NEWS FEATURE

Review of the year 1997

What a year! Way back in March it looked as though Jacques Villeneuve would sweep all before him in the 1997 World Championship but it all went horribly wrong and for most of the season an inspired Michael Schumacher led the title race, scoring memorable and brilliant wins at Monaco and Spa.

Villeneuve did his share of winning as well but in the mid-season seemed to lose his balance and he began to make mistakes. His crash in Montreal was a basic error. His starts were often very poor and his tendency to ignore yellow flags ended up getting him into trouble.

Schumacher's hopes of a World Championship looked to be finished by the Luxembourg Grand Prix when he was taken out of the race at the first corner by his impetuous brother Ralf, but Villeneuve's exclusion in Japan (for a yellow flag infringement) set up a grandstand finish for the World Championship at Jerez de la Frontera.

And there Michael Schumacher tarnished his reputation for ever. Clearly beaten by Villeneuve he did the only thing he could do - just as he had done with Damon Hill in Adelaide in 1994 - he simply turned his car into a weapon and tried to drive his rival off the track. It was a move which he would come to regret in the weeks that followed as the world's media torn him to shreds. He continued to protest his innocence to a ludicrous extent and merely made himself look worse. The FIA took away his second place in the World Championship but left him with his wins and points. It was an irrelevant punishment which achieved nothing except to make the governing body look ridiculous. An attempt to create a smokescreen by suggesting that the Grand Prix of Europe had been fixed by Williams and McLaren did nothing except to make the sport appear more morally corrupt than is really the case and it was not helped by the fact that these events coincided with unseemly revelations about Formula 1, politicians and tobacco legislation which cast the sport in a very bad light.

This was such a shame, because it had been a great year for Grand Prix racing, the on-track excitement drawing in more and more spectators around the world. Villeneuve and Schumacher were the stars - and the villains - but the supporting cast did a great job as well: the perennially unlucky Mika Hakkinen finally won a race, even if it was a hollow victory. McLaren showed signs of returning to form. New boys Giancarlo Fisichella, Alexander Wurz and Jarno Trulli showed themselves to be stars in the making, while Olivier Panis and Gerhard Berger both provided heart-warming comebacks against great adversity.

Jordan, Stewart and Prost all gave signs that they will develop into competitive operations.

Let us hope that when the circus gets together again in Melbourne next March all that will behind us and we will have some great sport - as well as some great driving.

Australia

McLaren won the Australian Grand Prix - the team's first victory in 50 races and the first with sponsorship from West. It was a dream come true for Ron Dennis and his team but it was not really significant. Luck was on their side and while they used it well there is no doubt that David Coulthard would not have won but for Williams misfortunes. In Formula 1, however, a win is a win and it doesn't matter how it is achieved.

Melbourne proved that the Williams-Renaults would be the cars to beat in 1997. Jacques Villeneuve took pole by massive 1.7secs a lap faster than Frentzen, who made a bit of a dog's breakfast of qualifying but managed to squeeze himself onto the front row nonetheless. Jacques's pole was three seconds faster than in 1996 which was largely down to tyre war between Goodyear and Bridgestone. Both companies would be developing fast all year.

The opposition had expected Williams to be quick but Melbourne was the realization that it was going to be an uphill struggle for the rest of the year.

The closest challenger was Michael Schumacher in his Ferrari and he was over two seconds slower than Villeneuve. Eddie Irvine was fifth behind Coulthard's McLaren with Mika Hakkinen sixth in the second McLaren.

Olivier Panis was the fastest Bridgestone runner but he was down in ninth place which was disappointing, although the Bridgestone men reckoned it was not bad as they had never been to Melbourne before.

There was major disappointment for Arrows and Lola. Arrows had heady dreams but were let down by the Yamaha V10 engines. Damon Hill only just qualified. Lola failed completely, the two cars - which would never be seen again - were over 10secs off the pole.

British fans were to be disappointed in the early minutes of the F1 season. Hill's race ended before it began when his car failed on the parade lap and then Eddie Irvine contrived to wipe himself out of the race - taking Villeneuve and Johnny Herbert with him.

Herbert had made a great start from seventh on the grid and was about to take second place from Frentzen when he was punted out. The impetuous Irvine had stormed up the inside of Coulthard on the dusty track and tried to brake very late. He misjudged it completely and his momentum carried him race leader Villeneuve. The two then slid into Herbert. There was no red flag.

With the favorite out of the way Frentzen and Coulthard were up front. Frentzen had worries about his brakes and so was going for a two-stop strategy while Coulthard was on a one-stop strategy. Heinz-Harald looked to have everything under control until a wheel problem during his second pit stop lost him a vital six seconds and he dropped to third. He tried to catch up, using more brakes than he had and so a brake disc exploded with three laps to go, and Heinz-Harald found himself in a sand trap.

Schumacher finished second, despite a refuelling problem which forced him to make an extra pit stop and Hakkinen was third.

Brazil

The Brazilian Grand Prix in Sao Paulo saw Jacques Villeneuve return to his winning ways after the frustration of the Australian Grand Prix. He took pole position at Interlagos and he was the race with ease, despite a scare during an abortive first start.

In qualifying Jacques's advantage over his rivals was greatly reduced from that of Melbourne, with Michael Schumacher just half a second behind. This was due more to the fact that Villeneuve's qualifying was disrupted than to any great improvement from Schumacher. Jacques never had a proper final run in qualifying because of a water leak in his race car which meant he had to switch across to the spare car, which was set up for Frentzen. Heinz-Harald also had a miserable time in those final minutes of qualifying, because a late-session red flag came out as he was on his fastest run and he had to settle for eighth on the grid as a result.

Another reason that the gap was reduced is that the varied nature of the corners at Interlagos means that it is a track which promotes close grids. This year there were 14 drivers covered by just 1.7secs.

While Villeneuve had done a competent job, the star of qualifying was actually Michael Schumacher who was outstanding as he qualified second in what looked like a very evil-handling Ferrari. Eddie Irvine was nowhere near the pace of his team leader.

Gerhard Berger was third in his Benetton, a great improvement from the depressingly poor performance of the team in Australia while Hakkinen showed once again that the McLarens were there or thereabouts with fourth on the grid, just ahead of Olivier Panis in his Prost-Mugen Honda. Olivier's performance showed that not only were the Bridgestone tyres more competitive than in Australia but also that the Prost package was a good one.

Damon Hill had a better time in Brazil, qualifying ninth.

On race day the first start was a disaster with Villeneuve and Schumacher side-by-side as they dived into the first corner. Villeneuve tried to brake later than Schumacher but left it too late and slid off onto the grass, leaving Michael to take the lead. This left Berger second and Panis third. Red flags came out because behind this Hill had collided with Giancarlo Fisichella's Jordan and Frentzen had gone off in avoidance and further back still Herbert and Irvine had collided again, Eddie then driving straight into the path of Jan Magnussen's Stewart. Rubens Barrichello's Stewart was also in trouble - stuck on the grid with a gearbox problem.

It took a while to sort everything out and then it was off once more with Schumacher taking the lead again. At the end of the first lap, Villeneuve sailed past the Ferrari and took the lead back, driving quickly away from Schumacher to build a lead. Schumacher dropped back to be overtaken within a few laps by Berger.

Panis drove a strong race with a one-stop strategy and might have won the race for Bridgestone had he emerged ahead of Villeneuve rather than just behind him. He finished a strong third, a great result for Bridgestone and for new team owner Alain Prost.

Argentina

Jacques Villeneuve won again in Buenos Aires, being chased home by Eddie Irvine and Ralf Schumacher. The result was a 1-2-3 finish for Goodyear but if Olivier Panis had not suffered an engine failure he would probably have given the Prost team and Bridgestone their first F1 victories.

Qualifying had hinted at Panis's speed but once again it had been the two Williams-Renaults which were on the front row despite the fact that Villeneuve had stomach troubles and Frentzen was suffering from a nasty dose of influenza. Despite this Jacques was eight-tenths of a second faster than Heinz-Harald and a second ahead of Panis. It was a pretty impressive gap given that Jacques was ill.

The progress which has been made in the tyre war was highlighted by the fact that Villeneuve's pole in Buenos Aires - despite his sickness - was six seconds faster than Damon Hill's lap in 1996.

Third on the grid was Panis's best ever F1 qualifying position and he was confident that the Prost-Mugen Honda would be very quick in race conditions.

Panis's speed pushed Schumacher down to fourth on the grid and Michael was not slow to point out that his Goodyear tyres were not as good as the Bridgestones.

A further indication of this was the appearance in the big league of Rubens Barrichello in his Stewart-Ford, fifth on the grid after the team had a major rethink on suspension settings.

Jordan also looked more competitive and Ralf Schumacher qualified sixth with Giancarlo Fisichella ninth.

The race would see the third first corner crash of the year with Michael Schumacher to blame on this occasion. First he chopped Panis viciously on the run down to the corner. The impact had bent Panis's steering.

Villeneuve got into the corner ahead of Frentzen and a very fast-starting Irvine. Panis was fourth. Michael Schumacher had lost ground after his assault on Panis and as they all braked for the first corner he ran into the back of Barrichello. In the ensuing chaos Coulthard lost a wheel. It was decided that a Safety Car was needed. It would stay out for four laps while the wreckage was cleared up. Almost immediately after it pulled off Frentzen retired with a clutch problem and so Panis was second. He rapidly caught Villeneuve and looked for a way past but then settled back to shadow Jacques, realising that he would be making fewer pit stops. Sadly on lap 19 Olivier's engine failed.

Villeneuve was thus 20secs clear of Irvine and running to a three-stop strategy while Irvine ran to a two-stop plan. It was a close run thing but Villeneuve won by 0.979s at the flag.

Third place went to Ralf Schumacher - which looked like a good result but in fact had been a disaster for Jordan. Fisichella and Schumacher had been running a one-stop strategy and had risen to second and third places behind Villeneuve as the mid-race approached. Ralf challenged Fisichella in a ridiculous move and they collided. It put Fisichella out and cost Ralf five seconds which would prove to be vital later on when an extra five seconds would have put him ahead of Villeneuve during the mid-race pit stops.

San Marino

After three disappointing races pressure was mounting on Heinz-Harald Frentzen to show why he had been hired by Williams to replace Damon Hill. At Imola Heinz-Harald delivered the goods, beating not only Jacques Villeneuve, but also Michael Schumacher after an interesting tactical battle. There was, however, no doubt about it - Frentzen can do the job.

Qualifying had been an interesting battle between Heinz-Harald and Villeneuve with the two getting so worked up that they both ended up in trouble with the stewards for ignoring yellow flags. More of that later...

It ended up with Villeneuve slightly faster, the French-Canadian grunge king taking his fifth consecutive pole position. Imola is a track which promotes close qualifying and there were five drivers covered by a second, although Jacques was six-tenths faster than the third-placed Schumacher. Frentzen looked a lot more feisty than in the early races and was second on the grid, although both he and Villeneuve ran into trouble with the stewards

Olivier Panis continued to impress with the Bridgestone-shod Prost-Mugen Honda and qualified fourth on the grid ahead of the two Jordan-Peugeots: Ralf Schumacher slightly faster than Giancarlo Fisichella, the pair not speaking to one another after their incident in Argentina.

But if we expected fireworks after three consecutive first corner incidents there would be none at Imola. The field was fairly well-behaved as Villeneuve took the lead although Michael Schumacher had a try at gumming things up by giving Frentzen a fairly nasty chop. This bumped Heinz-Harald back to third and there he stayed for the first part of the race, bottled up behind the Ferrari. At one point Schumacher made a mistake and Heinz-Harald nearly got passed but Michael chopped him again. It was only when Schumacher pitted that Frentzen was free to chase Villeneuve. On his first lap out of captivity he was two seconds a lap faster than previously.

The first pit stops would decide the race with the top three all coming in within a few laps of one another - Heinz-Harald being the last to stop. Schumacher was the fastest in the pits, while the Williams boys were evenly matched. But on the IN and OUT laps Frentzen was far quicker and emerged just ahead of Schumacher. Michael tried to pass him and received a severe chop from Heinz-Harald - repayment for his early behavior. As soon as his tyres were fully up to temperature Heinz-Harald began to pull away.

In the middle part of the race Villeneuve challenged Schumacher for second but then he began to drop back with gear-change problems which would lead to his retirement. This left third place for Eddie Irvine, but only after Unsteady Eddie had fought a stirring battle with Fisichella. David Coulthard might have had third place for McLaren thanks to a clever one-stop strategy, but just after he got ahead his Mercedes-Benz engine blew up - which put paid to his chances of glory. It would be something that David and Mika Hakkinen would grow more used to as the season progressed.

Monaco

Monaco is a race track where a great driver can do great things and the car he drives is not as important as at other circuits. Thus it was that Michael Schumacher was able to win his third Monaco victory - on a day when Williams got it horribly and embarrassingly wrong.

After his victory at Imola Heinz-Harald Frentzen seemed to be on a roll as he took pole at Monaco, outpacing even Schumacher who seemed positively shaken by Frentzen's lap time and made a bit of a mess of his final run as a result.

As usual Villeneuve was not happy at Monaco and clonked a barrier as he went on his final qualifying run, deranging his rear suspension. Fisichella confirmed his domination over Ralf Schumacher with fourth on the grid while Ralf was sixth, the pair split by Coulthard's McLaren.

Benetton finally managed to get a driver into the top 10 for the first time since Brazil, Jean Alesi - who loves Monaco - dragging his car to ninth.

The Bridgestone tyres were not on the pace on this occasion, the Japanese tyremaker having been rather too conservative.

It would be a different story in the race because half an hour before the start rain began to fall. It was uncertain whether this would clear quickly or hang around all afternoon. The teams had different views. Williams, no doubt remembering Keke Rosberg's glorious victory in 1983, chose to start with dry settings and dry tyres. Michael Schumacher went for full wet settings and wet tyres. The two Jordans went for intermediates. It was all very complicated.

At the start the Williams boys realized their mistake as they were swallowed up by the field, while Michael Schumacher disappeared up the hill from Ste Devote never to be seen again by the opposition. It was a quite brilliant performance and the weather helped him. It continued to rain all afternoon. In five laps he had a lead of five seconds and when the lead reached half a minute he cruised. He even had time to lose 10 seconds going up an escape road but re-emerged still in the lead and duly won by 53secs. It would have been more but he backed off in the final laps in order to avoid having to do one extra lap before the two hour limit brought out the chequered flag.

It was a faultless display of clear-thinking and skillful driving. Suddenly, unexpectedly, he was leading the World Championship.

No-one was even close to him. In the early laps the two Jordans chased after him but they were quickly overhauled by Rubens Barrichello, profiting from the rather good Bridgestone wet tyres and the smooth if underpowered Ford V10.

In the early laps the McLaren team wiped itself out, Coulthard spinning and Hakkinen taking off Alesi as he tried to avoid his team mate. Jean then rejoined right into the path of Damon Hill, which ended the World Champion's day at the races.

Through the carnage to third place came Eddie Irvine.

Spain

Before the season began Tom Walkinshaw said that at half the races Goodyear and Bridgestone would be finely balanced. At four of the others Goodyear would be ahead but on four occasions the Bridgestones would be superior to the Goodyears and a moderately competitive and reliable car would be able to win. The Spanish Grand Prix was very definitely a Bridgestone race - but the Japanese tyremaker did not win because in qualifying the tyres chosen were too conservative. Olivier Panis, the fastest Bridgestone runner, was down in 12th on the grid which in modern Formula 1 is far too far back to make an impression. In the race it was a different story but starting so far back handicapped Panis enormously.

Up at the front it was the same story as at all the early races of the season with a Williams versus a Williams. As Frentzen's confidence improved after his shaky start so Heinz-Harald became more of a threat and at Barcelona the fight for pole was a good battle which Jacques Villeneuve won by just 0.26s. The third fastest car - on this occasion the McLaren of David Coulthard - was a full second behind Jacques. McLaren's leap forward came thanks to the introduction of a completely new V10 engine from Mercedes-Benz, evidence that the German manufacturer is very serious about winning in F1 and desperate enough - having not done so for two years - to invest more and more to get the job done.

Jean Alesi was fourth fastest, Benetton having managed to get the set-up right for once and with Hakkinen fifth and Berger sixth the grid was rather unusual. Michael Schumacher was way back in seventh position.

In qualifying all the Goodyear men had complained that the track was eating up the tyres and so the race would be a very different story.

The start was a dramatic one for Michael Schumacher who got away well passing Hakkinen and Berger in a flash. Then Alesi and Frentzen opened up a gap for him and Michael emerged from the first corner in third place, behind Villeneuve and Coulthard. They were dicing for the lead and as they did so Jacques forced David to brake for a second. He lost momentum and Schumacher was through into second place. Michael tried to challenge for the lead but after a few laps his tyres began to deteriorate and Villeneuve, who had been more careful with his tyres, was able to pull away and build up a 20 seconds lead.

Most of the field had chosen a three-stop strategy but Villeneuve, Alesi and Panis had gone for two. It was panis who made the most progress, moving up to second place thanks to the strategy and his consistent Bridgestones. As he was closing on Villeneuve in the last part of the race he was very badly held up by a lapped Irvine - Eddie being given a well-deserved 10sec stop-and-go penalty as a result. By then Panis had lost too much and a challenge for the lead was out of the question. Alesi, the other two-stopper, drove an intelligent race preserving his tyres to come home third.

And so the F1 circus headed for Canada with Villeneuve back in the lead in the World Championship...

Canada

Michael Schumacher usually makes his own luck but in Montreal he was enormously fortunate to win and with Villeneuve making an elementary error and crashing embarrassingly in the early laps, Michael moved ahead once again in the World Championship race.

It had been a dreadful weekend for Villeneuve who looked spooked throughout, having had to disrupt his pre-race preparation with a trip to the FIA in Paris for a telling-off for being rude about the 1998 regulations.

To add to his woes, all the Goodyear runners were struggling because, unknown to Goodyear, the track had been resurfaced and the American tyres were overheating and blistering.

The unsettling pattern continued in qualifying with a red flag just five minutes from the end of the session. In such circumstances Michael Schumacher excels and he did it again in Montreal, stealing pole from Villeneuve by 0.013s. A tiny margin. Third on the grid was a surprising Rubens Barrichello, profiting from his Bridgestone tyres, while Frentzen was fourth, Coulthard fifth and then the Jordans, Fisichella again faster than Ralf Schumacher. At Benetton Berger had been replaced by test driver Alexander Wurz, Gerhard having sinus surgery to cure a problem which had affected his performance all year.

Panis was back in 10th but he was the favorite for the race. Such ideas ended at the first corner when Hakkinen braked unexpectedly and Olivier ploughed into the back of the McLaren.

Up at the front Schumacher held the lead from Villeneuve, while Barrichello slipped into the pack to be replaced in third by a fast-starting Fisichella.

Schumacher was pushing hard and, trying to keep up, Villeneuve made his mistake. It left Fisichella in second. Schumacher's built an advantage but lost it when a Safety Car was despatched after Ukyo Katayama crashed his Minardi. When the caution period was over Michael took off again but McLaren had a better strategy - Coulthard stopping only once while Michael stopped twice - and when the Ferrari stopped for the second time, David wet ahead. Schumacher destroyed his tyres trying to catch up and had to pit again. As a precaution McLaren called Coulthard in for new tyres. There was no pressure but suddenly the McLaren stalled. Seconds later seventh-placed Panis, who had driven like a madman to make up for lost ground, crashed heavily when his suspension broke. The impact broke the Prost monocoque and Olivier suffered two broken legs. The Safety Car came out again but after three laps, as Panis lay beside his car, the race was stopped. The red flag gave Schumacher an unlikely victory while Alesi, who had overtaken Fisichella in the first pit stop sequence, was classified second with the Jordan driver in third - collecting his first podium finish.

It became clear that Panis would be out of action for most of the rest of the season and although they did not admit it, it was a massive blow to Bridgestone ambitions...

France

After his gaffe in Montreal Jacques Villeneuve seemed to lose his equilibrium. He appeared at Magny-Cours with his hair dyed blond - a move which the amateur psychologists in the F1 paddock felt was deeply significant.

In practice on Saturday morning Jacques showed that he was not his normal self, crashing his car heavily. This meant that the qualifying session was compromised and so Villeneuve ended up a disappointing fourth on the grid.

This was a big disappointment for Renault which had a new evolution engine, packed with some extra horsepower. Ferrari, however, seemed to have made the biggest leap forward - the whisper in the paddock was that there was something in the electronics.

Frentzen would probably have taken pole in place of Villeneuve but for a fuel pressure on his final qualifying run and so it was that Michael Schumacher emerged fastest with Heinz-Harald second.

Third was a resurgent Ralf Schumacher, making it a German 1-2-3, while Giancarlo Fisichella seemed a little off-balance - probably because of negotiations taking place with Benetton for 1998 - and was way down in 11th position.

Underlining Ferrari's new-found form was Irvine, fifth on the grid just ahead of Jarno Trulli - who was standing in for the injured Panis. It was a remarkable performance given the small amount of time Trulli had had working with the Prost team.

Wurz continued to impress at Benetton taking seventh on the grid, just outqualifying Alesi.

On Sunday the weather was uncertain and so the drivers went to the grid with a variety of different set-ups. The rain stayed off at the start and it was Irvine who had the best first lap, passing Ralf Schumacher and Villeneuve to take third behind Michael Schumacher and Frentzen. Villeneuve was fourth with Ralf Schumacher ahead of the two McLarens - which had both past Trulli at the start. The order remained unchanged up front until late in the race when rain began to fall and it was a question of whether to pit for tyres or hope that the rain would go away.

Both Schumacher and Frentzen stayed out, tiptoeing along while others dashed in and out of the pits. On one lap Schumacher ran wide but rejoined still ahead.

Further back Irvine struggled in the wet as Villeneuve's car worked better in wet conditions. Behind them Coulthard pitted for intermediates and began to close at five seconds a lap. Jacques and Eddie both had to pit. Eddie came out ahead of David but Jacques was behind both the McLaren and Ralf Schumacher.

In the final laps Coulthard, Schumacher Jr, Villeneuve and Alesi ran nose to tail and there was plenty of action as one after another made mistakes. Villeneuve fought through to chase a struggling Irvine. He caught the Ferrari on the last lap and spun as he tried to challenge at the last corner. Jacques managed to get back onto the track before Alesi arrived, Jean having punted Coulthard off on that last lap.

An so Michael Schumacher's lead in the World Championship grew to 14 points...

Great Britain

After the disappointment in Canada and France Jacques Villeneuve seemed to be back on form at Silverstone, grabbing pole by a tenth from his team-mate Heinz-Harald Frentzen.

Mika Hakkinen looked strong in third place and McLaren's pace was confirmed by David Coulthard's fifth place, the two McLarens being split by Schumacher's Ferrari. Further back the battle was incredibly tight with seven drivers covered by 0.12s.

Bridgestone, however, was not on the pace with Damon Hill, the fastest on the Japanese rubber, being 12th on the grid, rankled into action by criticism in the British newspapers from Arrows team boss Tom Walkinshaw.

The first attempt at a start had to aborted when Frentzen stalled his car and so the German was sent to the back of the grid and lost all hopes of a good result.

The second start saw Coulthard charge from fifth to challenge Michael Schumacher for second at the first corner. The Ferrari stayed ahead but David slotted into third place ahead of Hakkinen, a fast-starting Johnny Herbert and the rest.

Frentzen tried to make up for lost ground but his race ended on the first lap when he collided with Jos Verstappen's Tyrrell.

There would be a Safety Car at the end of the first lap because Katayama had crashed into the pitwall at the start. The Safety Car stayed out for four laps and then Jacques and Michael began to pull away from Coulthard, who was having brake problems and holding up everyone else. Gradually Villeneuve began to edge ahead of the Ferrari but then his progress stopped. He had a slightly loose front wheel and had to be a little circumspect. Both Jacques and Michael were planning two stops and pitted early. Villeneuve's hopes of victory seemed to be compromised when the loose wheel proved to be difficult to get off its hub. He lost half a minute, but because Coulthard had held up the pack Jacques dropped only to seventh place.

When the one-stop brigade stopped at mid-race Schumacher was left within a lead of more than 40secs and he was still ahead when he came out of the pits. A few hundred metres later the Ferrari began to smoke. The wheelbearings were shot.

As everyone ahead of Villeneuve had pitted he was back in the lead, but he had to stop again and when he rejoined this time he was behind Hakkinen, who had passed the struggling Coulthard.

Jacques chased but there was little hope of victory until seven laps from the end when Hakkinen's engine blew and Jacques cruised home to a fortunate win.

Coulthard's problems and Herbert's retirement meant that Benetton took second and third, Alesi finishing just ahead of Wurz while Coulthard was fourth and Ralf Schumacher fifth.

The crowd got excited about Damon Hill's sixth position, overlooking the fact that it came only because Shinji Nakano's Prost had blown up.

It was Williams's Formula 1 100th victory at the same track where 18 years earlier Clay Regazzoni had scored the team's first.

Germany

Benetton did not get it right very often in 1997 but at Hockenheim Gerhard Berger - back in action after three races out of action - had a memorable weekend, taking pole and winning his tenth F1 victory. In fact the win was fortunate as victory should have gone to Jordan's Giancarlo Fisichella, but the young Italian got a little over-excited and made a vital error which put Gerhard back into the lead.

Before the race there had been suggestions that Alexander Wurz, who had done such a good job as a replacement, should stay on in the drive. The result ended such speculation.

In qualifying Gerhard was in control from the first few minutes of the qualifying session. At the end of the session he was left to knock himself off pole - although in the dying seconds Giancarlo Fisichella got within 0.02s of the veteran Austrian star.

Jordan had some new tweaks for the high-speed circuits of high summer but these were largely wasted by Ralf Schumacher who was overdriving. trying to keep pace with his team mate and ended up seventh on the grid.

Third on the grid was Mika Hakkinen although the Mercedes-Benz engines remained unreliable and David Coulthard could qualify only eighth after a failure on Saturday morning.

For once the Williams-Renaults were struggling with Frentzen fifth on the grid and Jacques Villeneuve a confused ninth. With Michael Schumacher fourth on the grid Jacques's World Championship situation was none too healthy. Things looked even worse at the end of the first lap with Schumacher, grabbing third place from Hakkinen.

Irvine and Frentzen took each other out at the first corner and Coulthard was hit in the confusion.

Berger chose a two-stop strategy and so had to build a quick lead. Fisichella - running to a one-stop strategy - thus took the lead until he pitted and Berger went ahead again. Gerhard needed to be far enough ahead to make another stop but this was not looking likely, even before Gerhard came up behind Jan Magnussen's Stewart as its engine blew. This lost Gerhard a couple of seconds and so when Gerhard stopped Fisichella was ahead again. Fisichella had only to control the race to the finish. Under pressure from Berger he made a mistake almost immediately and Berger was ahead again.

Fisichella would later have a puncture and would retire with radiator trouble, which meant that Michael Schumacher collected an unexpected six points for second place, despite gearbox trouble and another last-minute pit stop for extra fuel.

Hakkinen finished third for McLaren while Trulli would probably have been on the podium if he had not made a mistake as he rushed into the pits, trying to get ahead of Villeneuve, who had blocked his progress for the first half of the race. As a result he found himself behind Jacques once again but this time his pressure paid off and Villeneuve cracked, spinning off as Jarno challenged him.

Hungary

After a less than impressive time at Hockenheim Jacques Villeneuve was struggling in Hungary until luck intervened to hand him 10 points on a day when Michael Schumacher scored only three. The German stayed ahead in the World Championship but after Budapest the gap was down to just three points.

The race in Hungary was dominated in unlikely fashion by Damon Hill - on a day when Bridgestones were working much better than Goodyears. Practice had shown that the Japanese rubber worked best at higher temperatures but in qualifying it was cool and so Michael Schumacher was able to grab pole with a new lightweight Ferrari. There was talk of electronic systems once again but the FIA said everything was legal and so there was no argument.

Villeneuve was right on the limit and clawed his way to second on the grid while Hill qualified a remarkable third, a result he explained that was due to the fact that the track did not need a lot of horsepower, that the chassis was better than people thought and that the Bridgestones were working. The Arrows team added that Damon was a lot more motivated than he had been during the early season disasters.

Mika Hakkinen put his McLaren fourth on the grid and Eddie Irvine was fifth but it was significant that Heinz-Harald Frentzen, who made the unusual choice of running harder Goodyear tyres, was sixth. All the other frontrunners had opted for the softer Goodyear rubber. If it was hot on Sunday Heinz-Harald would be well-placed for victory.

By lunchtime on race day it was sweltering and it was clear that Frentzen and Hill would be the men to watch in the race.

From the start Schumacher was unable to get away from Hill. Villeneuve made a poor start and dropped behind the fast-starting Irvine and Hakkinen. The Ferraris were in big trouble with tyres, however, and while Schumacher held up Hill, Irvine held up the rest of the pack. On lap 11 Hill passed Schumacher to take the lead and Michael followed Irvine into pitlane. Hakkinen retired at the same moment and so Villeneuve found himself second. He was unable to chase Hill and was under pressure from Frentzen. At the pit stops Heinz-Harald hoped to get ahead of his team-mate and then go after Hill. Sadly for Heinz-Harald his refuelling system literally fell apart as he was about to pit and the car could not be refuelled. He had done everything right but there would be no reward.

The disappearance of Frentzen left Villeneuve with Coulthard on his tail, but the Scotsman would disappear towards the end with engine troubles and so Herbert moved to third.

The order looked settled with Hill half a minute ahead but with three laps to go the Arrows suddenly faltered with a gearbox hydraulic problem which left it stuck in third.

Villeneuve caught and passed Damon at the start of the last lap but Hill trundled home to second.

Michael Schumacher came home fourth, holding off a challenge from his brother Ralf while Nakano survived a last-lap incident with Irvine to take sixth.

Belgium

Michael Schumacher's victory at Spa may well be remembered as one of his finest. As he had done at Monaco earlier in the year he combined brilliant driving with a remarkable ability to make the right decision at the right time and once in the lead drove away from the field at an embarrassing rate.

In qualifying there was no rain and so Jacques Villeneuve was able to take pole position once again. Benetton got the set-up right again and Jean Alesi - a man who loves Spa - was second on the grid while Schumacher was third, despite Ferrari having found a crack in the rear end of his new Maranello-built lightweight car. Fisichella confirmed his good form with fourth on the grid and his Jordan team mate Ralf Schumacher was sixth.

The pair were split by Mika Hakkinen but his was a fraught practice. On Saturday morning his McLaren suffered a very worrying rear suspension failure which pitched the Finn into the barriers at very high-speed. In the afternoon Mika did a super job to qualify fifth but was then found to have been using illegal fuel and his times were cancelled. He would race under appeal.

The good weather continued until 20 minutes before the start of the race on Sunday when there was suddenly a violent rainstorm. Ralf Schumacher spun off on his way round to the grid - which was not a bright move. He would start from the pitlane.

Once again the teams had to make swift decisions on set-up and tyres and once again Michael Schumacher made the right choices. He decided that the track would quickly dry and so started on intermediate rubber with dry settings. Villeneuve, Alesi and others thought it would stay wet and started on full rain tyres. Fisichella went for a lighter grade of rain tyre.

As this was going on it was decided that the race would be started behind a Safety Car and for three laps the race ran under caution conditions. This played into the hands of those on intermediates as the track was drying all the time and the advantage of choosing wets was being negated. When the pace car pulled off there was still enough water around to allow Villeneuve ahead for a lap but then Schumacher moved to front. Nine laps later he was a minute ahead. He would later pit twice for slicks but he still finished nearly half a minute ahead.

Fisichella's choice of tyres in the decisive early laps enabled him to get ahead of Alesi and Villeneuve and he was then able to stay head of Hakkinen for the rest of the afternoon.

Mika drove a sensible race after an early offtrack moment but his third place would later be taken away from him by the FIA Court of Appeal. This would promote Frentzen to third. Heinz-Harald had driven a good recovery after starting from seventh on the grid on full wets.

Villeneuve's race was rather less impressive. When his wets wore out he came in for intermediates and when these were finished he had to come in for slicks which meant that he dropped down to 16th in the first half of the race. He finished sixth - although would later be promoted to fifth.

Italy

Much was expected from Ferrari at Monza. Michael Schumacher arrived at the famous Autodromo Nazionale ahead by 12 points in both the Drivers' and Constructors' World Championships. The tifosi was to be disappointed, however, as the Ferraris were off the pace all weekend.

These days Monza is very similar to Hockenheim in terms of layout but it was still rather a surprise to see a Benetton on pole position. This time it was Jean Alesi who took pole and, as at Hockenheim, the gap between the frontrunners was tiny, Jean just 0.052s faster than Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Fisichella just 0.024s behind the Williams. The top 10 drivers were all covered by a single second.

Jacques Villeneuve qualified fourth and therefore had the advantage in the World Championship battle over Michael Schumacher, who could do no better than ninth on the grid.Fifth and sixth on the grid were the two McLarens, Hakkinen a tiny fraction faster than Coulthard. On this occasion the Bridgestone runners were a second off the pace of the Goodyear men.

With overtaking being very difficult at Monza these days the start is always important. Alesi and Frentzen both got away well but it was Coulthard who made the biggest impact, blasting past Hakkinen, Villeneuve and Fisichella to take third place as the field dived into the first chicane. Alesi stayed ahead but was not able to pull away from the train of cars in his wake. Frentzen looked to have a quicker car but was unable to overtake while Coulthard also looked threatening. With overtaking so difficult it was down to strategies and in this respect Williams did not do a particularly good job. Frentzen and Villeneuve stopped a lot earlier than the others which enabled Coulthard to close right up onto Alesi's tail. The two leaders came in to pit at the same moment and Coulthard - who had extra fuel onboard - was able to get away just under a second faster than Alesi: Jean being at rest for 8.7s, David for only 7.8s.

This put Coulthard ahead of the Benetton but more importantly it put him clear of Frentzen as well - the early stop having worked against Heinz-Harald. Hakkinen also benefited from good McLaren strategy and moved up to fourth ahead of both Fisichella and Villeneuve although Mika's efforts would be ruined a few laps later when he had to pit again because of a delaminated tyre. He would rejoin and lap very quickly but he was too far back to make much of an impression on the race order.

The Bridgestone men were completely outpaced, the fastest man being Jarno Trulli who finished 10th, a minute behind Coulthard.

The order remained unchanged all the way to the flag with Fisichella fourth, Villeneuve fifth and Schumacher limited his losses in the World Championship battle by finishing sixth so he lost only one point to Villeneuve.

The top eight cars were covered by 16s, but this closeness disguised the fact that it had not been a very interesting race.

While Melbourne had been a lucky win for McLaren, there was no doubting the fact that at Monza the team won on merit alone - after a long time in the F1 wilderness...

Austria

Formula 1 returned to Austria after 10 years away and while the new circuit was not a patch on the grand old Osterreichring, the new A1 Ring produced an interesting race. The nature of the circuit made qualifying remarkably close with 14 drivers covered by a single second. Jacques Villeneuve seemed to be rather more competitive than he had been at Monza and scraped to pole position, just 0.094s faster than the McLaren of Mika Hakkinen. This was not surprising but Jarno Trulli's third place was a big shock - and a remarkable performance given that the Italian had been forced to switch to the Prost spare car after his own car had suffered an engine failure. The T-car was set-up for Shinji Nakano.

Trulli's performance was evidence that the Bridgestones tyres were very competitive in Austria and this was backed up by a good showing from Stewart which had Rubens Barrichello fifth on the grid and Jan Magnussen sixth, the pair just behind Heinz-Harald Frentzen.

Damon Hill was seventh in his Arrows, ahead of the two Ferrari drivers, Irvine for once faster than Schumacher. This was due to the fact that Michael was running hard tyres while Eddie was on the softer Goodyear compound and because Michael had run out of fuel on his fastest lap...

With overtaking very difficult at the A1 Ring a good start was important but once again Villeneuve did not get away well and it was Hakkinen who took the lead, while Trulli slotted into second place at the first corner. Later in the lap Villeneuve also dropped behind Barrichello - which would become a serious handicap for him in the first part of the race.

At the end of the first lap Hakkinen suddenly slowed with engine trouble (again) and Trulli nipped past into the lead. He began to pull away with an impressive string of fastest laps to build a 10 second lead. Villeneuve eventually managed to elbow his way past Barrichello and began to chase Trulli - and was helped by the fact that Jarno suddenly ran into engine problems. The gap came down dramatically before the pit stops began.

During the pit stop sequence Villeneuve was able to get into the lead while Trulli emerged second ahead of Coulthard, who had moved up the order thanks to the Stewart team's odd decision to run a two-stop strategy. Coulthard closed up on Trulli but did not have to challenge because the Prost's Mugen Honda engine blew up suddenly, leaving David in a solid second place.

Third place belonged to Frentzen although he had been passed at one point by Michael Schumacher. The manoeuvre was, however, achieved at a place where a yellow flag was being waved and so the Ferrari star received a 10-sec stop-go penalty. He rejoined and charged hard, managing to work his way back to sixth place and salvage a point. If he had not made the mistake he would have finished second or third.

And so the World Championship battle closed up and as the F1 circus headed for the Nurburgring for the GP of Luxembourg, Schumacher was only one point ahead of Villeneuve.

Luxembourg

Michael Schumacher went to his home track at the Nurburgring, expecting a good result in the oddly-named Grand Prix of Luxembourg to pull himself clear of Jacques Villeneuve in the close battle for the World Championship. It was not to be. At the first corner Michael was taken out of the race by his own brother, who also wiped out his Jordan team mate in a silly manoeuvre which left Ralf very unpopular not only with the Jordan team, but also with the whole of Germany. It looked as though Michael's chances of another World title had been completely wiped out...

Qualifying had been a battle between the two Williams men and McLaren with Mika Hakkinen - on Mercedes-Benz home ground - emerging fastest by a tenth from a closely matched Villeneuve and Frentzen. It was McLaren's first pole position since Ayrton Senna's last race with the team in Australia in 1993 and Mercedes-Benz's first since the Italian GP of 1955. David Coulthard might have been up there as well but for an engine failure on Saturday morning which lost him valuable laps as he tried to set up the car. He was a disappointed sixth on the grid.

Fisichella was fourth fastest for Jordan while Michael Schumacher could manage no better than fifth on the grid. His brother Ralf was eighth behind Coulthard and Berger.

Olivier Panis made his comeback with Prost and qualified a promising 11th on a day when the Bridgestones were not on the pace of the Goodyears.

Race day saw the arrival of the top management of Mercedes-Benz and in the morning warm-up session Hakkinen and Coulthard were dominant. At the start Hakkinen duly led the way while Villeneuve was slow away and found himself banging wheels with Frentzen at the first corner. Heinz-Harald somehow managed to knock off his ignition and before he could restart the car he had dropped top 13th.

As this was happening Ralf Schumacher took himself, his brother and Fisichella out of the game and caused Berger to have a wild ride across a sand trap. This left Hakkinen leading a fast-starting Coulthard with Villeneuve third and a surprised Barrichello in fourth - from ninth on the grid. Alesi and Magnussen were fifth and sixth.

Until halfway through the race it was a McLaren-Mercedes benefit event and then, suddenly, Coulthard's engine faltered. Moments later Hakkinen's race ended in another cloud of smoke. The Mercedes bosses gulped quietly and watched as Villeneuve sailed through in the lead.

The Stewarts had both retired with mechanical troubles and so Alesi was second a minute behind Villeneuve. The recovering Frentzen was third with Berger fourth, giving Renault a nice 1-2-3-4 on Mercedes-Benz home turf. The final points went to Pedro Diniz in his Arrows and to Panis.

And so Villeneuve moved nine points clear in the Drivers' Championship with seven wins to Schumacher's four. He would need to score only one point more than Michael in Japan to guarantee himself the World Championship.

It looked like a foregone conclusion...

Japan

We knew before the Japanese Grand Prix that the Drivers' World Championship could not be settled as had been hoped because Jacques Villeneuve was to race under appeal at Suzuka, having been excluded from the meeting for ignoring yellow flags. Jacques had arrived at Suzuka with a suspended one-race ban for repeatedly ignoring yellow flags and on Saturday morning he did it again. That afternoon he took pole but it was duly announced that the poleman had been kicked out of the event. The team appealed. Qualifying had seen Villeneuve beat Schumacher to pole by six-thousandths of a second. Irvine was third quickest. This was surprising as Ferrari was suddenly fast again being off the pace for several races.

Fourth on the grid was Hakkinen while the Benettons of Berger and Alesi lined up fifth and seventh, separated by Frentzen, who had made a mistake on his fastest lap and paid for it.

Even more surprising than Ferrari's revival was the poor showing from the Bridgestone runners, Panis the fastest runner at Bridgestone's home track in a dismal 10th place.

With Villeneuve allowed to race but likely to lose his points the obvious strategy was to try to keep Schumacher behind him and let others get ahead, thus reducing the number of points Schumacher could score. This was clearly Jacques's intention as he chopped across the road at the start of the race to make sure that Schumacher stayed behind him. Ironically the only man to do what Jacques wanted was Irvine, who had made a poor start but passed both Hakkinen and Schumacher in a clever move in the uphill sweepers behind the pits. In normal circumstances such a move would have put Eddie into the wall but Michael let him do it. Irvine then attacked Villeneuve and sailed into the lead at the end of the lap. Jacques did not chase and three laps later Irvine was 12s ahead.

The first pit stops would be vital as Schumacher tried to get ahead of Villeneuve. As Jacques rejoined Michael came storming up behind him. Villeneuve dived into Schumacher's path to try to block the German but Michael switched to the inside and dived ahead. Ferrari now had Villeneuve where they wanted him and it was only a matter of time before Irvine was told to slow down, let Schumacher past and then block Villeneuve. This Eddie did while Michael built up a lead of 7.2secs before the second pit stops. During these Villeneuve had a problem with the fuel hose and lost five or six seconds.

Irvine's blocking tactics might have helped Schumacher but in the end they guaranteed that Ferrari would lose the Constructors' title as Frentzen - who had passed Hakkinen during the first pit stops - was able to get ahead of Eddie during the second stops. Heinz-Harald went after Schumacher but it was a hopeless chase and they crossed the line 1.3secs apart.

Irvine made it home third, just ahead of Hakkinen. Villeneuve was fifth but he would lose the points when Williams withdrew the appeal in the week after the event. Alesi thus moved up to fifth and Herbert took a point for sixth.

And so when the F1 circus headed for Jerez Villeneuve was a point behind Schumacher...

Europe

The whole world was watching the Grand Prix of Europe at Jerez as Jacques Villeneuve and Michael Schumacher fought it out for the World Championship. Qualifying had seen the unbelievable situation of Villeneuve, Schumacher and Frentzen all setting exactly identical times, Villeneuve getting pole because he had achieved it first.

Damon Hill gave Bridgestone some hope by being fourth fastest, just 0.058s slower than three "pole men", but behind him was the fairly normal story of two McLarens - Hakkinen ahead of Coulthard. Then came Irvine and Berger's Benetton.

The potential was there for an incident. All Schumacher had to do was to knock Villeneuve off and the title would be his. In the pre-race briefing FIA President Max Mosley made a point of warning drivers that such things would be treated with Draconian punishments.

The atmosphere was suitably tense as the race began and everyone held their breath for the run to the first corner. Schumacher edged ahead and Frentzen also got away well and so as they filed into the first corner Michael was ahead, Heinz-Harald was second and Villeneuve was down to third. Behind them Hill makes a poor start and was passed by the two McLarens.

Gradually Villeneuve began to counter-attack. On lap eight Frentzen let Jacques through into second. He set off after Schumacher. The plan was to follow the Ferrari and try to get ahead in the pits. At the first stop Michael remained ahead but Villeneuve was by now right with him - the Williams suddenly working better than the Ferrari.

During that first pit stop sequence Frentzen fell behind the two McLarens, and Coulthard managed to get ahead of Hakkinen.

Villeneuve lost some vital seconds trying to lap Norberto Fontana but was soon right behind Schumacher again. A tense battle developed.

Schumacher pitted for the second time on lap 43 and Villeneuve came in a lap later. Jacques rejoined on Schumacher's tail again. For the next three laps they diced and then Villeneuve made his move. It took Schumacher completely by surprise and when he realized what had happened he simply turned the Ferrari into the side of the Williams, hoping to take Villeneuve out. It was the last hope of a desperate - and unprincipled - man. It failed. Schumacher ended up in the gravel bed and Jacques, his Williams damaged, kept going. He still had to get to the finish and score one point to win the title.

In the closing laps the two McLarens closed up on him. The team ordered Coulthard to let Hakkinen get ahead and on the last lap Mika and David challenged Jacques for victory. He let them go. He finished third but the World Championship was his...

The FIA would later deprive Schumacher of his second place in the World Championship - but that was as irrelevant as McLaren's 1-2 in Jerez. The governing body called it justice - but no-one else agreed. Charges that McLaren and Williams had rigged the race were used as a stupid smokescreen and all the FIA managed to do was to cover itself in shame...

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