The Belgian Grand Prix was proof yet again that Schumacher is in a class of his own. Not just as a driver but as a thinker, a strategist. Just like in Monaco where he guessed right he did it again at Spa. The wings were adjusted, the tyres were of the intermediate variety, all he had to do was pass Alesi and Villeneuve and from then on the race was for second place. Quite astonishing really how he can get it right and how Williams get it wrong every time circumstances change. Make no mistake, had it been bone dry all weekend all of Michael's brilliance could not have stopped Villeneuve from walking away with the race, the Williams was that superior. Or rather would have been.
The team is very good at a certain strategy but seem unable to improvise at the last moment. Maybe the generation gap which Frentzen keeps referring to is more real than imaginary. Let's face it- Frank and Patrick Head have been around for rather a long time.
Anyway, there it was, a humiliating defeat for just about everyone with the exception of Giancarlo Fisichella, the sensation of the year. No wonder Jordan and Benetton are fighting over him tooth and nail, in the eyes of many seasoned observers he is the next Schumacher.More so than brother Ralf who spends more time in the ditches and gravel traps than on the circuits. Mind you he will calm down one day, until then let us hope that he will keep on escaping without serious injuries.
The saga of Damon Hill continues to occupy the British papers. As I have already mentioned he turned down an offer from McLaren, suggesting that it was an insult. Most of us felt it was an offer he should have grabbed with both hands. Two million dollars plus a further million per win sounded pretty good to me. Apparently Dennis-a hard task-master if ever there was one- felt that there was a danger of Hill doing a "cruise & collect", a bit like Nigel Mansell a while ago which ended in a farce. Damon did drive well in Hungary but one swallow does not make a Summer and by Belgium he was back to his usual uninspiring form.
He says-and there is some truth in it-that apart from Michael there are very few people in Formula One who are winners. Not maybe, perhaps one day winners such as Hakkinen and with one notable exception Alesi, but regularly like Senna and Prost used to do and the way he did it last year no fewer than eight times. There are of course those who say that it is not possible not to win in a Williams but here we are more than half-way through the season and Ferrari are leading the championship whilst Schumacher is 12 points ahead in the Drivers' Championship.
Anyway, just to give you an update as of 17.45 p.m. on Wednesday 27th August the situation for 1998 looks like this.
Ferrari: Schumacher and Irvine confirmed.
Williams: Villeneuve & Frentzen confirmed although I have my doubts about the
Benetton: who knows. Supposed to be Wurz and Fisichella. Or Hill, or Trulli..
McLaren: Hakkinen & Coulthard confirmed.
Sauber: Herbert confirmed, second seat could be one of five different drivers.
Prost: Panis confirmed, second seat open, maybe for Hill if enough money can be found.
Arrows: Diniz and maybe Salo.
Minardi: anybody's guess.
Jordan: Ralf Schumacher and Fisichella if they can hang on to him. Hill is keen as are the tobacco sponsors who would find the extra millions.
Stewart: Barrichello and maybe Magnussen although he is currently a huge disappointment.
The reason I was so specific about the timing of this report is because the situation is changing daily. When it does, as always, you will be the first to know.
Belgian Grand Prix Preview: Hakkinen the Hero !
European Bureau Chief
There are moments in Formula One that people talk about for a long time. One of them happened here in Belgium earlier today in preparation for tomorrow's Grand Prix. During unofficial practice Mika Hakkinen was really flying in his McLaren-Mercedes when the rear suspension on the car broke. It could have been very, very nasty indeed. As it was the unlucky Finn had to lie down once he got out of the car as he was badly shaken. We were concerned that he may have suffered a mild concussion but after a few minutes he got up and got a lift back to the pits. Having had a quick medical he got into the spare car and during official practice qualified an astonishing fifth, way ahead of his team-mate David Coulthard who should have done better bearing in mind that he just had his position in the team confirmed for another year.
There were major dramas off the track as well, most of them relating to Damon Hill's future employment. Hill may be a very good driver and current world champion but when it comes to negotiating deals he is a total beginner! As is his lawyer in my opinion. They went to Sauber. After a lengthy conversation Peter Sauber produced a multi-million dollar contract for signature. Oh no, said Damon, it's too early for that, I am talking to other teams as well. In that case Mr Hill, said the Swiss team owner, let my secretary show you the exit! Blunder No 1.
Blunder No 2 came a few days later and became public here in Belgium. It transpired that Hill also rejected what seemed like the best offer-the one from McLaren-Mercedes. It is understood that the money on the table consisted of 2 million dollars as a retainer plus 100 thousand dollars per point gained. Therefore a victory would have added 1 million dollars, a second place 600 thousand dollars and even a 6th place would have meant 100 dollars. All my fellow journalists are in total agreement with me - a huge mistake! First of all McLaren-Mercedes are the only team who have as much money as Ferrari so they can afford to test, to experiment. They have just signed up Adrian Newey from Williams who was the mastermind behind last year's car.
What does Damon do? I quote. "There were negotiations over recent weeks during which an offer to drive the McLaren-Mercedes was made. After considering the terms I was left with no alternatives but to reject it.. etc etc." Ron Dennis of McLaren was not impressed "the team sought to objectively analyse all driver options and placed commitment to winning as a principle criteria for the selection process". Which, if I understand it correctly means that the team were not interested in paying out a fortune regardless of results. Can't say I blame them. Hill did not drive with any great enthusiasm for the first half of the season and only got his act together for Silverstone and later for Hungary. I know that it's difficult to be motivated in 18th place but for 6 million dollars a year he could have tried harder.
Anyway, the saga continues.. will Williams take him back? Will Prost find enough money? Can Benetton afford him? We will just have to wait a while longer. It is getting rather tedious.
In the meantime Jacques Villeneuve proved that fast circuits really suit him and the Williams as he stormed into pole position ahead of job-hunting Jean Alesi who will be alongside him on the front row. Michael Schumacher was third with the two young tigers Fisichella and Ralf Schumacher fourth and sixth. With Finnish hero Hakkinen in fifth place the start should be particularly interesting as the first corner is just a hundred or so yards from the front row of the grid. Traditionally there have been crashes galore at this hairpin over the years so with hot-headed Alesi, over-anxious Hakkinen, impetous Ralf Schumacher and hot-blooded Fisichella don't be too surprised to see several cars drop out almost immediately . They may even have to re-start the race.
Last year Michael Schumacher won from Jacques Villeneuve with Hakkinen third. The race is 44 laps long, a distance of 306 kilometres or 190.5 miles.