Twenty minutes into the second qualifying session for the Spanish Grand Prix, Michael Schumacher sat in the cockpit of his Benetton, gazing dispassionately at the TV monitors.
He might just as well have poured himself a coffee and tuned the screen into the Antiques Roadshow, for even by that early stage he had consigned pole position to the history books. Having produced an astonishing Senna-style lap a full seven tenths clear of even his own benchmark, he subsequently went on to dominate the race too.
Furthermore, having upped the ante last year by switching to a three-stop strategy, Benetton won this time around by reversing the ploy and making Goodyear’s new C compound last throughout a two-stop gameplan.
Two poles and two wins from four races, and a one point lead in the World Championship not bad for a team popularly portrayed as being in crisis after Imola…
The Chris Eubank of Formula One, Benetton has become the champion that everybody loves to hate. Schumacher, it was said, couldn’t handle the pressure; Benetton, ran the theory, had lost its way and, once lost, would never regain its poise.
But was Imola really such a disaster?
Although Schumacher seems to have spent much of the first four Grands Prix revolving in practice, and had clouted a wall hard in the second untimed session in San Marino, all of the cars have proved more sensitive with the new regulations. For him to crash out of the race heavily, on his first lap on slicks in still-damp conditions, was an uncharacteristic error.
If, indeed, it was an error. Benetton’s telemetry revealed no mechanical problem, although the finger of suspicion has subsequently been pointed at tyre pressures.
Whatever the cause, the incident damaged his car .and his title prospects but his confidence remains demonstrably intact.
humans “If you want to blame it on pressure, think you would be wrong,” he says of the accident. “I can assure you I have had a lot more pressure under different circumstances, like when I made my F1 debut, or last year. People say I am taking risks. Any race driver takes risks. I try to drive 100 per cent all the time, not 99, not 101. We are all humans, we all make mistakes. When people say I am under pressure I like to answer the best way I can and in Barcelona I think I have done that.”
Ross Brawn, Benetton’s Technical Director, suspects that the whole issue has been blown out of proportion: “Somebody came up to me after qualifying in Spain and said. ‘Michael really had to drive hard for that lap.’ I said to him, ‘You don’t think all the other drivers were?’
“Oh they weren’t driving as hard as Michael.’
“I said, ‘Look, I’ve seen Alesi drive, and I’ve seen the others drive. Everybody is balls out, everybody is on the limit, so to think that Michael could hold some in reserve normally, but now is having to drive exceptionally hard, is a mistake.’
“I think what we’ve had, and are gradually getting to terms with, is a car that perhaps isn’t as predictable as it could be, and that on occasions has caught the drivers out, I don’t think that’s a question of overdriving.”
But, patently, the media response to Benetton’s early problems has been an over-reaction. So why did the team so obviously struggle in the opening races?
“I think there are two things, really,” assesses Brawn, “One is that you must never underestimate how long it takes with a new partnership, like ours with Renault, to get everything sorted out. The second is that last year we had the luxury in most races of having such a margin that we could be conservative in the way we approached various things. This year, when it is a lot more competitive, you have to be more aggressive in everything you do.”
Without doubt the early change to the airbox regulations did little to aid the team’s cause. The B195 had originally been designed with a smaller engine intake, costing power, and with a humpback on the engine cover, costing downforce. When both aspects are modified, the engineers expect to liberate 10-15 more horsepower from Renault’s V10 engine.
But even before the rule changes, Benetton was playing catch-up. Alain Prost says that a team would normally accomplish 10-12,000 kilometres of testing over the winter. Having switched from a Ford powerplant to Renault, Benetton completed what is estimated to be only a fifth of that distance.
“There were two major reliability issues which took some time to solve.” admits Brawn. ‘And they hurt. One was a problem due to the vibration of the engine, which was fairly severe. The other was a hydraulic pump drive problem which was fairly banal but which took an awful long time to get working.
‘We had to go through a fairly steep learning curve to discover how to make it all work because Renault quite rightly wouldn’t tell us what Williams had done. I respect that, because I wouldn’t want them telling Williams what we were doing.
“That meant we went racing with a car which we had managed to make reliable, but really the performance wasn’t where we needed it.”
The heavy criticism rankles. “What we had last. year didn’t happen by accident. We didn’t just magic a car that no-one understood, and the same people are behind this one as well.”
Schumacher’s pit crew had their own answer to the critics. They hung out one of the offending articles taped to the World Champion’s pit board during qualifying. The board read: ‘P1’.