Luck And Judgement

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Michael Schumacher becomes the first German since Jochen Mass to win a Grande Epreuve

In the end it was the least experienced of the upper echelon of F1 drivers, in the least technologically advanced of the top cars, who took the spoils in the Belgian GP. In doing so he benefited from a slice of luck, but then Nigel Mansell was not without that himself when he scored the first of his 29 victories at Brands Hatch back in 1985.

In his reflections last months Jenks wrote of the majesty of the Spa-Francorchamps circuit, and how right he was. Of all the tracks on the FIA Formula One World Championship trail, it has the greatest charisma, presents the greatest challenge, and the greatest opportunities. After the ludicrous Hungaroring, with its constant radius curves and manifest lack of passing places, it brought Grand Prix racing back to the days when overtaking was possible, and certainly we saw plenty of it. The 1992 Belgian GP had it all, really. It started on a track made so greasy by drizzle just before the start that one by one all of the drivers pitted for wets within laps. Then it began to dry again, necessitating further stops for slicks.

start

Ayrton Senna leads into La Source

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It was in precisely such circumstances that the depth of Michael Schumacher’s affair with Dame Fortune became apparent. Already, it might be said that she has smiled benignly on F1’s new Golden Boy. He went to Jordan at just the right time 12 months ago when he made such a sensational debut at Spa. He switched to Benetton at a time when Tom Walkinshaw’s influence on the technical side was beginning to make itself felt, and would then begin to manifest itself in the new season in the form of speed and reliability that saw Camel Benetton Ford the only team which could boast a car in the points at every race. And in Japan he not only walked away from a massive shunt in qualifying, but actually went faster immediately afterwards.

He felt good in the motorhome on raceday, he said afterwards, and certainly he was in contention throughout. Spa has traditionally thrown up, or threatened to throw up, unusual results in the closing stages. In 1958 Cliff Allison nearly won for Lotus when Tony Brooks, Mike Hawthorn and Stuart Lewis-Evans all ran into trouble within sight of the flag. In 1964 Jim Clark scored his hat-trick when Dan Gurney was sidelined and Bruce McLaren slowed on the final tour. In 1968 McLaren himself was the recipient of fortune after team-mate Denny Hulme and Jackie Stewart had fallen late from contention. This time it was Schumacher’s turn as Dame Fortune kissed him affectionately.

At the start it was Nigel Mansell, from his 27th pole position, who burst away first. “Off the line tomorrow,” he had said the previous evening, “between Ayrton and me, it is going to be a matter of who has got the best computer on board, because once we drop the clutch it is the computer and the software which will decide who has the best traction away from the line. Doing it by instinct I always used to get really good starts. For me, therefore, if there is anything disappointing about the new technology, it is this one point. Now it is all decided by the software in the computer.

Schumachersparks

Sparks fly as Michael Schumacher hurtles down the Kemmel Straight

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“The boffins are now looking at all the information, and maybe they will adjust the software,” he continued after all the drivers had been allowed to go against the new rules and try practice starts during wet practice on Saturday. “It is going to be a question of who jumps first from the start.”

Down to La Source he had held the lead until the very last moment, when Senna’s superior acceleration took him to the fore just before they braked and turned in. We were then treated to another excellent display by this pair, as Patrese crowded along behind them and Schumacher tucked into the second Williams’ draft ahead of Alesi, the splendid Hakkinen, Brundle, Boutsen, CapeIli and Herbert.

In these conditions, with a faster car and Senna ahead, Mansell is a hard act not to follow, and round that dramatic lap it looked for all the world as if we might see a repeat of their controversial 1987 collision, especially at Fagnes as he had a long look down the inside of the McLaren. Senna was unruffled by all this and led at the end of lap one, but he knew already that it was hopeless to try and keep Mansell at bay. The incoming world champion swept past the outgoing as they came into the silly Bus Stop chicane at the end of the second lap, and as Patrese followed suit that appeared to be the end of the fight for the Belgian GP. It was raining quite hard now, however, and gradually the leaders were all obliged to come in for wets. Mansell and Alesi at the end of lap three, Schumacher four, Brundle five, new leader Patrese six, Herbert eight (after finding first Hakkinen, then a Ferrari in the adjacent pit, on two previous occasions when he wanted to come in).

Senna alone opted to stay on slicks, staging a virtuoso performance in the dire conditions. “I knew it was my only chance, to hope that it would dry out early,” he said later, but on this occasion his luck was out. As Mansell, Alesi and Schumacher carved back towards the front on their superior rubber, the rain continued and Ayrton’s advantage shrank. Even a brush between Mansell and Alesi at La Source gave him only brief respite.

Schumacher

Schumacher on the way to his first-ever F1 win

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The Ferrari was going well in the conditions and Jean was preparing for a slog towards the rostrum, but Mansell entertained ideas about the outer line at the hairpin just past the pits. Alesi, on the middle line, edged out a little to discourage him and the two made contact, the Williams’ front right wheel hitting the Ferrari’s left rear and puncturing its Goodyear. As number 27 spun wildly and Mansell ran wide to avoid it, Patrese temporarily nipped through into second place.

By lap 11 Mansell was back in front after another inevitable passing move on Senna going into the Bus Stop, and then, in a train, Patrese, Schumacher, the improving Brundle and the impressive Hakkinen broke by. On lap 16 Senna finally yielded and came in for his wets, the great gamble over. Now Mansell was home and wet, it seemed, although for a while Patrese kept him honest, and attention centred on the battle for third between the two duelling Benettons and Hakkinen, and that for seventh between Boutsen, Alboreto, Lehto (very quick on the straight up to Les Combes), Herbert (trapped, with a down on power engine), and the ebullient Tarquini who has been going so well of late in the Fondmetal. Most extraordinarily, Senna, 12th behind the Italian, initially chose not to — or simply could not — make any impression on the Ford-engined GR02. For several laps the gap hovered around 13s. Herbert finally broke free when an obstructive but hard-trying Alboreto scored the first retirement of his ‘born again’ season with gearbox failure on lap 21. By lap 23 Herbert had outfumbled the more powerful Dallara, and then his task was rendered simpler when CapeIli blew up just as the Lotus was about to pass the Ferrari on lap 26. That same lap Tarquini also went missing with a similar ailment, and now the order was the two Williams-Renaults striding towards the constructors’ championship for the Didcot team, Mansell 9s to the good, the two Benettons still running nose-to-tail in numerical order, Hakkinen running alone, Herbert ditto, and the impressive Lehto trying hard to fend off Senna.

It was also beginning to dry out, and a line was appearing faintly all round the circuit. Anxious to gamble again, Senna dived into the McLaren pit on lap 28 for a set of slicks, and when Herbert did likewise on lap 30 he, Lehto and Senna would once again be only feet apart.

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The Benetton pair dive down the inside of Ayrton Senna

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Further ahead there had been a crucial drama. In the tricky conditions Brundle had been revealing a racecraft that would be rewarded with the sack from Benetton only days later, looking much the smoother of the two Witney pilots as he pushed Schumacher and began to engender small mistakes in the flamboyant German’s driving. There was a big twitch on lap 29, and then a more telling mistake at Stavelot on lap 30, as the Benetton slid wide and off on to the grass in the right-hander. In a moment Brundle had slipped by into third place, but Schumacher did a remarkably good job of recovering, somehow keeping the yellow and green car away from the barrier. Indeed, by the end of the lap at Blanchimont he was again really pressing Martin. That was where the Briton lost his likely chance of victory. “I had a split second decision to make,” he said glumly afterwards, but without hint of rancour. “Did I come in then for slicks or leave it one more lap?”

The latter choice proved more tempting, Brundle reasoning that one more lap at full racing speed would give him sufficient cushion over his team-mate to stop next time round and retain third place. Schumacher, perforce, had to come in then. It would be the difference between first and fourth place. The German’s tyres were already dirty from his grassy moment, so really he had little choice but to pit, but he had also seen how blistered Brundle’s tyres were. In he came, and out he went still in fourth place ahead of Hakkinen (who would stop on lap 31, with Patrese), Lehto, Herbert and Senna. Martin’s was a slow stop as he was unsighted on entry to the Benetton stall, and with Patrese’s stop Schumacher was second when Mansell came in at the end of lap 33. Williams got him out very quickly (6.37s), but not quickly enough. Superior tactics had, to everyone’s surprise, won Benetton the lead, and suddenly the race was alive again as Mansell began charging back from second place and Schumacher piled in what would be the fastest lap on the 39th tour.

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Schumacher stalks newly-crowned world champion Nigel Mansell

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Could Mansell do it? The odds suggested that almost certainly he could and would, especially with the Williams-Renault’s speed up Raidillon. The lead margin was 5.57s on lap 34, then 5.2s and 4.7s, but Schumacher won a respite on the 37th lap as it grew to 5.7s. A lap later it had been slashed to 3.002 and thousands of sodden fans prepared for the great clash. Sadly, it never came. Renault had enjoyed an 18-month period up to Patrese’s dropped valve in Hungary without a single race engine failure, and now, unaccountably, the left-hand exhaust came loose on both FW14Bs.

In one lap Mansell lost 12s to Schumacher. Next time around it was another nine. The game was over. As Patrese stumbled on too, Brundle came back at him, while further back Senna made quick work of Herbert and Lehto, and then hauled in Hakkinen and used the Honda V12’s dramatically superior torque to outdrag the Ford Series V-powered Lotus up the hill to Les Combes. To insult for Team Lotus came injury, Herbert dropping from seventh after another intelligent overtaking move on Lehto, when his HB expired with a broken cam drive just a lap from home.

Mansell was denied a record ninth victory in a season, but second place was enough to clinch the constructors’ title for Williams. It was Frank’s fifth, but the first for Renault and Camel. The Régie has been trying since its innovative turbo V6 first stumbled into racing life at Silverstone in 1977, with sabbatical years in 1987 and ’88, and its success was richly deserved in a season in which it has steadfastly taken the fight to Honda and stood alone as the only European manufacturer to throw all of its technical resources into the battle.

Podium

Schumacher celebrates the first race win of his Formula 1 career

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As Bernard Dudot and his engineers blinked their eyes and perhaps pretended it was rain on their cheeks, Schumacher sped home unchallenged to become the first German since Jochen Mass in Spain in 1975 to win a Grand Prix, and only the third since the World Championship (as opposed to Grand Prix racing) began in 1950. “What can I say?” he asked anyone who would listen. “It is just so difficult to describe this feeling. I had tears in my eyes for the first time at Hockenheim but I can tell you I really cried today. Let me just say I’m very, very happy. I’ve won my first Grand Prix at a circuit just 100 kilometres from my home…”

There are times when you are aware of watching history in the making. Leaving Spa-Francorchamps, with Schumacher’s laughter ringing in your ears, you felt that this was one of them. D J T

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