Collision course

Why did the Hill-Schumacher crash occur?

When the stewards debated the punishment they should mete out to Damon Hill and Michael Schumacher for the collision which was the talking point of the British Grand Prix, they would have been well-advised to remember that it’s not the done thing to shoot the messenger.

For in some respects that’s exactly what the title protagonists were. Their tangle was a crunch moment in more ways than one, for the message it conveyed and it is a gospel increasingly preached up and down the pit lane is that overtaking has become virtually impossible in Formula One.

The end result, a resumption of verbal hostilities between the two after a ceasefire which was as fragile as it was brief, has been well-chronicled. But why did the incident take place at all?

Schumacher has his own theory. “I know Damon wanted to win his home Grand Prix badly, but it was a crazy manoeuvre,” he opines. “Even in front of your home crowd you have to keep your nerves and your temperament in a normal way. I think he was probably under too much pressure and just tried something that wouldn’t work.”

Hill attributes the incident more to the underlying trend in their ongoing struggle than he does to the fact that it was the British GP. “You can glean certain truths from that collision and from other incidents that I and other drivers have had with Michael,” he suggests. “The fact is, he refuses to finish second to anyone. You’ve got an alternative of a rock and a hard place. I was a racing driver doing what racing drivers do which is to try and get past the bloke in front and win.”

Why choose the entrance to Priory, a bend considered ideal for lapping cooperative backmarkers, but a slightly less idyllic location in which to wrest the lead of a race?

“I think it was just that the Williams was phenomenally quick through there,” says Martin Brundle. “Damon passed me there early in the weekend and he was absolutely flying. The Williams was much quicker there than anyone else I saw.” Coulthard underlined that impression by nearly taking Johnny Herbert at the same corner in the closing laps, the Scot retreating only when he saw yellow flags.

In spite of Benetton and Williams opting for contrasting pit strategies, optimum fuel load is calculated by computers and, with both men having completed their stops, Hill was carrying the same load as his rival. But some people will be mystified why, when he had the benefit of fresher tyres, the Englishman didn’t wait for a more opportune moment to press home his attack?

“I had the advantage of new tyres but, given another three laps, those tyres would have been back to being pretty average,” he explains. “The problem faced by drivers with more or less equal cars is that it’s damn near impossible to overtake. You don’t often get an opportunity. That’s why I went for such a massive gap when it appeared.”

Therein lies the root of the problem. Although the stewards handed both men a severe reprimand, and warned of ‘severe penalties’ in the event of a repeat performance, the FIA should perhaps be looking not at the culpability of individual drivers so much as at the dearth of successful overtaking manoeuvres in Formula One as a whole.

Schumacher is the outstanding talent of his generation. “Just like Senna, Schumacher has the ability to get through backmarkers quickly, and in the course of a race he’s probably worth 30 seconds or so, just on that,” reckons F1 ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone. “He’s the best at the moment, and that’s all there is to it.” It is therefore a sad indictment on the sport when the World Champion admits that in the early stages of a race, as at Magny-Cours where he trailed Hill’s Williams, he will wait for the pit stops rather than overtake.

“The problem in Formula One is that you have no chance of overtaking if somebody doesn’t play with you,” he reasons. “If he closes the door then it is finished. On top of that, it is difficult with these cars to run very close because of the aerodynamics.”

Jean Alesi is adored by fans the world over for being a racer, king of the cavalier manoeuvre, but even he confessed to being completely de-motivated by the overtaking – or rather lack of it – at Silverstone. “The fight with Schumacher wasn’t a real battle,” he says, “because it was impossible for anyone to get close to me in the high speed corners like Becketts. He had no chance to overtake.’

“You can stay in a group but you cannot extend yourself because of the loss of downforce when you follow another car in the fast corners,” concurs Coulthard, who finished third after moving ahead of Alesi at his pit stop, only to surrender the position through a stop-go penalty. “You need to get a run on the driver in front and hope that he will make a mistake.”

Disturbingly, the problem is not one confined merely to Silverstone, and even FIA President Max Mosley confesses: “I do not agree that Formula One is dull, but I do accept that we could do with a little more overtaking.”

So what’s to be done?

This year, the reduction in downforce has reduced overall grip drivers already complain that the cars fly off the track all too easily but it has not assisted closer racing. There are those who ask why Formula One could not simply go back to basics, abandon wings and carbon brakes and return to narrower tyres?

Mosley: “If you asked a team to remove its wings, the first thing they would say would be, ‘Where do we put the sponsors’ names?’ But even without that, we can’t do anything too radical. We’ve had wings since 1968. If we’d banned them 30 or so years ago, then OK, but it’s a little bit late now.”

“The cars are quite exciting from where I sit,” says Grand Prix Drivers’ Association spokesman Gerhard Berger. “OK, maybe steel brakes would be OK, but the cars have already changed dramatically. It would be easy to overdo it. So long as I remember, I have watched some unbelievably good racing, and some unbelievably boring racing, especially in Formula One. It’s like this in many sports. It’s not controlled. You get different situations on different days. I get nervous when people talk about ‘improving the show’. It’s not a show, it’s a sport.”

One leading driver has said that, “To further reduce downforce in the name of safety would be crazy.”

Mosley, however, thinks that the idea is worth pursuing.

“I think there’s absolutely no doubt that reducing downforce will have two benefits,” he stresses. “Number one, the braking distances will be greater. If you’ve got less grip, it doesn’t matter how good the brakes are, braking distances will increase. Number two, cars will be less dependent on aerodynamics and will be able to follow each other more closely through the corners, which will make it easier to overtake on the subsequent straight.”

Already, the FIA President has consulted leading F1 engineers. He is hoping to persuade them to reduce the influence of the front wing on the overall aerodynamic performance of the cars, so that they can run closer together through corners. Quite simply, the modern racing car is too sensitive.

Whatever changes are decided, he makes the point that something will have to be done in the short term, otherwise cars will simply become once again too fast for circuits which have just spent millions of pounds being upgraded to accommodate the ever-increasing pace of the current generation.

The authorities at Monza are said to have requested some guarantee of stability before commencing further developments, and it is clear that the onus to keep changing cannot continually be placed on the tracks.

Although he admits the need to change. Mosley stresses that he doesn’t want to go too far. “We should bear in mind an old American saying, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ The fact is that Formula One has never been so successful. The public likes it; we supply it… And for as long as they go on liking it, we should go on supplying it.”

Nor was there any doubting that the public liked the British Grand Prix, in which the pit stops for once increased the element of intrigue. Yet was there not a slightly sinister omen in the manner by which its destiny was settled?