On a number of counts F1 plumbed new depths at Hockenheim, but a long overdue victory for Ferrari, courtesy of Gerhard Berger, provided a timely uplift
An all-Ferrari front row in qualifying, scandalous allegations about the Benetton team, shunts involving 10 cars before the first corner, retirement for Michael Schumacher, a horrible pit lane fire, victory for Gerhard Berger and Ferrari. Oh, and the Ligiers second and third! Even the over-imaginative scriptwriters Emmerdale Farm couldn’t have come up with anything more bizarre than this German GP. . .
Perhaps it was the intense humidity that addled some things about this meeting, for Hockenheim was as oppressed by heat as England has been of late. And Benetton was feeling the same way about the FlA by the time the green lights went on at two o’clock on Sunday afternoon. The previous Tuesday Schumacher had been suspended for two races for ignoring the black flag at Silverstone, and Benetton had had its fine upped to $500,000, while there were allegations made that its electronic systems in the San Marino GP had breached the rules. The World Motor Sport Council had ultimately ‘cleared’ Benetton of infringement, but then the FIA had released the full text of the technical report made to the Council (see sidebar), and though it claimed to have done so ‘to avoid speculation’. it was interpreted by the majority, rightly or wrongly, as a thinly disguised smear campaign.
Schumacher was racing in front of his adoring home fans only after Benetton had lodged an appeal, so all in all it was a weekend of great pressure for the beleaguered World Championship leader. Come race day, however, he was clearly in the mood to turn things around. The hunted once again became the hunter.
Poleman Berger and team-mate Jean Alesi continued their qualifying dominance at the start to lead the field into the first corner, as fifth fastest qualifier Ukyo Katayama made a flyer from the third row, but behind them chaos broke out.
Andrea de Cesaris crashed into the back of Alessandro Zanardi’s Lotus, shoving it into the pit wall and one of the Minardis, while his Sauber was thrown across the road to collide with the other Italian car. At the same time Mika Hakkinen was trying an aggressive passing move on David Coulthard who for once made a slow getaway, the Finn going down the inside by the pit wall and then trying to chop back to take the proper line for the first corner. Meanwhile, Mark Blundell was also close to Coulthard on the other side. When Hakkinen’s left rear wheel clipped Coulthard’s right front wing, where Mika turned in too soon, the McLaren was pitched across the front of his rivals at very high speed before crunching, for the second time in two days, into the tyre wall. One day Mika will learn that merely ignoring people you think you’ve overtaken doesn’t mean that they aren’t still there. . .
Blundell braked hard to avoid the McLaren and was tapped from behind by Barrichello, who simply couldn’t avoid him. Irvine was also involved in similar fashion, while Frentzen had to go into the gravel to avoid them all and, though he could limp away, his Sauber was through for the day. If that wasn’t enough, Brundle then nipped back inside Herbert going to the first corner as the fast-starting Lotus driver had to surrender ground won on the Ligiers and the McLaren when Blundell pirouetted, and Johnny couldn’t be sure where the Tyrrell’s trajectory would take it. When Brundle kept moving resolutely to the outer line even though Herbert was level with his cockpit, the Lotus driver backed off, but it was too late and as Brundle aviated over Herbert’s right front wheel. The 109’s suspension was damaged and Brundle spun, but it was indicative of the carnage that Martin still came round at the end of the first lap in 14th place. Only Gounon’s Simtek was behind him, for 11 cars had come to grief. Minardi, Sauber, Lotus and fordan had all lost both of their cars, Tyrrell and McLaren one apiece, and Alesi dropped out almost immediately on his way to the first chicane when his Ferrari’s engine went on strike. Both Williamses were in trouble, too, Coulthard pitting with nose damage, and Hill who had been subjected to an alarming telephoned death threat, should he be leading Schumacher throwing away his chances with a rash move on Katayama in the third chicane which damaged a steering arm on his FW16B. Thus, at the end of the lap, both of Frank’s cars were in the pits for repairs, and though both drivers would fight back magnificently with a flurry of fastest laps, their afternoon was already a lost cause, Formula One had seen nothing like it since the 1973 British GP.
Surprisingly, but to Berger’s enormous relief, the race wasn’t red flagged. Instead yellows were waved along the pit straight for a while, and as Gerhard came round he was dogged by Schumacher, the German already looking a massive threat. Behind them, there were some real surprises. Katayama was flying in third, with Panis fourth from Verstappen and Bernard, the Ligiers up from 12th and 14th on the grid, the Dutchman from 19th! This indeed was no ordinary race. Coulthard had been just ahead of the second Benetton before he pulled in, so behind Jos and Eric the order ran Morbidelli, Fittipaldi, Comas, Beretta, Hill (headed pitward), Brabham, Brundle and Gounon.
Hill, doubtless uttering profanities to himself, was commendably candid. “I missed a golden opportunity today,” he admitted. “I touched Katayama trying to pass him. Perhaps if I had been more patient then I could have won this race. What I did is try to pass and then thought it wasn’t going to work, and I tried to pull out of it. I had seen him make room for Michael and I thought he was going to do the same for me. I guess it’s one of those things when you have someone you are not used to racing against you don’t know what they are going to do. At the time I didn’t know how competitive Michael and Gerhard were going to be if I knew then what I know now I would have sat back.”
As Berger just led Schumacher into lap two, recriminations were flying. Everyone blamed everybody else, and virtually all of the drivers bar Herbert and Brundle were called up to see the stewards. Zanardi, de Cesaris and Alboreto made the mistake of going home early, thereby earning themselves the same suspended one-race ban spread over the next three GPs that Hakkinen and Barrichello received for similar offences at Silverstone. Hakkinen must have wished he’d been able to miss the meeting with the beaks, because they promptly invoked his suspended ban and told him not to bother taking his driving overalls with him to Hungary, ‘for causing an avoidable accident.’
Peugeot Sport boss lean-Pierre Jabouille had launched a stupid and ill-informed attack on Martin Brundle in the week before the race, claiming that he’d over-pressured his V10’s oil system on the grid at Silverstone by holding its revs at their peak instead of blipping it, whereas anyone who was within earshot knew that Martin was doing precisely that trying to clear a serious misfire. In a piece of Peugeot publicity blurb the Frenchman had criticised Ron Dennis for not letting his protégé Philippe Alliot have a race in a McLaren, but now that the chance had arisen he was doubtless miffed to find it was the ‘wrong’ driver who was stepping down. Eh, bien. C’est la vie!
The first 12 laps were the best of this otherwise dull race, as Schumacher tried everything he could think of to pass the Ferrari. Gerhard, however, is a wily bird and was driving at his very peak all weekend. “The first corner was funny,” he said. “I saw all the smoke and stuff, and I hoped they weren’t going to stop it. I was happy to see Jean alongside me on the straight because I thought we could develop a team strategy, but when he went out I was worried to see Schumacher behind. I knew he would be the most dangerous, along with Damon, and I say to myself, ‘Oh, oh, he’s already here!’
“There was a time when he was almost alongside me,” he admitted with a wry grin, “but I managed to discourage him. . .”
“I put the Ferrari under a lot of pressure,” said Michael. “I tried very hard to overtake.” He did indeed, at one stage nearly going off the road in the second chicane, the one between those insultingly named at the weekend after Jim Clark and Ayrton Senna. Observers were amazed by the way that the Benetton could not only gobble up the Ferrari under braking, but stay with it on acceleration and down the straights. Initially it seemed only a matter of time before it passed, all in direct contrast to its rather breathless performance in qualifying when he had only managed fourth fastest time. But when Schumacher pitted for fuel after only 12 laps the team’s strategy was clear. Start with a very low fuel load, and stop twice. Berger, meanwhile was on for one stop and was thus carrying a greater fuel load, “I was sure he’d have an early stop,” said Gerhard. “But I was still trying everything to keep in front. I was right on the limit. I was finally able to control him until he stopped. I knew if he had two stops it wouldn’t be a problem for me, but if he was only going to do one he would make up time on me and I’d then have to do something special in the last five laps.”
It transpired that there would be no need for that, for on the very lap that the Ferrari finally headed in for fuel the Benetton went overdue. The engine had been sounding flat on lap 19, and as Berger pitted on lap 20 Schumacher crept in and his car was pushed away.
“I felt sure I could have taken the lead eventually but then I suddenly had a problem,” he said. “I’ve no idea what it was but the engine seemed to lose power.” The team suspected an electrical problem had created Michael’s first retirement of the season. By this stage Ukyo Katayama’s strong performance in third place had come to nothing. From the fifth lap the throttle had been sticking, and when it happened again a lap later he spun at the third chicane. He kept the engine running and crept back to the pits, but there was nothing that could be done so Tyrrell’s hopes were dashed.
At the end of lap 15 came the situation everyone has feared from the start of the season. Verstappen pulled in to refuel his Benetton, and as the hose proved awkward to detach, perhaps because of expansion in the heat, some of the volatile liquid splashed over the car and the crew. For four agonising seconds everyone held their breath, but then the heat of the exhaust inevitably ignited the vapour and in a moment car and personnel were engulfed in an awful orange fireball that reached as high as the overhead Paddock Club balcony. It was precisely the catastrophe that had been anticipated. Mercifully none of the Benetton mechanics was seriously injured as the fire was extinguished in seconds, and Verstappen managed to extricate himself, but it was a terrifying moment for all concerned. Sixteen people were involved, five of them being treated in hospital and bearing the signs the following day, as great a damnation of the foolhardiness of refuelling as anything could be. One felt not only for them, and their pain, but for their families and loved ones who had been watching back home on television and who must have endured awful hours before they could be sure all was well. Even that is a relative term, as the victims will testify.
Max and Bernie, it was a bold try, but let’s get rid of this stupid system for 1995, before teams start getting too far into the design of cars with 80-litre tanks. You can read elsewhere in this issue how Louis Stanley helped virtually to exorcise the spectre of burning racing cars from F1, and we don’t want to see it haunting it once more. As the horrible drama finally subsided and what little wind there was blew away the chilling cloud of black smoke, Coulthard retired after a strong comeback fight had reaped him the first fastest lap of his career. It began to look as if the race would get down to single figures. The Scot was running 12th, chasing the Simteks, when he pitted for fuel on lap 16, and then the engine stalled as he tried to rejoin. He got going eventually, but an electrical problem had developed and he cruised round after a very slow lap to retire.
Shortly after that Brundle’s pushy drive also ended. After the spat with Herbert, Martin had pulled up to sixth place by the time he came in to refuel on lap 12, and he was working his way back through the field, “having a really good race”, when the engine suddenly developed a misfire and blew up. Surprising that, for a Peugeot. Usually we’re told it’s the gearbox that catches fire, or perhaps Jean-Pierre Jabouille’s imagination. With Schumacher’s retirement things settled down, and the heart had gone out of the race. All Berger now had to do was be sensible, ease down on the revs and keep awake, while both Panis and Bernard were far enough apart, and devoid of pressure, to be able to do likewise. The two Footwork pilots slogged on in fourth and fifth places, much to the relief of team personnel who needed a good result after earlier disappointments and following recent financial problems, while the two Larrousse drivers were equally pleased in sixth and seventh places, delighted to be reliable again. Beretta, however, was fortunate that he and Hill were lapped, for by the end Damon’s blistering recovery drive had brought him within 2.2s.
Both Simteks at one stage seemed almost in with a shout of points, had others faltered, but close to the end each pulled off with uncharacteristic unreliability.
Ferrari’s victory was extremely popular with everyone but the dyed-in-the-wool Schumacher fans in the crowd, and while many felt desperately sorry for Alesi that his first victory is still awaited, Berger surely deserved this reward after all the effort he has invested in the team, and the brave and dignified manner in which he has conducted himself in this most difficult season.
“Winning for Ferrari is a special thing, which no other team can do for a driver,” he said of his ninth victory, one which again drew Ferrari level with McLaren on 104 Grand Prix wins apiece and was the first for the team since Alain Prost’s in Spain four years ago.
“It really makes it fun to drive when you know you have a chance to win. I can laugh now because as you may remember from Silverstone, Hill and Schumacher were joking about making an agreement to let each other win his home race and I said ‘don’t forget me at Hockenheim’ and now I have won.”
It was a timely breath of fresh air within the sport, that helped offset its other problems. D J T