Damien Hill spoiled Prost’s 1993 record of pole positions, but come raceday it was back to the familiar script
Sooner or later, Damon Hill is going to win a Grand Prix. That’s what we said after Spain, and a lot more people were saying it after Magny-Cours. Oh, Alain first added number 49 to his bulging stash of F1 victories, and stretched his all-time French GP wins mark to six (Fangio and Mansell are next up with four apiece), but it was Hill who drew much of the attention as he finished only 0.342s adrift after the 72 laps. We won’t pretend that this was the sort of shootout that Prost and Senna indulged in during their McLaren days, nor was it Mexico 1991 with Patrese and Mansell. The fact that Michael Schumacher, Martin Brundle and Ayrton Senna set faster laps than the Williams duo was confirmation enough of that. No, the two FW 15C pilots simply had so much of an advantage on raceday not to mention in qualifying that they were able to stroke away into the distance and then run at a pretty conservative pace.
Really, with this one, you needed to look beyond the basic result. After all, with Renault president Louis Schweitzer on hand to witness his company’s progress, neither Prost nor Hill was likely to do anything to place the team’s first one-two of the season in jeopardy.
Look instead, for example, to qualifying. Both drivers started Friday morning’s free practice session with the new anti-lock braking system, but after three laps Prost’s pitched him into a spin and left him stranded on the circuit. In these enlightened days when you can transport a spare car to races but may not use it until Sunday, he thus had to sit the rest of the morning out. Worse, just as in Imola FISA didn’t stop the session to allow the car to retrieved, although it had when Senna’s McLaren faltered in both Monaco and Montreal. Not favouritism that, just inconsistency. Prost’s problem was as simple as incorrect figures being tapped into the onboard computer for the brake system, and perhaps understandably after that he elected to give it a miss for the rest of the meeting. Hill, meanwhile, having overcome a brief glitch in his car’s traction control electronics which also rendered the gear selection hors de combat for a time, persisted with it and got into a rhythm that saw him set fastest time in both Friday sessions and again when it mattered on Saturday afternoon. It was the first pole of his short F1 career Magny-Cours was only his 10th GP and it had Prost’s attention. The two of them get on extremely well, and the Frenchman was not slow to praise his teammate’s speed and consistency. With some drivers this is just platitudinous or patronising, but with Prost you know it is neither. Then there was the manner in which Hill vaulted off the grid and opened a 2.5s lead after three laps, as Prost followed in second and they immediately began to outpace their opposition. This was where the key to the value of the two lead driver’s performances lay, for Prost really did want to win this one. This was when he had to push very hard, before any true pattern had emerged, and this was where Hill showed that he can cope with pressure and that he can drive quickly. Sadly, what might have happened in the team orders department had this continued would become academic after Damon’s tyre stop at the end of lap 27. Prost was right with him, but not actually challenging, when Hill pitted, and by ill fortune he had to follow Michael Andretti in. Then as the pair exited together, Sauber ill-advisedly waved Wendlinger back out after he had come in from ninth place to see if third or fourth gears had found their way back of their own accord since they no longer appeared to be within his transmission casing. A nasty accident was narrowly avoided, but the delay, coupled with the canny Prost’s fastest lap up to that point, meant that Alain could come in himself two laps later and just scrape back out without losing the lead.
In the past this year Williams tactics have been straightforward. You can race up to the final 10 laps, but after that the second placeman must hold station. Had Hill retaken the lead it would have been intriguing to see a) whether he could have kept it, and b) whether he would have been allowed to, but in the end it all became academic. Hence his quiet mien afterwards. In a straight all-out fight, experience and speed probably favours Prost still, even though many consistently underrate just how quick he is, but Hill is learning all the time. When it does come, the showdown should make for some good motor racing.
As it was, there was some of that in the wake of the white, blue and yellow cars. It’s just that French television appeared unable to capture it. To Renault’s delight in the opening stages, it was partly provided by a brace of blue cars. Ligiers. And Ligiers, it was said, that enjoyed for this race only, engine parity with Williams. Magny-Cours is, of course, the team’s home track, which allowed both Brundle and Mark Blundell to bounce straight into battle with a good set-up, and there were further aerodynamic improvements to put to good use by Saturday, but though nobody at Renault Sport would confirm or deny such suggestions, logic certainly favours them.
From the second row of the grid Brundle made a nice getaway and looked very comfortable in third place as Blundell had a little more to occupy his mind with Senna and Schumacher lurking in his mirrors. Unfortunately, he then became the victim of Andrea de Cesaris as they lapped the Tyrrell on the 2Ist tour, the Italian having plenty of warning in the form of blue flags but nonetheless wandering into the Briton’s path and obliging him to drive off the road into a sandtrap. A shame that, because Mark was just keeping himself out of his rivals’ reach. In the early stages Brundle appeared well able to keep Senna and Schumacher at bay, the latter unable to pass Senna despite superior straightline speed because the McLaren’s better downforce catapulted it quicker on to the meagre straight. It was going to be a waiting game, but there was an expectant atmosphere every time they appeared. Behind them, by the 25th lap, Rubens Barrichello had made the best of a splendid eighth place qualifying effort, and was lying sixth having overtaken Alesi’s Ferrari, with which the Frenchman had been quite heroic on his way to sixth slot on the grid. Sadly, lean had opted for Goodyear’s harder A compound tyres for the race after finding them to his liking in the morning warm-up, but that optimistic choice was exposed as a mistake. He had his hands full fending off Erik Comas’ well-driven Larrousse, which had been chased prior to its gearbox trouble by Wendlinger’s Sauber and Suzuki’s Footwork, which ran better on full tanks on its debut with TAG’s active suspension. All of them, however, bar Wendlinger who retired after 25 laps, were to fall victim to Michael Andretti.
On the warm-up lap just before the start, it had looked like Canada all over again as the American’s McLaren stumbled round, its throttle restricting the Ford HB to idle speed only. He just made the pits, where the problem was quickly diagnosed and rectified, but even then the Gods were not quite finished with him, for as he left the startline his automatic gearbox decided not to shift for itself, obliging him to override it manually. By the time all that was sorted out Andretti was ready to get his head down, and for the first time in a difficult F1 baptism he began to look like the man who so electrified IndyCar racing up to the end of the 1992 season. On a track where even Senna and Schumacher admit overtaking is difficult, he managed to account for luminaries such as Lehto, Patrese, Alesi and Barrichello, and he passed them all very publicly with some brazen darts down the inside of Lycee, the final corner, which indicated that his shattered confidence is now on the rebound. In the closing stages Andretti sat right in team-mate Senna’s wheeltracks and their fastest laps were only a tenth of a second apart. He was a lap down because, unlike Senna or the Williams duo, he had opted to make a second pit stop. Most other lead runners did the same. Schumacher came in again on lap 45 and thus got the jump on Brundle for fourth when Martin pitted two laps later, and thereafter the German thrust aggressively after Senna. He worked by Michael and then finally scraped by Ayrton, who nonetheless retaliated as best he could whenever he espied a tiny gap.
Further back, Brundle also tried to close in on Senna, but the two McLarens were going pretty quickly, and the maths revealed that poor Barrichello was unlikely to score his first World Championship point. The young Brazilian was coping with a soft brake pedal which needed pumping every time he went down the straights, and he succumbed to Andretti’s inevitable onslaught with two laps left. Almost unnoticed, Comas’ good run came to an end with five laps to go when his Larrousse broke its transmission, and Fittipaldi brought his Minardi home to an excellent eighth place after starting 23rd and running non-stop as he did in Canada. He may not be the world’s greatest qualifier, but he’s a good little racer. He was, however, lucky to survive an assault by Riccardo Patrese on lap 60, when a gear selection problem on the M193 left him momentarily in neutral just as the Benetton was close behind. The Camel car reared up on its back wheels, but crashed back down on to the track, shedding its nose wing. The stop to repair that left the Italian veteran 10th behind Alliot after another low-key drive. Alesi’s day ended with engine failure, but there was no relief for Berger as he struggled round no higher at any stage than 12th after a thoroughly disappointing showing in qualifying, too. The Austrian admitted that he was having an off weekend, but problems sorting the new active suspension also played a part. On this day Prost got the upper hand after Hill’s pit lane bother, and thereafter the main questions went unanswered and the speculation about what might have been went unresolved. But what was clear, as indeed, on reflection, it was last year, is that Montreal is less than flattering to the WilliamsRenaults. In 1992 the McLaren-Hondas were much closer to them there, only to find the gap extended again in Magny-Cours. This year history repeated itself, right down to the Williams one-two result. Take away odd circuits such as Monaco and Montreal, and it becomes clear that though Benetton has made great strides since Imola and Barcelona, the dice are still heavily loaded against the Ford-engined runners. As the Fl circus headed for Silverstone, one had the feeling that Prost had weathered a storm in his quest for his fourth world title after his stop-go season, and was again sailing in calmer waters. D I T