Schumacher; the master of all elements

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The Independent Online
Motor racing

There are moments in sport that seize the senses and freeze in history. To such towering performances as Ali's Rumble in the Jungle, Coe's mission of vengeance at the Moscow Olympics, and Best's annihilation of Benfica in the Stadium of Light, add Michael Schumacher's mastery of fellow man and the elements in the 1996 Spanish Grand Prix.

Schumacher's name had already been embossed among the greats of motor racing, his victories last season at Spa and Nurburgring presenting confirmation of his supremacy over his contemporaries. Even here, at the Circuit de Catalunya, he demonstrated an unequalled talent and confounded all two years ago by driving to second place despite being stuck in fifth gear.

In yesterday's race, however, the German redefined his class, distancing himself from the rest in extreme conditions, torrential rain creating rivers across the track and numbing hands endeavouring to retain control of steering wheels which seemingly had minds of their own.

In the grand prix sphere, Schumacher evoked memories of Ayrton Senna's classic drive at a wet and, at best, damp Donington, in 1993, where his domination on the track was matched only by his merciless destruction of Alain Prost off it. Those with longer pedigrees in four-wheel combat were reminded of Jackie Stewart's eclipse of all-comers in a downpour at the Nurburgring in 1968, where he beat the second-placed Graham Hill by more than four minutes.

Schumacher's Ferrari crossed the line here a more modest 45 seconds ahead of Jean Alesi's Benetton-Renault, with Jacques Villeneuve, in a Williams- Renault, third, but by then the scale of the champion's win was undisputed. Another awful start had left him jostling in the spray with the midfield sloggers, the leaders already threatening to stretch out beyond reach. Halfway round that first lap he had advanced to seventh place, at the end of it to sixth.

Eddie Irvine, in the other Ferrari, spun off on the second lap, Damon Hill, in the other Williams, slid off and returned behind Schumacher on the fourth. A lap later, the surviving Ferrari went past Gerhard Berger's Benetton to take third place.

Ahead lay Alesi and Villeneuve, and both succumbed to Schumacher at Seat, a left-hander which proffered barely any margin for error, on the ninth and 12th laps respectively.

Now in front, Schumacher was able to push on, into a place alone, into our consciousness for ever. He extended his advantage by up to four seconds a lap. Villeneuve, as though awe-struck by the phenomenon he was witnessing in this, his first season of Formula One, said: "Michael just flew by me and once he was in front he just left me standing."

Schumacher still had his concerns, and not merely because of the water, which fell incessantly from the heavens. His engine groaned in ominously unfamiliar tones, the tell-tale signs of problems and a loss of power. With a lead of more than a minute he managed to absorb the handicap and cruised over the final two laps.

All this at the end of a weekend when he feared Ferrari had lost their momentum, that they would be no match for Williams, and that he was still further away from his maiden victory for the Italian team. That backdrop merely heightened the appreciation of gripping theatre yesterday.

They all talked of horrendous working conditions, of zero visibility, of a track and fingers like ice. Schumacher was among those who felt the race should have started behind a safety car. This truly was a scene of gripping theatre. And Schumacher stood there, on the centre, on his own.

He said: "It's amazing. I wouldn't have bet a penny on it. I don't know why, but the car was perfect and the nature of the circuit just suited it. There were three or four points on the circuit which were critical, with panels of water. My teeth were chattering louder than the engine because it was so cold. I was worried about the engine. I was down to eight or nine cylinders, but we made it."

Schumacher's elation contrasted with Hill's despair. Having survived that early spin, and another, he leaned on Lady Luck once too often and came to a halt along the pit wall. Bad enough for him that his championship lead over Villeneuve and Schumacher had been reduced to 17 points, but perhaps more difficult to take was the ignominy he had to endure.

"I have no one to blame but myself," Hill said. "I made three mistakes and had the wrong set-up. I reckon I'm as good as anyone in the wet so I have to work out what went wrong. I hope it's not too costly to the championship in the long run.

"The big problem was visibility. You are putting your life on the line more than normal because you cannot see. It's not just your life but other drivers'."

Villeneuve was behind Alesi after their pit-stops and, in spite of a spirited chase through a curtain of spray draped at the back of the Frenchman's gearbox, could not regain second place. Heinz-Harald Frentzen, in a Sauber- Ford, was fourth, Mika Hakkinen, of McLaren-Mercedes, was fifth, and Pedro Diniz claimed his first point with sixth place in the Ligier-Mugen-Honda.

Hill was not the only Briton snared by the wet. Johnny Herbert, in the other Sauber, Martin Brundle, in a Jordan-Peugeot, and David Coulthard, in the other McLaren, all came to grief.

Spanish Grand Prix

1 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1hr 59min 49.307 10pts

2 J Alesi (Fr) Benetton-Renault +45.302 6pts

3 J Villeneuve (Can) Williams-Renault +48.388 4pts

4 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Sauber-Ford +one lap 3pts

5 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes +one lap 2pts

6 P Diniz (Bra) Ligier-Mugen-Honda +two laps 1pt

Not classified (did not finish): 7 J Verstappen (Neth) Footwork- Hart 47 laps completed; 8 R Barrichello (Bra) Jordan- Peugeot 45; 9 G Berger (Aut) Benetton- Renault 44; 10 J Herbert (GB) Sauber-Ford 20; 11 M Brundle (GB) Jordan- Peugeot 17; 12 M Salo (Fin) Tyrrell-Yamaha 16; 13 D Hill (GB) Williams- Renault 10; 14 U Katayama (Japan) Tyrrell-Yamaha 8; 15 E Irvine (GB) Ferrari 1; 16 O Panis (Fr) Ligier-Mugen- Honda 1; 17 G Fisichella (It) Minardi-Ford 1. Failed to finish first lap: 18 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes; 19 R Rosset (Bra) Footwork- Hart; 20 P Lamy (Por) Minardi-Ford. Fastest lap: M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1min 45.517sec on lap 14.

Drivers' championship

1 D Hill 43pts

2= J Villeneuve 26

M Schumacher 26

4 J Alesi 17

5 O Panis 11

6 D Coulthard 10

Constructors' championship

1 Williams-Renault 69

2 Ferrari 35

3 Benetton-Renault 24

4 McLaren-Mercedes 18

5 Ligier-Mugen-Honda 12

6 Sauber-Ford 10