French GP 1997

French GP, 1997

Michael blows them away

RING the bells in Maranello! The Ferraris are truly competitive again. This was no fluke victory. Michael Schumacher dominated qualifying and the race at Magny-Cours while the Williams team floundered in his wake. The only slight problem with the race was that until the rain started with 10 laps to go, it had been only slightly more interesting than watching paint dry...

Magny-Cours has always been in the middle of nowhere. Back in the First World War the land on which the circuit is built - which is called Les Gailleres - was used for a vast 17,000 bed American military hospital. This canvas city was far from the evils of the Front Line and provided a peaceful place for the injured to get over their experiences.

When the Americans went home it became farmland until the early 1960s when the Mayor of the local village, Jean Bernigaud, decided that he wanted to build a racing circuit. In order to give it some international profile he established a racing school - the Winfield School - and gradually this remote place gained a reputation and so people trekked down from Paris.

It became the site of the French Grand Prix and the home of the Ligier F1 team because of an elaborate plan, conceived by a French government made up of socialists from this region, to boost the area with a motor racing industry and tourism. It did not work very well. The Socialist government disappeared and the money ran out. When Alain Prost took over the Ligier team he quickly announced that the whole operation would be moved to somewhere more sensible and the dreams of a booming Nievre department disappeared. It is only a matter of time before the French GP departs as well as the F1 circus - which likes bright lights and big cities - has never enjoyed its weekend with the French peasantry.

It is a lovely part of the world but this does not really count in F1 because all that paddock people care about is whether the showers have hot water, whether there are places to land private jets and whether mobile telephones can be used. In these respects Magny-Cours is disastrous. There are not enough hotel rooms in the region and some of the big-paying sponsors have to share their beds with the local cockroaches - which, of course, does not go down well.

As a result Magny-Cours is not a popular venue, although traditionally it has been a sunny place as France should be in late June and early July.

The only problem this year was that there was no sun. It rained and swirled clouds on Thursday; it rained and swirled clouds on Friday. On Saturday it was a better day and qualifying took place in the dry but in the evening the rains came back again. It was miserable.

Friday was totally irrelevant - as it always is these days. In the wet morning session Rubens Barrichello demonstrated the impressive Bridgestone wet tires by being fastest in his Stewart-Ford. Damon Hill was second quickest in his Arrows-Yamaha. "The conditions were changing all the time," commented Michael Schumacher. "The session was worthless."

In the afternoon session the track was drying but it was still damp and cold and in the sprint to set the fastest time at the end of the session it was Michael Schumacher who emerged ahead with his Ferrari F310B, using the 046/2 Ferrari engine and a new front wing.

Michael has had a tendency in recent months to play down his chances at every race track and so he was down-beat about the performance. The changing nature of the conditions resulted in Giancarlo Fisichella being second quickest in his Jordan and Mika Hakkinen third fastest in his McLaren. Williams seemed to be struggling throughout the day - with Heinz-Harald Frentzen ending his afternoon session sitting in a sandtrap.

Saturday morning was warm and bright and, as if by magic, the two Williams-Renaults shot to the top of the timesheets, although Jacques Villeneuve - who set the fastest time - blotted his copybook at the end of the session by going off at the Imola chicane and smacking his Williams into a wall.

This affected him in the afternoon when he started the session using the T-car which he did not like. The mechanics worked flat out to fix up the damaged race car and so Jacques did his final runs with the repaired car. He ended up fourth on the grid with a lot of work still to be done.

Heinz-Harald was second quickest but had to abort his final run in qualifying because of a fuel pressure problem. "I have to say that we were struggling this afternoon in qualifying for reasons which we do not yet know. We lost a little grip compared to the morning session. Obviously the temperature was a bit higher but I did not expect the loss of grip."

This was a disappointing result for Williams, particularly as Renault was keen to do well in France and had rustled up an evolution version of the RS9 engine for the occasion. There was more horsepower than ever before.

With Williams not being on form, it was left to Michael Schumacher to take advantage of the situation - which he does so well. Having taken pole, however, he was once again downbeat about his chances. "I did not expect to be where we are. I feel we are going to struggle," he said.

In the post-qualifying press conference Michael's pessimistic forecasting was picked up by Heinz-Harald. "He always says he is going to be slow and he is right up there with us," commented Heinz, adding mischievously that he thought that Williams would struggle badly in the race.

Michael's psychological games on this occasion were so transparent that even his own brother Ralf - who had qualified third on the grid - was unable to defend Michael. "Heinz-Harald may be right about my brother's predictions," said Ralf, "perhaps I should also say that we will be struggling in the race!" For this Ralf received a hefty dig in the ribs from his big brother sitting beside him.

Ralf's third place was a good performance - and it gave the Germans plenty to cheer about with a 1-2-3 in qualifying. It had been quite a surprise for the youngster because he had lost a lot of time on Saturday morning due to hydraulic problems which left him with only 14 laps of running - a lot of them IN and OUT laps to and from the pits.

On this occasion at Jordan it was Giancarlo Fisichella who was struggling with a lack of grip and understeer. "The tire temperatures were too low but I do not know why," he explained. "We managed to make the problem better for the last run and I think I could have got into the 1m14s but I was held up by Irvine." Giancarlo ended up a disappointed 11th on the grid.

In spite of getting in the way of Fisichella, Irvine had a better than normal qualifying and ended up in fifth place on the grid, he too complaining of traffic. "I lost time overtaking someone on my best lap," he said. "My car was great and I honestly thought I could have gone even quicker. The new modifications made by the team have really transformed my car."

Sixth on the grid was Jarno Trulli - standing in for Olivier Panis in the leading Prost Mugen Honda. This was a remarkable performance given the small amount of time Trulli had working with the Prost team and with the JS45 car. The team had the latest evolution of the Mugen Honda V10 engine for the weekend and one had to wonder where Panis might have been were he not out of action as a result of his accident in the Canadian GP. Trulli was only 0.4s off pole position and there is little doubt that Panis would have done better, but Jarno's performance was noteworthy nonetheless - an indication that Trulli may be a major new F1 talent.

This is something which will never be said of the Prost team's number two driver Shinji Nakano. He did better than usual because he has been around Magny-Cours many times but 12th on the grid, nearly a second slower than Trulli, indicated that the second seat at Prost is currently being wasted. One can understand why the Japanese want to keep Shinji in the car but logic would have to suggest that Prost would be twice as likely to score points if Emmanuel Collard was in the second car.

The revelation of qualifying - apart from Trulli - was young Alexander Wurz of Benetton, who once again stood in for Gerhard Berger, who is off the track due to sinus problems. Wurz continued to make progress and by the end of qualifying was seventh on the grid, ahead of the vastly experienced Jean Alesi. While seventh and eighth on the grid is no great achievement with Renault engines, Wurz's efforts were impressive.

Alesi said he was not happy with his car. "I am sorry to have disappointed my public here in Magny-Cours, where they have been so supportive," said Jean. "I had hoped to be in a good grid position for the race."

The McLaren-Mercedes MP4-12s were ninth and 10th on the grid with David Coulthard once again out-qualifying Mika Hakkinen. This is a circuit where having good mechanical grip is important and the McLarens struggled in the wiggly sections in the middle of the circuit.

Coulthard complained that he had picked up a rock under his car on his first qualifying run and this had caused the car to behave strangely. Hakkinen spun and then stalled his car and so had to take to the spare one, but was unable to get out onto the track in time for a quick lap.

Whatever the excuses it was a disappointing performance for the team although they were hopeful that in race trim the cars would be as competitive as they had been in Canada.

Barrichello ended up 13th on the grid with Jan Magnussen 15th in the second Stewart-Ford. This was as fast as they could go. "There is nothing wrong with our car that 80 horsepower would not fix," muttered one of the team that afternoon. The best that Stewart could hope for was a nice rainy race so that they could take advantage of the tires and not have to worry about the lack of grunt.

The Sauber team was rather disappointing with Johnny Herbert down in 14th place and the inexperienced Norberto Fontana - replacing the injured Gianni Morbidelli - back in 20th on the grid 1.3s behind Johnny. "Traction was our major problem," commented a depressed Johnny. "We have gone down a wrong road somewhere and we need to get back to where we were. The others have not improved that much."

Fontana's performance was much as one would expect given that he has not sat in an F1 car since September last year. One could only wonder why Norberto was chosen when Williams test driver Jean-Christophe Boullion was available and knows the team, having driven for Sauber in 1995.

The Arrows team continues to struggle miserably with Pedro Diniz actually out-qualifying Damon Hill on this occasion. "I had a brake lock up and I spun off at the hairpin under braking," Damon reported. "I have only got myself to blame. I had to use the spare car and it wasn't quite set up the way I liked."

The team argued that although Damon's 17th on the grid did not look very good it was only two seconds off pole position - which was not so bad. I suppose that depends on your standards. Two seconds off pole position for a Tom Walkinshaw car is, I would have thought, as disastrous as it gets. Tom was not happy (this is a slight understatement) and the Yamaha men were hiding in the corners of the paddock.

Pedro's 16th on the grid was a good job and evidence that although having $12m cash helps you get a drive, he does have some talent as well.

The Tyrrell boys were back where one would expect to see them given that the track needs a modicum of horsepower as well as good handling. Jos Verstappen was 18th on the grid, Mika Salo 19th. Verstappen set his best lap on his second run and suffered an engine failure on his third (his second of the weekend) and so had to go to the spare for a final dash - which is never the perfect arrangement.

Down at the back as usual were the Minardi boys, Ukyo Katayama able to outqualify his team mate now that Trulli has moved on to Prost. His replacement, Tarso Marques, was 0.7s behind Ukyo, which was a good effort given that he has not had much chance to test this year.

RACE DAY dawned rainy and, as everyone struggled in from their hotels, things were not looking good. The Ferraris dominated the warm-up in drying conditions with Irvine faster than Schumacher and Stewart's Barrichello third fastest, showing that in certain levels of rain the Bridgestones tires were highly competitive.

And then the clouds cleared and for the rest of the morning there was bright sunshine. At lunch time the clouds came back and it was nastily overcast as everyone went to the grid. Now was the time for decisions about race settings: would it rain?

Michael Schumacher went for a compromise setting and continued to make adjustments - as he tends to do - right up until the final moments. Others too played with different ideas. Villeneuve went for a set-up which was tending towards the wet and Johnny Herbert did likewise.

At the start Schumacher made a good beginning but Frentzen was not far behind. Ralf Schumacher did not get away well and was passed by Villeneuve and Irvine. Eddie then went past Jacques as they braked for the first corner. "He braked too early and I just sailed around the outside of him," Eddie reported.

Behind them Ralf was able to hold off the two McLarens which had both got away well and had scrabbled past Trulli (who produced an enormous cloud of tire smoke with his wheelspin) and the two Benettons, Alesi getting the better of Wurz.

And that was it. The order stayed the same until the pit stops began, the only change in the top 10 being the demise of Hakkinen on lap 19.

Up front Schumacher (M) was able to build a gap of around seven seconds in the first 10 laps, which surprised Frentzen. "I was astonished by the speed of Michael in the beginning," he said. "I thought he was on a three-stop strategy. I let him go. I was pushing hard but I was convinced that he was going to do three stops."

But Schumacher was planning only two - a fact which Frentzen realized by around lap 18 when he began to close the gap as Michael worked his way through the first of the backmarkers. Michael pitted on lap 22 and Heinz-Harald came in the following time around.

When they re-emerged Michael had increased the gap dramatically. It remained constant until their second stops on laps 46 and 48 respectively. And then the rains began to spit. It was a question of whether to risk it and pit or whether to hold on and hope.

"It was very slippery," Michael reported. "You really needed to go into the pits to get intermediates or wets but in my position - with nine laps to go - I saw the sky was very dark over the circuit but it was clearing up and I knew it would be a short shower. I had to look at what Heinz-Harald was doing."

Frentzen was watching Michael. "This was the critical point," reported HH. "I looked up and it looked very clear. I didn't know if the rain was coming. Michael was on the same strategy - hoping it was going to stop raining - and I decided to stay out as well. The radio communication at the time was pretty busy. We were in heavy negotiation as to whether we should go on intermediate tires and whether to go soft or hard. And then I said OK, I stay out. A few moments later I thought maybe I should go in. The cars using intermediates were a lot quicker at that stage and with five laps it would have meant it would have been dangerous to Michael. But in the end if I had put the intermediates on but in the end I stayed with the dry tires."

Perhaps it was a wrong decision because on lap 63 Michael went wide at the first corner and ran into and across the gravel trap but he was able to rejoin and after that the rain eased and Michael was able to control the race.

Behind Michael and Heinz-Harald were Irvine and Villeneuve who had both had a very dull races in third and fourth places. When the rains came Eddie was struggling because Villeneuve's car was finally behaving well and closing fast. He might have stayed out but behind them Coulthard - on intermediates - was closing at over five seconds a lap.

Both Eddie and Jacques came in for intermediate rubber at the same time. Eddie got away quicker and Jacques emerged behind Coulthard and Ralf Schumacher.

The last few laps were a hurly-burly affair with all sorts of silly things going on as the intermediate tires went off at different rates as the track dried. No-one was going to catch up with Michael or Heinz-Harald but Irvine's position was still under threat.

Coulthard, Ralf Schumacher, Villeneuve and Alesi ran nose to tail after Jacques' pit stop. Jacques was able to pass Ralf on the run down to the final corner on lap 70 and on lap 71 he went past Coulthard when David made a mistake, which dropped him behind Ralf.

Jacques went after Eddie again, while Ralf made a mistake of his own and spun into a gravel trap, allowing Alesi to get onto Coulthard's tail for the last lap. Ralf rejoined.

"I knew Jacques was coming fast," said Eddie, "but my intermediates had turned really bad. I had huge blisters on the rear tires and the back was floating around. It was very tricky."

At the Adelaide Hairpin on the last lap Eddie went off, across grass and gravel and suddenly Jacques was right with him. They diced through the next corners and on the run down into the final chicane Jacques squared up for a challenge. He spun, careering across the track into the pitlane entrance road, flattening bollards as he went. He then drove back up the road, flicked the car around and managed to drag the Williams across the line in fourth place, just ahead of Jean Alesi.

After the race the stewards debated whether or not Jacques should be punished for driving the wrong way on the track without being directed to do so by the marshals.

Alesi's fifth place was testament to further action which had been going on as this was happening. The place should have gone to Coulthard but Alesi punted him straight off at the second hairpin.

"His apologies after the race do not give back the points to the team or excuse the maneuver," an irritated Coulthard reported. McLaren team boss Ron Dennis was also miffed.

"We should have left France with points but a rather less than sporting maneuver by Alesi pushed David into the gravel and deprived him of fifth position." It had not been a good day for the team which lost Mika Hakkinen - who was running behind David in the early laps - with an engine failure after 19 laps.

Alesi - naturally - had a different view. "I know I am an aggressive driver," said Jean, "but I feel I am also a very correct driver too and in that incident I was not doing anything out of order at all. It was a purely racing accident in difficult conditions."

Jean would be the only Benetton scorer as Wurz - who had actually been running ahead of Jean after the first pit stop - had spun off in the treacherous conditions 10 laps from the finish. "I struggled a bit because of my lack of experience," he admitted.

Jordan's Ralf Schumacher came home sixth - thanks largely to his brother Michael. After his spin in the closing laps Ralf was seventh and out of the points. Michael lapped his brother at the second to last corner of his last lap but on the run down to the finish line Michael realized that it would be better if he let Ralf past again so he could do another lap and maybe make up places. He backed off at the last corner and let Ralf through and, with Coulthard being punted out, the younger Schumacher was able to make up an unexpected place.

Fisichella finished ninth after a one-stop race. His afternoon started badly with an engine failure during the recognition laps which meant that he had to start the race in the spare car, which was not fitted with the new Jordan differential. His one-stop strategy enabled him to climb to sixth in the mid-race but the rain negated the advantage.

Eighth place went to Johnny Herbert who made up one place at the start and ran 13th for most of the early part of the race. He went for a one-stop race but his pace was too slow to make up any places. He was 12th when it started to rain but decisive pit work at Sauber move him up.

Fontana damaged an endplate running into Salo at the first corner and decided to pit on lap 15 to have a change of tires. He was back in again on lap 33 to have the nose changed and turned off the engine, complaining that the car was undriveable. The team sent him out again and after another pit stop he spun off. The performance did not impress the team and he is unlikely to be seen again.

Trulli ended up 10th in the Prost. After his bad start he ran eighth but a late first stop dropped him back to 10th place. With the rain coming in Jarno held on as long as he could before his second stop.

"The team knew it was going to rain," explained Jarno, "and they postponed my pit stop until the last possible moment."

In the end he had to pit and the team took a huge risk: he was sent out on intermediates. If it had worked Jarno would have been the hero of the day - but the rain stayed away. "I prayed that the rain would come," admitted Trulli later. "When it finally did my tires had suffered too much." It was a disastrous day for Prost as Nakano had run around in the midfield for only seven laps before falling off.

Katayama finished 11th for Minardi which was something as Marques had retired on the sixth lap with an engine failure.

The last finisher was Damon Hill but it had been another disastrous afternoon for Tom Walkinshaw and his Arrows team. On the first lap Damon Hill was shoved off at the first corner and had a slow lap around to the pits to get a new nose. By the time he rejoined he was a lap down. He spent most of the race running with the midfield men - albeit a lap down - and finished three laps down. Diniz failed to finish. He ran a one-stop strategy but a brush with Verstappen on lap 12 meant he had to pit for a new nose. He went on to have a spin at mid-distance and finally spun out in the wet conditions.

Neither Stewart made it home: Magnussen was put out with overheating brakes after a cooling duct failed and everything became too hot. Barrichello made a bad start but ran with Magnussen until an engine failure after 35 laps.

Both Tyrrells retired as well and the team later revealed a worrying computer shutdown problem which had caused both retirements. In Verstappen's case the computer shutdown caused his throttle to stick open. "I stood on the brakes and locked up the wheels but I went into the gravel and hit the tire wall."

Salo was luckier. He was able to keep running until lap 61 when his failure occurred - shutting down his engine. "This type of failure is unprecedented," reported technical director Harvey Postlethwaite, "and it will be rigorously investigated with our suppliers before we run at Silverstone next week."

As races go it was not a classic but it sets the stage for a fascinating end of season. Schumacher goes to the British Grand Prix with a 14 point advantage in the World Championship - who would have thought it?

Michael Schumacher Ferrari  72 1h38m50.492  1m14.548 
Heinz-Harald Frentzen Williams-Renault  72 23.537  1m14.749 
Eddie Irvine Ferrari  72 1m14.801  1m14.860 
Jacques Villeneuve Williams-Renault  72 1m21.784  1m14.800 
Jean Alesi Benetton-Renault  72 1m22.735  1m15.228 
11 Ralf Schumacher Jordan-Peugeot  72 1m29.871  1m14.755 
10 David Coulthard McLaren-Mercedes  71 1 Lap  1m15.270 
16 Johnny Herbert Sauber-Petronas  71 1 Lap  1m16.018 14 
12 Giancarlo Fisichella Jordan-Peugeot  71 1 Lap  1m15.453 11 
10 14 Olivier Panis Prost-Mugen Honda  70 2 Laps  1m14.957 
11 20 Ukyo Katayama Minardi-Hart  70 2 Laps  1m17.563 21 
12 Damon Hill Arrows-Yamaha  69 3 Laps  1m16.729 17 
19 Mika Salo Tyrrell-Ford  61 Electronics 1m17.256 19 
Gerhard Berger Benetton-Renault  60 Spin 1m14.986 
Pedro Diniz Arrows-Yamaha  58 Spin 1m16.536 16 
17 Nicola Larini Sauber-Petronas  40 Spin 1m17.538 20 
22 Rubens Barrichello Stewart-Ford  36 Engine 1m15.876 13 
23 Jan Magnussen Stewart-Ford  33 Brakes 1m16.149 15 
Mika Hakkinen McLaren-Mercedes  18 Engine 1m15.339 10 
18 Jos Verstappen Tyrrell-Ford  15 Electronics 1m16.941 18 
15 Shinji Nakano Prost-Mugen Honda  Accident 1m15.857 12 
21 Jarno Trulli Minardi-Hart  Engine 1m18.280 22