The Monaco Grand Prix is followed by tests on the Montmeló circuit, just a week before the sixth round of the calendar. In Barcelona, during the three days of testing from 14th to 16th May, Ferrari improves its times and tests the new ‘Step 2’ engine with both Schumacher and Irvine. The exhaust manifolds, which at first show some cracks already after 200 kilometres, are no longer affected by these problems at the end of the last test, with the engine covering a distance of 450 kilometres. Another aspect of the engine that is constantly being improved is the electronic management. In the beginning the software was not satisfactory, while after the latest tests it is improved allowing more acceptable performance.
"Every time we use it, it always goes a little bit better, but obviously we are never satisfied".
Says Schumacher, who at the Barcelona circuit is looking for good set-ups for the race:
"We don't have engine problems but car problems. If it were up to me, I would cut this car in two, save one half and throw the other away. Honestly, I look at things realistically and here, after three days, I'm not going fast at all. We're struggling to be competitive but we're still there. I'm a second off in race trim and a little bit more in qualifying trim. We are trying a lot of solutions, even new tyres, but we are always more or less in this situation".
Then, talking about the issue of the Ferrari engine not being ready, Michael admonishes the press:
"Enough with this story of the step one or step two engine. They are more or less equivalent and the engine is not our problem. Maybe with step two we can gain something. Shall we say a tenth of a second? Maybe two? How do we take the other eight seconds off? With the set-up and everything else we can take off another tenth, and then what? We're still behind. Looking at the other cars that are running here, I don't have any illusions. On the starting grid in a week I could be on the third or fourth row, maybe even ninth, so I'm not happy, even if I do better in the race. I have no illusions here, but neither for Canada nor France. Then we'll see how the car goes with the changes planned for the Grand Prix in France, but maybe something could even be postponed to Silverstone".
Following a season start that contrasted with many expectations during the winter, Flavio Briatore announced a decisive reaction from his team, Benetton, which had sunk into anonymity after Gerhard Berger's illusory podium finish in Brazil. At the end of the test sessions, Jean Alesi is placed immediately behind the dominant Williams, also hoping to return to the limelight after the horrible Monegasque weekend; above all Jacques Villeneuve, who has lost the leadership of the championship to Schumacher's advantage.
Nicola Larini, on the other hand, will not be able to look for redemption: the Italian driver, a bit like Benetton, had deceived at the wheel of the Sauber in Australia, gaining a promising sixth place, after which he showed serious shortcomings in the confrontation with his teammate Johnny Herbert. Larini's lacklustre performance in Monaco was the last straw, and the Swiss team decided to put him aside in favour of another Italian, Gianni Morbidelli. Larini returned to his role as test driver at Maranello. Buoyed by his first place in the championship and his dominant win in Monaco, Schumacher was not content to get back behind the wheel of the Ferrari for testing, and incredibly decided to take up football to satisfy his desire to play a team sport:
"I've always been a football fan: Aubonne - a third-class Swiss team - contacted me to support the team and I agreed to join a club in the region where I live. When I was a kid I played in a German club with my brother Ralf, but once I started with cars, I didn't have any free time anymore and I gave up football. I am a fan of Cologne, even though in recent years they have not been among the best teams in the Bundesliga".
Then a bit of self-criticism:
"Drivers' contracts do not contain any special clauses. Nothing is stopping me from playing football, it was fun, but I need to train harder and better to make a good contribution on the pitch. In practice, I didn't see the ball and I also missed a possible header goal. I'd better not change sporting activity for now".
And speaking of what remains his main occupation for now, the German does not seem too optimistic ahead of the Spanish Grand Prix:
"It would be positive to get points. This circuit doesn't suit our car, we can't balance the car and this puts the tyres in crisis because they work with the wrong temperatures: understeer on entry, oversteer on exit and a few laps later, we are already in crisis. It's nice to be ahead of everyone in the standings, and there's motivation to try to stay there. Unfortunately, it is important to stay first at the end of the championship. The fight is open, it will all depend on how our car adapts to the different circuits and the changes that will be introduced to it".
And to conclude, he is reminded of his first victory in a Ferrari suit, achieved on the Catalan circuit the year before:
"It's a nice memory, the track was flooded with water, it was raining like in Monte Carlo a fortnight ago. The Ferrari has a remarkable grip in the wet; of course, if a good rainstorm were to arrive at the right time on Sunday, I would be more confident. Having a good starting position on the grid will not be easy, apart from Williams, also Benetton, McLaren and Jordan could be very strong".
An unbearable heat welcomes the drivers since Thursday, and consequently offers the main concern of the race: what will the actual behaviour of the tyres be, considering Barcelona is a track that is already demanding with them. In the meantime, Benetton's recovery during the tests, as well as the doubts expressed by Schumacher, seem to be confirmed on Friday: Alesi sets the fastest time in free practice followed by Jacques Villeneuve, while the Ferraris run very little to save tyres to be used in qualifying and race, and place seventh and tenth, showing (for now at least) that Schumacher's pessimism was anything but a pretext. Speculation about possible changes of seats for the top drivers continues, a consequence of the many contracts expiring at the end of the season. The news of the day is offered by the German newspaper Bild, which, however, enjoys national distribution, which speaks of a possible arrival of Schumacher in McLaren thanks to the intermediary action of Mercedes. On the subject of this alleged negotiation, the German driver jokingly confesses:
"'Yes, it's true, but the negotiations are already over because they've just given me a 6.0-litre eight-cylinder Mercedes SL made especially for me. But I also have all the Ferraris I want. I've got a 456 as a company car, which I use for my travels, I've got a 550 Maranello that I won on a bet, I've got a personal 355. Oh yes, I also have a Fiat Daily van to take my dogs and go-karts in. I liked this Mercedes and I wanted to have that too. That's all. That's all nonsense from the newspapers".
Unsubstantiated rumours, especially because, among the top drivers, the two-time world champion is the only one with a solid contract with Ferrari, and as Jean Todt has also claimed, the only contact his driver has had with Mercedes in recent times has been for the purchase of a 600 SL and nothing else. Being on the subject, the French team manager also locks out Eddie Irvine's seat, albeit with less conviction:
"There is a three-year contract until the end of 1998, with the right to exercise an option by Ferrari. At the moment nothing has been decided yet".
Alain Prost, on the other hand, in his ambitious project of creating a team capable of fighting for the title, besides courting Villeneuve with insistence, seems convinced to bring Damon Hill on his side, especially should the situation at Arrows remain the present one, which is a disaster. Not only has the reigning champion not yet claimed any points, but he has not seen the chequered flag yet. For Prost, recreating the couple formed in Williams in the '96 season would undoubtedly be a great move, but for now, only rumours are circulating. Instead, Williams's supremacy in qualifying is a certainty. After Frentzen’s exploit in Montecarlo, Villeneuve returns to laying down the law and takes pole position, with his German teammate completing the first row. The revived McLaren and Benetton instead share the second and third rows with Coulthard and Alesi preceding Hakkinen and Berger. The scariest fact, however, is that Coulthard is a second clear from the Canadian poleman.
"We may have been in too much of a hurry to focus on computerisation because that is the future. But perfecting the electronic differential, as well as the computer-controlled four-wheel braking system, proved to be more complicated than expected and we lost precious time".
Flavio Briatore is delighted, and goes on to say:
"We had grown up together, we and Schumacher, as it is only possible in a small world like ours. There were technicians with us who are now at Ferrari, the car that won the title was the product of that growth. Now we work with experienced drivers like Alesi and Berger, but they have other stories. Our slowdown was an inevitable price but when I think about the new cars and the new technologies that will make them race, then I'm really optimistic. Cars are moving towards total electronics. In August we will also have our own wind tunnel in England in addition to the one in Ferrara and two new aerodynamic technicians. Today's car belongs to the past, as Alesi and Berger are drivers of the old generation. The future is a new page to be written and we have all the credentials to write it well".
At Ferrari, on the other hand, Schumacher limits the damage as best he can but is seventh, while Irvine is eleventh.
"I'll take a second and a half off the Williams and start on the third or fourth row".
Schumacher says after Friday's practice. But at the end of qualifying the gap is almost two seconds. And as if that were not enough, the much-discussed and much-anticipated step two engine also broke down, due to the failure of a connecting rod.
"We have to be realistic. I'm going to try to have a good race to get in a good position and get some more points, but we can't really talk about winning, I don't think so. And don't ask me about the engines again because I'm fed up, whether it’s one or the other doesn't change anything, the real problem is the aerodynamic efficiency of the car".
Jean Todt points out:
"However, with a full tank of fuel, the gap decreases a lot and then many other factors come into play".
"We also improved compared to last week's tests, but it wasn't enough. The Williams are going much, much faster".
Then, when asked why a connecting rod broke on a decisive day like Saturday, the French manager replies:
"It was old probably. The whole engine was old, it had exceeded six hundred kilometres. After all, we can't mount brand new engines for every day of practice like we can for the race. It would take too many at this rate".
On the other hand, smiles are returning to McLaren’s garage, which in qualifying was able to take advantage of a new Mercedes V10 with 775 horsepower (35 more than the previous one), but which will be left to rest for the race, as it is not yet reliable over long distances. The performance of the two Anglo-German cars is still to be verified. Villeneuve gloats immediately after taking pole:
"I enjoyed this qualifying, especially at the end when I set the best time. It was hard but I enjoyed it".
Frentzen is a little less satisfied:
"I liked it too, but at the beginning when I was leading. I'll try to make up for it in the race".
It is ten poles in a row for Williams, also considering the final part of the 1996 season; only the unknown tyres, which could lead to various strategies, might jeopardise their monopoly on Sunday. According to many, there could be even three pit stops, so surprises are just around the corner.
On Sunday, drivers are slightly relieved from the suffocating heat by a strong wind that rages over the circuit; there is also a slight risk of rain, but it will not materialize. It will be sunny throughout the whole race. Shortly before the start Jean Alesi is interviewed on the grid, and the Frenchman takes the opportunity to praise the work done by his team:
"The team has worked hard and brought a lot of new things here to improve the performance of the car. I'm very happy about that because it gives us the chance to get back to fighting for top positions. Hopefully, this can be the start of a comeback for Benetton".
The start of the race presents some drawbacks for the drivers on the warm-up lap, as first Gerhard Berger remains stuck in his grid spot, then Ralf Schumacher a few moments before the start turns off the engine and starts waving his arms to attract attention. It becomes necessary to postpone the start, so the mechanics return to the track to repeat the whole procedure, which causes a delay of a few minutes and a reduction of one lap in the race distance. The Jordan driver has to start last, while Berger is lucky and has to thank the young German’s hitch, allowing him to go back to his original starting position. Finally, the race begins. At the start, Coulthard and Schumacher stand out and at the first corner they chase poleman Villeneuve; McLaren’s Scottish driver tries to take the lead of the race at the first braking point, but Villeneuve resists with a great braking, keeping his position, and Coulthard, maybe too concentrated on who is in front of him, is surprised on the outside by Schumacher at Repsol corner. Thanks to a brave manoeuvre, the German takes second place, after starting from seventh place.
At the end of the first lap, Villeneuve leads the way ahead of the Ferrari driver and Coulthard, who are closely followed by Alesi, Hakkinen and Frentzen, who has a very bad start and is already slightly detached from the leading quintet. Already from the first few laps, it is clear that Schumacher does not have the pace to keep up with the Williams, nor to resist for too many laps Coulthard’s attacks, who is soon joined by Alesi and Hakkinen. The Ferrari is unable to keep up with the leader’s pace, favouring Villeneuve's getaway. In the meantime, Coulthard goes crazy trying to find a gap on a circuit where overtaking is not easy at all. Besides, despite the slipstream of the car in front, the Mercedes V10 engine does not allow him to get alongside Schumacher on the straight to attempt an overtake at the first corner.
The German's difficulties are such that at a certain point Villeneuve gains three seconds per lap, setting times in the 1'22-range against the 1'25" of the direct pursuers. Michael defends himself with courage, he breaks away at the first corner and on one occasion the duellists avoid contact for a matter of centimetres, then on lap 14, Coulthard finally manages to overtake at the end of the long main straight, the only point where he has managed to make himself dangerous up to this moment. It is a sign that Schumacher’s tyres have completely worn out, so much so that also Frentzen and Herbert also reached him. At Ferrari’s garage, they look at the times, then tell Schumacher by radio that the first stop will be brought forward from lap 20 to lap 15. Also Coulthard stops together with the Ferrari driver: the times of 6.0 seconds for the former Williams driver and 7.4 seconds for Schumacher suggest a three-stop strategy for both.
The situation is different for Villeneuve, Alesi and Panis, who lengthen their stints and consequently seem to opt for just two stops. The one who is struggling more than everyone to manage the tyres is Frentzen, whose performance of the day, which ends with four pit-stops and out of the points zone, is pitiless if compared with that of his teammate. An abnormal blistering, due to a non-ideal set-up, makes the second position obtained the day before completely useless. Mika Hakkinen is also in crisis: after his first stop the Finn manages to gain a position on Schumacher and Alesi, however promptly given back during a second stint to forget for him, ruined above all by a few too many lockups with which he ruined his tyres.
Villeneuve's undisputed leadership of the race is only slightly challenged by Coulthard, who, taking advantage of a moment of the race when he has a car with little fuel onboard, reduced the gap to less than two seconds, but just when it seems that an interesting battle could start, the McLaren goes back to the pits for the second of the three scheduled stops. The two-stop strategy proves to be the winning one, being in fact implemented by the drivers who arrive on the podium at the end of the race. At this point, a more than discreet Olivier Panis, who started from the twelfth position, stands out. The Frenchman of Prost Racing sets a great pace, also favoured by the Bridgestone tyres that once again prove to work better than Goodyear’s and to suffer significantly less on such an abrasive track. Truly emblematic is the overtake on Coulthard on the 40th lap at the Repsol curve valid for the third place, because while the Prost car flies with the Japanese tyres, at the end of the lap Coulthard has to immediately come back to the pits because his Goodyears are finished.
Third place becomes second place when Jean Alesi returns to the pits on the 44th lap, and Panis returns to the track ahead of his compatriot thanks to an excellent overcut. But it is not over yet, because Panis continues to push to catch up with Villeneuve, who is thirteen seconds ahead with seventeen laps to go. With an average of one second gained at each passage on the finish line, the challenge does not seem impossible. It is also the last chance for Schumacher to get closer to and attack Alesi, being in the battle for an unexpected podium after his third pit stop. Panis's dreams of glory, however, meet an unexpected obstacle: Eddie Irvine. In an anonymous race (to say the least) that attests him in tenth place, the second Ferrari driver, at the moment of being lapped, does not step aside, and on the contrary, closes the door suddenly when Panis tries to jump inside. The innumerable seconds lost by the driver of Prost Racing behind the Northern Irishman favour the comeback of Alesi and Schumacher, so that Panis, from hunter, becomes prey. Meanwhile, Alain Prost rushes furiously towards the Ferrari pit wall to protest.
A few laps pass, and only when Alesi too makes eloquent gestures of frustration directed at Irvine, the race direction inflicts a ten-second Stop&Go penalty to the Ferrari driver, who, before serving his penalty, is finally overtaken. Jacques Villeneuve wins for the third time in the season, ahead of Panis and Alesi, who can hold Schumacher off in the final stages. The German, fourth, together with Herbert and Coulthard closes the points zone, and with these results he gives back first place in the world championship to his rival Villeneuve, again first with 30 points, +3 on the German driver.
The prize-giving ceremony is characterised by the presence of Ronaldo on the podium, who cannot give any trophy to Schumacher after the exchange of a Barcelona shirt and a Ferrari cap between the two before the race. There is, however, the man who is powerfully back on top of the world championship after a performance of absolute level, and who during the press conference is logically beaming:
"It's great to get back to winning ways, especially because with the whole Williams-Renault team we have been working hard since the beginning of the season. Yes, we've also had some good results, but considering our competitiveness there have also been opportunities we've wasted and where we could have won, and I have to say that after the big mistakes in Monaco a win was needed. We did a lot of testing over the winter here, and to be honest the car didn't handle as well as it did in testing, although you have to say we had different tyres. Having to put up with this stifling heat was difficult, but having Michael second blocking the others in the first part of the race helped us a lot. Michael did me a big favour with that very fast start, he overtook dangerous rivals he then kept away from me because he was slower. Our strategy was two stops from the start, we knew it was risky for the tyres, but generally there is a greater risk of something going wrong when you have to make multiple stops. I wasn't too worried about Panis at the end: I had a reassuring gap and I had to manage the tyres, so there was no point in pushing at that point. If he had come closer than he should have I could have accelerated. In any case, congratulations to Olivier, he didn't start in the first positions but despite this, he arrived on the podium, which is remarkable".
Later Jacques, talking about Irvine's behaviour, gives full responsibility of what happened during the race to the Maranello team:
"I heard that Irvine slowed down those who were about to overtake him, it's a game that Ferrari plays, a bad game, not professional. You can see the blue flags, someone must have told Irvine to slow down those behind. I think they told him from the pits to help Schumacher's comeback".
Then a quick thought about the following Grand Prix, which he will race in front of his fans:
"Last year was a good race for us, but we didn't manage to win, so hopefully we can do it this time".
Olivier Panis is also visibly satisfied: among other things, the Frenchman is rather diplomatic (much more than his team manager Prost will be) about the Irvine affair:
"I'm very happy, qualifying was complicated because our tyres were too hard, but in view of the race I was optimistic. Already in the warm-up, the tyres behaved great, without any sign of blistering. Of course, we hope to improve in qualifying, but right now changing tyre type would mean sacrificing some of our competitiveness in the race, because these tyres are fantastic over long distances. It's fine to improve the starting position, but obviously the race is more important than qualifying. My goal for the championship is to try and finish in the top five, that would be a great result for me and the team. It's going to be tough, but the car is really good, plus we'll have a new engine for the French Grand Prix which will allow us to go even faster. Eddie is a great driver, but I really can't understand his behaviour, it wasn't necessary at all. But, you know, talking to him is an impossible task".
Jean Alesi also has to say something about Irvine:
"In the final stages I wasn’t worried about Schumacher. What worried me was Eddie Irvine, a very strange driver in my opinion! It was quite difficult to overtake him, especially because Michael was behind, ready to take advantage of any opportunity he had. I raised my arm several times to point out the impropriety to the stewards, that's no way to behave".
An infuriated Alain Prost, to put it mildly, who simply does not care, attacks Ferrari:
"If Olivier or Shinji had been in Irvine's position, I'm sure they would have had a penalty much earlier. I don't think it's fair for the other teams to allow that kind of behaviour. A lapped driver slowing down others to favour his teammate; that's my point of view, and I think it's not fair at all. We demand fair treatment. I went to Todt to protest, to tell him to tell his driver not to obstruct Olivier, as he was lapped. Jean is a friend, but I think Ferrari should have intervened. I don't like this behaviour, it's not sportsmanlike and it's not fair".
Undaunted for his part, Eddie Irvine:
"I saw the blue flags, but I thought they were for Trulli's Minardi, which was ahead of me; Panis was close to me in the first part of the race, so I didn't think he was lapping me but was fighting with me. The team didn't inform me that he had a lap to spare. I feel sorry for him".
Supporting the Northern Irish driver's argument is obviously Ferrari manager Jean Todt, who states:
"Irvine was far behind, he was about to lap a competitor in turn, he didn't understand the situation well but when we told him on the radio he immediately stepped aside".
After which he goes on to say:
"I prefer to say anyway that we are still leading in the Constructors' Championship, we limited the damage we expected. We had big tyre problems, but we're not the only ones. Now we're thinking about Canada, but I'm not going to say anything, it's better not to make predictions because things change from one day to the next".
In an atmosphere that is not exactly peaceful, Schumacher has other things to think about, but considering the premises of the weekend and the final result, he can see the glass half full. The German starts talking about his lightning start, also favoured by the choice of using new Goodyear tyres, which, however, as anticipated by the supplier, would later cause greater degradation:
"I had a good start, not great, as I think I’ve had even better starts, I'd say it was more the drivers around me who started badly. I was lucky to have a clear track, with nobody bothering me on the straight and at the first braking. This allowed me to push as hard as I could, exploit the slipstream and move into third place, and then pass Coulthard to move up to second".
But on lap five Schumacher's tyres began to seriously deteriorate, so much so that his lap times worsened:
"I suffered from blistering on the rear tyres and struggled so much to keep the car on track and ahead of the others, I was sliding like I was in the wet! After that, there were battles that we have won on other occasions. Usually, we adopt good strategies that allow us to gain positions, but unfortunately this time it was the opposite. Unfortunately, it can happen. Initially we were on two pit stops, but we had taken into account the possibility of switching to three. In any case I arrived first among those who stopped three times. In the race I have to say that the consumption of tyres was higher than expected, so much so that on the seventh lap the tyres were already covered in bubbles. This first set was a new one, but the others also presented a lot of problems. In the end, I even feared I might have to make a fourth stop. Why did Ferrari use up so many tyres? That's something we need to understand. We're not the only ones who want to find out, because everyone else had problems with this excessive consumption. Anyway, it was the first set of tyres that deteriorated so quickly, while the third set, for example, was better".
Even at the end of the race, Michael was struggling with his tyres. However, the German driver does not despair:
"A fourth place is still good. It's easy to say afterwards that maybe I could have taken one more point, but I wasn't able to attack anyone. We did the best we could in these conditions".
Of course, the doubt that the scorching start may have worn down his tyres remain. But Michael replies:
"I don't know now, but what was I supposed to do? Start slowly and stay in seventh place? That's not how you do racing. A gap opened up and I went for it. It's a racing eventuality and I took advantage of it, but I didn't expect to have such a big drop in performance on lap 7. The idea was to make the first stop around lap 20 or so, but we weren't sure if we would be able to get there, so we were prepared to change plans, which we did. However, I have ne thing to say: I am the first classified among those who made three stops, everyone in front of me made two. On the other hand, I don't think one less stop would have improved the result. If I had saved a pit stop, theoretically I could have made up the gap. In practice, however, I would have gone slower and perhaps I would not have done anything".
Launched by his third win in the championship, Villeneuve could be approaching his home Grand Prix in the best way, if it weren’t for some unfortunate statements made by the Canadian, who, in the week prior to the event, has to deal with the International Automobile Federation, which, led by Max Mosley, does not contradict itself and shows no mercy to any kind of critical comment made by the drivers towards him. In the meantime, big changes are looming over Formula 1. According to Bernie Ecclestone, the announced British restrictions on cigarette sponsorship of the sport will force the cancellation of many current Grands Prix and the creation of new ones. The current twelve European Grand Prix would be reduced to four, while four Asian Grand Prix and three new European ones would be established.
Davide Scotto di Vetta