So yet again a Formula One season has started on a note of high controversy. Schumacher's Benetton and Coulthard's Williams share engines and fuel supplied by two French firms, Renault and Elf. And it was the latter who were deemed to have transgressed a new rule under which, before the season began, all teams had to supply a sample of the petrol they intended to use all season.
Designed to prevent the use of expensive and volatile compounds, the rule - and the equipment to monitor it - was tested for the first time here yesterday, and its first victims could hardly have been more sensational.
Before the race, the stewards of the meeting had fined Benetton and Williams $30,000 (£19,000) each for using fuel not conforming to the previously supplied batch in practice sessions in the cars of Schumacher and Coulthard. When the cars finished first and second, their fuel was tested again - and once more a discrepancy was discovered. This was hardly surprising, given that Elf brought only one batch of fuel out to Brazil, and it raises the question of why their teams sent the world champion and the young Scot out to race knowing that they were certain to be disqualified.
The answer is probably that the teams are certain to appeal against the penalty. Both have given notice of their intention to make a formal protest, and have seven days to confirm it. Samples of the fuel will be flown to a laboratory in England for more sophisticated tests, due to be completed before the second round of the 16-race series, at Buenos Aires in two weeks' time.
Last season's grands prix were subject to a variety of disputes, several of them concerning the legality of Schumacher's Benetton. The German driver served a two-race suspension late in the season, but came back to take the championship from Damon Hill, the Williams team leader, by a single point after the pair collided in the final race at Adelaide. The hope had been that the 1995 season would be free of such stains.
Schumacher had taken the lead yesterday at the first corner, outdragging Damon Hill off the grid and keeping his lead until the first refuelling stop. Then Hill took the lead, and held it until the 31st lap, when he spun off the track and was unable to continue.
"I wasn't too pleased with the start," Hill said, "but I was able to push Michael. Things were looking good, but I lost second gear on the lap before I went off. Going into turn one I selected third gear, but then the thing locked up and I went off."
As a spectacle, the race died with Hill's departure. Coulthard, feeling the effects of a recent bout of tonsillitis, was unable to put pressure on Schumacher over the full race distance on a punishingly bumpy track, and was eight seconds adrift of the German at the end. "I decided to settle into my own rhythm and just concentrate on not making a mistake," Coulthard said. As he celebrates his 24th birthday today, the Scot will be wishing his team's fuel suppliers had done the same.
Provisionally, at least, the Ferrari team have taken first and third places in a race in which it became obvious that their V12 engines lacked power by direct comparison with the cars powered by the V10 Renault engines. Now, it seems, they can say that the Renault's advantage was obtained by illegitimate means.
The race had begun with other worries, most concerning the new refuelling equipment, with which several teams have experienced difficulties in practice. But the authorities told them to get on with it, and there were no incidents in the race itself - although Hkkinen's crew appeared to experience difficulty removing the fuel nozzle at the end of the Finn's first stop.
Mark Blundell finished fourth in the revised results in the second McLaren, but perhaps the outstanding individual performance was that of another Finn, Mika Salo. He brought his Tyrrell-Yamaha home in fifth place despite suffering from a completely numb arm, and driving virtually one-handed for the latter part of the race.
DETAILS FROM SAO PAULO
BRAZILIAN GRAND PRIX
1 G Berger (Aut) Ferrari 1hr 38min 44.151sec (70 of 71 laps completed)
2 M Hkkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 6.844sec behind
3 J Alesi (Fr) Ferrari +50.517sec
4 M Blundell (GB) McLaren-Mercedes +1:00.309; 5 M Salo (Fin) Tyrrell- Yamaha 1 lap behind; 6 A Suzuki (Japan) Ligier-Mugen Honda +1 lap; 7 A Montermini (It) Pacific Lotus-Ford +5 laps; 8 P P Diniz (Bra) Forti-Ford +6 laps.
M Schumacher (Ger) Benetton-Renault and D Coulthard (GB) Williams-Renault corssed the line 1st and 2nd but were disqualified. There were no other finishers.
World drivers' championship standings: 1 Berger 10pts; 2 Hkkinen 6; 3 Alesi 4; 4 Blundell 3; 5 Salo 2; 6 Suzuki 1.
Constructors' championship: 1 Ferrari 14; 2 McLaren 9; 3 Tyrrell 2; 4 Ligier 1.Reuse content