reports from So Paulo
Michael Schumacher, the world champion, got his title defence off to a shaky start here at the Interlagos circuit yesterday afternoon after crashing his Benetton-Renault at high speed following the failure of a steering joint. The German lost control exiting the fast Ferra Dura corner, and was left to scowl at the wreckage before stalking back to the team's garage.
Damon Hill, by contrast, was the man of the hour and permitted himself a poker grin when his rival's misfortune was raised in conversation. "Yes, I gather Benetton is in a little trouble,'' he said.
Where Schumacher's car had looked twitchy out on the circuit, Hill's Williams, which uses the same Renault engine, behaved perfectly. "It's a very, very encouraging start, and I'm very pleased,'' he said. "It's all very well being confident in testing, but first qualifying is always the real test. The engine was super-competitive and the chassis did what we wanted. Certainly, this time last year we weren't so happy. And, I think, if we look good here, we can look good for the rest of the year.''
That warning salvo will not have been lost on Benetton, where Schumacher and his engineers were set to work long into the night. It was, Hill admitted, a relief to get all the pre-event build-up out of the way. "It gets rid of the guesswork and the hype,'' he said.
Hill was in irresistible form all afternoon as he recorded several laps in the 1min 20sec bracket, and he ended almost a second faster than his closest opposition, Gerhard Berger in a Ferrari. The Austrian and his team, however, bear the stamp of competitors now completely ready for a serious championship assault, and he was backed strongly by his team- mate Jean Alesi, who was fourth.
Between them was Hill's team-mate, David Coulthard, who had arrived in Brazil suffering from tonsillitis earlier in the week, but had largely shaken off the ill-effects when qualifying began.
"I have to say that this is the worst track I've ever driven on,'' the Scot said. "It's as bumpy as hell. At the moment, thankfully, the car is working well, so I'm not having to worry about that. The handling is pretty neutral, tending slightly to understeer; fortunately there isn't any oversteer here, because with these bumps that's what really frightens you. Really, it's just unbelievable. It's very, very hard on the body because you're not just taking the G-force, but being jerked around as well.''
All of the drivers were unhappy about the performance of their cars on the severe bumps of the resurfaced track, but Mark Blundell, ninth fastest while standing in for Nigel Mansell at McLaren, said: "It may also be due to the reduction in downforce under this season's regulations. There's not so much downforce there now to flatten out the shocks.''
If Williams and Ferrari ended the day encouraged, Benetton was plumbing the depths. Schumacher's time of 1: 22.131, which he recorded just before his accident, leaves him only sixth fastest, behind Mika Hkkinen in the much maligned McLaren. "We think there was a problem on Michael's car,'' the team chief, Flavio Briatore, said. "And with that, it was too much risk to send out Johnny Herbert.'' The Englishman, however, was already having an even worse day than the German as his car was dogged with transmission problems and he did not record a time. Briatore confirmed that a full technical investigation would be conducted overnight and was confident of effecting a cure.
Hill, as is his style, was careful to play down his domination, but added: "I feel much happier now to say that I'm confident, because we've got something to prove it, we've shown a bit of our form. It's early days, but when you're in good shape and things stay that way, it's easier to improve.''
Many things had been predicted for this first gathering of the 1995 cars, but few anticipated rain. After overnight storms the track remained wet in parts all morning before drying later, but it was not the weather that kept the fans away. On Tuesday thousands flocked to the Morumbi cemetery on the anniversary of what would have been Ayrton Senna's 35th birthday. Without him, the heart of their motor racing world is missing. Only a strong performance today by the local boy Rubens Barrichello may persuade them into Interlagos tomorrow.
BRAZILIAN GRAND PRIX (So Paulo) First qualifying times: 1 D Hill (GB) Williams-Renault 1min 20.081sec; 2 G Berger (Aut) Ferrari 1:21.015; 3 D Coulthard (GB) Williams-Renault 1:21.343; 4 J Alesi (Fr) Ferrari 1:21.655; 5 M Hkkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 1:22.017; 6 M Schumacher (Ger) Benetton- Renault 1:22.131; 7 O Panis (Fr) Ligier-Mugen Honda 1:22.208; 8 Eddie Irvine (GB) Jordan-Peugeot 1:22.370; 9 M Blundell (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1:22.821; 10 A Suzuki (Japan) Ligier-Mugen Honda 1:23.293; 11 R Barrichello (Bra) Jordan-Peugeot 1:23.350; 12 G Morbidelli (It) Footwork-Hart 1:23.403; 13 M Salo (Fin) Tyrrell-Yamaha 1:23.470; 14 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Sauber- Ford 1:24.065; 15 U Katayama (Japan) Tyrrell-Yamaha 1:24.165; 16 L Badoer (It) Minardi-Ford 1:24.443; 17 K Wendlinger (Aut) Sauber-Ford 1:24.723; 18 B Gachot (Bel) Pacific Lotus-Ford 1:25.819; 19 T Inoue (Japan) Footwork- Hart 1:27.036; 20 R Moreno (Bra) Forti-Ford 1:27.204; 21 A Montermini (It) Pacific Lotus-Ford 1:27.440; 22 P Diniz (Bra) Forti-Ford 1:27.876; 23 P Martini (It) Minardi-Ford 1:56.532; 24 J Verstappen (Neth) Simtek- Ford 2:01.610. Did not start: J Herbert (GB) Benetton-Renault, D Schiattarella (It) Simtek-Ford.
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