Round 2 - Brazilian Grand Prix Race Report
Yet again Damon Hill showed he was the man to beat this year as he took a dominant win in everchanging conditions at Interlagos today. His nearest rival, Jean Alesi, finished nearly 20 seconds behind.
As ever in Formula One the excitement started before the cars even left the grid. Johnny Herbert was to start from the pit lane in his spare, and the cars were about to race their way around a circuit saturated by rain only 40 minutes before the start. The tough decision was made to start the race on time, hoping that the cars would soon disperse the water. All the cars were to start on wet tyres, but fuel loads and aerodynamics were less clear. Would teams keep with their dry settings or risk an unknown wet setup, hoping the track wouldn't dry.
As the red lights disappeared the cars were very slow away, feeling their way of the line in the tricky conditions. Barrichello and Villeneuve got brilliant starts and the young Brazilian dived down the inside of Hill into the first corner. With Villeneuve on the outside it appeared that Hill would be lucky to retain his lead through the first corner, but hold it he did ahead leaving Villeneuve and Barrichello to scrap over second. Brundle also made a terrific start moving up to fourth past Alesi and Schumacher by the first corner but was retaken on the straight by both cars. Alesi also dived past Barrichello, outbraking him on the inside of Subida de Lago. Berger took Hakkinen but lost the place to Frentzen, who was making a tremendous charge from ninth on the grid, at Mergulho. Verstappen, who also had made an excellent start, was up to ninth by the end of the first lap ahead of Hakkinen and beginning to pressure Berger. At the end of the first lap Hill led the close fighting pack of Villeneuve, Alesi, Barrichello, Schumacher and Brundle by 2.7 seconds. Frentzen was next up in seventh, a bit further behind, with Verstappen and Coulthard (both having got past Berger on the straight) next up. Berger's height meant he was having a problem with horsepower, his helmet blocking part of the intake.
Already Alesi was beginning to look for a way past Villeneuve, who seemed to be finding himself unsure of the wet circuit. First retirement was Brazilian Tarso Marques, making his debut in the Minardi, after hitting Katayama on the first lap.
At the end of lap 2 Hill had extended his lead to 5.9 seconds ahead of the closely matched trio of Villeneuve, Alesi and Barrichello. Schumacher appeared to be losing ground, almost 3 seconds behind Barrichello. Verstappen continued his staggering charge through the field by overtaking Frentzen. Coulthard appeared to have found the balance of his McLaren and was ninth at the end of the second lap. Hakkinen however had dropped from seventh to thirteenth.
By the end of lap 3 Hill was comfortably building a gap to Villeneuve of 9.4 seconds. Alesi continued to take the occasional look at Villeneuve, probably hoping to force a mistake. At this point Villeneuve was lapping 2 seconds slower than Hill and obviously slowing the Benetton driver. Verstappen passed Brundle and set about chasing compatriot and rival Schumacher. Hill continued his rapid pace and put in a fastest lap of 1:41.202 which was then bettered by Panis' 1:40.978. At the end of Lap 5 the field stood as Hill, Villeneuve, Alesi, Barrichello, Schumacher, Frentzen, Brundle, Verstappen, Coulthard, Salo, Hakkinen, Berger, Irvine, Rosset, Panis, Diniz, Herbert, Badoer, Montermini, Katayama and Lamy.
At the start of Lap 6 Barrichello momentarily got past Alesi but slid wide allowing the Benetton to retake him. Barrichello tried at the same place on the next lap but to the disappointment of the crowd repeated his error.
Hill's lead now stood at over 12 seconds. Schumacher set a fastest lap on lap 6 but it was bettered the next few times round by Frentzen, beginning to close on the Ferrari at the rate of a second a lap. At this point many drivers began to cool their tires by driving off the line. Tyre choice and stops could soon become crucial.
Barrichello tried again, unsuccessfully, to get by Alesi at the first corner on lap 10 and was crawling all over the Benetton going into the final straight at the end of the lap. The first corner again saw Barrichello's best effort, almost making it past Alesi on lap 11. This time the fight went all the way into the second straight and the battling pair almost allowed Schumacher by in the process. Alesi held it along the straight though and the status quo resumed. Verstappen managed to repass Brundle after spinning earlier, and set fastest lap in the process. Hill, meanwhile, had steadily improved his lead to 15 seconds.
A battle was beginning to develop for ninth further back. Team-mates Hakkinen and Coulthard were separated by a mere 0.5 seconds after Hakkinen had passed Salo earlier. By lap 17 Brundle was down to eleventh, obviously having a continuation of his gearbox problems in qualifying.
Surprisingly at this stage Marques was the only retirement. On lap 20, however, Verstappen's charge through the field came to a premature end as he pulled into the pits with engine failure. Coulthard was the first to enter the pits make a proper stop on lap 22 and surprisingly put on slicks. A gurney flap was removed and fuel put in, the stop taking 12.0 seconds in all and losing Coulthard five places. His tire choice seemed premature however, as he spun on lap 31 whilst in fourteenth place. He later criticised the stewards decision saying, "I've never been in conditions like that before. It was a crazy way to start the race.". On lap 25 Schumacher pitted for fuel and wet tyres with a time of 11.5 seconds. This was seemingly to be the first of two stops.
Riccardo Rosset was the next retirement, crashing out on the main straight and parking it next to the pit wall.
On lap 27 Villeneuve was momentarily baulked by the Forti of Montermini at the first couple of corners Alesi squeezed through. Villeneuve then lost it at Subida de Lago attempting to hold his place on the slippery outside of the corner. Alesi confirmed that the conditions were still treacherous by nearly spinning at the first corner on the next lap.
Frentzen and Panis pitted on lap 27 for wet tires and fuel. Berger was in on the next lap, but ended up parking his Ferrari in the garage after a disappointing slide down the field due to electric problems.
On lap 29 the order was now Hill, Alesi, Barrichello, Hakkinen, Salo, Brundle, Irvine, Frentzen, Schumacher, Diniz, Katayama and Panis
Lap 31 saw Hakkinen and Brundle making their one stop for fuel and wets. Alesi began to gradually close the gap to Hill who was losing time in traffic but suddenly seemed to lose the second place to Barrichello. This was possibly as the result of a spin since he was a clear four seconds ahead on the previous lap. Alesi posted a time of 1:47.430 compared to Barrichello's 1:36.398 however, no mention was made of this at the post race conference. Frentzen meanwhile was slowly pulling ahead of Schumacher, presumably having taken him whilst Schumacher was pitting. The Sauber-Ford disappeared from the time sheets on lap 36, presumably through mechanical failure ending a sterling performance by Frentzen and his team.
Barrichello made his one stop for wets and fuel on lap 35 taking 10 seconds and promoting Alesi back to second in the process. Irvine came in two laps later for his one stop and put on wets in a time of 10.2 seconds.
Hill was keeping the gap to Alesi at a constant, safe 16.8 seconds. The Williams team were preparing for a pitstop on lap 38. Hill kept out for several laps though, feeling that the dry line was definitely appearing and thinking the time was due for a change to dry tires. It appeared that the Williams team agreed with him, removing the wet tires made ready for Hill, and replacing them with dries before he came in on lap 40 for his one fuel and tire stop. It appeared that Patrick Head's choice to install a larger fuel tank was allowing a better strategy choice, something the team were criticised for last year.
Schumacher came in for the second of his two stops on the next lap putting on slicks and taking on fuel. A second stop this early suggested that the weather was to play havoc with the strategy of those teams on a two stopper. It appeared that dries were definitely the way to go, as Schumacher was able to easily keep up with Alesi, yet to stop, on full tanks and dry tires. Alesi finally made his way in on lap 42 for his one and only stop, putting on slicks and filling up with fuel in a time of 11.1 seconds. Hill put in a fastest lap of the race so far at 1:29.5 seconds and regained the lead lost through his earlier pit stop.
Schumacher was in a rush to get ahead of Alesi since team-mate Irvine was only a few seconds, and a place, ahead. Irvine put up token resistance but a combination of his wet tyres, and sensible team politics, meant Schumacher went by easily.
There was then a dash of stops for slicks, some teams making their second of two stops some making their one and only stop. Barrichello for slicks, Hakkinen for slicks and fuel, and Brundle for slicks (stalling in the process) meant a crowded pit lane. This flurry of pit stops led to Schumacher rising to third and relegated Barrichello to fourth, 10 seconds behind. The young Brazilian soon set about chasing him however. Alesi, Barrichello, and Hill put in fastest lap after fastest lap, gradually finding confidence and extra speed on their slick tyres. At the end of lap 56 the order was Hill, Alesi, Schumacher, Barrichello, Hakkinen, Salo, Panis, Irvine, Brundle, Diniz, Katayama, Lamy and Badoer. The race was set for the final 15 laps to the chequered flag but there was still much excitement to come.
By lap 59 Barrichello was right up to Schumacher and tried to get round him on the first corner of lap 60, failing to get by as he had done with Alesi earlier. He then lost the car under braking at Subida de Lago sliding into the gravel trap and retirement. At this point the crowd commenced their disgruntled exodus from the stands.
Hill continued to drive flat out, regardless of his 20 second cushion, and set yet more fastest times on laps 63 and 65 finally setting a race best of 1:21.547.
The ever unlucky Brundle lost his car at the first corner on lap 65 whilst seventh. An upbeat Eddie Jordan seemed not too disappointed by the weekend after having proved that the Jordan-Peugot cars were quick and able to mix it with the top teams.
Hill continued calmly on to his second victory of the season so far and the fifteenth of his career, beating his fathers tally of fourteen. Alesi was second 17 seconds behind and Schumacher completed the podium trio. The remaining six points finishers were Hakkinen, Salo, and Panis.
Hill confirmed he was looking for a win, and said after the race, "Just after I went out a bolt of lightning came right down in front of me. It gave me a real sense of foreboding. It's fantastic to have won, but I hear there could be more rain in Argentina. I'm looking forward to going there.". Asked further about the conditions he said, "It was very risky out there, as when the rain comes in Brazil it is full blooded. There were rivers of water on the circuit because of the rain.". He agreed that his strategy was lucky to coincide with the change of weather but the team were planning a one stop plan just in case of such an eventuality, "We decided that the race was going to be wet, at least for the first half so we decided that we take a bit of a pact on one stop and that worked absolutely perfectly. It fell right into the window that we needed for the change over from wets to slicks. Very good planning on behalf of the Williams team."
Alesi complained of a lack of visibility but said that he had an enjoyable race. "It was very difficult, because of the visibility. At the beginning I was sure the pace-car was going out because the point was not just the water on the track, it was just impossible to see anything. I was a little bit scared so I was a little bit careful and then I had to fight with Villeneuve and Barrichello but it was good.".
Schumacher sounded a cautious note despite his podium success and reliability saying he was disappointed to be lapped and that there was a lot of work for the Ferrari team still to do.
By Toby Waller (T.WALLER@SHEFFIELD.AC.UK)