It was, for the better part of a day and a half, quite a feeling. Something, indeed, to be savoured. A Ferrari had been fastest in an official qualifying session for a Grand Prix. Moreover, a Ferrari had actually been fastest in official qualifying for a Grand Prix and in each of the free practice sessions either side of it. Barring the odd banzai performance at Monza, you had to go back a bit to recall the last time, and it really made rather a nice change to the all-too-familiar ring of Williams-Renault, Benetton-Ford or McLaren-Ford of recent months.
It couldn’t last, of course, and it didn’t. When it really mattered in the second and final qualifying sssion, Michael Schumacher dug a little deeper into the secrets of the Benetton BI 94, and came up with a time just over a tenth better than the I m 26.277s lap that had won lean Alesi the honours the previous day, and which had seemed set to offer the Frenchman the best possible sort of present as his 30th birthday rolled round on the Saturday.
If it was thus business as usual for Benetton-Ford on the premier rank of the grid, though, Alesi’s presence on the front of it was unique. It actually takes a bit of thinking about that, doesn’t it? Just as you assume the man has won Grands Prix, you assume he’d been on the front row before, but he hadn’t, The Canadian GP marked a first for lean in that respect.
If qualifying had thus shown only Schumacher’s Benetton to have the edge on the Ferraris, the race was a different story, for as well as the Mild Seven car, Damon Hill’s Williams proved superior to the red machines when it countered. But the indications are there nevertheless that the Prancing Horse is beginning to make progress. After his fourth place in Spain Alesi had been predictably dissatisfied, cursing the sort of characteristics within his machine that had obliged him to play the blocker’s role of high straightline speed and poor cornering performance. Now, in Canada, in practice at any rate, he appeared to have a 412T1 that behaved quite well. This, remember, was the meeting where ‘pump’ fuel became mandatory, and where the pressure effect of the overhead airboxes was outlawed. And sadly, that’s where a chunk of Ferrari’s Friday speed seemed to come from, for where most others elected to cut away the rear sections of their airboxes so that no pressure could develop across the engine’s inlet trumpets, Ferrari had merely cut slots in the sides of its engine covers. By the Saturday it had been obliged to do rather more than that, and though the drivers gallantly tried to convey the impression that nothing had changed, the dramatic reduction in straightline speeds told the story. As Schumacher rediscovered his edge to take the pole with I m
26.178s, Alesi was unable to improve, and Ferrari’s only consolation was that Berger was able to vault up the grid to third place ahead of Hill, who himself was only just ahead of his increasingly impressive new team-mate David Coulthard.
Grand Prix starts are interesting these days, and Canada was no exception. Schumacher went off the line with barely a wisp of tyre smoke, and the Ferraris followed suit, never looking remotely like emulating Berger’s dragster start of Imola. The Williams, by contrast, spun their wheels. Coulthard, as is his style, got a cracking start to beat Hill, who momentarily sat with far too much wheelspin and just made it to the first corner fifth ahead of the battling Jordan-Harts of Irvine and Barrichello which were sandwiching Hakkinen’s McLarenPeugeot.
By the end of the lap Irvine had dropped back to eighth as Barrichello stole sixth in front of Hakkinen, and in their wake came Morbidelli, Katayama and Frentzen, Blundell, Brundle, Fittipaldi, Herbert, de Cesaris, Beretta, Martini, Alboreto, Zanardi, Lehto, Comas, Brabham, Panis, Bernard and Gachot. Brundle lasted only until the fourth lap, when his engine suddenly cut out approaching the last corner. He tried fiddling with the ignition switch, but it remained dead. Peugeot later suspected either the alternator or the fuel pump. Sauber’s for
tunes also waned early. Frentzen dropped out of 11th place on his sixth lap as he vaulted over the chicane kerbs and hit the tyre wall, and de Cesaris fell from an unhappy 17th place on lap 25 when his engine lost its oil pressure. Schumacher quickly established a gap to Alesi, but lean was looking relatively comfortable as he kept this around five seconds. behind them it was soon clear that Berger was holding up Coulthard. Hill, Barrichello and Hakkinen. For a while they had worked clear of the next group which comprised Irvine, Morbidelli and Katayama, with Blundell gradually dragging himself up on to their tails. But by lap six they were all bunched back together. Coulthard’s efforts to pass Berger had come to nothing, and as the young Scot had taken the edge off his Goodyears team-mate Hill was becoming increasingly frustrated by his blocking tactics. Three times he drew alongside, only to have Coulthard refuse to concede the position. All the while Berger was gaining a
respite, and moving away again. Eventually Coulthard got the word from the pits to let Hill go, and as he waved him by Damon gesticulated rudely at him. Later they would have a spat in the Williams garage as they vented their respective feelings on the matter.
As soon as he was by Hill sped after Berger, leaving Coulthard to deal with Barrichell, Hakkinen et al. Damon caught the Ferrari quite easily but for a while ran into the same problem as Coulthard had until the Austrian made a mistake going into the chicane at the fast right on the back of the circuit on lap 15. Hill dived gratefully down the inside to snatch third place. After that the Ferrari fell steadily back towards Coulthard, Barrichello and Hakkinen, but then the first pit stops interrupted the flow. Benetton had adopted a strategy of either coming in early or staying out late if it felt it necessary, so had leeway. Ferrari, meanwhile, had opted for a split policy. The Frenchman had a revised rear
suspension on his car, with different rollcentre and better tyre wear, so he would only have to stop once, whereas with the older set-up Berger was down for two stops. By the 25 lap mark Schumacher still led Alesi by a little over 10s, but Hill was closing in to challenge for second. Coulthard was
4 up to fourth with Fittipaldi, Berger (who’d stopped on lap 22), Barrichello (lap 21), Hakkinen (lap 18) and Blundell (lap 15) in line astern. Morbidelli was recovering from his stop (lap 24) in 10th place, ahead of Beretta (who hadn’t yet stopped), Lehto (ditto), Martini (ditto) and Irvine (who’d stopped on lap 23).
Three laps later the skies darkened ominously for a few minutes and some rain spots fell, but then the storm that was already raging to the west veered off arid everyone could breathe sighs of relief again. [Alesi came in for his stop on lap 31, and Hill on lap 33, the Englishman passing the Ferrari during these manoeuvres, while Schumacher continued to nurse his size
able lead and stayed out until the 40th lap before finally coming in. Though Hill would push hard after him, it was clear that nothing bar misfortune, mistake or unreliability was going to change the outcome of this race. The top three seemed very settled, especially as Alesi was now having trouble with the Ferrari’s downchange from fourth to third. Worse was still in store.
Fourth place would not be so cut-anddried. Coulthard’s stop went smoothly enough on lap 34, and when Fittipaldi came in two laps later Berger and Hakkinen resumed their battle. Under braking the McLaren looked very strong, but on power the Ferrari was always able to keep the upper hand. Like Alesi, Barrichello was suffering electronic problems again with his lordan’s transmission and had rather lost touch with them, after hanging on well ahead of the McLaren early on, while Morbidelli and Coulthard were running strongly in seventh and eighth places as Fittipaldi, Irvine, Blundell and Herbert indulged in a great scrap for ninth. Katayama was part of this too for a while, but already his race had been ruined when his first stop on lap 18 cost him more than a minute as the left rear wheel nut locked. Later, on his second stop, the left front would prove problematic. In the end he spun, and had the audacity to drive towards traffic before indulging in a crazy spin-turn right in front of approaching vehicles. Then Irvine dropped out at the end of the 4 I st lap when he spun in the last corner and tapped the pit wall. Hakkinen refused to give Berger any peace, while Coulthard and Blundell had begun to make inroads into Barrichello’s advantage, but the quiet man in all this was
Morbidelli in the Footwork, who had moved smoothly into fourth place ahead of the Berger/Hakkinen battle after the others had made their second stops. He’d driven stylishly all afternoon and was looking a strong bet to finish in that position when an hydraulic pipe fractured in his transmission and he crept in to retire. He deserved a lot better.
As the race moved into its closing stages Schumacher was more than 35s ahead of Hill and Alesi was steadily falling back with his transmission problem. Then came Berger, still hounded by Hakkinen, with Coulthard a lap down in sixth place ahead of Fittipaldi and 11 Lehto. The Finn had been destroyed by Schumacher in qualifying, struggling three seconds off the German’s pace for some reason best known to the team, but in the race he was running strongly after starting 20th and was now pushing hard for his first point for Benetton. Barrichello was chasing him as hard as his gearbox problem would allow, while Herbert was a lonely 11th, his Lotus having run strongly in company with Fittipaldi, Irvine and the two Tyrrells around the 38-lap mark until it lost the edge from its brakes.
The final drama unfolded on lap 62, when Hakkinen disappeared. Coming out of the last corner his Peugeot engine quit, the French company later diagnosing a leak in the pressurised air system for its valve actuation. After 69 laps Schumacher swept over the line to clinch his fifth victory in six races, and to extend his championship lead further, and Hill duly followed at a distance. Further back, team-mate Coulthard brought
his Williams home fifth behind the two Ferraris, to win championship points at only the second attempt in a race in which he will have learned much, and the final point went
to a relieved Lehto after Fittipaldi’s Footwork was thrown out for being 2.5kg under weight. There were moments of great anxiety for Alesi on his last lap, as he had appeared the lap before at a crawl with the Ferrari singing its head off. He was just able to hang on to that hard-won third, for he finally crossed the line mere feet ahead of Berger. The transmission had jammed in second gear on that final lap, and he had just made it home. If there was thus great relief in the Ferrari camp, there was also a quiet satisfaction. True, they had been little match for the leading Benetton, nor Hill’s Williams, and with more experience Coulthard would
probably have beaten them too, but the cars were reliable and the engines probably had more power than any others. With a totally revised evolution 412TI due at Magny-Cours they had cause for some quiet optimism at last. Had the Ferrari engineers heard Hill’s comments at Williams after the race, they might have allowed that optimism to be a little noisier, too.
“The car is okay, yes?” asked one of Renault’s engineers. “Yeah, it’s better,” said Hill cheerfully. “And the engine, not so bad, eh?” “No, not so bad. But not as good as the Ferrari. . .” The writing, perhaps, is on the wall for the second half of the season. D J T