New season off to a bumpy start
IT'S a bloody shame - there is no other way to put it. The Rothmans Williams Renault has been so good during winter testing, as near perfect as you can get it. To retire from the lead of the Brazilian Grand Prix with a broken transmission, particularly after taking pole position during a trouble-free two days of practice, was very hard to take. Benetton, meanwhile, were in all sorts of difficulties and yet it was Michael Schumacher who crossed the line first in Sunday's opening race of the season. You can understand why I feel robbed. But, if you want to win the championship, one of the most important things is consistency. You can't afford to hand 10 points to the opposition without scoring any yourself.
It's a great pity because this was a tough race on a tough circuit and yet I was very happy with the car. It was absolutely spot on. I wasn't even puffing when the gearbox started to play up before finally throwing me off the road at the start of lap 31. I really felt I could have completed the remaining 40 laps with no trouble at all. I have to say, however, that I had my doubts about that when practice began last Friday morning.
The circuit had been resurfaced and the drivers were looking forward to an improvement in ride on a track which had been notoriously bumpy. The first few laps indicated that the surface was actually very much worse than before.
This had nothing to do with the technical changes to the cars; it was purely a matter of the resurfacing work - if you could call it that - having been badly executed. So the first shock of the weekend came with the realisation that the race was going to be a lot tougher because the track was so bumpy. It is difficult to exaggerate just how badly the drivers were being knocked about. It was as if someone was grabbing the steering wheel out of your hand while, at the same time, bashing your head with a hammer. Your feet would be thrown off the pedals; it was a very tough ride indeed. Of course, it was the same for everyone and that's where all the training and preparation comes in. It was not ideal but it was something the drivers had to learn to cope with.
Despite all of that, the car felt good and we were able to adapt it to cope with the bumps. I managed a very good lap on the first day to take provisional pole. Schumacher had his steering problem, so that effectively put him out of the picture on Friday but I knew Benetton would bounce back. Sure enough, during final qualifying on Saturday, Michael got close - but not close enough. I retained my pole position with the time set on Friday. It was a terrific way to start things off but, even so, I would have liked to have improved my time on the second day.
At least my problems seemed minor compared to Schumacher's. I was able to watch his quick lap on the television monitor in the garage and I could see that his car was leaping about all over the place.
Of course, I had no complaints about being on pole position but I was slightly niggled that I had not been able to go quicker. I'd had an advantage over everyone; now I would have to wait for the race before hammering it home. I had a little too much wheel-spin at the start and Michael got the edge on me as a result. He was looking pretty aggressive but I wasn't prepared to get into a tangle on the first corner. I let him go and almost managed to snatch the lead when he ran wide a couple of laps later. Once again, however, it looked like he was going to close the door.
I found it quite easy to keep the pressure on even though it was difficult at times when I got close and ran in the Benetton's draught. Michael went into the pits first and, once I had clean air, I was able to go a bit quicker. After my first stop, I came out in the lead and found it easy to maintain a gap of between three and four seconds over the Benetton.
It was too good to be true. Accelerating out of one of the hairpins in second gear, the engine revs went up and I lost drive to the rear wheels. I thought my race was over there and then. I managed to find first gear and, when I ran through the gearbox, I realised I had probably lost second gear. I decided the safest policy was not to go below third.
It probably would have been a tall order to finish the race with the gearbox in that state - but I never got far enough to find out. Going through the downhill corner after the pits, I used third instead of second. As I was accelerating down the slope, something happened at the back of the car; either the gearbox locked or something broke.
Whatever the problem, the car was pitched off the road. As I finish writing this column, the dramatic news is coming through that the cars of my teammate David Coulthard who came second and Michael who won the race, have been disqualified for alleged fuel irregularities. A disastrous first race all round in many respects. There's no doubt that this is going to be a competitive season and I can say that I'm prepared for anything that happens during the remaining 15 races.