The perfect end to an emotional weekend

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 May, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 May, 1995, 12:00am

AS a Grand Prix driver, if you have any understanding of what Ayrton Senna was about, if you have any appreciation of what made him so good, then you know that the best respect you can pay to his memory is produce the sort of performance which he had always aimed for. That would mean total concentration and application with the single aim of winning.

I must admit I was apprehensive about going back to Imola for the first time since Ayrton's accident but I knew I had to focus on the job, just as he would have done. It was the best way, in my view, to handle the weekend.

Winning the San Marino Grand Prix for the Rothmans Williams Renault team was therefore poignant in that respect. But it wasn't a sad event.

The weekend wasn't weighed down by any sense of sentimentality and I think that's the way Ayrton would have liked it. His gift to everyone had been the great drives and performances produced over the years.

And I think that Sunday's Grand Prix ranked highly; it was a first-class motor race. Of course, what made it even sweeter for me was the fact that I finished the day leading the World Championship for the first time.

Michael Schumacher failed to finish and I saw the tail-end of an accident from which he was very fortunate to escape.

As I came over the top of the hill leading to Piratella, I saw him bouncing back off the tyre-wall; I knew that must have been a big accident.

The irony of that was immediately obvious. As I went past, I genuinely hoped that he was okay. It reaffirmed the underlying truth that Grand Prix racing is extremely dangerous.

No matter how many times you change the circuit, no matter how we slow down the cars, you are still travelling fast enough to do yourself a serious injury.

This was the second time that Michael had slipped up under pressure. It was an indication that he was driving to the limit and slightly over it on occasions in order to achieve his goal of trying to win everything. That is good news for us because I still believe we have something in hand.

Michael had made some comments in the press about the fact that my teammate, David Coulthard, was obviously very quick and putting pressure on me.

That's not something I'm particularly concerned about. I would expect the competition between the two drivers in any top team to be fairly intense.

If you go back through the history of Grand Prix racing, you will find there was not much difference between Niki Lauda and Alain Prost, or Ayrton Senna and Prost, or Gerhard Berger and Jean Alesi.

Yet the strange thing is that there continually seems to be a huge difference between Michael Schumacher and his teammates.

There were reports over the weekend that Michael was restricting the information available to Johnny Herbert, making Johnny's life a lot more difficult when it comes to competing against Michael.

In my view, that is an indication of a driver being overly concerned with protecting his position to the detriment of his teammate.

It seems odd that Jos Verstappen, struggling for so long alongside Schumacher, now seems to be doing a very good job for Simtek.

And it is even stranger that Johnny Herbert is so far off Michael's pace. We know that Johnny is no slouch; he managed to hold his own against Mika Hakkinen when they both drove for Lotus. He can't suddenly have lost pace since joining Benetton.

Michael left the road just after he had stopped to change from rain tyres to slicks at the end of lap 10. Decisions over tyres were very difficult, particularly as the sun had poked through the clouds moments before the start.

You could sense the immediate rise in temperature and it seemed possible that the track could begin to dry after just four or five laps.

It was marginal but something told me that the track was just too wet and slippery to risk starting on slicks, a choice made by the majority of the field although I was consoled by the fact that everyone on the first few rows of the grid remained on wet tyres.

That turned out to be the right decision although it threw a spanner in the works when it came to pit stop tactics. Obviously the first stop was going to be dictated by the need to choose the right moment to switch to slicks. We had to think on the hoof and the team did a terrific job readjusting and reading the race.

The other problem was that I had to start the race with a completely untried set-up on the car. We chose intermediate settings because we didn't know if the conditions were going to be wet or dry and that meant racing a car which was different to anything I had run during practice.

I was very keen to get through the first stage of the race intact and I must say it was a big achievement on the part of all the drivers to negotiate the first corner without an incident of any kind.

It would have been very easy, given the slippery conditions, to have called for a restart after a first corner incident. In view of what happened last year, and the safety fears about the Imola circuit, any such incident would have looked bad for all of us.

I was aware of that throughout the weekend but, as I said, my aim was to focus my mind on the reason why I was there.

Even so, there were moments when memories of 1994 came flooding back. On the day I arrived at Imola, I went with my engineer, David Brown, to inspect the changes to the circuit.

We saw the spot where tributes had been left to Ayrton at the point where he had had his accident. It was a very strange feeling.

I managed not to think about that too much until I had taken the chequered flag. Moments after crossing the line, the immediate feeling is one of elation. Then you pass the very spot were Ayrton lost his life. I looked across and saw a large picture of Ayrton surrounded by flowers. The mixture of emotions was extreme.

Last year, I frequently sought inspiration from Ayrton and I believe I drove better because I had tried very hard to understand why he was so good. Seeing that picture produced feelings which I can't really explain.

But I'd like to think Ayrton would have approved of everything about the way the Rothmans Williams Renault team dealt with what turned out to be a satisfying and emotional weekend.