Driven to distraction by threat of death
MOTOR racing is dangerous enough at the best of times but last Sunday I had to get through the German Grand Prix with the added complication of a death threat if I showed any signs of beating Michael Schumacher.
As things turned out, a first-lap incident meant I was not in a position to score a single championship point, never mind offer a challenge to Schumacher, but the thought of having someone take a shot at me made the weekend at Hockenheim a nerve-wracking experience to say the least.
The call came through to the Rothmans Williams Renault team on Friday, the message being that if I was ahead of Michael, then I would be shot on Sunday. Since my main purpose was to beat Schumacher, I was not prepared to accept the obvious get-out option.
It could have been a crank of course but, these days, you never know and we took every precaution. I used a back entrance to the circuit each day and had a police escort everywhere I went when outside the track. There was even someone on duty outside my bedroom door each night.
Under circumstances such as that, it is difficult to feel relaxed.
Everyone's cars had been changed quite dramatically for last Sunday's race in the interests of reducing performance and earlier tests had shown the Williams to be pretty competitive, so much so that I really felt up-beat about our chances against Benetton in Germany.
In any case, we now had Ferrari to worry about as well, the long straights at Hockenheim suiting their latest V12 engine. I was disappointed to be beaten by both Ferraris during practice but at least I was third fastest - ahead of Schumacher. The only drawback to that performance was the penalty clause which came with it.
I did my best to forget about the threat but it proved a bit difficult on race morning. I followed the usual obligatory procedure of taking part in the drivers' parade and, as I sat on the back of an open-topped car with my teammate, David Coulthard, the constant firing of rockets and crackers in the banked grandstands - something of a tradition inside the massive arena at Hockenheim - did little for my peace of mind.
I made a poor start and dropped to fifth almost immediately. As I accelerated out of the first corner, I looked in my mirrors and could only see dust and cars flying in all directions as Mika Hakkinen sparked off a multiple shunt. At least I was no longer under immediate pressure from behind and, just as that was registering, Jean Alesi's Ferrari blew up in front of me. So now I was fourth and comfortably poised to see how the leaders' tactics would work out.
Up ahead, I saw Schumacher take second place from Ukyo Katayama going into the first chicane. I made a good exit from the second chicane at the top of the circuit and slip-streamed the Tyrrell quite nicely as we went towards the third chicane on the back straight. I was on the left side, ideally placed to take the line and third place going through the first part of the chicane.
As we got there, Katayama was slightly ahead and, realising I might not get through, my intention was to slot in behind the Tyrrell. He started to turn in to the corner. Perhaps I should have gone up on the kerb a little more but Katayama was coming across very hard and, as a result, he thumped my right-front wheel and bent a steering arm.
I knew I wouldn't be able to carry on. It's not advisable to tackle a 200 mph straight with dodgy steering. I was effectively out of the race on the first lap.
I would not claim that it was totally Katayama's fault and I think I have to accept some of the responsibility. But I was anxious to stay in touch with the leaders and not get held up by the Tyrrell.
What made it worse was limping into the pits - only to find David Coulthard there already as damage caused during that first-corner accident was sorted out. Having two cars come in at once is the worst possible thing any team could wish for - to have it happen at the end of the first lap made the situation a complete disaster for Williams.
I lost two or three minutes while repairs were carried out and I rejoined at the back. I pressed on but it is very difficult to find motivation when your pit board says the driver in front is 95 seconds down the road.
The fact is that you do not really deserve a point if you start a lap and a half behind.
It was mild consolation to know that Michael had gone out with mechanical trouble, but his first retirement this season should have been the perfect opportunity for me to close the gap between us.
It was the chance of a rare bonus and I had allowed it to slip through my fingers.