Brazilian GP 1997

Brazilian GP, 1997

IF you say you are going off to Brazil most people think you are the luckiest person in the world. Brazil is where the jet set used to go in the Swinging Sixties to hang out at Copacobana and Ipanema in Rio de Janeiro. Somehow this image has survived 30 years and whenever one talks of Brazil people think of miles of empty beaches and dusky wild women in the smallest bikinis.

The Brazilian tourist authorities have taken advantage of this and brochures always show half-naked girls on beaches, half-naked girls pouring water over themselves and half-naked girls in jacuzzis on the back of expensive yachts. The lady readers are led to believe that every Brazilian man is a pretty boy who wears cool sunglasses and a fancy watch while riding his jet skis. Everyone in Brazilian tourist brochures seems to be as rich as Pedro Diniz.

And yet, when you get to Brazil, you find yourself wondering where it is that the people living in the shanty towns park their helicopters. There isn't much space in cities with 20 million people and all the air wash from helicopters tends to demolish the average cardboard house.

No doubt, away from Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro and the other big cities, Brazil is a lovely place, but you need to be rich to enjoy it. Most of the population is not rich and when F1 comes to Sao Paulo all it really gets to see are the poorer folk who live on the road between the city center and Interlagos.

But over the years the annual visits have seen the standard of housing on the road to improvement as the inhabitants buy a few new bricks each year. The rampant inflation which used to plague the economy has gone and progress is being made. Some of the shanty towns have been bulldozed and low cost housing has been thrown up to replace them. Progress brings other problems: pollution from too many cars, drugs and crime. The other day in Rio de Janeiro the local police confiscated an anti-tank rocket launcher during a drug raid in a shanty town.

Progress is never easy but it helps to have a guiding light, something or someone who embodies the spirit of the country and makes the people proud. In Brazil it seems that this role has been filled by the late Ayrton Senna.

Senna is the James Dean of Brazil, an icon. He is everywhere. Leaving the airport we drove down the new Avenida Ayrton Senna; we went through the new Ayrton Senna Tunnel and round the new Ayrton Senna roundabout. Everywhere you looked there was the red S of Senna, on clothes, on cars, on bikes. I expect somewhere out there are towns called Senna and thousands of children called Ayrton.

And, because of the association with Senna, and because Brazilians have always liked motor racing, Formula 1 is as popular now as it always was. The lines for tickets at Interlagos on Sunday were impressive, reminiscent of the late 1980s at Suzuka.

Qualifying had not seen the grandstands packed. It was the Easter holiday weekend and anyone with a car seemed to be heading for the beach on Thursday night. In fact they were not missing much out at Interlagos because practice at Grands Prix these days is totally meaningless until Saturday afternoon's one hour of qualifying. In the paddock the hour before qualifying is actually as important as the session itself as all the teams scrabble frantically to find out the tire choices of their rivals. It has become a frantic game to disguise what you are doing and confuse the opposition. All the tires have certain markings which give away the compound from which they are made but these are not easy to read. One needs to get CLOSE to a tire and then you must know what it is you are looking for.

Keeping secrets is tactically important but very difficult because there are already many expert tire readers - a fast-developing branch of the sport. Thus everyone tries hard to confuse the opposition, mixing up the different sets after qualifying, leaving red herring tires lying around in piles, hiding them inside tire warmers and so on.

At the moment it does not take long for the news to leak out and so by Saturday evening most people in the paddock seem to know what everyone was doing. The Goodyear men had split into two groups - as was the case in Australia. The Jordans, McLarens and Benettons had all run with the softer of the Goodyear tire compounds; the Ferraris had decided on hard tires and the Williams boys had gone separate ways: Jacques Villeneuve using hard rubber and Heinz-Harald Frentzen opting for the soft compound.

Logically Frentzen should have had the advantage in qualifying but it was Villeneuve who took pole. At first there was surprise that the gap between Villeneuve and his nearest challenger - Michael Schumacher in the Ferrari - was only 0.590s. This was not the mammoth two second a lap advantage that we saw in Melbourne.

In part this was due to the bumpy nature of the Interlagos circuit which tends to force drivers to compromise on settings, which closes up the field. Last year Williams had a big advantage in Australia but there were 11 drivers covered by 1.9secs in Brazil. This year it was even closer with 14 drivers covered by 1.7secs. It was also due in part to the fact that the session ended in the same scrappy fashion as it had in Melbourne with a red flag - caused by Giancarlo Fisichella having a fairly big accident - leaving the teams with just under two minutes to complete their final runs. The accident destroyed Frentzen's hopes of using his tires properly as he was on his final flying lap when the red flag came.

Villeneuve was also in trouble because of a water leak in his race car and so the last lap dashes were done in the Williams T-car which was set up for Heinz-Harald. Jacques did not find it much of a difference and said that he had done about as good as lap as he was capable of doing.

"There wasn't much left in it," he explained. "Maybe a couple of tenths but not much more. This is a more difficult track on which to get the right set-up and to get the perfect lap. The car is moving a lot but it is the same for everybody. There are not many tracks now where we have bumps, so set-up-wise we are not used to running over bumps."

Jacques was not totally happy with the set-up of his car although there were some who felt that there was perhaps a little more speed in the car than Jacques was admitting to. He had, after all, spent most of practice sandbagging by playing around doing fast individual sector times on different laps - as he did in Australia - but never doing a flying lap as fast as he could really go until it came to qualifying. No-one was quite sure how fast Villeneuve could really go - which is exactly what he intended.

Frentzen's qualifying was pretty disastrous. The track was changing a lot during the session with the sun coming and going and Heinz-Harald did not seem to have mastered the tactics as well as Jacques. He also admitted that he is still not very happy with the car. "It's a matter of not getting used to the qualifying trim of the car. I feel reasonably competitive in normal conditions," he explained, "More so than I do in qualifying."

It is - Villeneuve reckoned - a matter of confidence and being settled in the team. He is, Heinz-Harald is not. Jacques had the same problems last year. He was the learner and Damon Hill was the established figure in the team. Frentzen was not helped by luck but then if he had timed things differently he would not have been out on the track when Fisichella piled into the tires. Despite this his fastest lap was less than a second slower that Villeneuve but he was eighth on the grid.

From first to last the grid at Interlagos was covered by just three seconds and Gerhard Berger - taking part in his 13th Brazilian GP - reckoned that he has never seen F1 as competitive as it is today. After failing to qualify in Australia, Lola had pulled out of F1 as a team. Therefore, at present, all the teams are pretty much on the pace so if you lose a tenth you can drop a long way down the grid. This was the case with Eddie Irvine.

The Ulsterman spun off on Friday afternoon and so lost a lot of valuable setting-up laps and never felt very comfortable in the Ferrari in qualifying trim. He was a second slower than Michael Schumacher - which meant that while Schumacher was second on the grid, Eddie was 14th. "This was not a good day for me," said Eddie. "I was not able to lean on the car as it tended to get away from me."

Watching the Ferrari F310B on the track one tends to feel a little sorry for Eddie, but then Michael Schumacher comes by doing an automotive impersonation of a waiter, balancing a tray with one hand, trying to swat away a bee which is trying to bite his nose and, at the same time, trying to detach himself from a rabid dog which has attached itself to his trousers. Qualifying second at Interlagos on hard tires in the evil-handling Ferrari was an outstanding performance and evidence of why Michael is paid $25m a year and Irvine is not.

The Ferrari boys, incidentally, did not use the new Ferrari engine which is still not sufficiently developed to be ready to race but they did have a fancy new electronic brake balance system.

Third on the grid was Gerhard Berger in his Benetton, which was a lot better than the disastrous situation in Melbourne. "This is the performance of the car which we were expecting before the season started," explained Gerhard, although he said he was surprised that the Williams was not a second ahead, which obviously said something about the Benetton chassis.

Jean Alesi managed to qualify sixth, a tenth slower than his team mate, but three places further down the grid. After his appalling error in Melbourne, when he failed to go in for re-fuelling, Jean is tiptoeing quietly around the team at the moment and it did not help that he stuffed his car into the pitwall when the front wheels locked as he jumped on the brakes at the first corner.

The body language between Alesi and team boss Flavio Briatore, incidentally, is as warm as a Russian gulag, which is, by all accounts, where Flav would like Jean to go.

Fourth on the grid was Mika Hakkinen in his McLaren-Mercedes. Since the win in Melbourne more rubbish has been written about the team's revival than Tolstoy managed to put on paper in his entire career. The cars are quite good but not in the class of the Williams. That is the reality. Mika Hakkinen was 0.688s slower than Villeneuve. Last year the first McLaren was 1.5secs off the pole in Brazil. There has been progress but there needs to be more. Melbourne winner David Coulthard was 0.6secs slower than his team mate and that meant that he was 12th on the grid.

Fifth on the grid was Olivier Panis in the Prost which was a good effort given that Bridgestone had come to Brazil with a disadvantage because they had not been able to do any testing at Interlagos and thus had no data on which to base the choice of compounds tires. We will not see what Bridgestone can really do until the F1 circus gets to Imola, the first track at which both companies have experience.

In the course of Friday the Bridgestone drivers discovered that both the compounds chosen were too conservative which meant that they all had to opt for the softer tires for the rest of the weekend. This helped them qualify well but the question was whether or not the tires would be able to last the distance in the race. Panis's team mate Shinji Nakano was 1.2secs slower than Olivier which meant 15th position on the grid.

Seventh and 10th on the grid were the two Jordans with Giancarlo Fisichella a morale-boosting two tenths faster than his German colleague, Ralf Schumacher. He was looking like producing an even better time when he lost it big time at the end of his final flying lap and smacked the barriers heavily, bringing out a red flag. Ironically, when Fisichella crashed the red flag forced "Schumi II" to abort his flying lap. "We have two cars in the top 10," said a man from Peugeot, looking for a silver lining.

Ninth fastest was Damon Hill in the Arrows-Yamaha, which looked a lot better than it had in Australia. The team is beginning to catch up with the opposition after its disastrous pre-season testing.

"The car is 500% better than in Melbourne," he reported. "I am delighted. We have run every single lap we intended to do and everything ran beautifully. We are always learning more about the car and the whole set-up. We know that basically the car is good, now we need a little bit more of everything."

Pedro Diniz was a second slower than Damon but would probably have been quicker if there had not been a red flag at the end of the session. He would have to start 16th.

As in Melbourne the Stewart-Fords were 11th and 20th on the grid with local hero Rubens Barrichello again out-qualifying Jan Magnussen. This was a pretty good effort for the Stewart team.

The Sauber-Petronas boys were disappointed having really shone in Australia where Johnny Herbert qualified seventh. This time the blond bombshell had to put up with being 13th on the grid, complaining of traffic and of losing out in grip as the temperature rose. In race trim the Saubers were quick, they need to do more testing for qualifying trim.

Nicola Larini spoiled his weekend with an accident on Friday afternoon and struggled to catch up, qualifying 1.2secs slower than Herbert - in 19th position on the grid. A big disappointment.

The Minardis were 17th and 18th with Jarno Trulli showing that he will not be out-qualified many times this year by Ukyo Katayama. The little Italian is showing all the signs of being a star in the making.

On the back row of the grid were the two Tyrrells with Jos Verstappen faster than Mika Salo - who had to take to the spare car when his engine died early in the session. The engine in the spare was also misbehaving, pumping out water from where water should not come. The team was very disappointed.

More disappointed were the Lola men, who flew to Brazil to find out that the team had pulled out of F1. Another small chapter in Lola's history in Grand Prix racing...

THE skies on Sunday morning were overcast and they were to remain like that for most of the day. The temperature crept up but it was never really warm and so it looked as though those who had chosen the softer tire compounds would be best-placed. Despite this Villeneuve was fastest in the warm-up although he was just two tenths ahead of Hakkinen, with the Finn, Panis and Herbert each separated by a tenth.

The first attempt at a start was a mess. Villeneuve and Schumacher got off the line well, the German having a slightly better start so that the pair were side-by-side as they dived into the Senna S, traditionally a place where F1 drivers spread bits of bodywork all over the road.

Jacques tried to keep Michael behind him by braking late but he was too late jumping on the anchors and slid across the road. Schumacher took off down the hill on the tarmac, Villeneuve did it, bouncing over the grass and throwing stones into his cockpit.

"It was starting to feel a bit like Australia," he said. "So I was happy there was a red flag, to take the rocks out of the car. It would have been pretty nasty if the red flag had not come out."

Down the back straight we had Schumacher leading Berger and Panis but then out came the red flags, signalling a halt in proceedings.

Up on the grid Barrichello's Stewart had suffered a throttle failure, causing those behind him to jink frantically to miss the car, but it was stuck on the racing line at a point where the cars arrive at high-speed.

There was also a lot of mess in the Senna S because, as Villeneuve was on his nature ramble, others felt the need to follow suit. Damon Hill had made quite a good start and arrived at the corner trying to go around the outside of Fisichella's Jordan. The Italian spun and bonked into Damon.

"Someone hit my rear," complained Damon, "that threw me up in the air and broke my rear suspension."

"I don't know what happened," said Fisichella. This reply usually means that the driver knows exactly what happened but does not want anyone else to.

Frentzen went off in avoidance and so, for a brief moment, we had the two Williams drivers and one ex-Williams driver all motoring through the greenery, looking for the race track. This was probably the wisest route because behind them Johnny Herbert and Eddie Irvine tried to go through the same gap to avoid Fisichella. Guess what? Cr-u-u-u-n-ch! Like a pair of magnets.

The rear of Johnny's car was damaged but he kept going. Irvine was slower away and this proved to be bad news for Jan Magnussen

"I just saw a yellow car in the middle," he said. "I missed it but there was Irvine going slowly in front of me. I tried to go around the outside of him but he must have been looking in the other mirror. He ended up driving over my front wheel."

This was not good news for Jan. Barrichello would take the spare car for the restart leaving the Dane to take nothing more than an early bath. He did not get to start.

There was a general rushing around in the pitlane as the spare cars were wheeled out. Williams changed the nose of Villeneuve's car and collected up all the pretty Brazilian pebbles which Jacques had picked up during his nature ramble. The spare Williams was set for Frentzen and so he took it, just in case there was anything broken after his ride through the grass.

As the new grid formed up Barrichello, Herbert, Irvine, Fisichella and Frentzen were all in the T-cars.

Hill was in his damaged Arrows because prior to the first start his race car had developed a fuel leak which could not be repaired. The nose had to be changed and the left rear suspension and bodywork had to be cobbled together. Tom Walkinshaw showed his willingness to get things right by joining his mechanics to get the car ready.

The biggest panic was going on at Ferrari where Eddie Irvine was trying to fit himself into seat belts designed for Michael Schumacher. This was not easy and with just seconds to go before the parade lap the Ferrari men scrunched Eddie into position and snapped the belts shut. He would pay for it later and had to make an extra pit stop to have the belts adjusted.

"I had a cutting pain all though the race," said Eddie, "especially under braking when it felt as though my leg was being cut off." Sounds like one of Johnny Herbert's dreams.

Irvine would finish the day two laps down in 16th place.

The second start was a less unruly affair but Villeneuve made a worse start than before and so Schumacher drove into the lead again. Jacques was not very keen on this.

He knew that Schumacher was running more downforce so that he was not as fast on the straight, and he had new tires on the car which meant that he had two laps to make a move on Michael. He did so at the end of the first lap, crossing the line inches ahead of the Ferrari and then drove away at a rate of knots. By lap 11 he had a lead of 10secs. Schumacher could not take the pace.

Behind these two Hakkinen had made a good start and got ahead of Berger but on lap four Gerhard got him back and set off after Schumacher, who dropped quickly back after Villeneuve had taken the lead. For five laps Berger and Schumacher tussled, going side-by-side through the Senna S on lap seven.

"That was good fun," said Gerhard. "That is we what we want to see more often for the spectators."

Once ahead of the Ferrari Berger was able to lap at the same speed as Villeneuve but the gap stayed at around nine seconds. Both had planned to stop twice and both complained that their middle set of tires was not very competitive. At the end Berger did close up and he finished 4.19secs behind the Williams.

"There was a stage when I thought I could get to him," said Gerhard, "but I knew it would be difficult to pass. It was difficult to get through the backmarkers and Jacques and I both lost a bit."

But Gerhard was happy. "We lost the first race by making mistakes with set-up," he explained. "This race shows the performance of the cars as it was in winter testing. I didn't make any mistakes and there were no mechanical problems. That is how races should be."

The Benetton press release had a rather different view. "I experienced some problems with my clutch in the straights," it said, "so I could not overtake anybody."

Your guess is as good as mine as to whether to believe Berger or Berger.

Villeneuve admitted that he had struggled a little with his brakes. "I didn't have the downforce for the slow corners but I was quick down the straights. I was really strong until the second pit stop and then my tires blistered. I don't know why. Gerhard was pushing pretty hard and it was tough to keep the gap. I was pushing hard at the end and it was sliding a lot. The brakes were very soft throughout the race and locked up quite a lot. I was braking a few meters earlier because of them."

To be honest it was not a great race but the different strategies made it fascinating. At the start Hakkinen looked strong in the McLaren but this was not like Melbourne. McLaren was not in the game. Hakkinen's tires went off and he drifted backwards to finish fourth behind Panis and half a minute behind the winner. It was rather similar to what used to happen in races last year. Coulthard's race was a similar story. He made a good start to run eighth but he was stuck behind Hill's Arrows and suddenly the two-stop strategy worked against him and he ended up a lap down in 10th place.

"I am amazed that so many people finished the race," said the Melbourne winner. "Normally if you can stay on the track you can get in the points."

The man with the best strategy was Olivier Panis in the Prost, who opted for a one-stop race with his Bridgestones. In the early laps he ran sixth, having been outfoxed by Alesi at the start. When the race settle down he found himself running behind Alesi and Schumacher and there he sat, comfortably running at their pace until the front-runners disappeared into the pits. If he had gained just a couple more seconds in those early laps, he would have been in the lead when Villeneuve pitted - the gap when Jacques came out of the pits was just 1.3secs. And he would probably have been able to keep the Williams behind him in those vital laps when he had a light fuel load. Instead he slipped back five seconds before his stop on lap 35. He rejoined seventh but as the others peeled off into the pits for the second stops he emerged in a strong third place.

"In the morning warm-up we saw that the tires were fast and the wear was very little," explained Olivier. "The car was good, the tires were good and we had a good strategy. The car was easy to control and I was able to follow Jean and Michael and it was easy to follow them."

In the final laps Olivier was running strongly but he was in traffic and the team had a small worry that there might not have been quite enough fuel, because of a slight glitch when the refueling nozzle was pulled off the car. The team told him to slow down. Third was nonetheless a great result for the Prost team and for Bridgestone.

"The tactic to stop only once was dictated by the tires," explained Alain Prost. "It was difficult to take this decision because we have very little experience and Bridgestone has little experience about F1 and this track. What they have done today is exceptional."

Behind Hakkinen at the finish were Schumacher and Alesi - all three covered by a second and all complained about their tires, but for different reasons.

Seventh was Johnny Herbert, which was a major achievement given that the Sauber-Petronas driver started from 13th on the grid in the spare car. This was largely due to a brilliant two-stop strategy which saw Johnny pit early and then use the clear track to gain a lot of time over those ahead of him in the traffic jam in the early laps. Larini went for a different two-stop strategy and ended up a lap down in 11th place.

The Jordans were a big disappointment - again - but Fisichella managed to finish eighth in the spare which was a good effort as late in the race he overtook Hill, Coulthard and Frentzen on the race track rather than in the pits. Ralf Schumacher had electrical problems and his onboard power gradually faded away so that he had no radio and the electric pumps were cutting out. He retired on lap 52.

The sad thing was that the cars were very quick when they were running on a clear track - Schumacher set the second fastest lap of the race and Fisichella the fourth fastest - the problem was that both drivers spent most of the race in traffic jams, which can only suggest that the team needs to rethink its strategies.

Frentzen's race was very disappointing. He made a bad start and was stuck in the traffic behind Hill, Coulthard and the Jordans. Good strategic work got him past all of them late in the race but he lost out to Fisichella in the closing laps when he had an upshift problem. He finished ninth.

Trulli finished 12th which was a great result for Minardi given that 17 of the 21 starters finished the race. The Italian went for a one-stop Bridgestone race and did a good job. Ukyo Katayama stalled at the second start and raced by himself all afternoon, finishing 18th and last.

The Tyrrells were off the pace and had a dull afternoon. "It was a really boring race," said Salo. "I did not see anybody after the start. The engine was reliable and consistent and the handling of the car was fine but we need to go quicker."

Nakano in the second Prost went for a one-stop strategy and suffered a bizarre failure when a wheel fell off as he was coming in to pit. He lost time and was totally exhausted but he finished 14th.

Hill's one-stop strategy and a good second start meant that Damon was able to run in the top six in the mid-race but he was too far behind Panis to have the same advantage with the traffic and fell back after his stop to 11th. He drifted back, thereafter, and retired with four laps to go with an oil pressure problem. Pedro Diniz spun off after 15 laps saying that something had gone wrong in the car.

It was not a great result but it gave evidence that Arrows should not be overlooked later this year.

The other man not to finish was Barrichello who had to stop because of a rear suspension failure. It has to be said that the team is having too many such problems. How can any driver have confidence in such a car? It needs fixing.

Jacques Villeneuve Williams-Renault  72 1h36m06.990  1m16.004 
Gerhard Berger Benetton-Renault  72 4.190  1m16.644 
14 Olivier Panis Prost-Mugen Honda  72 15.870  1m16.756 
Mika Hakkinen McLaren-Mercedes  72 33.033  1m16.033 
Michael Schumacher Ferrari  72 33.731  1m16.731 
Jean Alesi Benetton-Renault  72 34.020  1m16.757 
16 Johnny Herbert Sauber-Petronas  72 50.912  1m17.409 13 
12 Giancarlo Fisichella Jordan-Peugeot  72 1m00.639  1m16.912 
Heinz-Harald Frentzen Williams-Renault  72 1m15.402  1m16.924 
10 10 David Coulthard McLaren-Mercedes  71 1 Lap  1m17.262 12 
11 17 Nicola Larini Sauber-Petronas  71 1 Lap  1m18.644 19 
12 21 Jarno Trulli Minardi-Hart  71 1 Lap  1m18.336 17 
13 19 Mika Salo Tyrrell-Ford  71 1 Lap  1m19.274 22 
14 15 Shinji Nakano Prost-Mugen Honda  71 1 Lap  1m17.999 15 
15 18 Jos Verstappen Tyrrell-Ford  70 2 Laps  1m19.211 21 
16 Eddie Irvine Ferrari  70 2 Laps  1m17.527 14 
17 Damon Hill Arrows-Yamaha  68 4 Laps  1m17.090 
18 20 Ukyo Katayama Minardi-Hart  67 5 Laps  1m18.557 18 
11 Ralf Schumacher Jordan-Peugeot  52 Electrical 1m17.175 10 
22 Rubens Barrichello Stewart-Ford  16 Suspension 1m17.259 11 
Pedro Diniz Arrows-Yamaha  15 Spin 1m18.095 16 
23 Jan Magnussen Stewart-Ford  Accident 1m18.773 20