reports from Barcelona
The course of the Formula One world championship took a sharp and significant change of direction in yesterday's Spanish Grand Prix here. Michael Schumacher and Benetton- Renault rediscovered their momentum to sweep past the stumbling Damon Hill and Williams-Renault.
The classic many predicted did not materialise simply because Schumacher, the champion, was a class apart. He and his team would have been content enough with their emphatic victory, but Hill's hydraulics failure on the last lap presented them with an unexpected bonus.
As the Williams coasted downhill from second to fourth, Schumacher stepped up to the top of the title standings and his partner, Johnny Herbert, was promoted to the runner-up position. It was the Englishman's first podium finish and long overdue reward for his determination to salvage a faltering career.
Gerhard Berger, in a Ferrari, was third, Northern Ireland's Eddie Irvine, driving a Jordan-Peugeot, was fifth and Olivier Panis, in a Ligier-Mugen, sixth.
Williams's dejection was compounded by a broken gearbox which forced out David Coulthard 10 laps from the end. A car which had seemed the pick of the field was no longer able to stay in touch with Schumacher's suddenly improved Benetton.
The German controlled proceedings from the moment his clean start assured him the advantage of his pole position. His pace catapulted him on to a plane of his own and Williams must have slumped in disbelief when they realised he had elected to make two, rather than three, pit stops. Worse still for the defeated camp, Schumacher warned of further progress still to come.
Schumacher, now a point ahead of Hill, said: "This is a good sign that Benetton are coming back. A big compliment to the team for sorting out the handling problems. We've got a consistent car and I would say we should be able to get even better because major changes are coming to the car."
Ominous words for Williams and Ferrari. Herbert will not fool himself he can challenge Schumacher for the championship, but his bolstered self- belief should provide the team's No 1 driver with the support he has long sought.
Hill's earlier attack was checked by Jean Alesi's Ferrari, though even at that stage the writing was on the wall. "There was no way I could have stayed with Michael," Hill conceded.
Alesi's engine blow-out and Berger's inability to keep in touch left Hill with an apparently comfortable second place until that final lap. He lost sixth gear, which was not a catastrophe, but then his throttle gave way and it was as much as he could do to reach the line.
"I'm gutted," he said. "I lost the championship for the want of a couple of points last year and those three points could have been important. Still, Michael will have his bad luck over the course of a season as well."
Herbert went by the struggling Williams and his emotions slipped into overdrive. Sacked by Benetton in 1989, close to quitting last year at Lotus, he returned to his original team via Ligier, conscious he had to deliver.
"This is the highest point of my career," he said. "Since I was a little kid I have wanted to do this and today's result has made all my efforts worthwhile. It's done wonders for my confidence. It's the breakthrough I have been waiting for. The pressure was on me to show I could still do it and now there's no reason why I can't do this again, or even better."
Martin Brundle, in his first race of the season, was ninth in a Ligier and Nigel Mansell retired his McLaren-Mercedes after crossing a gravel track. "The car was virtually undriveable and I didn't want to stay out there to have an accident," he said.
DETAILS FROM BARCELONA
SPANISH GRAND PRIX
(65 laps, 191 miles)
1 M Schumacher (Ger) Benetton-Renault 1hr 34min 20.507sec (ave speed 121.392mph)
2 J Herbert (GB) Benetton-Renault +51.988sec
3 G Berger (Aut) Ferrari +1min 5.237sec
4 D Hill (GB) Williams-Renault +2:01.749
5 E Irvine (GB) Jordan-Peugeot +1 lap
6 O Panis (Fr) Ligier-Mugen Honda +1
7 R Barrichello (Bra) Jordan-Peugeot +1
8 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Sauber-Ford +1
9 M Brundle (GB) Ligier-Mugen Honda +1
10 M Salo (Fin) Tyrrell-Yamaha +1
11 G Morbidelli (It) Footwork-Hart +2 laps
12 J Verstappen (Neth) Simtek-Ford +2
13 K Wendlinger (Aut) Sauber-Ford +2
14 P Martini (It) Minardi-Ford +3
15 D Schiattarella (It) Simtek-Ford +4.
Did not finish: 16 U Katayama (Japan) Tyrrell-Yamaha 56 laps completed; 17 D Coulthard (GB) Williams-Renault 54; 18 M Hkkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 53; 19 T Inohue (Japan) Footwork-Hart 43; 20 B Gachot (Bel) Lotus Pacific- Ford 43; 21 R Moreno (Bra) Forti-Ford 39; 22 J Alesi (Fr) Ferrari 25; 23 L Badoer (It) Minardi-Ford 21; 24 N Mansell (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 18; 25 P Diniz (Bra) Forti-Ford 17; 26 A Montermini (It) Lotus Pacific-Ford 0.
World drivers' championship
(after four rounds)
1 Schumacher 24pts; 2 Hill 23; 3 Alesi 14; 4 Berger 13; 5= Coulthard, Herbert 9; 7 Hkkinen 5; 8 Frentzen 3; 9 Irvine 2; 10 Panis, M Blundell (GB) 1.
1 Ferrari 27; 2 Williams 26; 3 Benetton 23; 4 McLaren 6; 5 Sauber 3; 6 Jordan 2; 7 Ligier 1.