Benetton's sleepless knight

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108

Whatever was wrong with Michael Schumacher’s race car, swapping to the spare brought him an unexpected Portuguese triumph

Michael Schumacher didn’t look particularly tired, but then he never does. The man Martin Brundle describes as the fittest racing driver he has ever seen was chipper enough on Sunday morning in Estoril, even if he was not desperately sanguine about his chances in the Portuguese Grand Prix. Twelfth fastest time, a full two seconds adrift of Damon Hill’s at the head of the morning warm-up timesheets, was not what he had envisaged after spending all night trying to work out just why his Benetton B193B refused to work properly all through qualifying. It leapt from bump to bump, and handled inconsistently, and he lined up only sixth, behind the Williamses, the McLarens. and Alesi’s Ferrari.

The knowing whispered conspiratorially of four-wheel steering which was being tried secretly but didn’t work, but Benetton had only one set of parts to convert its cars, and all along intended to do so only for the post-race test that followed, but even had it been fitted in qualifying, it is just conceivable that it would have been taken off on Friday night when it first became apparent that the green and yellow car was, for some reason, not working anything like as effectively as we have come to expect since Monaco.

Start

The debuting Mika Hakkinen splits the gap to take the lead into Turn One

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“We had so many problems during the first two days of practice that I was still here at 11 o’clock last night trying to get on top of the problems, and we looked at all the data,” said Schumacher when it was all over and he had taken his second F1 triumph by the skin of his teeth. “When I went to bed I slept with the data in front of my eyes!”

On Sunday morning the team checked his race car against the spare, and found that there was a significant difference in their behaviour. The latter felt much better, so he used it for the race and — hey presto! — he was back on the pace.

So what was the problem? Still, it would seem, the team doesn’t know. It conducted back-to-back tests with the race car and the spare on the Tuesday after the Grand Prix, and everything seemed in order.

“It meant compromising our test programme, but obviously we needed to know what the problem was,” said engineer Frank Dernie. “Michael spent a lot of time trying the cars, but whatever the problem with the race car was, it remains a mystery. When he tried them after the race, they were both quick straight away. Explain that, if you can! There was absolutely no problem at all . . .”

Others wished for such a fairy tale ending to an awful weekend.

SchumacherProst

Schumacher ahead of Prost

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Hill’s problems began on the line as the field moved off on the warm-up lap, in a repeat of Prost’s Hungarian grief. The two Williams team-mates had once again battled for the pole, and this time Hill had been quicker when Prost, uncharacteristically, got caught out by the slipperiness in the third corner and hit the barrier backwards on Saturday afternoon. Now, all that advantage had gone.

“The original air starter broke when Paul West tried to fire up the engine,” said Hill. The engine requires an external starter which looks like a long driveshaft, and on occasions it has been known to jump out of mesh when in use. This was one of them. As West withdrew it, Dave Juniper took over, both trying desperately to start the stricken Williams as the grid cleared. Remembering the start proper at Zolder in 1981, it was quite a brave thing to do. “Things were getting a bit panicky,” recalls Hill, “and when they finally did get my engine going I couldn’t hear it because of all the noise of the other engines around me. I just stalled it. There are a number of procedures that you have to go through to get the car into gear, and with all that I was last away, although I was desperately trying not to be so I could resume my position. As it was, I had to start at the back and I was so far back that I couldn’t see the lights! I had to lift my visor and I tried to raise myself in the cockpit so that I could see them.

Overtaking has always been difficult at Estoril, and like Schumacher last year Hill would find that the task got tougher the further up the field he clawed. At the end of the first lap he went from 26th to 18th, and by lap 10 had advanced to 10th place, behind Alesi, Senna, Hakkinen, Prost, Schumacher, Berger, Blundell, Patrese and Brundle. By the end of the race, after a dashing drive that brought him fastest lap a whole 1.3s faster than Prost, he was third, only 8.2s behind. Without that starter drama, a fourth consecutive triumph would not have been too much to expect.

AlesiHakkinenSenna

Jean Alesi leads Hakkinen and Ayrton Senna

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McLaren’s weekend began badly and got worse, although there were glimmers of light for the future. Following a convivial press lunch at the McLaren factory one of the nine writers elected not to respect certain off-the-record comments Ron Dennis had made with regard to Ayrton Senna’s position during the season. Instead, he relayed them to Brazil, where they duly appeared the following day, to the embarrassment of all parties. Senna was livid, and initially declined pointblank to speak with Dennis when they arrived in Portugal. When he did, his comments were icy, to say the least. The relationship has naturally meant much to Dennis over the years, and his anger was further compounded when Senna announced on Friday afternoon that he wouldn’t be driving for McLaren in 1994. During the lunch Dennis had expressed clear expectations that he would be, or else would be taking a sabbatical, so you can imagine how tense the atmosphere was in the red and white camp.

Senna’s mental state can hardly have been smoothed by the raw speed Mika Hakkinen showed throughout qualifying, even though, to the Brazilian’s credit, he did an excellent job of masking what emotions he may have been feeling.

Hakkinen, in fact, was the breath of fresh air F1 needed in Estoril, and he bounced into the paddock like some golden retriever puppy that had finally been let off a leash on which it has been held all season. He narrowly outqualified Senna, too, which says it all.

From third place on the grid – naturally his best ever position – the Finn took full advantage of the fact that Damon Hill was starting from the back after vacating pole position through stalling his Renault V10. He sped alongside Prost and, in a little bit of unethical feinting that betrayed how keyed up he was, appeared to have grabbed the lead as they headed for the first turn. Senna was boxed in behind them both, temporarily unable to consider a challenge. Then from nowhere came a blur of red round the outside, and to cheers Jean Alesi pushed a Ferrari into the lead of a Grand Prix for the first time since he had led, prior to blowing up, at Spa in 1991.

ProstSchumacher

Prost alongside Schumacher

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At first it seemed that Jean’s exuberance would be overcome quickly, as Senna dived past a surprised Hakkinen at the end of the back straight to take over second place before the first lap was complete, but the Ferrari began to look steadily more comfortable and after a while it was obvious that Senna was having to bide his time and await his chance. On a circuit where overtaking is very difficult, Senna had the handling but not the straightline speed to do anything serious about the F93A. Truth be told, it was a shot in the arm for F1, to see a race going against the expected form, and it was great while it lasted.

It didn’t last long enough for Senna, though, for on lap 20 he pulled up suddenly halfway down that back straight, taking Hakkinen by surprise again, as his Ford HB did itself an internal mischief. That very lap Alesi and Hakkinen had come into the pits for their tyre stops, resuming their battle instantly, so the order then became Prost, Schumacher, the recovering Hill (more of whom anon), Mark Blundell, who was driving extremely well in the Ligier-Renault, Alesi, Hakkinen and Gerhard Berger.

Sadly, Hakkinen’s first GP of the year came to a premature, and violent, end on the 33rd lap, when he lost downforce in Alesi’s wake coming through the daunting Parabolica corner that sweeps the cars back on to the start/finish straight. The McLaren slipped wide on to the grass, was thrown into the air where there is a slip road for emergency vehicles, and then shot across the road to smack the right-hand barriers for good measure. “It was my fault,” said the chastened Finn immediately, but there is no doubt that his speed had been highly impressive, even if he had to wait to see just how race fit he is. Whatever, Ron Dennis must be very pleased to have him under contract for 1994.

Hakkinen

Hakkinen in the McLaren

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While one Ferrari was starring, the other was not, and the popular Berger’s tale of recent woe continued in alarming style. He delayed his pit stop as long as he dared, in an attempt to make it through on only two sets of Goodyears, but when he resumed disaster very nearly struck. According to Ferrari, he was simply the victim of ‘an unlucky combination of circumstances’. By that it meant that he had reached a speed at the end of the pit road at which its active ride system automatically raises the nose of the car. This is known as the ‘low-drag’ mode for motoring down the straights. The car generates less downforce and is thus faster. This, said Ferrari, then combined with a nasty bump at the end of the pits, which literally threw the Ferrari out of control. It was thus, it insisted, neither a driver error nor a systems failure.

Be that as it may, several observers reported that the right rear wheel was flopping about, with visible positive camber, long before Berger shot at 90 degrees to the left, right across the paths of the duelling Warwick and Lehto, before crashing hard into the Armco and bouncing down to instant retirement at the end of the straight.

“Obviously I had my head tucked down, going down the straight,” said Warwick. “Then from the right side I saw this red thing come across. At first you wonder what’s going on. Then you think, ‘where’s it gonna go, what’s it gonna do?’ I knew I had to jink round it, and I could just see it hit the barrier. When I looked in my mirrors I expected to see that it had bounced back into Lehto. For sure I knew that I was past the accident, but I thought he’d end in a big mess. The thing is, you think all this in a split second. It’s the sort of thing where it’s best just to keep your head down and keep going. If you try to work it out too much, you start to lose concentration.

” Like Fittipaldi’s somersault at Monza two weeks earlier, it was as bad an accident as F1 has seen in a long while, and it had an equally fortunate outcome, for both Warwick and Lehto came literally within inches of T-boning the red car. All three could have been grievously injured.

That should have been a signal to Footwork that it’s race was going wrong. Aguri Suzuki had already retired with transmission failure, detuned after two practice shunts, but Warwick had been steaming along in ninth ahead of a train comprising Lehto and Patrese (and which Brundle would join after falling back from sixth place following his second tyre stop). Lehto, however, was obliged to drop back after receiving a 10s stop-and-go penalty for inadvertently baulking the leaders as they were lapped. JJ had misidentified Schumacher as Patrese, and had understandably been reluctant to concede a place. (Erik Comas, much further down the order in his Larrousse, steadfastly held up anyone who tried to pass him, yet somehow escaped without any penalty whatsoever, such are the vagaries of Formula One punishments these days.) Typically, the Finn immediately admitted his guilt afterwards, and apologised to Schumacher.

Prost

Prost on the way to a title-winning victory

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That left Patrese to challenge Warwick, but his effort to overtake at the end of the back straight on lap 64 was misguided, to say the least. He tried from a long way back, locked his wheels on the wrong line, and clouted the Footwork’s left front wheel. Both went into the sand and Derek was naturally livid to have lost possible points, but it has to be said that Riccardo had the grace to proffer contrition even if it was a while before the Briton could acknowledge the gesture.

“I said to him, ‘Here you are, you’ve done more than 250 Grands Prix, and you make a mistake like you’ve only done five!’ I needed that point, and that sort of thing begins to get to you in the end.”

Ligier, too, might reasonably have expected better than Brundle’s subsequent sixth place, and was particularly upset that Ferrari drew ahead in the points race for fourth place in the Constructors’ Championship. Blundell was looking a strong candidate for fifth until lap 52 as his recovery from his second tyre stop brought him back up to Karl Wendlinger in the Sauber. The two came together that lap, however, when the Austrian closed the door ruthlessly and sent both into a sandtrap. The Ligier stayed there, while Wendlinger was lucky to keep his momentum going and to be able to drive out again. By the flag, Brundle was only feet behind, his own attempts to pass firmly discouraged at the end of the straight.

Sauber thus had an upbeat weekend, revealing its human side over an enjoyable meal on Saturday evening, and then seeing its cars finish fifth and seventh on Sunday. With better luck Lehto should have scored points too, but his stop-and-go penalty destroyed any such hope.

Once again the reliable Minardis were around to take the lower top 10 finishing positions, but they should have belonged to Lotus, which had an appalling weekend. Herbert was clearly dispirited to find the upswing from Spa and, to an extent, Monza, had again fallen victim to serious handling imbalance. “The car is either one thing or the other at present,” he said. “It’s either handling very well or very badly. It was like driving on a knife edge all afternoon. Like trying to balance a ball on a pinhead.” He appeared to be going through the motions in ninth place, only 8s ahead of novice team-mate Pedro Lamy after 60 laps, the speed balance of which was poised 34/26 in his favour as the local hero did a sterling job in his second GP outing. Disaster finally struck both within a lap, Herbert losing it in Parabolica on lap 61, and Lamy going off backwards in the third turn next time around.

What won Michael Schumacher the race was the timing of his pit stop. Early on he was trapped in the train of leaders, stalemated behind Prost. “I knew I was quicker than him in some places on the track,” he ventured, “but they weren’t the right places “At Estoril, that means on the straight. There the Renault V10’s urge kept the Williams firmly ahead, although it was not sufficient to help Prost to push by the three cars in front. As Hakkinen discovered to his cost, the big problem is that you can’t get really close to the car in front going on to the straight, which is what you really need to do if you are going to get a good tow down to the first corner and have a chance of passing there.

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The podium trio

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Originally Benetton had planned two tyre stops, but that was to change after Schumacher ducked in on lap 20. He had just risen to second behind Prost as Alesi and Hakkinen dived in for their fresh Goodyears, and Benetton turned him round so quickly that he got out after a stop lasting less than five seconds. It was the turning point of the race, because now he sat in third place behind the two Williams-Renaults, which surely had to stop at least once.

“Actually, we could have gone through with only one stop,” said Michael, “but for performance reasons we planned to make two. In this situation, when I was in fifth place and couldn’t get by Alain, I knew that as Alain was behind Hakkinen he couldn’t go at the speed he wanted to either. Then we did the first stop, which gave us the chance to decide later whether we wanted to make a second, depending on how things developed in the race.”

That perfect stop left him in first place when Prost and Hill stopped on laps 29 and 30 respectively, and though that gave the two Didcot cars a significant number of laps less on their new tyres than the Benetton has already done on its fresh set, Schumacher was where you need to be in Estoril – out in front. From now on he could control the race.

It has to be said that his tactics were at times a trifle unruly as he moved over on Prost on more than one occasion. Nowadays, when you’re known as a gent, people take advantage. Ask Ayrton. But Prost was in no mood to fight hard enough to risk an accident that might rob him of the six points he was about to score. With Hill failing to win, they would be ample to secure him his fourth World Championship.

“I think what Michael did was very good,” acknowledged Prost of the timing of his rival’s pit stop. “He was behind me, and when Hakkinen and Alesi stopped for tyres I knew that I would have to push. I never imagined that he would only stop once, and when he was ahead of me at the beginning I was not aware that he wasn’t going to stop again. But then I could see that he was going to be difficult to overtake.

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Four-time world champion Alain Prost

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“Just after my pit stop I just thought I would have to catch up a little bit and then he would stop again. But when it got to 20 laps from the end, I knew he was not going to stop, he was going to try and do it on one set. But again, to stay close behind another car on this track is very difficult. In the fast corners you get more and more understeer, and in the low speed corners you cannot do what you want. Okay, I could have been World Champion by staying behind Michael, but I wanted to win this one for my team. He was difficult to overtake and he was weaving a little bit too. But it was okay, and I understand that.”

For Benetton and Michael Schumacher it was a great triumph, taken the hard way and snatched from the gaping jaws of defeat that had threatened to close on them all throughout qualifying. They won technically because the spare car worked properly where the race car didn’t; and they won managerially because of the timing of that pit stop. And they won in the cockpit because Schumacher proved himself equal to Prost’s challenge on the day. Had the Frenchman needed 10 points instead of six it might have been a different race, but that’s academic. What was sad, though, is that he had to make the announcement of his impending retirement at a place like Estoril. Somehow, it would have been more apposite to see a driver of Alain Prost’s calibre bowing out at a great track such as Monza, where you can cut the atmosphere and history drips from every grandstand. But for that Renault engine failure that afternoon in Italy, such a gameplan would have been observed.

D J T