Why Benetton has broken the Williams/McLaren stranglehold on the Constructors’ series.
There has been just one glaring flaw in Benetton’s planning this season: no venue had been organised for the celebrations which accompanied the clinching of its two F1 crowns.
Instead it was Williams which appeared to have arrived at the Japanese Grand Prix with a hangover. At the end of a long campaign, Suzuka resembled a battlefield where both sets of troops knew the outcome of the year-long conflict was a mere formality. Where in 1994 it had lost the Drivers’ Championship but retained its Constructors’ title, this year Williams was denied even that consolation.
Benetton won the series not because it had the superior car, but because it had the more reliable one. To boot, it possessed the best driver, the best team and the best working relationship between the two.
The papers, predictably, were concerned not so much with how Benetton won the accolade, as with how Williams lost it. Many suggest flawed strategy has been the root of Damon Hill’s problems. And at times, as in Monaco, it was easy to jump on the bandwagon. Easy, but wrong.
At Monaco, as it was during a string of races as mid-season approached, the Benetton was actually the stronger of the two cars. By that point Flavio Briatore’s team had cast aside the reliability worries which blighted its build-up to the season and, buoyed by a successful test after Imola, made the most of the situation as the balance temporarily swung in its favour.
The FW17 still remained a threat in qualifying, but the B195’s supremacy was best illustrated by Benetton’s choice of defensive race gameplans during this period. In Monaco, as at Barcelona, Michael Schumacher ran fewer refuelling stops than his rivals, and surrendered less time in the pits.
Admittedly there were occasions when Williams’ pit work let down its drivers, most significantly at Magny-Cours where Hill says his request to refuel at the same time as Schumacher was shelved until the sister car had been serviced and in Aida. But events at the latter race offered one explanation why the trophy’s destination is in a cabinet at Enstone rather than Didcot.
Most attention centred on Hill’s first pit stop, where he entered the pits immediately behind Alesi and ahead of Schumacher. A refuelling hitch saw it leave last of the three. But while the Englishman surrendered six seconds to his rival as a result, he lost the race by a further 42…
Williams actually covered both bases – Hill made three stops, his team-mate two – but neither driver could hold a candle to Schumacher. Both lost huge chunks of time in traffic, where the German was by far the more incisive.
“Of course we’re disappointed at losing the championships, but there is not enough [for the team] to point the finger at the driver, and I’m not doing it to them,” explained Hill in measured tones after Suzuka. “I might have a number of reasons for doing so, considering the problems we had earlier this season. Together we win, and together we lose, as Frank [Williams] is so fond of saying.”
His point is valid, for both parties must share culpability. Much as their drivers’ shortcomings in traffic may have frustrated Williams, the car’s lack of reliability earlier in the season effectively cost it the championship. Between them, Schumacher and Johnny Herbert were forced into retirement by mechanical failure just once in the first 16 races. During that same period Hill and Coulthard were let down on no fewer than eight occasions.
Schumacher enjoyed not only reliability and slick pit work, but derived comfort from the knowledge that Benetton focused itself entirely on his efforts.
“I think the reason we have had an edge over Williams is that we can rely on our team to do a good stop in a very quick time, and they get it right most of the time,” reflected Benetton Technical Director Ross Brawn. “There are no situations where you say to yourself, “I think I’ll only do two pit stops today, because if we do three there’s one more chance of having a cock-up.’ When those three cars came trundling down the pit lane in Aida, I knew which one I would have put my money on.”
As the man responsible for calling the shots, Brawn could be excused for basking in the glory of breaking a 12-year domination of the Constructors’ title by McLaren and Williams. Instead, he is the first to concede that Schumacher has made his job easier. “I know people want a magic formula for strategy, but there isn’t one,” he says. “We put a lot of hard work into the planning, even down to coming up with a novel wheel retaining mechanism in the close-season, which probably gave us a slight edge in the pits for the first three races. But Michael is a crucial factor. He can always extract the maximum performance from a car and his speed, especially in traffic, has allowed to us to pull off some pretty extreme strategies.”
During the second half of the season, when Williams once again forged ahead in the development race, Benetton noticeably switched tactics. Increasingly it adopted attacking three-stop gameplans which relied, successfully, on Schumacher’s ability to make up for the extra time spent in the pits.
Ironically Suzuka, where Schumacher’s only challenge came from Jean Alesi prior to his retirement, afforded the team the opportunity to revert to a defensive policy. Only once the Frenchman had switched to slicks, and demonstrated that they were the faster option on a drying track, did the world champion follow suit.
Neither Hill, who looked a haunted man throughout the weekend, nor Coulthard, who was experiencing the daunting track for the first time, finished the race. The manner of their demise, with both cars sliding into the gravel within the space of two laps, merely compounded talk of internal unrest.
Hill had already gone off before incurring a penalty for speeding in the pit lane. He slid off again, for good, before he could even serve his sentence.
Mika Hakkinen’s second place at least comforted Coulthard as he prepared for his move to a resurgent McLaren. The Scot also went off twice – in as many corners. “Having got out of the gravel trap I touched the brakes at the next bend and slid off on my own dirt,” he explained. “I’m very particular about whose gravel I go off on!”
The injection of humour was much-needed on a weekend when it was clear that Williams’ relationship with its drivers was going downhill faster than Franz Klammer.
Hill suffers, in part, from the Alan Jones legacy. Whilst the team’s drivers crave respect, they have found it hard to live up to Jones’ legend. Indeed Coulthard heard it mentioned on one occasion, ‘Oh, Alan did it that way… ‘ – and thought the driver referred to was ‘Alain’, as in Prost. He was incredulous when he found this was not the case.
But how can Hill’s cause be hindered by a ghost from the past?
“It’s like your first girlfriend,” suggests one former GP winner. “You never forget your first girlfriend, and Williams has never forgotten its first really successful team driver. Alan won races and won a championship. Alan didn’t give a damn about anybody in Formula One. He sort of thought, apparently, that Villeneuve wasn’t bad, but everybody else was a flake as far as he was concerned. The team loved him. You could see this glaze in their eyes. Alan got on the racetrack, was hard, aggressive, a good racer. Fast, but a real mean bastard. And the team loved it.
“Damon can whine for a decade and will never be treated like the undisputed number one. He has to go out and earn that respect.”
Twice the bridesmaid now, Hill’s problems are twofold if he is to win the title next season. The first is that he must determine his style of driving. The FIA’s clarification of overtaking legislation led to a rather clumsy first corner manoeuvre at Aida, where Hill deliberately forced Schumacher wide. It was clearly a pointed attempt to show that he is prepared to respond to his rival’s oft-intimidatory tactics: it was equally clear that Damon was uncomfortable in the role of villain.
Aside from getting to grips with Schumacher, he must address the problem of his team. For all Frank Williams’ “votes of confidence”, not to mention a win-per-starts ratio bettered only by seven people in Grand Prix history, you sense one victory notably eludes Hill: that of winning the team over.
Schumacher quickly achieved that respect at Benetton, and no doubt found the manner of this season’s success – which relied heavily on team-work as well as driving ability – a sobering thought as he headed for Ferrari.
There he found his first test delayed on the grounds that the chosen day was ‘unlucky’…