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Formula One

Formula 1: School End of Term Report

So, Formula 1 school’s out, and the boys are on their holidays. The hampers are packed, the private jets and helicopters have whisked their frazzled passengers to all the more expensive parts of the globe and whilst the lads are bent on a bit of R & R before taking up their new duties as captains of different houses or indeed different schools, it’s time to send out the reports. A+’s for some, D’s and E’s for others. On the whole, it’s been a good year, most of the class acquitting themselves extremely well. Discipline at times could have been improved but the overall sense of team spirit has been prevalent and it is good to see the petty wranglings of the class of ’95 put behind us.

Star pupil of course is Damon Hill, first time a World Champion and not through want of trying. Having crawled towards the end of 1995 a partly broken man, he salvaged the remnants of that year to take the last race win in Adelaide and, working on a small but bright spark of positive energy, came into the 1996 season a different man. Fit, lean and mentally alert, he had a point to prove and by the close of play in Japan he proved it. The ‘nearly man’ , the man who finished third behind Head boy Senna, and Prost, the Professor in ’93 and second behind Class Prefect, Michael Schumacher for two consecutive years, followed the curve of his own graph and achieved his goal, although the points along that jagged line would reveal that it had not by any means, been a walk over.

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New boy Jacques Villeneuve, fresh from his Championship in Indy car racing, was the surprise of the opening race at the new Australian venue in Melbourne. The betting that Villeneuve could possibly wrest the crown in his first season from early favourite Hill, was by no means far fetched as, having set the first pole of the year, he proceeded to dominate the race until an oil leak forced him to concede victory to his team mate. The race wasn't about the winning, it was about the coming second and it was clear to all that '96 would see a new Braveheart to rattle the cages of the slightly more established pretenders to the throne.

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At a rainy Interlagos circuit in Brazil, it was the Williams that shone again with Hill putting an indelible stamp on the race from the pole he took the previous day, to the flag. Rubens Barichello also impressed but failed to gain a podium finish in front of his home crowd when he spun on the 59th lap. Jean Alesi was the only driver in competition with Hill during the race. Having played Villeneuve at his own game in a decidedly over optimistic passing manoeuvre, he left the Canadian spinning uncontrollably into the gravel. A born wet weather driver and an addicted risk taker, there was no fear in Alesi's cockpit as he strove to gain time on the leader, despite being told in no uncertain terms by his team, that after his ungainly exit in Melbourne, he was to finish the race at all costs. This he did just 17 seconds behind race winner Hill with a lapped Schumacher driving the as yet undeveloped Ferrari to third place and it's first points of the season.

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With an improving Ferrari in Buenos Aires, Schumacher managed to keep to the tail of Hill who was on another charge despite going through a bout of 'Continental Tummy'. With the airing of the Safety car for the first time, after the Forti Ford of Luca Badoer did a somersault on lap 24, the mid field changed. Villeneuve having closed up from his lowly ninth of the grid to fifth was able to stay in touch with the leaders. Yet luck was to go his way as Schumacher's Ferrari, hit by debris from Badoer's Forti, and thrown up by Hill's Williams, retired with a damaged wing. The Benetton of Berger suffering a suspension problem and Alesi's prolonged stay in the pits due to him stalling the engine gave Villeneuve the ideal opportunity to make the best of a trying day and make it the first of 5, one/two's for the Williams team. Cause for concern about re-fueling was again bought into focus by the potentially horrific fire in Diniz' Ligier caused by a stuck fuel valve. This happened whilst the safety car was out and could have been disastrous had their been other cars close by in a race situation. Diniz' escaped his baptism by fire unscathed but probably fairly shaken.

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The European Grand Prix at the Nurburgring heard the unfamiliar strains of the Canadian National anthem, played for the first time at a race in fifteen years. New boy Jacques Villeneuve, playing in the 'Battle of the Backmarkers' acquitted himself well against the onslaught and pressure of Michael Schumacher who, try as he may never managed to rattle the ex-Indy racer, who was, as he said rather coolly later, 'only doing my job!'. After a bad start Hill was never really in contention. Coulthard however had made a blinding start from sixth place to follow Vuilleneuve into the first corner and again Benetton falling even further from grace with the Gods of Formula 1 had both drivers dragging their tails on the grid with jammed hand brakes. Less than a second separated Villeneuve and Schumacher at the flag and 30 odd seconds down the line Hill trailed Coulthard over the line at the same distance after making a final lunge for a podium finish. Coulthard new Hill from being his teammate at Williams the previous year and knew that recklessness was not part of Hill's Championship strategy. He would sit behind the McLaren and take the 3 points offered. Mika Hakkinen was forced to take two stop-go penalties, both for pit lane speeding, but justly deserved House colours flew for the red and white cars. Ron Dennis knew that his cars had a future.

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The future it seemed lay, at San Marino at least with Coulthard who made an even better start from the fourth row, to lead Hill into Tamburello. School bully Alesi had again decided that Villeneuve was not going to be allowed to race and not content with hitting him once, he went back for good measure destroying his left rear tyre. A caning was undoubtedly due from Form master Flavio Briatore even before he was given a stop-go penalty for pit lane speeding and was lucky indeed to manage a single point at the finish. It was fortunate that his teammate Berger managed a podium position as it possibly tempered the post race dressing down that a fuming Briatore was going to bestow on both boys. As usual pit stop strategies sorted most of the race order and by close of play it was Hill that passed the line over 6 seconds clear of Schumacher. Eleventh place did little to justify an heroic drive by Villeneuve and Coulthard after the promise of points retired his McLaren with hydraulic pressure loss on lap 44. Whilst Williams still had the strongest arm, the Ferrari in the hands of Schumacher, was rapidly becoming the second car to beat. Martin Brundle, despite Eddie Jordan's high expectations was not proving a hard grafter with only one point , three spins and an accident to show for the end of the spring term.

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If one could have bet successfully on the outcome of the race at Monaco, one could have become a millionaire. In a race of attrition from the start we saw all the contenders dropping by the wayside as the race unfolded. The toll started with Schumacher, barrier bound on the first lap and willingly admitting his mistake. Hill's dominating position ahead of Alesi by a country mile, ended uncharacteristically with a blown engine the first of several that Renault were to suffer in the coming races races. This gave Alesi the green light until broken springs put him out of the running. Villeneuve, having a bad weekend was never in the running and Luca Badoer saw to it that he would not complete the race by cutting him up at the Mirabeau. Williams zero points. It was a rather dazed and confused Olivier Panis who took the flag fending off the McLaren of Coulthard in the final laps and providing Ligier with it first win since 1981. In one of the highest incident filled races of all time, only three cars completed the course and it was to herald the start of the doubts and insecurities that Hill was to experience in his uphill battle from there on, to the drivers crown.

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One of the finest drives of the year, by Schumacher, was to mark the Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona. Hill on a marginal wet/dry setup could not come to grips with his car and after two spins, managed to get it right on the third and put himself out of the race. A briefly leading Alesi was passed by the Ferrari Serene as a luxury liner ploughing through the sea and at one point Captain Schumacher was gaining over the field by 4 seconds a lap. This despite the V10 firing on less than its full compliment of cylinders gave him the win by a healthy 55 seconds over the Frenchman's Benetton.

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A home victory was to be denied Villeneuve in the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal. Media attention to the son of the great Gilles, the novelty of a home boy in with the loudest shout and pole position must have put a certain amount of pressure on him to perform. Both Williams ran one/two for the duration of the race, the Ferrari threat virtually eliminated at the start when Schumacher stalled and was forced to take up position at the rear of the pack. His pit stop on lap 41 was to be Ferrari's undoing literally as the force of Schumacher's acceleration away from the pits produced a clanking trail of engine entrails, most importantly the drive half shaft. He wasn't going anywhere. Hill took the flag in what most pundits saw as a dull race. But, non the less with a valuable 10 points added to his total after a two race void, he felt himself back on course for the Championship. Villeneuve's strike rate though, as yet unspectacular, was showing and the next few races would reveal the true battle ahead.

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Half term, saw Hill win again in France with the rest of the Renault powered cars falling into line behind giving the engine manufacture a resounding 1 to 4 victory in it's home country. Schumacher's Ferrari saw fit to let go on the parade lap of all places, followed shortly by team mate Eddie Irvine's gearbox on the fifth lap and the resultant howling of the Italian press to give Jean Todt the Team Captain, the 'heave ho', was only defused by the unswerving support that Schumacher gave to the team. Another one two for Williams and the Constructors' Crown looked inevitable.

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Having lost to Hill at his own Grand Prix, it was Villeneuve's chance to turn the table and take what was universally thought to be the Englishman's right of passage at Silverstone. Despite thrilling the crowd with a last minute pole grabbing lap the day before he made what was to be the first of a trio of dreadful starts and having got bogged down in the second string pack, never made it beyond fourth place before spinning out with a loose front wheel. This was not apparent at the time and it was an embarrassed Hill who had to fend off the commiserations of the British Journalists until the fault was proved not to be his. It was Villeneuve's day however, again helped by the untimely exit of Schumacher's Ferrari with yet another pressure leak. The chasing Alesi was once more out of the running with a seized wheel bearing leaving Berger to take the honours for Benetton on the second step. The ever improving McLarens gave Hakkinen a well deserved third and Coulthard fifth. Both Jordans too, made it to the points with Barichello's highest showing of the season in 4 th position yet despite Bundle's optimism for his rejuvenated driving capacities, a fourth at Monza and a fifth at Suzuka were to be his only high points of the season.

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Germany should have been Gerhard Bergers day. He has had it coming for some time, yet fate was not to let it be. Giving by far the best performance of the year and within three laps of the flag leading Hill and Alesi, the Renault let go for the second time this season in a spectacular cloud of white smoke. Hill could not show his delight at inheriting the podium, acknowledging Bergers great drive and poor luck, but thinking back to Monaco and possibly his right to a reversal of fortune. It was obvious that his Williams was a tad quicker than the Benetton but debatable as to whether he would have passed Berger in the three laps remaining, both having the same Renault power. A bold passing manoeuvre by Villeneuve, but a mere taster of things to come in Estoril, gave Villeneuve third place behind Alesi, Schumacher coming in a distant fourth with Coulthard again showing strongly, snapping at his heels. The points gap between the two Williams drivers was 21 points and things looked good for Hill in the run up to the final races. It was wise of him not to count chickens to early as it turned out.

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Despite pole position, it was another dark day for the Ferrari team with Irvine's gearbox failing on lap 31 and Schumacher retiring seven laps from the finish with similar problems. Berger again making the better of running of the two Benettons and with a probable third place in the bag, was stunned beyond belief when again his engine expired spectacularly. The Gods were definitely against him and it was a fortunate Alesi who took 4 points for his team. From championship team and Constructors winners, they were struggling to find any of their previous form which said mountains for the skills of former driver Schumacher, who even when viewed from the garage, or the side of the track in a Ferrari that seemed to be more stationary than not, still carried the mantle of a Motor racing giant. A botched pit stop for Villeneuve brought the two Williams together for the end of the race, Hill not quite having the power or the nerve to attempt to overtake his team mate on a circuit notorious for its lack of passing places. He settled for 2nd, losing a further four points to his only championship rival.

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The rain threatened but never came, despite an earlier downpour leaving the track in a dampish state for the start of the Belgium Grand Prix. Hill made his customary poor start, Villeneuve roaring away leading Schumacher through at La Source. Hill, driving the spare car after an earlier spin, and suffering severe understeer was also passed by Coulthard out of Eau Rouge and was to say later: "He came up behind me and just came straight past - I wasn't able to do anything about it. ...his performance (through Les Combes) was quite impressive. " Hill continued to lose ground to Coulthard and on the same lap was over 4 seconds down on the leader. Back at la Source mayhem was breaking out. Herbert, in a short aerial solo, launched himself from the rear wheels of Heinz Harold's car and put paid to any dreams Sauber may have had for a finish of any kind. Immediately prior to that, Irvine it seemed, had a minor tangle with Barichello on the run in to the hairpin and in a split second, off line and, trying to avoid the two Saubers, the Peugeot Jordan collided with Panis damaging both cars' suspensions. Team Ligier too, witnessed their number one driver making the short walk back to base even before the whiff of exhaust fumes had vacated the pit lane. Jos Verstappen at Stavelot, had a massive high speed shunt into the tyre wall completely removing the left hand side of his car. Obviously shaken, he was helped from his car and into an air ambulance. At this crucial point the Safety Car was brought out and both Schumacher and Alesi dived into the pits for a quick top up. Villeneuve and Hill missed their chances and had to wait for a further lap to take advantage of the procession of slow moving cars. In the confusion, and with pit to car radios not functioning, Team Williams, after expecting Hill in for refueling found that the 'window' had closed and it was Villeneuve that was to be first. This left Hill in the embarrassing position of finding himself halfway down the pit lane entrance with no room at the inn. A hasty reroute through a makeshift chicane in the emergency lane saw him back on the track back down in twelfth position with a lot of egg on his face. The second round of pit stops changed the order briefly, Schumacher pitting before Villeneuve and passing the Canadian on his exit from the pit lane a lap later. With Hakinen in third, Alesi fourth and Coulthard fifth, Hill in sixth found himself being worried by a demented Berger fresh from a lightning pit stop. That seemed to be the final order until Coulthard spun out with 8 or so laps to go giving Hill an extra point at the chequered flag. So, with Schumacher unwittingly helping to soften the blow of Hill's poor showing by keeping the points difference between the two Williams drivers to four, ( the equivalent of a one - two finish), Ferrari took their second win of the season and an impressive one to boot. Had not poor pit stop discipline again affected both Hill and Villeneuve, the result might have been different. However, Hill still only needed to finish second to Villeneuve in the remaining three Grands Prix to take the crown or an outright win at Monza (with Villeneuve out of the points), would have clinched it. However, judging by Hill's late season performance, this would seem a tall order.

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Monza was all about tyres and the abundance thereof.

All of the front running drivers were to fall foul of the hastily mounted tyre barriers at the first Goodyear chicane, erected to prevent the cutting of corners onto the concrete rumble areas, part of which Villeneuve had dislodged in practice the day before. With the championship in the bag for Hill, with a win here -and it was looking like it might be- the crown would be his for the taking. From pole however, Hill was beaten to the first corner by Alesi going like a train from third on the grid. Hill in uncharacteristically forceful mood, passed Alesi at Lesmo and held off a passing move from the Benetton driver a little further on at the Ascari Chicane. From there on the Williams pulled away until contact with that tyre barrier on the sixth lap, put him out of the running. ' I just have to admit to making a mistake' He said later. 'There's no one to blame except myself. That was probably quite an easy race victory and I threw it away". He was not the only driver to be caught out there as Salo did the same a lap later and indeed Schumacher was to skirmish with them within 5 laps of the finish. With tyres rolling all over the place Villeneuve and Coulthard both fell foul to the tyres as did Hakkinen who on lap 4 had to pit for a replacement nose cone and did a brilliant job to take third place behind Alesi. Irvine clipped them on lap 24breaking his front suspension. Hill meanwhile waited, a worried man , in the Williams motor home to see where Villeneuve would place himself. A lowly seventh place would therefore, not trouble him and they would both go into the penultimate round with the scores unchanged, although one less race to score points in, would mean that the advantage would fall to Hill. Still, it was the day Ferrari was to come good in front of a home crowd. Pi stops put Schumacher out in front of Alesi to take the flag and the adulation of the Tifosi. Schumacher could now be lionised and, irrespective of his position in the Championship standings, it was a hero's victory, sealing his name in the annals of Ferrari legend.

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From an extremely slender pole, Hill made one of the best start of the season at Estoril and was no doubt glad to see not Villeneuve, but Alesi and behind him, Schumacher, in his mirror. It was obvious that Schumacher was holding Villeneuve up and all the time Hill was pulling away to what looked like a decisive victory and the world title. The Canadian, anxious to pass the Ferrari, set himself up for a move on the extremely fast Parabolica leading to the pit straight. 'He was going slowly before the last turn' said Villeneuve, 'hoping I would stay behind, but we got him on the outside. I think my oval experience helped a little bit...it was a lot of fun'. Coming round the outside of the Ferrari, he pulled ahead slowly and stayed put. There was little in it as the two cars running at full pelt towards the start finish line, traded bare inches with each other at over 160 miles an hour. Schumacher gaining ground and then Villeneuve. Ahead on the left hand side of the track and immediately ahead of Villeneuve, the Minardi of Lavagi was rapidly closing. Being the great and experienced driver that he is, Schumacher saw an impending situation of extreme danger and whilst not needing to give ground to his assailant, moved over to allow Villeneuve through who, by the skin of his teeth whipped round the Minardi to clear air. A victory for such an audacious and inspired manoeuvre was surly deserved. Mid race saw Villeneuve reeling in the other Williams and by the final set of stops on laps 49 and 50, the distance behind Hill was barely a second. He must have known that the sands of time were running out and one could sense the relief of Villeneuve as Hill dived for the pits. In what was to be crucial timing, Hill was stationary for 8.8 seconds. Villeneuve, out on the track, had his pedal to the metal in an attempt to make up the odd second before he made his final stop. After being stationary for 8 tenths of a second less than Hill, he blasted from the pit lane barely under the other William's' front wing. There was barely a sheet of paper between them. ' I was quite surprised to see him pop out in front of me'. Hill said afterwards. Villeneuve by now, had control of the race and it was really all over bar the shouting. The Championship as so many times before, would be contested finally, in Japan.

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And so it was, that despite all the options open to both Hill and Villeneuve, of race strategy and also, despite inter-team rivalry in the most honourable tradition, Hill took the lead from the beginning in a magnificent blast from second place closely followed by Berger, to lead the race in its entirety. The race was not without its incidents however. Alesi, putting his car into the gravel at the first corner, renewed the rumours of expulsion, whilst his team mate in bullish mood, tried pointlessly to wrest the lead at the final chicane on lap 5, obviously thinking that Hill just wasn't going fast enough. Getting it all wrong, as the Williams held it's line, Berger's wing made contact with the raised concrete edging of the corner and sent him scuttling off to the pits for a new nose section. Hill did not see it as a problem. "I heard an engine noise and I kept my line. I looked in my mirror and he was a long way back. It was not a problem." After a kindly move by Irvine to let Villeneuve through and several fastest laps, the energy in Villeneuve's driving made it obvious that he was consistently the quickest man on the circuit and it was only a matter of time before he started to reel in the Champion elect. The battle royal between the two title challengers, we assumed, was about to commence. Sadly this was not to be. Disaster struck for Jacques Villeneuve at that point. He had radio'ed to team chief Patrick Head, that he was experiencing an imbalance on his right rear wheel yet he was not expecting to see the said article pass his line of vision, bounce over his front right tyre and like a malevolent UFO, fly off into the packed crowd. Fortunately no one was hurt, which probably could not be said about Villeneuve's feelings. Yet for a man who has just seen his World Championship chances go spinning away over the barriers, he seemed resigned and relaxed. Had this happened to Hill, we would have seen a broken man sagging by the wayside and heard nothing but indirect suggestions of sabotage. Hill was now the New World Champion no matter what happened and it was now just a matter of keeping his car together for the final 17 laps. His gap in front of Schumacher stayed constant, the top three places by now firmly established, Hakkinen having the speed to stay with the Ferrari, but not the outright power to build any kind of overtaking manoeuvre. Further down the field and out of the points Coulthard and Herbert were having a lively spar for 9th place. So there it was, as Villeneuve walked round the long way Damon Hill took the chequered flag to put his dream to rest. Like father, Like son. The hill dynasty now, taking up two of the 8 UK champions of the World. The first person he went to after he stepped from his car in the Parc Ferme, was to Georgie his wife and devoted campaigner of his sportsmanship. Amid tumultuous applause he embraced her long and hard and then a little bit more.

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Damon Hill newly elected Head Boy, has taken the honours for the School of Formula 1 in 1996. His name, etched in gold leaf on the Mahogany boards of past victors. Out on the playing fields all over the world his name will be called, along with the other heroes of the year. Schumacher and Villeneuve, who provided much of the spectacle and the racing. Alesi and Berger, mischievous both, were dogged by misfortune and ill timed judgment and their team should look at a serious regrouping strategy over the recess. The boys from McLaren had an extremely positive year and acquitted themselves with honour. This house will definitely be in the honours list next year. Sauber, Jordan and Ligier all had moments of glory, but not enough to separate them from the front runners and they could all do with a 'between term' reappraisal of their Strategies too.

Williams however, class of the year and driving home the fact to all and sundry, did their homework well. Resident new Head Boy Villeneuve, should do well next term, yet It remains to be seen how Hill, World Champion of 1996, will do in his new house colours at Tom Walkinshaw's Arrows team. One thing can be said of Damon Hill however, is that he has brought credit and sportsmanship to Formula 1 in a year that so easily could have turned against those that control it. As it was written on father and Old Boy, Graham Hill's report, and is now written on his, Damon is and most probably always will be, 'Good at sport'.

Chris Richardson

Image Credits: 1:Copyright 1995 Dave Coveney,2:Copyright Free, courtesy of ICN, 3,4,5&6, Copyright 1996 James Beckett.

 ©1996 onwards. Speed and its contents may not be reproduced without written permission from the editorial team.