Slick operation

Schumacher’s engineer explains the German’s Spa mastery

Nine-to-one looked generous odds on Michael Schumacher winning the Belgian GP. Especially when he started from 16th, eight places behind Damon Hill.

Just as the notorious Ardennes weather had made a lottery of qualifying, so it tested teams and drivers to the limit in the race itself. Hill responded by turning into a human yo-yo, stopping five times to Schumacher’s two. That translated to 3m 13s squandered in the pits, compared to his rival’s 1m 11s, and therein lay the key to the German’s remarkable victory.

Twice Williams received Hill’s car outside of the refuelling envelope, and Damon eventually paid the price no more so than when, by way of final indignity, he was handed a stop-go penalty for speeding in the pit lane. Schumacher’s tyre changes, by contrast, corresponded with his scheduled refuelling stops. Betwixt the two, he stayed out on a wet track with his Benetton shod with slick tyres.

Anybody can stay out on slicks. Staying on, however, is another matter entirely. Having engineered Ayrton Senna long before he did Schumacher, Pat Symonds does not lavish praise lightly, but even he was impressed by the performance. “I don’t subscribe to all this bullshit about driving problems. What we pay a guy for is to win races,” he says candidly. “Michael was excellent, it would have been so easy to lose it in the rain. I thought he drove extremely well.”

With Hill ahead when the rain descended, Benetton knew it could not retrieve the deficit merely by mirroring his tactics. Yet it looked impossible to do anything other than follow suit when the leader stopped for rain tyres. It was a brave gamble for Schumacher to stay out, but whose idea was it?

“If the car’s on slicks, and it starts to rain, it is the driver’s decision,” stresses Symonds. “He is the only one who can assess the danger of the situation. It’s a question of safety.

“In the other direction it is the team which calls the shots. The only abnormality at Spa was that we called him in for wets when the pace car came out that was such an obvious decision that it didn’t really need much thinking about. He still argued with us!

“By then it was quite evidently wetter. We had some discussion on the radio and let’s just say we managed to persuade him to come in. The rest of the crew said afterwards I was using the voice I normally adopt when I’m talking to my children!”

Had Schumacher got his way, and stayed out on slick tyres, Hill would probably have won.

“If you get your slicks really hot, and you are on a damp track, you still have some grip for as long as you keep the temperature,” explains Symonds. “You can handle the car much better in that situation than if the tyres have lost their temperature, as they would have done behind the Safety Car. Had we had stayed on slicks and the pace car gone in, we would have been in real trouble because the pressures were already down.”

Outstanding though Schumacher’s car control was, he did have a few factors in his favour, not least a good understanding with his team. In his fifth term with Benetton, he enjoys the sort of relationship Senna did with McLaren and Alan Jones with Williams. When chaos reigns, as it did all around at Spa, that can prove a stabilising influence.

In previous years Benetton had a helicopter circling above the track to relay weather information, and such feedback proved vital in ’92 when a similar call on tyre strategy helped Schumacher to his first GP victory. This year it stationed a man at the local airport.

“You need all the information you can get at Spa,” reflects Symonds. “Do you remember when Thierry Boutsen raced here? He used to know exactly when to change from wets to slicks because he knew the place so well.

“Because of the hill, the weather is so localised. If you figure which way the wind is blowing, make some assessment of the wind speed and get upwind a few miles, you can get a pretty fair idea of what’s going to happen in the next half-hour. The airport happened to be upwind so we dumped a guy off there. It was within radio distance and we got three or four updates during the course of the race.”

There is often also a ‘wild card’ element to Spa: “I don’t know the technical answer why; all I know is that from experience there we always surprise ourselves as to how long you can go on slicks on what appears to be a damp circuit. There are plenty of examples of it through the years.” Not least Senna in ’92.

“If every race was like that, every driver would be an emotional wreck by the end of the season,” remarked Hill afterwards. The Briton had good cause to feel drained after attempting, unsuccessfully, to second-guess the weather all afternoon. But why did Benetton succeed should we attribute it to great planning or just a fluke?

“There is a bit of both,” laughs Symonds. “We used reasonable intelligence to come up with the strategy and to change it as we went along. At the end of it all we looked good, but of course it could have gone the other way: we could have stayed on slicks only for there to have been a monsoon and the car to have gone off; we could have decided to change to wets when the pace car was out and it dried instantly. It could all have gone wrong so easily…