the engine kept shutting down. Too bad".
An inside look into the race?
"I made a bad start. Then, when Alesi and Herbert got into a battle, I tried to stay away, anything could have happened. When Jean overtook the Englishman, who I've never seen so wild, I got closer. I tried to pass, but I touched with the Benetton and from that moment on the set-up of my car was no longer perfect, because of a blow on the side. Then it was all over, before the limit".
The Austrian will have to give Ferrari an answer next week: by now, it seems certain that he will stay at Maranello for another two years. And in the meantime, he is beginning to make friends with Michael Schumacher. In the drivers' briefing, the two talk for a long time, thickly. They seem cheerful. Then, before the start, the German brings Berger's birthday present, a green Benetton bag. What is inside?
"A letter in which he undertakes to share his salary with me next year…".
Gerhard Berger jokes, as always, but it is clear that, barring any surprises, the two will be teammates. Jean Todt also speaks well of Michael Schumacher, of course.
"Great race. I liked Michael very much. We, on the other hand, cannot find reliability. And now even thinking about fighting for the constructors' title is becoming more and more difficult. As for Alesi, I don't want to reply. It might be convenient for some people. I confirm that there’s always our utmost support towards Jean. Unfortunately, that’s not enough".
After the disappointment suffered at the Belgian Grand Prix, from Tuesday, August 29th, to Friday, September 1st, 1995, Ferrari will be on track at the renovated Monza circuit. Four days of testing for Jean Alesi, alongside whom, first Gerhard Berger and then Nicola Larini, will alternate. It was already planned that these tests would be entrusted mainly to the Frenchman. But the commitment comes on purpose to confirm Jean's trust in the Maranello team. Alesi had a long phone call with Jean Todt on Sunday evening, during which explanations were given, considering the driver's polemical statements.
"For me Jean is like a son, but it’s normal that there are also moments of friction between people. However, this doesn’t mean that Ferrari has abandoned the driver. On the contrary, I repeat, I hope he wins more than one race before the end of the season. He deserves it, and we want to be able to count on all our strengths to get positive results".
The programme includes testing the latest version of the engine used in Belgium only for the second day of testing (among other things, it contains a new Agip petrol), and aerodynamic and mechanical tests will also be carried out. But will this be enough to restore confidence and performance at the next Italian Grand Prix?