Nostalgia: Schumacher storms to Belgian GP victory from 16th on the grid
The iconic Spa-Francorchamps circuit has become renowned for producing amazingly entertaining races, with the high probability of rain only adding to the natural freneticism that the 4.352 mile circuit creates. The 1995 race was no exception, with a topsy-turvy grid after inclement weather during the two qualifying sessions setting the scene for a thrilling 44-lap race.
The opening qualifying session on the Friday was plagued with traditional rainfall, which saw the lap times plummet way over the two minute mark with Ferrari’s Gerhard Berger leading the way overnight. However, the weekend was effectively turned on its head during the Saturday qualifying session when reigning World Champion Michael Schumacher lost control of his Benetton at Malmédy and slammed into the retaining tyre barriers. Although the German was lucky to walk away from his stricken Benetton, he ended the session a lowly 16th overall and would therefore start the race deep within the midfield alongside the likes of Ukyo Katayama and Pedro Lamy.
Meanwhile Berger managed to remain at the top despite brief spells of dry running during the Saturday qualifying session to produce a 01:54.392, with they Austrian’s Ferrari team-mate Jean Alesi alongside him in second position. Meanwhile Schumacher’s team-mate Johnny Herbert qualified fourth, with the Williams duo of David Coulthard and Damon Hill fifth and eighth respectively.
After a weekend blighted by rainfall, the teams lined up on the grid in anticipation for the start of the 44-lap race with dark clouds looming ominously overhead despite a relatively dry track. Once the red lights were extinguished and the green lights shone, initial pole-man Berger lost ground to team-mate Alesi and the Benetton of Herbert, who became locked in a frenetic battle for the lead into La Source. Through the daunting L’Eau Rouge complex Alesi and Herbert practically ran side-by-side, before the Briton finally managed to make the move stick into Les Combes shortly afterwards to assume the lead.
Meanwhile Hill had progressed during the opening lap from eighth to sixth in the Williams, whilst Schumacher made his intentions crystal clear by cleanly steaming through from 16th to 13th after just a single lap. Despite a dramatic start to the race, the opening lap had been completed without incident. However, Mika Hakkinen soon become the first retirement from proceedings as the field negotiated La Source, losing control of his McLaren on the exit of the tight hairpin and subsequently stalling on lap two.
Meanwhile the battle for supremacy at the front continued to rage on, with Herbert losing his lead to Alesi at Les Combes. As the Frenchman began to lay down the gauntlet to the opposition with the fastest lap of the race, Schumacher’s resurgence through the field continued with the German rising up to tenth. As the clouds darkened overheard, Coulthard managed to muscle his way around Berger for third at La Source, with the Briton eager to display his competitiveness in the Williams.
Soon Berger had been demoted even further down the order, with Championship contender Hill managing to find his way around the experienced Austrian at Les Combes shortly after his team-mate. Meanwhile Hill’s rival Schumacher continued to make rapid progress, rising up to eighth after only three laps. Despite Alesi’s rediscovered pace in the Ferrari, his dominance over proceedings was short-lived when he was forced to enter the pit-lane for an unscheduled pit-stop. After a lengthy delay where his mechanics assessed his car, the Frenchman resumed the race only to stutter to a halt a few feet after leaving the confines of the pit-lane.
With Alesi out of the race due to mechanical issues, Herbert had managed to resume his lead of the race over the Williams duo of Coulthard and Hill. Soon rain began to fall over the circuit, which added further excitement to proceedings when race leader Herbert spun at Les Combes whilst under severe pressure from Coulthard. This enabled the Williams driver to rise up into a commanding lead, ahead of team-mate Hill and initial pole-man Berger. Meanwhile Herbert continued to struggle with the greasy track conditions, spinning once again at the Bus-Stop chicane and almost collecting the McLaren of Mark Blundell.
This second spin from Herbert enabled Eddie Irvine to rise up into a competitive fourth position in the Jordan, whilst reigning World Champion Michael Schumacher silently but strongly rose up into fifth position, ahead of his Benetton team-mate. With Coulthard eager to demonstrate his ability to control a race at the front in Formula One, the Scotsman proceeded to produce consecutive fastest laps, with saw the Williams duo gradually open up a commanding lead to the Ferrari of Berger.
After several frustrating laps stuck behind the Jordan of Irvine, Schumacher finally made an overtaking manoeuvre stick around his future Ferrari team-mate at the Bus-Stop chicane on lap ten. As Coulthard continued producing the fastest lap of the race, Rubens Barrichello became the first driver to complete a scheduled pit-stop as the pit window arrived. As the Brazilian ace resumed the race after his stop, the race was once again tipped into disarray when race leader Coulthard suddenly slowed drastically with a gearbox issue striking his Williams. As the Briton frustratingly peeled off of the track into retirement, Herbert became one of the first front runners to pit as his team-mate became locked in a gruelling battle for what was now second position with Berger.
Several laps later Damon Hill made his first stop of the race, along with Berger and Irvine which gifted the lead to Schumacher, despite the German starting the race just 16th. However, the Benetton ace soon completed his first pit-stop, which naturally allowed Hill to resume his lead with his sparring partner now only in second position with Olivier Panis third in the Ligier. The mechanical gremlins soon struck again on lap 18, when Gerhard Berger was seen slowing in the Ferrari with his arm raised to signify an issue on his car. Despite limping back to the pits and returning to the track, the Austrian eventually retired with electrical issues on his car.
So far the rain had only fallen in sporadic and light bursts, not enough to warrant a switch to the wet tyres. This changed on lap 20 when heavier rain materialised and forced race leader Hill to surprisingly become one of the first drivers to return to the pits and opt for the wet tyre compound. Despite the heavier rainfall, new race leader Schumacher remained out on the track of the dry tyres with Hill catching the German at a phenomenal rate on his new wet tyres.
Meanwhile the action continued in the pit-lane, where Irvine’s Jordan caught fire and was immediately doused in foam. With various mechanics spilling out into the pit-lane, utter mayhem ensued with many drivers also pitting to change to the wet tyres. Max Papis became the next retirement of the race, after the Footwork driver spun at the start/finish straight in the increasingly tricky weather conditions. Andrea Montermini soon joined his fellow countryman in retirement, after running out of fuel during the confusion caused by the sudden return of the rain.
With the rain still persistently falling, Schumacher still remained out on the track on the dry weather tyre. As the leaders approached Les Combes, Hill drew alongside his arch rival, only to be unable to make the move stick after an amazing display of defensive driving and wet weather mastery by Schumacher. As the 22nd lap unfolded, Hill continued to hound the light blue Benetton, trying to squeeze his way through at Fagnes but to no avail.
Eventually the rain began to subside once again, making Schumacher’s decision to remain on the dry tyre worthwhile. However, the German’s luck ran out at Les Combes on the following lap, when he momentarily lost control of his Benetton and ran straight on through the grass. This therefore gifted the lead back to Hill, as Luca Badoer became the next retirement after an almighty skip through the gravel trap which ultimately caused front-wing and suspension damage, after taking avoiding action on Minardi team-mate Pedro Lamy to avoid running into the back of him.
As ever the race took yet another intricate and thrilling twist several laps later, with the track quickly beginning to dry. Due to his haste to switch to the wet tyres, Hill was soon on the back foot and made a minor mistake at Stavelot. This gifted the lead back to Schumacher, who would need no excuse to muscle his way back into the lead. On lap 25 Hill once again returned to the pits, this time for dry tyres. This proved to be yet another hasty decision, with the rain once again returning in abundance several laps later.
Although the rain was falling visibly harder than before, Schumacher still elected to tip-toe around on the dry tyres. Meanwhile the German’s team-mate, Herbert, pitted for wets with many driver once again beginning to struggle in the inclement conditions. On lap 28 the safety car was deployed, after Ukyo Katayama lost control on the exit of Malmedy and spun into the retaining barriers. Both Hill and Schumacher took advantage of the safety car period to return to the pits for fresh wet tyres, with the Briton in particular suffering a slow stop.
Under the safety car conditions the rain visibly began to intensify, with visibility quickly becoming an issue due to spray. On lap 32 the race was resumed, with Schumacher leading Hill with Martin Brundle third in the Ligier. Further down the order Panis spun in the Ligier on the exit of La Source, losing two positions in the process despite masterfully managing to avoid collision with the rest of the field. As Giovanni Lavaggi entered retirement with a gearbox issue on his Pacific, Hill’s chances of catching Schumacher and managing to steal a victory were dashed when he was struck with a ten second stop/go penalty for speeding in the pit-lane.
Although Hill elected to immediately serve his penalty, the Briton soon found himself in third position behind fellow countryman Brundle. The Williams driver’s race failed to improve after his penalty, with Hill spinning at La Source in what was becoming a miserable afternoon for the Briton. Whilst battles for the final points paying positions raged on throughout the order between the likes of Herbert, Barrichello, Blundell and Frentzen, Hill began catching fellow countryman Brundle at a sensational rate in his bid to cut the deficit to Schumacher, who was still enjoying a commanding lead out in front.
With only a handful of laps remaining, Hill found himself practically attached to the gearbox of Brundle’s Ligier, despite the duo partially being held up whilst trying to lap the slow Forti of Roberto Moreno. At first Hill made an effort to overtaking Brundle at the Bus-Stop, but ultimately failed before pouncing on the Ligier ace at Les Combes on the final lap to secure second position. Meanwhile Michael Schumacher majestically crossed the line some 19 seconds ahead to secure one of his finest victories in Formula One despite starting from way back in 16th position.
However, after the race controversy raged off-track, with Hill complaining about Schumacher’s defensive driving during the 44-lap race. The Briton believed he was blocked by the German on several occasions at high speed parts of the track, a fact which was later confirmed after close examination of the replay of the battle. Although Schumacher’s victory was not taken away, unlike the previous year, the German was struck with a one-race suspended ban.
Despite Schumacher’s ban, the two came together once again during the following race weekend in Italy. On lap 23 the duo were approaching Taki Inoue, who was a lap down in the Footwork, when he made a complete hash of allowing the leaders through. This culminated in Hill tapping the rear of Schumacher, and forcing both into retirement for the second time that season, after a similar incident at Silverstone. Although the gap heading into the final five races was only 15 points between Schumacher and Hill, the German managed to secure his second consecutive Championship crown at the Pacific Grand Prix around TI Aida with two races remaining.
For 1996 Schumacher carried out his surprise switch to Ferrari, sparking the start of Benetton’s gradual decline from dominance at the front. During his time with the Enstone-based outfit, Schumacher’s majestic drive from 16th on the grid at Spa-Francorchamps in 1995 will undoubtedly go down as one of his most awe-inspiring races of his long and colourful career, even if his defensive driving was called into question.
Picture(s) Copyright © Williams Racing Engineering & Jordan Grand Prix