DECEMBER 29, 1997
A Review of the Year
WAY back in March we thought that Jacques Villeneuve would sweep all before him to win the 1997 FIA Formula 1 World Championship. He should have done. The Williams-Renault FW19 was clearly the best car in the field. When he took pole position by 1.7secs in Melbourne it looked as though we were in for a year of domination. In the end, however, Jacques scrambled to the title in a finale of high drama at Jerez de la Frontera at the end of what had been a very unsatisfying season for the Williams team and for many of the millions of F1 spectators.
Frank Williams and Patrick Head may have not been wholly satisfied but they know that a win is a win and this year they collected another eight victories, a record ninth Constructors' title - the fifth in six years - and another Drivers' title to add to its collection.
When you analyze the Williams failures this year there is no doubt that the team must take some of the blame. The Australian GP was lost because of a wheel nut problem on Heinz-Harald Frentzen's car; Hungary was thrown away with a refueling equipment failure (again for Frentzen) and the tactics at Monza gave David Coulthard the opportunity to get ahead of both Williams drivers.
Monaco and Spa were disastrous races, the result of poor tire choice. One can blame the team but the driver is the ultimate decision-maker in such matters and so Villeneuve and Frentzen must take the blame.
Villeneuve's accident in Montreal was ridiculous, he lost his cool and crashed in the German GP as well. His practice crash at Magny-Cours compromised his race. In short, he made too many mistakes. His starts were poor, his yellow flag awareness was dreadful and in the end it cost him dearly - although, to be fair, one has to ask whether Jacques's exclusion from the Japanese GP was fair compared to the (light) tap on the wrist which Michael╩Schumacher received for deliberately trying to drive Jacques off the road in Jerez.
Jacques is clearly a very good F1 driver but he has yet to mark himself out as a truly great Grand Prix star. There is a suspicion that almost all of the current drivers (with one or two exceptions) could have done the same job - or better - in the same car, with the same amount of experience.
In much the same way as Damon Hill struggled, so Jacques's talents will always be disputed until we have seen him in another car or until we find ourselves drawing sharp breaths when Jacques does something seemingly impossible. That is the difference. Alain Prost used to do it, Ayrton Senna on a regular basis, but today only Michael Schumacher knows how to do it.
If we seem to be overly critical of Villeneuve, it is important to add that he has brought to Formula 1 a breath of fresh air. He says what he thinks - bless him - even if sometimes it is not the right time to speak and his desire to express himself through his clothes and his hair makes the paddock a much more colorful place. It is a pleasant change from the clean-cut Action Men dolls we have grown used to in recent years. If Jacques got rid of his over-protective minders and was allowed to relax a little, he would become an infinitely more human - and, as is always the case, more likable - character.
Michael Schumacher has tried hard for the last few years to become someone who is liked in the paddock. He is greatly respected for his talents but, as he proved at Jerez, he is still a greatly flawed competitor. Clearly beaten by Villeneuve, he did what a 10-year-old does when he knows he is losing a game - he tried to kick over the board. It was brattish and unsporting and his parents should have beaten such behavior out of him 15 years ago. He did the same thing to Damon Hill in Adelaide in 1994 and got away with it but at Jerez the media rejected the stewards' absurd decision that it was "a racing incident" and tore Schumacher to shreds. The last three years of reputation-building after the Adelaide incident were simply thrown away. Schumacher continued to protest his innocence to a ludicrous extent and merely made himself look worse.
In the end the FIA had to act but the eventual punishment was ridiculous. The FIA World Council took away Schumacher's second place in the World Championship but left him with his wins and points. It was an irrelevant penalty which achieved nothing, except to make the governing body look ridiculous but there was a serious side to the FIA's dereliction of duty. An entire generation of young drivers will now assume that a racing driver should be willing to do such things if he wants to win. Inevitably, someone will get hurt as a result of that ruling - politically expedient and logical though it was...
The saddest thing about Schumacher - and something which upsets many fans - is that he is the best driver in Formula 1. He is an incredibly skilled. His victories at Monaco and Spa this year were both extraordinary and unforgettable. He won five times in a car which should not really have been up there with the Williams. If only he could learn to behave like a sportsman and not ruin his reputation with stupid and cynical maneuvers as he did in Jerez. If he does not change his ways this great driver will always be remembered as a bad sport. Perhaps that does not matter to him but to real fans of Grand Prix racing it is an important point. We would rather watch Michael lose in a gentlemanly fashion than see him win...
The Villeneuve-Schumacher duel kept the crowds pouring in through the turnstiles and the television audience cruised ever upwards. Although both combatants were flawed, they were still well ahead of the supporting cast.
Villeneuve's team-mate Heinz-Harald Frentzen ended up second in the World Championship, after Schumacher was kicked out of the list but his was a frustrating year. Unlike Villeneuve he did not arrive at Williams with a startling performance. His showing in Australia was good and he might have won but for a wheel nut problem but the image of his performances in those early races was not a good one. Often in F1 image is more important than reality. Later on he shrugged off pressure from the critics to deliver some very sound performances. He won at Imola, beating Villeneuve fairly and squarely and as the year progressed he might have won two or three other races. In Hungary he was let down by his machinery and in Jerez he sacrificed his own race to help Villeneuve. He could have ended the year with three or four wins - but he did not - and so the critics have concluded that his was a bad year. It was not. It was a classic learning year and he should be able to build on that in 1998. His somewhat laid-back approach was sharpened up as the year went on and he seemed to work harder than he has in the past. The natural talent has always been there, it was the dedication that was lacking.
Dedication has long been one of Eddie Irvine's problems as well. He likes the money, the girls and the expensive toys but he has not always been willing to work hard to get it. He was hired to be a solid number two to Schumacher and he occasionally rose to the task. The rest of the time he was either off the pace or crashing into someone else. He did not help his cause by using his mouth more often than his brain. He had accidents in Melbourne, Brazil, Hockenheim and Austria. There were other times when he simply got in the way and caused problems - such as in Spain, where he earned a well-deserved stop-go penalty. And yet in Argentina and at Suzuka he drove brilliantly. Unless there is more brilliance and less smart-aleck chatter Eddie's career will soon draw to a close. In a way this will be sad because there is talent there, but for most of the drivers, the day Eddie stops racing F1 will be a good day. They do not like dicing with Eddie and that, surely, is the ultimate condemnation.
In the Constructors' World Championship Benetton emerged in third place but it was McLaren which did more winning than Benetton, although it was, in many respects, a very fortunate year for McLaren. The team was lucky to win in both Melbourne and at Jerez. Monza was a bona fide victory, brought about by clever strategy and good team work. The team's weakness remained the chassis which was never quite as good as the Williams. The Mercedes-Benz engine was powerful - probably the most powerful of all the 1997 engines - but it was not reliable and when it was detuned to hold it together it was not on the pace.
There is little doubt that given the right car David Coulthard is a World Champion in the making. The team has not always made him comfortable - forcing him to let Mika Hakkinen past at Jerez did nothing for the relationship.
Hakkinen has long deserved a victory. He is a great driver but he seems something of a modern version of Ronnie Peterson. He has enormous natural speed and flair which makes him popular with the crowds but his ability to analyze things does not appear to be on a par with Coulthard. He drives around problems.
Benetton's 1997 was pretty miserable, except for a marvelous weekend at Hockenheim where Gerhard Berger created a little fairy tale on his return to F1 after several races out of action and the distressing death of his father in an airplane accident. In fact Berger should not really have won in Germany. The strategy chosen by the team was not very good but thanks to a mistake by Giancarlo Fisichella, the veteran Austrian came through to win his 10th and last Grand Prix victory.
The sport will miss Gerhard who seemed to be part of the furniture of Grand Prix racing, always ready with a quip and a smile. There were times when he became the voice of sanity in the sport and the role was an important one. Gerhard never really achieved all he might have done because his career coincided with that of Ayrton Senna but unlike his friend he is getting out of F1 alive and well and that in itself is a blessing after so many violent accidents through the years.
Gerhard actually finished behind Jean Alesi in the World Championship - they were fourth and fifth - but Jean never looked like winning in 1997. He continued on his merry way being blisteringly quick on occasion and then doing something completely crazy. His running out of fuel in Melbourne was an act of breath-taking madness and it had a very bad effect on the team. As the year went on it was very clear that Jean was not enjoying himself and he wanted out.
In fact the whole team needed a good shake-up. Flavio Briatore's quirky ways might have worked when there was a Schumacher onboard to lead the team but once Michael departed, taking a few of the crew with him to Ferrari, Flavio lost the plot. The team suffered as he wheeled and dealed over Prosts and Minardis and Concorde╩Agreements when he should have been concentrating on running the racing team - which was never a job for which he was qualified. No-one in F1 was unhappy to see him go and he cannot have been too upset because he took a pot of gold with him... David Richards is much better qualified to put the team back on top, but that is going to take a few years to achieve.
One bright point for Benetton in 1997 was the arrival of Alexander Wurz, who joined the team as test driver - bringing a pot of Austrian gelt from A1 Telekom. When Berger was forced to stand down because of sinus problems Wurz did a splendid job as his replacement, giving Alesi a scare on occasion.
Wurz was not the only impressive new boy of 1997. Giancarlo Fisichella and Jarno Trulli also carved names for themselves. Having spent half of 1996 driving for Minardi, Fisichella was signed up by Jordan for the 1997 season - although he remained under long-term contract to Benetton (Are you following all this?). In the first few races he was rather overshadowed by Ralf Schumacher but gradually Fisico's smooth style and natural speed put him ahead of his German team-mate. And then he built up the pressure to such an extent that by the end of the year everyone had forgotten Schumacher's early speed.
Giancarlo should have won his - and Jordan's - first Grand Prix victory at Hockenheim but under pressure from Berger, Fisichella cracked and went off. It was not the kind of thing one expects to see from a real top caliber driver but perhaps a little more experience will add polish to Giancarlo's natural speed. His other chance of a win came in Argentina where his team-mate behaved like a complete moron and drove him off the road - much to the intense annoyance of the Jordan team management.
Ralf Schumacher might be included in the list of bright young hopes for the future but there are not many in F1 who believe he will be in Grand Prix racing beyond the end of his Jordan contract. He is not his brother - despite his ability to run into people. If Michael had not existed Ralf would not now be in F1. He does not seem to appreciate this and his arrogance is a little tiresome. He is going to have to learn both humility and a little more control if he wants a long-term future in F1.
To begin with he looked to be doing very well - Buenos Aires notwithstanding - but as the season progressed he buckled as Fisichella pressured him and this resulted in the unfortunate incident at the start of the Luxembourg GP where Ralf was so busy trying to squeeze Fisichella out of the way that he forgot the basic dynamics of racing cars and collided with his team-mate once again. On this occasion he flew straight into his brother's Ferrari, doing serious damage to Michael's World Championship chances and earning himself freighter loads of abuse in the German newspapers. He deserved it all.
If Ralf did not greatly impress Jarno Trulli certainly did, despite the fact that he had only a handful of races for Minardi before being drafted in with Prost. Trulli's performances disappointed the blind in the F1 paddock but if analyzed properly were quite remarkable. At Hockenheim he outpsyched Villeneuve and at Zeltweg he blew the whole field away until his engine let him down. And he achieved it having completed less than 50 single seaters races in his life. A great start to what will probably be a great career.
One has to feel a little sorry for Olivier Panis because while Trulli was grabbing the glory poor old Olivier was hobbling about trying to recover from the two broken legs he suffered in Canada. Olivier should have won races this year with his Bridgestone tires but he was robbed by poor reliability or poor qualifying. And then he broke his legs and any hope of victories for Prost went out of the window. Trulli was simply too inexperienced to make the most of the Prost-Mugen Honda and Shinji Nakano was simply a waste of space in the second Prost. He only retained his seat because powerful forces in Japan insisted that the team keep him on. The Japanese are desperately keen to find a winner in Grand Prix racing but they have still not learned the most important lesson. Above-average drivers do not become Grand Prix winners. These men are exceptional and if a country does not produce them or cannot find them, there is no point in pushing those who do not have what it takes. Even those with the necessary talent do not always make it.
A good example of this is Johnny Herbert, who had a pretty good year with Sauber Petronas, despite the fact that the results sheets did not show it. Johnny drove the car to its limit in races - when overtaking is always difficult. The Sauber had a problem running fast on light tanks and so rarely qualified very well. The fact that Johnny scored as many points as he did was down to his press-on driving style and to the Sauber strategies, which were usually very good. Johnny looked set for a really big result in Australia, challenging for second place at the first corner from seventh on the grid, when he was run off the road by Eddie Irvine.
Johnny had three different team mates in 1997. Nicola Larini was drafted in at Sauber when the deal was done for the team to use rebadged Ferrari engines. Larini did not impress and was quietly elbowed out of the way after some less than judicious comments in Italian newspapers. Gianni Morbidelli was drafted in but almost immediately broke his wrist in a testing crash and so the team resorted to running test driver Norberto Fontana. This was not a success at all and the team looked hard at giving Williams test driver Jean-Christophe Boullion a run. Williams refused to release the Frenchman. And so Fontana stayed on until Morbidelli was back in action again. When Gianni injured himself for a second time - in a crash in qualifying at Suzuka - Fontana came back again. The team will probably be better off in 1998 when Herbert will be pushed along by Jean Alesi.
While the Ferrari engines used by Sauber were never quite a match for the factory units, they were remarkably reliable with only one failure all year.
Arrows was a big disappointment and it was not really surprising because you cannot make a banquet without good ingredients. Tom Walkinshaw took over the team in mid-1996 and tried to put together a team but it was too much to ask for big results in 1997. In fact Arrows came closer to a win that anyone really expected with Damon╩Hill's remarkable run in Hungary but for most of the season the team struggled.
The Yamaha engine was not much good but beefed up by TWR engineers it began to get more competitive. The Arrows chassis was not bad and got better after John Barnard and his engineers had been over it with a fine tooth comb. But the early season failures - Damon only just qualified in Australia and his car did not even get to start as it broke down on the parade lap - blew up any dreams of glory which Damon was harboring. He lost motivation and it was only after Tom Walkinshaw gave him a rather public boot up the rear end at Silverstone that he began to turn in the performances expected of a World Champion. Everything came together in Hungary where the Bridgestone tires were working very well and Damon drove a great race, only to be robbed of victory in the closing stages with a hydraulic glitch.
Pedro Diniz did himself no harm at all in 1997, partly because Hill was in cruise mode for part of the season and partly because he lacks experience. Pedro will never be a great and it is doubtful that he will ever be a winner but he is a very good number two and he has LOTS of money.
The Stewart team built a very nice car but were let down far too often by the Ford V10 engines. The number of failures became almost laughable as Ford and Cosworth engineers took risks to get the horsepower up as fast as possible. The only real high point was Monaco where the rain, the track, good Bridgestone tires and a high attrition rate enabled Rubens Barrichello to finish second to Michael Schumacher - albeit a very long way behind. The team has a great deal of potential and a great deal more support from Ford than is immediately obvious. It needs only a little bit more experience and fewer sermons to the masses from JYS (particularly when they upset the FIA) and it will develop into a very serious operation.
Jan Magnussen spent most of the season being something of an afterthought with the team. He received precious little support and struggled but he came through the hard times and earned his place again in 1998. It would be wise for him to start beating Barrichello on a regular basis if he wishes to remain in F1 for the longer term.
Tyrrell also suffered very badly from Ford engines. The V8 was not only unreliable but it was also hugely under powered and so there was never really much hope for Mika Salo and Jos Verstappen, who are a very quick pair of pedallers. Unfortunately you cannot compete with flashy sportscars when you are driving a Morris Minor.
At the end of the year the Tyrrell Family finally accepted the inevitable and took $30m off British╩American╩Tobacco in exchange for the team. It was nice to see a once-great team leave F1 without going bankrupt - just for a change.
Minardi also changed hands in the course of 1997. Bought at the end of 1996 by Flavio Briatore, who was looking to make a fast buck by buying cheap and selling the team on to British American Tobacco for a vast profit, Minardi never showed any signs of producing a decent result. The early part of the year was ruined with electronic dramas and then there was a long period during which it was unclear who - if anyone - was running the team. Eventually a frustrated Briatore gave up his plans and sold his shares to fellow investor Gabriele Rumi and the team finally began to make progress - by which time the season was over...
Ukyo Katayama was wasting his time in his final year and he knew it. Trulli soon had the edge on him and then he found himself under pressure from Tarso Marques. Retirement was the right choice for Ukyo.
Mention of the Lola team is best left short as it was a complete unmitigated and hopeless disaster and led to that fine company going into bankruptcy. Hopefully the new owners will rebuild Lola and will one day take another crack at F1 in a more serious and intelligent way.
The F1 season was marred by political in-fighting between the teams and Bernie Ecclestone over the Concorde╩Agreement and over Ecclestone's plans to float his business on the Stock Exchange. This is an essential step for the future stability of F1 racing - Bernie cannot live for ever - and the sooner it is achieved the better. Other political battles, such as the fight over tobacco sponsorship laws in Europe, did nothing for the image of the sport.
The on-track action, however, was pretty good and some of this was due to the tire war between Goodyear and Bridgestone. At the end of the 17 races of 1997 Goodyear had completed a clean sweep of victories. This was a marvelous job by the American tire company - particularly in Japan where Bridgestone was humbled in front of its home crowd. The Goodyear whitewash was a combination of good strategy (signing up the right teams in 1996), good engineering (lap times tumbled as new compounds were developed) and good fortune. The Bridgestone teams often did well but rarely made it to the finish. Goodyear says it will be back in 1998 but will pull out at the end of the year - it will be interesting to see whether this is really the plan or part of a brilliant new strategy.
While the tire war added a new dimension to the sport, there is no doubt that Grand Prix racing is crying out for a big new star to take on Michael Schumacher. A man who can perform miracles in cars which are not up to the job. Most of the F1 team bosses are aware of that need - which may explain the large numbers of youngsters being tested in recent weeks.
Somebody somewhere has to be the ace of the new generation...
And so ends 1997 and everyone at INSIDE F1 would like to wish all our readers a successful 1998. We hope that you will continue to support us and if you find yourself with an idle moment over the holiday period we would be interested to hear how you think we might improve our service next year.
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