British GP 1997

British GP, 1997

Good luck, bad luck

JACQUES VILLENEUVE scored William Grand Prix Engineering's 100th Grand Prix victory at Silverstone on an afternoon when Jacques's World Championship rival Michael Schumacher retired with a wheel-bearing failure. In a topsy-turvy race Jacques was lucky because he had been stuck in the pits early on with his own wheel problem. These incidents allowed Mika Hakkinen to get into what looked like a winning position but his engine failed six laps from home. Benetton picked up second and third which looked good but was nothing really special and Damon Hill kept the British crowds happy by taking a lucky point for sixth place.

And so to Silverstone, to a circuit which is lost in the gently rolling countryside of the heart of England, a world of country houses, green wellies, horses, village fetes, Range Rovers and girls who say "OK yah" if you ask them the right questions. It is a lovely part of the world if you have the money to buy yourself a country "hise". Being close to London and to Oxford you have to have an absolute fortune to buy a decent place.

Dotted between the old country estates are the old bomber bases from the Second World War, with evocative names such as Finmere and Farthinghoe. It was from these airfields that the bright young boys of the 1940s flew off to bomb the hell out of Britain's modern day European cousins in Germany.

Most of the airfields fell quickly into disuse when peace finally broke out and they were left to rot or to be plowed up by the local farmers. RAF Silverstone was the exception. It has become one of the biggest local industries, bringing $45m to the area over a four day period every July when the F1 circus comes to town.

Silverstone never hit it big as a bomber base, it was used only for training young bomber crews. When Britain began to rebuild racing enthusiasts - who were barred by law from racing on public roads and could not afford to build new facilities - had the idea of using old airbases as race tracks. The early adventures were usually pirate affairs and legend has it that at the first "race" at Silverstone the meeting ended prematurely when one of the competitors collided with a sheep.

The Royal Automobile Club (RAC) eventually cottoned on to the idea and in 1948 approached the Air Ministry and asked to lease RAF Silverstone. The racing circuit was laid out on the runways and perimeter roads of the base. It was the child of an austere age: it was not planned or landscaped, it just happened. It has none of the manicure of Magny-Cours, the frenetic atmosphere of Monza nor the grandeur of Spa, but it does however have speed.

And this year it had more than ever because the planners had a rethink and came up with a faster track than that which has been used since 1994. The drivers loved it, it was a challenge. The new Copse Corner was great. Overtaking was going to be a problem but, hey, you cannot have everything.

In qualifying overtaking is not so important. Intelligent track-watching from the pits means that drivers can avoid most of the traffic if the teams are working well.

At the end of the qualifying session on Saturday Williams proved that despite the recent setbacks it is still a great team. Jacques Villeneuve came out when the track was at its busiest but had no problems with slower cars and was able to snatch pole position away from his team-mate Heinz-Harald Frentzen, who had grabbed it from Mika Hakkinen just a few minutes before.

The Williams-Renault FW19 looked good again although for most of practice Frentzen was struggling to find a good set-up. Villeneuve said that his car was "very good" but found that this was in itself a problem as he could not do much to improve it. "When you get that close it is difficult to make it perfect," he said.

On his early runs in the session Villeneuve made mistakes and so he knew he had to go for it on his third and final run. He waited for a passing cloud to blot out the sun. This meant that the track temperature dropped and the oils in the tarmac slipped quietly back underground. It may sound unlikely but a cloud will make the difference of three or four tenths of a second on a flying lap.

The faster track and Villeneuve's determination to be on pole position did the job, although all the way round that lap Jacques was not sure if he had enough to snatch pole. In the end he edged out Heinz-Harald by one-tenth of a second. "It is good to be back where we should be," said the French-Canadian.

Frentzen was "annoyed" to have lost his pole position but had gambled and lost and was willing to accept that on this occasion he had got it wrong. "I knew that the clouds were coming," he said, "but in the recent races I have had a lot of trouble with traffic on my final qualifying runs. I had some traffic on my third run and I decided to go out with eight minutes to go. The track temperatures were a little higher but I did not want to take a risk and get caught behind someone."

Heinz was rather surprised to be as competitive as he was because things had not been going well up to the start of qualifying. "We were struggling with the set-up," he admitted, "and so we did a dramatic change after the morning session. That improved the car. It meant that I went out to qualify with a car I did not know but the changes were in the right direction and I felt much more confident in the car. I went for it and I had nothing to lose. I tried everything and I was very happy."

Frentzen's lap knocked Mika Hakkinen off the pole which he had held for most of the session after a blisteringly quick run after 18 minutes. It had been a very impressive performance for McLaren but the team, which is usually so well run, was certainly guilty of complacency in those final minutes. Television pictures showed Hakkinen laughing and joking with Mercedes-Benz boss Norbert Haug when he should have been in the car, watching the clouds. A session is not over until it's over.

When Frentzen beat the time Mika went out but ran into traffic at Stowe Corner and that was that. "It happens," he said. "There was nothing more I could do."

David Coulthard backed up McLaren's good performance with fifth on the grid, half a second down on Mika. If he had not spun off during Friday's practice he might have completed more laps and had a more competitive car. "The potential was there," said David, "but unfortunately the lap time was not."

The McLaren improvement pushed Michael Schumacher's Ferrari down to fourth on the grid which, according to Michael, was where he had expected to be. "Starting from the second row of the grid suits me well," he said, subtly pushing pressure onto Villeneuve. "I am aiming to maintain a good lead over Villeneuve in the Championship by taking as many points as possible."

Eddie Irvine was seventh on the grid but so close were the top cars that he was only four-tenths slower. The chatty Ulsterman complained that his car tended to wash out in the middle of the corners. Matters were not helped when Irvine walloped into a hare on his first flying lap, despatching the poor beast to that great bunny hole in the sky and giving himself a big shock.

Fifth on the grid - just behind his brother Michael - was Ralf Schumacher in his Jordan-Peugeot. He emerged ahead in the incredible battle for fifth-11th places on the grid, seven drivers being covered by 0.12secs. Thus, while Ralf's performance looked quite good, Giancarlo Fisichella's 10th position seemed rather disappointing, although there was but a blink between them. "It is frustrating," grumbled Giancarlo. "The times are so close and I could easily have been several places higher. I did my best time on he first run but had traffic on the second and made mistakes in the last runs."

Eighth on the grid, behind Coulthard and Irvine, was the leading Benetton driver, Alexander Wurz beating Jean Alesi for the second time in two races.

Jean was "disappointed and frustrated" to be down in 11th position while Wurz was "obviously pleased". Overall the team had little to be cheerful about as once again it had failed to reproduce the impressive kind of times that we have seen on occasion in testing.

Mixing it with the big boys again was Johnny Herbert in his Sauber, who was ninth on the grid. After a couple of races struggling with set-ups Johnny was back and was a little disappointed that he had not been able to squeeze out another tenth of a second which would have put him fifth on the grid.

Sauber once again decided to run Norberto Fontana in the second car, despite an approach to Martin Brundle in the days before the race.

Fontana looked a little better than he had in Magny-Cours and qualified 14th, albeit a second and a half behind Herbert. This effort was spoiled when he ignored a red light in the pitlane, requesting him to stop for technical checks, and thus had all his qualifying times canceled which meant that he would have to start from the back of the grid.

Behind Alesi there was a gap of almost a second back to the fastest of the Bridgestone runners, who seemed to be struggling on this occasion. One would have expected a good showing from Jarno Trulli in his Prost but in fact the top Bridgestone runner was none other than local hero Damon Hill in the Arrows. He was 12th on the grid.

At the center of an absurd media circus, Damon seemed to recapture some interest in his F1 career this weekend. It may have been due to the fact that Tom Walkinshaw grumbled to pressmen on Thursday that Damon needed to get his act together a little more. The spin doctors of the tabloid newspapers went to town and by the morning some had Damon facing being fired. And so it went on. Silly.

There is no doubt, however, that Damon did lift his game because he was really pushing it and pulled out a second over Pedro Diniz, who has been right with Damon at recent events. Pedro qualified 16th but moved up a place when Fontana was booted to the back of the grid.

For Prost, Trulli was 13th and he thought this was largely due to the fact that he had gone off in the morning session on Saturday and lost set-up time. As a result he was struggling a little, particularly with the brakes.

Shinji Nakano was half a second behind Jarno but following Fontana's problems he moved up to share the seventh row with his team mate.

The Stewart team had a miserable qualifying with a series of Ford V10 engine failures - all three went pop during the qualifying session. This meant that the men at Ford and Cosworth had very red faces and Jan Magnussen and Rubens Barrichello were further back than they could have hoped for. Magnussen ended up 15th on the grid while Barrichello managed only four laps in the entire hour and was 21st and last on the grid.

The two Tyrrell boys were off the pace because the Ford V8 engine is rather less powerful than the V10s - but on this occasion less self-destructive - which meant that Mika Salo was 17th on the grid with Jos Verstappen 19th.

Minardi was where one is accustomed to seeing them with Ukyo Katayama in 18th position and Tarso Marques 20th, just 0.6secs slower than the Japanese driver.

SUNDAY morning dawned overcast and there were occasional showers passing through as people began the struggle to get into Fortress Silverstone. The rain did not help. By the time of the warm-up the rains had stopped and the track was drying. This gave the Bridgestone boys a chance to show off and Damon Hill set hearts around the track afluttering as he set the fastest time of the half hour session. It was fun but it meant nothing.

The weather cleared through the morning and by two o'clock it was becoming quite a nice day. It was not a nice day for Frentzen because at the end of the parade lap his Williams refused to go into neutral and when Heinz-Harald tried to force the issue the car stalled and the start had to be aborted.

When the grid formed up again Frentzen was at the back of the grid - as the rules dictate.

Up front Villeneuve got away well and Schumacher made a pretty good getaway too but behind them Coulthard simply flew from fifth to be challenging Michael on the inside as the cars dived into the first corner. At the last second David decided that discretion was the better part of valor and let Michael go, slotting into third ahead of Hakkinen, a fast-starting Herbert, Ralf Schumacher and the two Benettons (Alesi ahead of Wurz after a better getaway).

Down at the back of the grid we lost Katayama even before he crossed the startline, the Japanese driver spinning into the pitwall for no obvious reason. "I really don't know what happened," he said. "I don't know whether it was my fault, a technical problem or someone pushed me from behind."

On the first lap we also lost Frentzen who was trying to battle through the backmarkers when he was in a collision with Verstappen at Becketts. "Frentzen came flying past everyone," said Jos. "Obviously he was quicker than me but as soon as he got past he turned sharply left and just destroyed my nose. I couldn't believe it. He also damaged the radio aerial so I couldn't tell the team to expect me in the pits." Frentzen reckoned that Jos had simply run into the back of him.

Katayama's wreck was still sitting beside the road at Woodcote when the front-runners came through at the end of the first lap and the Race Director rightly sent out the Safety Car because a car in such a position might have provided a launch pad for another car to fly into a grandstand.

The Safety Car stayed out until the start of lap 5 and then the chase was on again. Jacques and Michael diced up front but it was quickly obvious that Coulthard was holding up a pack of cars behind him, clearly running to a one-stop strategy and finding his car a bit of a handful to drive. Everyone would remain locked up behind David until mid-distance.

The gap between Jacques and Michael began to grow but then suddenly it stopped. Jacques had a problem. "At first I thought it was a problem with the power steering and then I thought it might be the rear suspension. In fact the left front wheel came loose and it was very difficult to turn the car. It was very heavy. I had to turn the steering wheel 10-degrees more than normal."

Behind the two leaders Coulthard was holding everyone up badly. The gap between Schumacher and David went out at an astounding rate: 2.5secs, 4.7s, 5.8s, 7.8s, 9.7s and by lap 11 it had reached 12s. Behind him were a snarling, screeching mass of cars, trying to find a way through.

The only major change of order came on lap five when Fisichella was able to out scramble Wurz when the pace car pulled off.

It was clear that both Jacques and Michael were going for a two-stop strategy and that Coulthard was on a one-stopper. Behind him it was hard to say as no-one was able to show how fast they could go.

Schumacher was the first to stop - on lap 21 - and Villeneuve came in next time around. And then we had drama because the French-Canadian's front left wheel stuck on.

It cost him half a minute but thanks to Coulthard's slow progress in the early laps Jacques rejoined in seventh position just behind the Benettons. "After that it was push, push, push," explained Jacques. "The Benettons were sliding around because they were on one stop but once I had a clear track and I could push hard."

By mid-distance Michael Schumacher had a lead of over 40s over his chasers. It looked a foregone conclusion that he would win. He dived into the pits for an early second stop and then blasted out again in the lead. But there was a problem: the wheel bearings on the Ferrari were failing and as he went through Becketts the Ferrari snaked from side to side and pumped smoke from the rear. Michael's race was run. He trundled around and drove straight into the Ferrari garage.

This put Villeneuve back into the lead but he had to stop again and that meant that Mika Hakkinen moved into the lead, albeit only five seconds ahead of the Williams. It would be a chase to the flag.

As he closed up on the McLaren Jacques noticed that Mika was having trouble with his tires. "He had blistered his rears and was sliding more and more. I think I could have definitely got past Mika. It would have been difficult but I was going to make a move a few laps later."

It never happened because Hakkinen's Mercedes-Benz engine blew up on lap 53. Jacques jinked out to avoid the spray of oil, took the lead and then stroked it home for the last seven laps. One could argue it was a lucky win but at the same time luck had not been on his side in the early laps with the Safety Car and the wheel problem.

After the race the stewards gave Jacques a one-race ban suspended for one race for having slowed up too much behind the Safety Car just before the restart. This seems a little harsh as the Safety Car did not turn off its lights until very late in the lap and Jacques was simply trying to make sure that he did not get jumped by the opposition.

All this will have gone over the head of Mika Hakkinen although there might have been some consolation to be had in the fact that without Jacques's early dramas Mika would not have had a prayer of beating the French-Canadian.

A victory is a victory, however, and when you are as hungry as Mika these days you will take anything that comes along - or doesn't as the case may be. "I had everything under control," he complained later. "There was no way he could have got past."

It was no doubt a disappointment to McLaren, which is getting closer to being successful with every month. "Disappointment is becoming a too regular emotion in our team," said team boss Ron Dennis, recommending a cool, professional approach for the rest of the season.

Coulthard explained that his slow early pace had been caused by brake problems which caused a flat-spotted tire. This enabled Hakkinen to pass him on lap 23. He pitted seven laps later but dropped behind the two Benettons during the mid-race stops. He finished fourth under heavy pressure from the Jordan of Ralf Schumacher.

All the excitements up front worked in Benetton's favor although the team was never really in the ball park in outright pace. They opted for a clever one-stop strategy which meant that the two drivers could run further than all the opposition enabling both to pass Coulthard during the pit stop sequence.

As Schumacher, Herbert and Hakkinen retired, so Alesi and Wurz moved into second and third positions. Luck was important but one had to say that the team produced reliable cars and a good strategy. Alesi came from 11th on the grid while Wurz looked as though he might even have been able to beat Jean but thought better of it. "We have some problems in qualifying at the moment and we cannot get a good grid position and so we are compromised in the race. To be second was amazing. It was very difficult to drive early on with the weight of the fuel in the cars but we made the positions thanks to the strategy."

More impressive perhaps was Wurz's showing in only his third race in F1. "It was very tough," he admitted, "but it was a very very good result."

Ten points in a race is something which Benetton has not experienced for many a year and so there was cause for celebration at Enstone.

Behind Coulthard was Ralf Schumacher who ran a solid two-stop race for Jordan Peugeot. Ralf might have done better if he had made a better start but being stuck behind Coulthard ruined any hopes he might have had of a really good result.

Giancarlo Fisichella made some impressive progress early on with a late two-stop strategy. This might have produced a better result had Giancarlo not had a very hairy moment in Copse Corner on lap 43. "I am very angry with myself," he reported. "I made a big mistake which cost me my race. I could have been second or third as I was running really well ahead of the two Benettons."

The Italian finished seventh having had to pull into the pits for a radiator cleaning stop a few laps from the finish. If he had not stopped he would have finished ahead of Damon Hill - but there was no guarantee that the Peugeot would not have gone bang before the finish.

Damon Hill picked up a point for sixth place for Arrows - which was a very lucky result as none of the Bridgestone runners were anywhere near the pace all weekend. Damon did a two-race strategy and made up places as those ahead retired, grabbing sixth on the second last lap when Shinji Nakano's Mugen engine went boom.

Pedro Diniz ran around in the midfield on a one-stop strategy but suffered an air valve problem on his engine on lap 29 and had to retire.

Jarno Trulli came home a lackluster eighth, a very disappointing performance which left the Prost team rather confused. "I spent two thirds of the race battling with the car," Trulli reported, "It was impossible to attack and then at the end I felt a significant improvement and my lap times tumbled by something like two seconds." Not even Alain Prost could explain that one.

Nakano's retirement was a shame because the young Japanese driver had done a good job, turning in consistent times throughout only to have an engine failure in sight of the flag.

Ninth place went to Norberto Fontana which was not bad for the Sauber driver although Johnny Herbert showed early in the race that the Swiss team has a car which is capable of podium finishes.

Johnny drove a storming race jumping up to fifth at the start from ninth on the grid and then diving in early for an early pit stop. It was exactly the right strategy and he would have emerged ahead of the Benettons at the second stop - and finished on the podium - but for a gearbox problem on his IN lap. "I would have been out ahead of Wurz," Johnny reported, "and I would probably have been on the podium but I had the problem and as I was coming out of the pits Wurz was there with me and I let him go ahead."

Johnny then had a puncture and had to pit again. When he rejoined the gearbox problem returned and that was that for Mr. Herbert. "The results keep slipping away," he mourned later.

Tarso Marques finished 10th for Minardi which was a good effort for the Brazilian.

Like his Ferrari team mate Michael Schumacher, Eddie Irvine failed to finish which was a shame because the Ulsterman had driven a good race and would have had third place if his driveshaft had not failed as he accelerated out of the pits after his second pit stop.

Stewart and Tyrrell both failed to finish both cars, the result of a total failure of Ford Cosworth products: boom-boom, boom-boom. There will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth in Northampton and probably in Detroit as well...

It seemed after the race that everyone had a story of either good fortune or bad luck - or in the case of Villeneuve a little bit of both.

Jacques Villeneuve Williams-Renault  59 1h28m01.665  1m21.598 
Jean Alesi Benetton-Renault  59 10.205  1m22.392 11 
Gerhard Berger Benetton-Renault  59 11.296  1m22.344 
10 David Coulthard McLaren-Mercedes  59 31.229  1m22.279 
11 Ralf Schumacher Jordan-Peugeot  59 31.880  1m22.277 
Damon Hill Arrows-Yamaha  59 1m13.552  1m23.271 12 
12 Giancarlo Fisichella Jordan-Peugeot  58 1 Lap  1m22.371 10 
14 Olivier Panis Prost-Mugen Honda  58 1 Lap  1m23.366 13 
17 Nicola Larini Sauber-Petronas  58 1 Lap  1m23.790 14 
10 21 Jarno Trulli Minardi-Hart  58 1 Lap  1m25.154 21 
11 15 Shinji Nakano Prost-Mugen Honda  58 1 Lap  1m23.887 15 
Mika Hakkinen McLaren-Mercedes  52 Engine 1m21.797 
23 Jan Magnussen Stewart-Ford  50 Engine 1m24.067 16 
18 Jos Verstappen Tyrrell-Ford  45 Engine 1m25.010 20 
Eddie Irvine Ferrari  44 Driveshaft 1m22.342 
19 Mika Salo Tyrrell-Ford  44 Engine 1m24.478 18 
16 Johnny Herbert Sauber-Petronas  42 Gearbox 1m22.368 
Michael Schumacher Ferrari  38 Wheel Bearing 1m21.977 
22 Rubens Barrichello Stewart-Ford  37 Engine 1m25.525 22 
Pedro Diniz Arrows-Yamaha  29 Air Valves 1m24.239 17 
Heinz-Harald Frentzen Williams-Renault  Accident 1m21.732 
20 Ukyo Katayama Minardi-Hart  Spin 1m24.553 19