#582 1996 Australian Grand Prix

2023-01-12 00:00

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#1996, Fulvio Conti, Translated by Matteo Liotta,

#582 1996 Australian Grand Prix

All with bated breath, from the first to the last. Always, when a Formula 1 World Championship begins, the candidates for victory hope to see their am


All with bated breath, from the first to the last. Always, when a Formula 1 World Championship begins, the candidates for victory hope to see their ambitions immediately rewarded, while the teams in the rear fear more than ever the new rule which requires you to stay within 107% of the time obtained by the driver who will take pole position in order not to be excluded from the start. It picks up again with Michael Schumacher, two titles in two years, who leaves the role of favorite to Damon Hill (Williams), or to Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger (Benetton). In the speeches of the German champion and Ferrari, the words victory and championship are not officially combined. The stated goal is to win a few races and aim for the 1997 World Championship. And so, in Australia, Michael Schumacher plays the role of possible absolute non-protagonist well. He appears relaxed. Even if sometimes there is some concern about the delays accumulated by Ferrari and the difference in certain values ​​between the old and the new team. Michael is tanned, and a few days earlier he found time to swim in a bay entitled to Sorrento, swimming among the dolphins. The German driver faces interviews with serenity.


"Tension, pressure? As for the other drivers, when people expected repeat successes from me. From this point of view, I'm very calm, even if I obviously feel the push of the competition and I'll try to give my best".


What are your biggest fears?


"I've said it many times already. Our Achilles heel at the moment is reliability. The new 10-cylinder engine covered 6,742 kilometers on the hybrid vehicle in the winter. But the F310 did a little less than 1000. We've had so many little problems already and they've all been fixed. Having toured so little, however, we set off somewhat in the dark, hoping no more would turn up. In addition, our competitors who clocked up hundreds of laps at Estoril will be able to work precisely right away, while Irvine and I will still have to try to fine-tune our single-seaters".


What will the top three places in the drivers' and constructors' standings look like in the end?


"I'm not a fortune teller and I don't make predictions. I'm not even a dreamer: as far as we are concerned it will be good to be realistic. So far I haven't felt the pressure from the press and I myself don't want to exert it on Ferrari. To ask for miracles would be harmful. Better to take one step at a time. Moving forward with small progress would already be positive. I think we will have a gap from the best between half and 1 second per lap. And I would already be satisfied".


But is it possible that Schumacher is so defeatist?


"This is not true. One driver, all drivers, when they go on the track, aim for pole position and victory. Of course, I too have this spirit. But I'm down to earth".


The track?


"It seems to me beautiful and difficult. I've seen her driving around in a normal car and from a helicopter. The track is interesting: it also has long straights and fast corners. In any case, we will have to wait to give a definitive judgement".


And Ferrari?


"I repeat, I'm a firefighter: I found the team well structured; it must advance gradually. We don't try to jump too far right away".


Isn't having to respond to German and Italian fans too heavy?


"No, I like this, it stimulates me. I had three options: one offered me more money than the Maranello team, the second was equal, the third, which I would not have accepted, was inferior. I am happy with the choice. If I manage to win with Ferrari, it will be something special for me too".


And these days Ferrari will give yet another proof of its popularity, even in Australia. The streets around the Victoria State House in the heart of the city will be closed to accommodate a gathering of a hundred beautiful Ferraris. Schumacher will drive an F50, Irvine and Todt two F40s. Hoping, after the first tests, to still have a smile on my lips. Thursday 7 March 1996 Jacques Villeneuve sets the best time in the tests that inaugurate the new Australian circuit of Albert Park. It's no surprise, if you will, but the Canadian driver's feat is impressive. A second trimmed to his teammate Damon Hill and gradually greater gaps on Alesi and Schumacher, respectively third and fourth. The result of these first tests, defined as private, may not even count for many people. But it is still the first confirmation of the value of the son of the great Gilles. This time Formula Indy didn't give Formula 1 an uncompetitive driver, as happened with Michael Andretti. Jacques will be one to keep an eye on. Not only for his grit, skill, and speed, but also (and above all) for his intelligence. Together with Villeneuve's exploit (in view of the first and only qualifying round, the tests that open hostilities in the World Championship allow for some considerations. Williams is confirmed as the car to beat, with Benetton still in the growth phase. Good, above all in relation to what could have been expected, the performance of Ferrari, and not only for the result of Michael Schumacher or the seventh time of Irvine. Says the German driver, after a very long briefing with his technicians:


"I could have done better. If in the three moments in which I tried to force the pace I hadn't been stopped by the red flags displayed for various incidents. The car is good and responds to the adjustments. In the morning I had problems with an electronic sensor, in the afternoon with the fuel pressure. But these are understandable and solvable problems. If we look at the split times I got in the three sectors the track is divided into, I'd be two tenths behind Villeneuve. Which is why I'm quite confident".


Once again Schumacher was the victim of a false scoop by a German information agency, picked up by various newspapers.


"They wrote that in my contract there is a clause according to which I could leave Ferrari if I don't win at least one of the first two races. This is absolutely false. My commitment is for two years and could possibly be terminated in advance if I, or even the team, agree as we are both dissatisfied with each other. However this is not the case. On the contrary, things are going better than expected and it is not excluded that I decide to stay at Ferrari at least one year longer than planned some time ago".


Schumacher even jokes about the event in the evening, even if these continuous false scoops about him annoy him a lot.


"If I were to win the first two races, since we hope to score a couple of successes during the season, it could happen that I take a long rest until the end of the championship. And by the way: since someone wrote that I have an Indian fakir follow me, while my physiotherapist is of Indian origin but of German nationality, I will now be taught how to charm snakes. So maybe I can tame someone who gets too busy…".


It was a good day for Eddie Irvine as well, who appeared satisfied with his performance.


"In fact, it was the first time I drove the F310 hard, and I didn't feel bad. There is still some work to do on the set-up, but we are on the right track and I haven't had any problems. The engine has always worked perfectly".


We will see if all the intentions and predictions will be respected. Even those that concern the real revelation of the first day, that is the fifth place of the young Dutchman Jos Verstappen with Arrows. The Jordans that had shone in the Estoril tests were fair, and McLaren played it safe with Hakkinen and Coulthard in P11 and P12. But we are in the first steps, what will give the true yardstick of values ​​will be Sunday's race. Meanwhile, Jacques Villeneuve wins his first Grand Prix, that of availability and professionalism. The Canadian driver speaks like a consummate champion, but without getting excited, alternating Italian, English and French with great ease.


"It's the best start I could have dreamed of, but it doesn't mean much. The only really positive fact is that our Williams is competitive and going fast. I had the advantage of being busy on a new circuit for everyone and this was a big help for me. I don't know if I'll be able to keep the lead but I'm already happy".


The Canadian has the feeling that Benetton and Ferrari can also rise to the occasion.


"Perhaps we are a little ahead of the others in preparation. So we can expect a return from our adversaries as soon as they've taken the measures of their single-seaters and the track well. It seems to me that there is a good balance: let's expect an uncertain and hard-fought championship".


Damon Hill is less joyful, and receives a kind of warning from his teammate. But the English driver makes the best of a bad situation, and states:


"The track will change a lot in these hours and the battle between us will be very heated. The real positive fact is that Williams has confirmed its competitiveness".


Positive results also for Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger. Both let know that the day is very important for them to gain confidence with the car and the team.


"I felt the tension of this debut a lot, and I'm satisfied with the work done. From now on it will go downhill".


Only Flavio Briatore appears a little disappointed: he expected with Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger to have the usual crowd of media representatives at Benetton. Instead they all went to Ferrari waiting for Michael Schumacher. The team is now Italian (but Berger said the other day that Italy is good for going to the beach, while if you want to do Formula 1 you have to stay in England...), but it's not enough to be the most desired. Michael Schumacher's new challenge starts on Friday 8 March 1996 and Ferrari launches harsh accusations:


"Williams and Jordan are irregular".


It seemed impossible: to start the Formula 1 World Championship without a controversy, some reason for profound disturbance. But, after buzz gathered in the days preceding the pits, the controversy erupted like a disruptive bomb. To set fire to the fuses is Jean Todt, head of sports management of the Scuderia Ferrari. Grim-faced, the French manager, after speaking of his own team, recalling that the Maranello team basically starts from scratch with all-new cars, drivers, engines, he says:


"Ferrari, Benetton, and McLaren have tried to interpret the new regulations according to their philosophy, especially as far as safety is concerned. Others, on the other hand, have played cunning, taking advantage of rules that obviously have some shortcomings, to obtain advantages".


At first, Jean Todt didn't mention any names, but then, pushed by journalists, he explains that the cunning are present in Williams and Jordan. What exactly happened? After the death of Ayrton Senna at Imola, after Karl Wendlinger went off the track in 1994 at Monte-Carlo (the German driver had hit his head against the guards placed on a low wall) and, again, following Mika Hakkinen’s crash in November 1995, in Adelaide, it was decided to improve the safety systems on the cars. According to the new regulations, a sort of containment cushion had to be placed around the passenger compartment, so that the driver's helmet would have better protection in the event of a collision. But, during the tests carried out by the teams at Estoril, in Portugal, during the month of February it was realized that there were substantial differences between some cars. Above all, it was evident, even to the layman, that certain drivers continued to have excellent lateral visibility, while others found their vision partially covered by the new solution desired by the FIA. The standard, in articles 3 and 7 of the technical regulation, provides for a maximum elevation of the passenger compartment of 22 centimeters, with a minimum permitted thickness of 7.5 centimeters for the bulkhead: an area of ​​400 square centimetres. Williams and Jordan complied with the indication but evidently played on the fact that only the maximum height of the protection was specified, and not the minimum. So the two designers, Patrick Head (Williams) and Gary Anderson (Jordan) kept much lower while respecting the required surfaces, obtaining, apparently, an undoubted double advantage. First: a better aerodynamic effect thanks to the smaller frontal section of the cars which, concretely, have a lower passenger compartment. Second: greater engine efficiency which, placed behind the driver, has larger air intakes.


"It's a matter of interpretation. The FIA ​​will have to decide as soon as possible. We believe we are on the side of reason, but we admit that the standards are not literal. If Williams and Jordan were to be considered regulars, all of us will be forced to redesign the bodies. A long and heavy job that will have an important impact on the first part of the championship".


Are the others too clever, or the teams that have only looked at safety too naive? Adds Flavio Briatore, to the words spoken by Jean Todt:


"We are convinced that the FIA ​​will prove us right".


But Eddie Jordan replies with a laugh:


"I don't see why we and Williams should change. There isn't a comma of the regulation that hasn't been respected by our technicians".


The battle is open, but it will obviously develop after the first race. Now there is no more time. Chaos has been a constant for Formula 1 for years. After all, this is not the only problem. Here there is always an ongoing protest by environmentalists (but they are not violent and have made it known that they will not throw pitons on the track as some would have claimed). 


And a scandal has also erupted against the premier of the state of Victoria, Kenneth, who has personal affairs in progress with the organizer of the Grand Prix and builder of the track, Walker. A huge casino is at stake in the area, and some newspapers suspect Melbourne's money for the circuit may have served other purposes as well. Meanwhile, Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve compete for the first victory of the season. Family fight, Williams-style. At least this is the most probable prediction for the Australian Grand Prix, which will open the Formula 1 World Championship. The time set by the Canadian driver in private practice is matched by that of the Englishman in the timed tests. And the pole position, up for grabs in the only qualifying round, could just be an unnecessary formality. Street races like this one in Albert Park are strange races. Anything could happen, so as to upset any logical and respectable forecast. Already the start, carried out with a new procedure (a series of traffic lights that turn on and off like the lights of a psychedelic game), will have the possibility of creating the first surprises. Then there will be dangerous curves lurking, risks of spinning, pit stops full of questions. Just think that Benetton, always very attentive to detail, has studied an incredible solution. When Alesi and Berger will have to stop to change tires and refuel, barring last-minute second thoughts, long strips of special self-adhesive abrasive paper will be laid on the asphalt. To allow the two drivers to block the cars and restart with maximum speed and grip, without causing the tires to slip. In theory, the two Williams and the Benettons will aim to share the podium. In reality, even Ferrari will have some chances with Schumacher and Irvine. The same goes for Jordan, with Barrichello and Brundle, the surprising Footwork of Verstappen, and the still slow McLaren: everyone could collect precious points. Meanwhile, proclaims Damon Hill, refreshed by the first evidence:


"We have the best car, and I'll have to fight with Villeneuve in particular".


Jean Alesi, however, does not agree with it and places himself in the narrow lot of favourites:


"We are very close; in the race the music could even change in our favor".


Michael Schumacher, on the other hand, is very cautious, author of a spectacular off-track exit (but it also happened to Hill, Verstappen and Frentzen). The German showed all his skill: he grazed a barrier for about fifty meters, but in the end, he tamed the car and emerged unscathed from the inconvenience:


"We have never been able to simulate an entire race. I'd even be surprised if we finish the race without even a small problem. I had expected to have about a second per lap behind the best and I wasn't wrong. But we can improve because there are still some settings to try on the F310 that could allow us to progress, both mechanically and aerodynamically. The track has some very nice and interesting parts, but there are critical points where something needs to be changed in the future. I'm more curious to see how it will end than anyone else".


And Eddie Irvine confirms the words spent by his teammate:


"Considering the few kilometers our car has done, I'd say we're not too far from the top. My car still has a little too much understeer, but before the race I should find the right solution to eliminate it. I am optimistic".


A waiting Ferrari, therefore, but ready to attack. This was known from the start, given how things went in the winter tests. Schumacher has repeatedly said that he is not a dreamer. However, knowing his spirit as a great fighter, as a driver who manages to give his best especially in racing, a good placement cannot be ruled out a priori. Provided that reliability, Ferrari's real fear at the moment, doesn't play tricks. And pay attention to Jean Alesi who is very confident and would like to beat all his opponents, starting with Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve, ending naturally with Michael Schumacher. 


However, regardless of the result, the Australian Grand Prix will go down in history as the race that ignited the seconds' revolt. On Saturday 9 March 1996, Jacques Villeneuve conquered the pole position on his debut in Formula 1, and started the race ahead of the favorite Damon Hill, while the incredible Eddie Irvine managed to overtake his teammate, Michael Schumacher at the first opportunity. An anthology qualification, which marks not only the confirmation of the superb Williams but above all a brilliant start, at least in terms of performance, for Ferrari. Late in preparation, with the F310 having done a few kilometers of testing, designed by its own behest as a bit submissive and vulnerable, the Maranello team instead came close to conquering an incredible pole position. Perhaps also helped by the changed weather conditions (Saturday is hotter than the previous days) the cars from Maranello surprise everyone, beating the competition in terms of speed represented by a suffering McLaren, an embarrassed Benetton tormented by minor troubles, and a Jordan already back in line. And Michael Schumacher says, at the end of qualifying:


"It's the third time that a teammate has overtaken me on the starting grid. It happened to me with Piquet in 1991 and last year in Belgium with Johnny Herbert. That's good: it'll serve as a stimulus for Eddie and me. His and my motivations will increase".


The German champion actually took part in the series of fast laps with the handicap. Forced to drive the reserve car due to gearbox failure in the morning on the race car; it also lost a flap (one of those aerodynamic appendages that make up a wing) of the rear wing. So the car wasn't well adjusted and moreover, in the second attempt, when the metal strip came off, it became oversteering and difficult to drive.


"I don't know if I could have taken pole, but I certainly would have gone very close to the front row. We are not the best, but we are not the worst either. The first part of the beginning was encouraging".


Irvine, while happy, doesn't boast too much about the feat:


"I know I can be as fast as Michael in the corners, but I can't do it in every corner on every lap. This time I made it also because he wasn't able to express himself fully".


Peace seems to reign supreme in Ferrari, even if Irvine is later seen gesturing with Todt. Who reaffirms the team orders: to give priority to Schumacher during the races, considering the contingent situations. Reliability remains the most vulnerable point of the new Ferrari; in the morning Irvine broke an engine on his F310. An apparently serene environment also at Williams, where little Jacques Villeneuve accomplished his first feat, proving to be even better than his father. Jacques conquers the pole at the first attempt. In Formula 1 it had only happened to three other drivers until now: Giuseppe Farina in 1950 (it was the first race of the World Championship, but the Turinese had already achieved several successes), Mario Andretti in 1968 and Carlos Reutemann in 1972. A fine company to which add. But Villeneuve immediately soothes spirits:


"I'm happy for the team, we have the most competitive car, I didn't think I'd get to that straight away".


Proving to be a modest but smart and prepared boy. Damon Hill reacts like a typical English person, i.e. with humor:


"Did you think Williams had signed Jacques Villeneuve a nice co-driver? We are a strong team, but the road is still long".


As if to say: he cheated me, but it won't end there. Sure, Bernie Ecclestone, the patron of Formula 1, says:


"This guy is going to win the World Championship. He's too strong, he has his father's class and something more. As for Berger, only in P6, he deserves it. He is part of the commission that judged and approved the circuit arguing that it is dangerous. I'd kick him".


On Sunday 10 March 1996, at the start of the Australian Grand Prix, Jacques Villeneuve kept the lead, while his teammate Damon Hill got off to a bad start and was overtaken by both Ferrari drivers. In the middle of the group, however, there is chaos: the two Tyrrells of Mika Salo and Ukyo Katayama remain stationary on the grid, while Heinz-Harald Frentzen even remains stationary during the formation lap; the worst happens in turn 3, however, when Martin Brundle violently collides with David Coulthard and the Englishman's Jordan takes off, then breaking in half. Brundle was unhurt from the accident, but the race was stopped by the display of the red flag. A second start is organised, in which Johnny Herbert does not take part, involved in the Martin Brundle accident, and forced to give the reserve car to Heinz-Harald Frentzen; Martin Brundle instead gets the authorization to participate in the second start from the FIA ​​doctor, Sid Watkins. The second start takes place regularly, with Jacques Villeneuve maintaining first position ahead of Damon Hill, Eddie Irvine, and Michael Schumacher. After two laps the German overtook his teammate, gaining third position; the Northern Irish driver is then attacked by Jean Alesi, who however eliminates himself in a rather risky overtaking attempt on lap 10. At this point the race develops rather linearly, with Michael Schumacher following the Williams drivers without ever seriously worry them, Eddie Irvine who maintains the fourth position and Mika Häkkinen who slows down his pursuers, blocking Rubens Barrichello and Gerhard Berger behind him. Shortly after halfway through the race, after making his pit stop, Michael Schumacher was forced to retire due to brake problems; in the meantime, however, the duel between the two Williams drivers intensified: in the refueling series, Hill managed to pass his teammate, but Villeneuve took advantage of the already warm tires to take the lead again. On lap 33, however, the Canadian made a mistake and went wide on the grass at the first corner, still managing to keep the lead. Villeneuve's car then began to noticeably lose oil, and to avoid engine failure the team forced him to slow down, thus allowing his teammate to pass. The Canadian resigned himself to the lead, and Damon Hill took his first victory of the season, finishing the race ahead of Jacques Villeneuve, Eddie Irvine, Gerhard Berger, Mika Häkkinen and Mika Salo. 


The Formula 1 World Championship begins as it ended: with a success by Damon Hill. The Englishman had won in the last race in Adelaide and repeated himself in Melbourne, the new venue for the Australian Grand Prix, ahead of teammate Jacques Villeneuve and Eddie Irvine's Ferrari. But before talking about the Williams confirmations and the good Ferrari hopes, we need to go back for a moment to discuss the spectacular, frightening accident with which the race started. In the third corner, Martin Brundle's Jordan flew into a group of cars spinning several times and ending up upside down in the sand. The car emerged from the dust like a wreck, broken in two and crumpled. And feared the worst. Instead Brundle not only got out of the cockpit by himself but ran to the race doctor to get permission to take the reserve car and participate in the second start. By chance, on the second lap, the Englishman's Jordan again, rear-ended by Diniz's Ligier, ended up off the track. But the tough Brundle didn't do anything at all. The race then went on without other forbidden emotions. But, even if it was beautiful and spectacular, it cannot be said that the best man won, given that the moral winner remains Jacques Villeneuve. After conquering the pole position and the fastest lap in the race, the young Canadian, leading from the start, was overtaken only five laps from the end due to the progressive failure of the Renault engine of his Williams. It's a pity, otherwise the son of the great Gilles would have pulled off, as a rookie, what in jargon is called a hat trick, i.e. pole position and success. Williams, however, confirmed its supremacy with a one-two finish, to which Ferrari, the only team worthily opposing the domination of the English team, responded with a third place. However, it was not the reigning World Champion, Michael Schumacher, who took the podium. The German was stopped by a brake problem and the prize went to Eddie Irvine, author of a very careful race. The Northern Irishman thus repeated the best result of his career, obtained last year in Canada when he rode for Jordan. A nice injection of confidence for the Maranello team, which feared not to get anything, given the delay in preparing the new car. If lack of reliability (leakage of fluid in the brake circuit) stopped Michael Schumacher's race, the F310 showed good handling qualities and discrete competitiveness, certainly helped by the skill of the German driver. 


For the first thirty laps, the Ferrari driver kept the pace of the Williams drivers (with Villenueve who got away better than Hill twice), making us dream of a possible surprise finale. However, it was the pit stops, the stops in the pits to change tires and refuel, which made it clear that Ferrari could not aim for success in any case. To keep up with Jacques and Damon's pace, Schumacher had to schedule two stops, against the one stop of his opponents. This means that he would hardly have recovered the disadvantage due to the extra stop. At most, given how things went (the Canadian drove the last five laps very slowly) Michael could have gotten second place. So it's a Ferrari that if it doesn't make you dream yet, certainly has got off to a good start to this new World Championship. For the moment, the Maranello team has confirmed that it was right to hire Michael Schumacher at all costs, a champion who always makes the difference, and that it was right to join Eddie Irvine, a boy who shows he wants to grow and learn. adding some personality too. The F310 was born well, it has qualities. The new 10-cylinder engine, considering its very young age, is already a good thing. There will still be some problems in the next races, maybe even some disappointments. But this is the right way to achieve success. At the end of the Australian Grand Prix, Michael Schumacher was the first to congratulate Eddie Irvine. The World Champion went into parc ferme after the end of the race and said goodbye to Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve. Then he hugged his teammate.


"I had my helmet on and I didn't understand the sentences he said. I think he said good to me. But I'm happy above all because Ferrari has shown that they have excellent potential. I had a regular race, a good fight with Alesi at the start. Then he hit me. Luckily my car was not damaged. And Jean was a victim of himself".


In the two starts Irvine managed to stay ahead of the German driver. Indeed, in the first, both Ferrari drivers had also overtaken Hill, moving up to second and third place, before Brundle's accident forced the start to be repeated. In this regard, the Northern Irish pilot explains:


"I did not see anything. I was just sorry to have to start over. After one lap I realized I couldn't keep up with the Williams and let Michael pass who was faster than me. And I took care not to force too much. It had to be considered that until now we had never covered the distance of a Grand Prix in the new car. After this result I have even more self-confidence. In the next races, I promise, I'll push harder".


What is still there - Irvine was asked - to improve on the F310?


"We have to work on the chassis, aerodynamics and in some respects on the engine. Want to know if it will be possible to win soon? I don't think so, the Williams are a step forward. We need to make progress in slow corners and top speed on the straights. However, I am not surprised that Benetton has fallen behind. Just think of what Schumacher's teammates did with that car. None of them ever made a good impression, although Herbert did win a couple of races. Michael is one that makes the difference".


Shortly after, Michael Schumacher also lends himself, kind and smiling, to the usual interviews, before facing yet another long briefing with the team technicians to analyze the race and prepare the programs for the next few days.


"Our car went better than expected. Unfortunately I was stopped by an unexpected event, the loss of brake system fluid on the right rear wheel. And maybe I also had an engine failure. I notified the pits and we tried to solve the problem, but now there was nothing more we could do. I retired".


In the opinion of the German driver, Ferrari is on the rise:


"My impression, in general, is that we are in the right direction. A year ago with Benetton, at the start of the championship, we didn't really know which path to take. Now, however, with the Maranello team we have very clear ideas. Every intervention that is carried out on the F310 improves the car. This means that the base is very good. I expect that in Brazil we will make further progress in three weeks".


Schumacher also points out that in this first race Ferrari only had Williams ahead in both qualifying and the race:


"For now we are the second team in the league. I thought Benetton would be able to improve compared to timed qualifying, but that wasn't the case. And even McLaren, at the moment, seems quite far away. The important thing at this point is to keep working hard. I honestly couldn't expect more".


During the evening Michael Schumacher and Eddie Irvine leave for Brunei. Mysterious mission: what are they going to do to the sultan considered the richest man in the world? A nabob vacation?


"No, it's a business trip".


But Michael Schumacher will have to return to Europe soon, since he has been summoned to Mugello since Tuesday 19 March 1996 for a week of testing. Jean Todt is normally a prudent man. But this time he goes a little too far with the journalists, and says:


"We are on the right path; we dream of the first victory and then another one. I had never seen one of our cars in the lead, as happened with Schumacher in the first 20 laps. Now we believe in it: if we are not able to exploit what we have gathered, as a potential, from now on for the next two years, I don't see how we will be able to do it subsequently".


The French manager admits the initial delay, but argues that the Maranello team has more room for improvement than its competitors:


"We have to work on two points. First: reliability; second: chassis performance and aerodynamics. If all goes well, in two months, let's say Sunday May 5th at Imola, we'll be ready to fight at the top, to win".


There is the problem of the new regulation, with Williams and Jordan who have obtained advantages by interpreting the safety regulations on the passenger compartment of the cars.


"We await the decisions of the FIA. On a formal level the other stables are in order, on that of the spirit of the initiative they are not. If measures are not taken, we will be forced to run for cover. We'll see in the wind tunnel if it's worth revising the frame for aerodynamic and engine performance improvements. But we're also betting a lot on Schumacher: he's the one who can make the difference".


Eddie Jordan, owner of the stable of the same name, walked away with $20.000 in cash in his briefcase. He won them in a bet with Flavio Briatore: he bet on Irvine saying he would be ahead of Schumacher in qualifying and in the race. It went well for him. But the Irish manufacturer lost several more in Brundle's crash which tore his car to pieces. Martin Brundle explains at the end of the race:


"I didn't understand what happened. I was going at about 290 km/h, and it seemed to me that several cars were zigzagging ahead of me. To avoid them (these were Coulthard's McLaren and Panis' Ligier, ed) I crossed over, and the car took off, over Herbert's. They were endless seconds, but the cockpit's survival cell held up well. I didn't get a scratch and I felt fit to restart the race".


An accident also eliminated Jean Alesi. The Frenchman, ironically, crashed into Irvine's Ferrari in an ill-advised overtaking attempt.


"I couldn't stay behind, I was wasting too much time. But I admit I was wrong. So I went to the pits, and I didn't even watch Berger's race, I was too irritated".


Ill-concealed irritation also from Jacques Villeneuve who remained in the lead for 53 laps. On lap 55, the Canadian had to slow down, after the sign: Slow, oil pressure was displayed in the pits.


"Of course I'm sorry, it could have been nice. But I have one consolation, the car and the team are the best, I'll make up for it soon".


The Formula Indy champion put on a show, making his teammate Damon Hill black (also due to the oil spitting out his car), played several times in a series of overtakings. But the English pretends nothing happened:


"I can't describe my happiness; I have long dreamed of going straight to the top of the championship. Right now I'm on top of the world. It was a good battle with Jacques, but he was leaking so much oil that it was a risk to go too close to him. At one point he went off the track and I thought I'd take the lead. But I saw him reappear from the lawn. We were close to touching a couple of times but overall it was a fair fight".


Easy to talk when you win. Sure, Jacques Villeneuve is a character to take into consideration. And, inevitably, his name is now on everyone's lips. Jacques Villeneuve, the latest arrival in Formula 1, is already a star. Not only for its origins, linked to a motoring legend, but for its exploits. An extraordinary character, with a thousand facets. The look of a good boy mixed with the grit and professionalism of a champion of consummate experience. The modesty of the neophyte and the arrogance of someone who knows they are worth a lot. Talent and courage together with the ability to limit risks, to always think. In the Australian Grand Prix, which marked his sensational debut, the twenty-four-year-old Canadian gave a taste of his double face: the two frantic starts, when he brutally closed the road to Damon Hill; forcefully overtaking a teammate after refueling in the pits; the ability to stay ahead of him in the final part of the race without exaggerating, constantly maintaining a half-second advantage; the calm in accepting a second place that cries out for revenge. They are great qualities, from champions.


"Everyone is surprised, but not me. I'm not an amateur in the fray. I won a difficult championship in the United States last year. I had the opportunity to train well before starting, to run about 9.000 kilometers with Williams in the winter. I drive the most competitive car in the best team, and I was also lucky enough to start level with my rivals, on a track that none of us knew about. I just missed the win and that makes me angry. But I have the ability to wait".


Young Jacques explains his results with passion and total application:


"As a child I wanted to be a skier. I liked the downhill and it didn't really matter to me that my father was a Formula 1 driver. When I realized that I wasn't exactly the best on the snow, I changed my mind and decided on motor racing. It has been my reason for living ever since".


The beginnings were difficult.


"People helped me because my name was Villeneuve, but I was very young, immature and everyone expected too much of me right away. So I decided to get away from the environment in which I had lived and went racing in Japan, then I returned to Canada and took the path of Formula Indy, a category in which no one expected or gave me anything. It was in the United States that I learned to adjust my car well, to study the tracks and the opponents in detail, to become an accomplice of the technicians of my PC team. know everything. I won and the possibility of getting to Formula 1 opened up. I wouldn't have accepted if a top team hadn't hired me".


Craig Pollock, manager of the pilot, reveals that he has had several contacts:


"We also spoke to Ferrari in June. I met with Jean Todt. Probably he had already concluded with Schumacher. He told me that Jacques was not yet ready to get to Maranello. I replied annoyed that maybe it was Ferrari that wasn't ready to have another, different, better Villeneuve. And I went to Williams".


The rest is already part of a small story that increases the pathos of the 1996 World Championship. Jacques Villeneuve was immediately the protagonist and is on the way to becoming one of the most followed and loved characters, from Canada to France (because he is French-speaking and even risks quickly obscuring the fame of Jean Alesi), to Italy where Gilles Villenueve still arouses great memories and unforgettable emotions. Even if Jacques, at least in appearance, does not accept any comparison with his father, from whom he considers himself profoundly different. Even with his mother Joanna doesn't have a good relationship, he only sees her a couple of times a year, as if he wanted to erase the past, his childhood. He lives with his girlfriend Sandrine, a bit like a gypsy. He still has a lot to prove because he was lucky to have the best car, with which all the drivers who have taken turns at the wheel have won in the last ten years. Alain Prost says:


"Villeneuve is no surprise. He's good, but he's also found fertile ground with a teammate like Damon Hill. And he drives a Williams that is a bomb".


Meanwhile, however, the Canadian driver has already risen to the top of Formula 1: in recent days, Walt Disney made him sign a contract as a testimonial. He will be wearing a Mickey Mouse cap. Finally, a few words for a little boy under observation. Giancarlo Fisichella, Roman, 23 years old, who made his debut with Minardi. The Italian driver didn't finish the race, but he made it clear that he is an interesting driver in a period of absolute shortage for the Italian colours. He has no money and will be free from the next race. But it really deserves the attention of some Formula 1 team.


©​ 2023 Osservatore Sportivo


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