Hungarian GP 1997

Hungarian GP, 1997

Heartbreak Hill

THERE is no such thing as a moral winner in Grand Prix racing. The man who gets to the line first wins the race, whether he deserves the victory or not. At the Hungaroring Jacques Villeneuve won - but he did not really deserve the win. The day had belonged to Damon Hill - until a hydraulic glitch with two and a half laps to go left the Arrows driver unable to defend his half minute advantage. "Maybe I should be glad to be second," said team boss Tom Walkinshaw, "but right now I'm just pissed off. Damon was just cruising for the last 20 laps. The car, the engine and the tires worked very well round here."

Budapest has a tradition of being invaded by barbarians. The Romans set up shop in Buda as long ago as AD 100 but after their empire fell apart the locals had to put up with marauding Huns, then Avars, Slavs and Magyars. The Turks made a good stab at winning the area and then eventually things began to settle down in the glorious days of the Austro-Hungarian empire. And then we had a series of German and Russian armies playing tennis with the city. In 1945 the Russians won and put Hungary into Stalinist cold storage. When F1 started visiting in the mid 1980s Hungary was like a time capsule.

"It was great," a colleague said the other day. "If you had forgotten to buy something in the 1960s you knew that you would be able to find it in Budapest."

When, finally, Communist Russia fell apart a new surge of barbarians arrived bringing with them mobile phones, McDonalds, Coca-Cola and snappy suits. The commandos of capitalism were, of course, the fixers and the wheeler dealers of Formula 1. Western ways and western money have transformed the city in recent years. The horrid smoking Trabants of yesteryear are going the way of the dinosaur and gradually the Hungarians are painting over the leftovers of the drab Communist years. The local police force had developed their own capitalism while retaining some of the old Stalinist "charm", ripping off any tourist they can find with ridiculous fines which help to supplement their income.

They had a field day as the town filled with racing fans from all over Europe. Being in the middle of the summer holidays the Hungarian Grand Prix is always a cosmopolitan race with holiday makers gathering to enjoy both the racing and the city.

There were thousands of Germans, the Austrians came in legions following Gerhard Berger's win at Hockenheim and, as usual, the Finns were in plentiful supply as well - the Hungarians being the only people in Europe with as silly a sounding language. Out in the crowds there were Canadian flags, Dutch flags and even the odd Union Jack. There were no Italian flags but the Ferrari banners flew high as always.

They would not be disappointed because from the beginning of practice Michael Schumacher seemed to be in a class of his own. Everyone made a big fuss about a new lightweight Ferrari, which meant that the weight ballast could be put wherever it was needed in the car. Schumacher said this was an advantage but most people in the paddock reckoned that Michael was probably gaining more from the use of the torque-control system which the FIA has decreed to be legal. Ferrari boss Jean Todt denied that the team was using the electronic system but no-one believed him and watching Schumacher out on the circuit one had to say that it was remarkable that his car seemed to float through the corners while his rivals fish-tailed as the power went down. Whether it was natural talent or software skill is really not important as - one way or another - everything was legal.

Michael reckoned that he might have done even better. "I made a slight mistake on my fastest lap so I should have done a bit better," he admitted, "but it was enough."

Eddie Irvine was satisfied with his fifth place on the grid, although he was 0.8secs behind Michael.

The importance of qualifying in Hungary cannot be overstated. The track is a strange and bizarre one with a very curious surface which changes character dramatically as the temperatures go up and down. Off-line the cars almost disappear into clouds of dust, which means that their tires are rendered gripless. A mistake on a qualifying lap thus is punished heavily.

With Bridgestone and Goodyear clearly operating better at different temperatures there was always going to be an element of luck, depending on the weather.

On Friday - when it was warmer - the Bridgestone boys looked to be very strong with Jarno Trulli third fastest, Damon Hill fifth (on his one single flying lap in the afternoon session) and Rubens Barrichello seventh. On Saturday morning Trulli had dropped back to sixth, the only Bridgestone man in the top 10.

When the qualifying session began the track temperature was 95-deg but it dropped rapidly in the first quarter of an hour and then stabilized. This was clearly a disadvantage for the Bridgestone men who seemed happier when it was warmer.

This meant that Jacques Villeneuve was able to claw his way out of the pack behind Schumacher and claim second place on the grid. Jacques was very much on the edge, going off dramatically - but without major damage - on his third run.

"I went into the high-speed corner a little bit too quick and the car was not turning," he explained. "It was a shame because on that lap I was quicker up to that point. I went for it again on the last run but there was just not enough grip to get Michael. We'll have a good drag race down to the first corner. It is a very important race as we have to catch up with Michael. We have to get more points than Ferrari."

Heinz-Harald Frentzen made the interesting choice of running with the harder of the two Goodyear tire compounds. This was obviously going to be a disadvantage in qualifying but might turn out to be the right thing to do in the race. It was a gamble because much would depend on whether race day was hot or not. The fact that Heinz-Harald managed to qualify sixth was a good showing.

"My choice of tires was made for the race itself," Heinz-Harald confirmed. "That means they might not have been the best for qualifying but then it is the race which finally matters."

For many people the arrival of Damon Hill in third position on the grid in the last seconds of qualifying was a huge surprise. It should not have been: on Friday he had set the fifth fastest time after just a single flying lap, after sitting for 55 minutes in the garage while his mechanics tore the gearbox off the car, looking for an electronic sensor problem.

The Hungaroring, it should be remembered, is a track where horsepower is not that important and so a good chassis can produce surprises. It is also very important not to be led astray by the changing track conditions.

"You need to find a balance," explained team boss Tom Walkinshaw," and then you need to stay with it and not get sidetracked."

The policy worked wonders and Damon was delighted with his best qualifying performance of the year.

"We thought we could get into the top 10, maybe even the top six," he said, "but to get into top three is really good. Bridgestone has come here for the first time and got it absolutely perfect. I am surprised but there was a very tight bunch with not much time difference between them and I knew that if I could get a little more time it would make a bit difference and I put the hammer down and went for it.

"It all comes down to set-up and the engineers have done a good job."

Team mate Pedro Diniz did not have such a good time and ended up in a miserable 18th position on the grid, having confused himself with the changing conditions and ended up ruining his tires which meant that he spun off going for a good time at the end of the session.

A similar fate befell David Coulthard although the McLaren engineers later discovered that the Scotsman had been chucked into the spin by a phantom download in his gearbox electronics. This was a shame because the McLaren-Mercedes looked like a useful package on a track where one would not have expected the car to have done very well.

David ended up eighth on the grid while Mika Hakkinen was fourth and had been second until the very last moments of the session when he was bounced back by Villeneuve and then by Hill. The team had definitely improved its performance since last year and while this was something it was still rather a disappointment - particularly as Hungary is the most important race of the year for the men at West, since their brand is a major seller in eastern Europe.

After the excitements of Hockenheim Benetton was back in trouble again with Gerhard Berger and Jean Alesi qualifying seventh and ninth on the grid. Berger spoiled his chances by spinning off on his fastest lap and then failing to get out in time in the spare car to do a final flying lap, while Alesi seemed more intent on his future than on the race weekend, this being the point of the season when many F1 drivers consider whether to stay on or move to another team.

Johnny Herbert completed the top 10 in his Sauber but this was not without drama, Sauber being hit by a swinging $25,000 fine on Friday after the FIA discovered that the Swiss team did not have legal fuel. This was an oversight because Shell had supplied two different kinds of fuel. Both were legal but if mixed together the chemical "fingerprint" of the fuel was not the same as the one held by the FIA. When Sauber pumped one fuel into a tank which contained some of the other fuel the mixture became illegal.

"I reached a plateau after my second run," Herbert reported, "and the performance curve just flattened out. The balance however is good. We should be quick in the race."

Gianni Morbidelli, returning from his arm injury, was 15th on the grid, just 0.6secs behind his team mate - a good showing. Peter Sauber, however, put everything into perspective. "The gaps to the top runners are too big," he said. "We will have to work hard to close them."

Eleventh on the grid was a good effort from Rubens Barrichello in his Stewart-Ford, being only 1.4secs off pole position. This was obviously helped by the fact that horsepower - or the lack of it - is not such a problem in Hungary and that the Stewart chassis would be quite good if it had a lot more horsepower.

Jan Magnussen had an engine problem on Saturday morning and so lost track time but the young Danish driver was only 0.7secs behind Barrichello although the closeness of the grid meant that this put him down in 17th on the grid.

Jarno Trulli's performance on Saturday was a big disappointment for the Prost team as Jarno had been third fastest in Bridgestone weather on Friday, just 0.25s behind poleman Schumacher. He had been sixth fastest on Saturday morning, the fastest Bridgestone runner, but lost track of the set-up in the confusing afternoon. One would be more critical of Jarno if he had done more than 40 motor races in his car racing career, but after only three Grands Prix in a competitive car it is perhaps a little too early to judge him harshly.

Shinji Nakano continues to look a lot better than he did at the start of the season and qualified 16th, half a second behind Trulli.

You may have noticed that we have yet to come to the Jordan team which was not having a good weekend. The team decided to go with the harder option of Goodyear tires and they knew this would make it a difficult task in qualifying. There was not much choice in fact as the softer tires were blistering quickly and the team could not risk using them in the race. In 13th and 14th positions on the grid - Giancarlo Fisichella ahead of Ralf Schumacher - the chances of making up the gap on Sunday were not very good.

The Tyrrells were disappointing as well, given that this was to be the team's big chance to make an impression on a track where horsepower should not really matter.

Jos Verstappen reckoned that 18th on the grid was about as good as it was going to get. "I did just about the perfect lap," he reported. "I don't think there was much more we could have done."

Mika Salo was 21st and complained that Jacques Villeneuve had blocked him. He was a little annoyed as he had blocked Villeneuve by accident on the previous lap and felt that the French-Canadian was simply paying him back with a deliberate block. "It ruined our schedule," he said, "because it meant that after 25 minutes I had only one run left and the track was getting better all the time."

The Minardis qualified 20th and 22nd with Ukyo Katayama being quickest as Tarso Marques had to take to the spare car after an accident in the Saturday morning session.

THE Sunday morning warm-up provided more interest than usual as Schumacher and Villeneuve went quickest. However Michael went off and, bouncing over the sandtrap, damaged his lightweight Ferrari sufficiently to force him to switch to the spare car for the race. Hakkinen was third quickest but the car stopped with alternator problems while David Coulthard also stopped with engine troubles. The Benettons and Jordans continued to struggle and the big surprise was the pace of Pedro Diniz in the Arrows, the Brazilian setting the fifth fastest time, which suggested that the Bridgestone boys were going to be faster in the afternoon

During Sunday morning the temperatures edged ever upwards and while most of the Goodyear men sat chewing on their finger nails, trying to conjure up clouds with evil thoughts, three men - Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Giancarlo Fisichella and Ralf Schumacher - were rubbing their hands with glee, their gamble was paying off. With the current F1 regulations you have to make a choice of tires for Sunday on Saturday morning and you just do not know what is going to happen.

Friday had been warm but Saturday was cooler and the weather men at the airport said there was 60% chance of rain in the course of Sunday. Most of the Goodyear boys decided on softer tires, hoping that they would be able to nurse the tires in the heat over the famously abrasive Hungarian tarmac.

The Bridgestone runners had to make a choice as well and, as there did not seem to be much difference between the prime and the optional rubber on Friday, most of them chose to go on the harder rubber. Damon Hill and Pedro Diniz had gone softer, reckoning their cars would be able to cope with the wear.

And thus it was that most of the field found itself on the wrong tires.

The grid lined up without drama and when the lights went out Hill made a good start. It was slightly better than that of pole man Schumacher but it was not enough to get him ahead at the first corner. Irvine made one of his blinding starts and was immediately past Hakkinen and the slow-starting Villeneuve. The two Benettons nearly collided as the field streamed down towards the first corner with Berger taking to the grass to avoid an impact with Alesi. It was all rather untidy and as a result they both lost out to Herbert's Sauber.

The order as they headed under the bridge and down the hill was Michael Schumacher, Hill, Irvine, Hakkinen, Villeneuve, Frentzen, Coulthard, Herbert, Alesi, Berger and Trulli.

The early laps proved that Schumacher was not going to drive away from Hill but the two left the rest behind, Irvine holding up his chasers. "I could see that Michael had blistered his tires and was going to have a problem," said Hill later.

After six laps Michael was indeed in dire trouble and Hill began to push him hard. For the next four laps Damon piled on the pressure. Irvine had already given up the ghost and came diving into the pits on lap seven to get new rubber, having blistered his first set.

Michael's reduced pace meant that he and Hill were then rejoined by Hakkinen, the two Williams cars, Coulthard and Herbert and for a while the top seven ran nose-to-tail. On lap 11 Hill made his move, pulling out and diving down the inside of Schumacher at the first corner. Michael left him no space but Damon was not in the mood to mess about with his old rival. Michael was not about to throw the car into a sandtrap trying to hold off Hill - unlike the previous encounter in Adelaide in 1994 - and Damon was in the lead.

In the television commentary boxes the voluble types exploded with paroxysms of yelping. British TV commentators Murray Walker and Martin Brundle found all this rather exciting.

"Martin only just managed to grab my ankle as I was going out through the roof of the commentary box," reported the explosive Walker after the race.

"I had to capitalize on the clear track ahead of me," reported Hill, "and as the tires stayed good I was able to pull away."

Schumacher pitted for new rubber on lap 14 and when the hydraulic system on Hakkinen's Mercedes-Benz engine went wrong it was left to Villeneuve and Frentzen to chase the departing Hill. The gap came down a little on each lap and then went out dramatically when the pair had to try to lap Hill's team mate Diniz.

Villeneuve was the first to pit - on lap 24 - and he was followed by Hill on lap 25. This put Frentzen in the lead for four laps but then Hill was ahead again and after a few laps Damon began to pull away.

"I knew that the tires were marginal," Jacques reported. "I was hoping the guys ahead would push too hard and blister their tires. On the first set I could keep up with Damon but as soon as I came out of the pits my tires blistered. I could not keep pace with him."

Hill soon began to build a dramatic lead. His Bridgestones stayed consistent while the Goodyears faded. On lap 36 he had a 12 second lead, but by lap 40 it was up to 17secs and by lap 48 had gone out to 25secs. He pitted for the second time on lap 51 and kept ahead as everyone else pitted before or on the same lap and then he just kept building the lead until he had half a minute - enough to cope with an unexpected puncture. It was out to 35secs with three laps to go when suddenly the Arrows faltered.

"I was beginning to think I could win," admitted Damon, "and when you do that something always goes wrong. I came out of the chicane and the throttle wouldn't shut when I lifted off. I thought: 'This is a bit strange, maybe it's my foot' and then there were about three or four corners when it would not change gear properly."

There was a hydraulic problem. The team radioed him to get the car into fifth gear but there was only hydraulic pressure enough to move from second to third. Then he was stuck and to add insult to injury the throttle went on the blink as well. A few times the car just stopped but then the engine caught again and he continued.

On lap 75 he lost nine seconds to Villeneuve and during the 76th lap he dropped another 20. As they set off on the last lap Jacques was right behind him. Going downhill from the paddock section Damon jiggled the car, trying to clear the system. Jacques, unsure what Damon was going to do, went left and took to the grass to overtake.

"I worked on the grip on the grass yesterday," Jacques joked, "and so it was pretty good today."

Once ahead it was just a question of cruising for home and Jacques duly took the flag to the delight - and surprise - of the Williams team.

Damon managed to keep the car going and was able to get to the finish 20secs ahead of the third-placed Johnny Herbert. "You just cannot control these things," he said later. "I was amazed to get to the finish. I am really pleased to finish second but I have mixed emotions. I would love to have won this race but second place is a good result nonetheless."

Although there was disappointment in the Arrows camp - it was the team's 299th race without a win - there was some satisfaction that progress has been made.

"The Bridgestone tires were really strong," said Tom Walkinshaw, "and we spent practice concentrating on preparing for the race. The whole package is getting better."

While Bridgestone must take a lot of the credit, the team had definitely made progress. The Yamaha engine was reliable and pretty strong and the chassis suited the tires well. Although he was away on holiday some of this must be due to the influence of new Arrows technical director John Barnard.

Pedro Diniz had less fun that his team mate. "I made a good start," he explained, "but the two Minardis did a kamikaze maneuver trying to overtake me and put all three of us off the track. This made me lose some positions." He charged back but retired from 10th position after 55 laps with an electrical failure.

Villeneuve's team mate Frentzen disappeared when he came in for fuel on lap 29. On his last lap before the stop the central part of the refueling coupling - which is spring-loaded - came undone and was catapulted out of the car. This meant that his final lap before the stop was accompanied by curious bursts of flame as fuel spilled from his tank, ran down the rear bodywork of the car and caused bursts of flame as it hit the exhaust pipes.

"I saw something strange in the mirrors," HH reported. "It looked like lights. I was not sure what it was but I understand that it was flames."

He came into the pits to discover that the team could not refuel the car because the connector was broken. In gentle despair Frentzen lobbed his steering wheel out of the cockpit and retired. "It was looking pretty good for me," he explained later. "I was very happy with my strategy and I would have been able to push right until the end with the tires I had chosen."

He had made the right decisions and if all had gone well he would probably have emerged ahead of Villeneuve and been able to chase after Hill. With his harder tires he could have mounted a stronger challenge and might even have managed to get ahead at the second round of pit stops. The car had let him down and he was left to wonder about the "what ifs".

The demise of Frentzen left Villeneuve with Coulthard on his tail but Jacques did not find this a problem. He slowed down on purpose to save his tires and keep David bottled up behind him. In the end the McLaren ground to a halt with an engine-related electrical failure.

This meant that Johnny Herbert was able to move up to third place. Johnny had made a good start to run eighth early on. He moved up to fifth when the Ferraris ran into their tire troubles and when Hakkinen retired. He was fifth again after the first stop and then moved to fourth when Frentzen retired and to third when Coulthard stopped. It was a lonely race but a podium is a podium.

"It is good for morale in the team," Johnny explained. "I was optimistic that we would get points but I was careful to save my tires as much as possible because I knew they would blister and fall part and so I was really looking after them."

Morbidelli did not have a good race. At the first corner he collided with Magnussen's Stewart and had to pit for repairs. On lap 8 he had to retire with engine failure.

Fourth place went in the end to Schumacher, who had chosen a three-stop strategy but had lost any hope of doing well when his tires blistered early on.

"I had to run at a slower pace in order to look after my tires," the German reported. "I hoped Hill would win, as he deserved to and also because it would have helped me in the championship."

At the end of the race Michael had his brother Ralf behind him. The Jordan - on hard tires - was quicker but Michael held off Ralf, Irvine and Nakano to grab an all-important three points. Irvine would have finished fifth but on the last lap they all had to brake suddenly at one point and Irvine was hit from behind by Nakano and dumped into a sandtrap. He was classified ninth.

Ralf's fifth place was some reward for Jordan after a pretty poor weekend. The strategy of using hard tires was compromised by the lack of pace in qualifying but despite this Fisichella was able to work his way up to a situation where he might have been able to challenge Herbert for third during the second round of pit stops. Unfortunately the Italian spun off while trying to pass Michael Schumacher on lap 43.

Nakano was able to limp his Prost across the line for sixth place after what had been a very impressive race. His team mate Trulli did not do so well. After the first pit stop the Italian found that his car lost all its grip and he struggled to keep it on the track. He finished seventh.

Gerhard Berger was not far behind at the end but eighth and 11th for Jean Alesi was hardly what one can describe as a good performance from Benetton. Pathetic would be a better word. If anyone can explain how a Renault-engined car can end up dicing with a Minardi, the team would probably like the answer on a postcard because it does not seem to have answers of its own at the moment.

Katayama and Marques finished 10th and 12th for Minardi while Mika Salo brought his Tyrrell home 13th. Verstappen retired with pneumatic problems at half distance.

As usual neither Stewart made it very far. Magnussen retired with accident damage after the first corner kerfuffles while Barrichello's race - which might have produced a point or two - ended on lap 29 with an engine failure. It would be cruel to suggest that Ford V10s blow up rather a lot but this will not have escaped the attention of Ford heavy-hitter Jac "Jack the Knife" Nasser who had turned up to watch the fun...

Jacques Villeneuve Williams-Renault  77 1h45m47.149  1m14.859 
Damon Hill Arrows-Yamaha  77 9.079  1m15.044 
16 Johnny Herbert Sauber-Petronas  77 20.445  1m16.138 10 
Michael Schumacher Ferrari  77 30.501  1m14.672 
11 Ralf Schumacher Jordan-Peugeot  77 30.715  1m16.686 14 
15 Shinji Nakano Prost-Mugen Honda  77 41.512  1m16.784 16 
14 Olivier Panis Prost-Mugen Honda  77 1m15.552  1m16.297 12 
Gerhard Berger Benetton-Renault  77 1m16.409  1m15.699 
Eddie Irvine Ferrari  76 1 Lap  1m15.424 
10 20 Ukyo Katayama Minardi-Hart  76 1 Lap  1m17.232 20 
11 Jean Alesi Benetton-Renault  76 1 Lap  1m15.905 
12 19 Mika Salo Tyrrell-Ford  75 2 Laps  1m17.482 21 
13 21 Jarno Trulli Minardi-Hart  75 2 Laps  1m18.020 22 
10 David Coulthard McLaren-Mercedes  65 Alternator 1m15.705 
18 Jos Verstappen Tyrrell-Ford  61 Air Valve 1m17.095 18 
Pedro Diniz Arrows-Yamaha  53 Alternator 1m17.118 19 
12 Giancarlo Fisichella Jordan-Peugeot  42 Spin 1m16.300 13 
22 Rubens Barrichello Stewart-Ford  29 Engine 1m16.138 11 
Heinz-Harald Frentzen Williams-Renault  29 Fuel Coupling 1m15.520 
Mika Hakkinen McLaren-Mercedes  12 Hydraulics 1m15.140 
23 Jan Magnussen Stewart-Ford  Damage 1m16.858 17 
17 Nicola Larini Sauber-Petronas  Engine 1m16.766 15