Belgian GP 1997

Belgian GP, 1997

Eau Rouge!

MICHAEL SCHUMACHER's 26th Grand Prix victory will be remembered as one of his finest because - as usual - he combined a brilliant driving talent with an extraordinary ability to make the right decision at the right time when it really mattered. The result was that when the race finally started, after a period running behind a Safety Car because of the "exceptional circumstances" caused by a downpour of monsoon-like proportions, Schumacher waltzed away from the field at an embarrassing rate. He built a gap of 40secs in just six laps and that was it really. You cannot give Michael a 40secs advantage and expect him to make a mistake. He isn't like the other drivers...

I would hate to be a cow in the Ardennes. Not only do you know that you will probably end up lying on a plate next to a mountain of pommes frites, but you also have to spend your whole life trying to work out what the weather is going to do so that you know whether you need to stand up or sit down. Everyone in the world knows that when a cow sits down it is going to rain but in the Ardennes it is not that easy. Half the cows are always standing up and the other half are always lying down.

In fact using cows to predict the weather conditions at Spa is probably as accurate as any of the modern meteorological methods for there is in the pretty valleys to the south of Liege a most extraordinary micro-climate. The whole of Europe can be sweltering in a humid heatwave but at Spa it will be cold and rainy. There have been many people who have tried to work out what causes this - particularly when the racing comes to town - but no-one has a definitive answer. My theory is that the hot air generated by the tens of thousands of Michael Schumacher fans in the valley of the Eau Rouge river is responsible. They come rushing across the nearby German border and plunge their camper vans into the wiggly roads of the Ardennes forests - not for the first time in history.

You may think that Hockenheim is Michael Schumacher's home race but both Spa and the Nurburgring are much closer to the headquarters of Schumacher's Army at Kerpen. And for Schumi fans Spa is special. It was here, of course, that he made his Grand Prix debut in a Jordan in 1991 and where a year later he won his first Grand Prix victory.

No matter how competitive his car, Schumacher is a factor at Spa for the track is one of the few these days where driving talent, courage and the motivation to win can be translated into tenths on the stopwatch. It is very simple: a better driver will go through a fast corner more quickly than a less talented man.

"Spa is without doubt the best circuit in the world," says Schumi. "For most of the season we race on what I would call standard circuits, which were built relatively recently with a clean sheet of paper, but the kind of atmosphere you get at Spa is something akin to the old Nurburgring. It is the only place which still has this quality and atmosphere."

Much of Spa's fearsome reputation comes from the Eau Rouge and Blanchimont corners which are echoes of the day when the whole track was like that.

Jochen Mass tells a story which sums up the old Spa perfectly. In the early 1970s he was sharing a car in a Spa 24 Hour race with Hans Stuck and, during one of the pit stops during the night, Stuck shouted to him over the noise that he should "look out for body parts at the Masta Kink". Jochen arrived expecting to find bits of car all over the road but in fact was appalled to discover it was bits of a marshal to which his team mate had been referring.

You have to visit Spa and potter around the old track to really understand its reputation and magic. It is not a place for the faint of heart and even the bravest men have to stiffen the sinews and summon up the blood to deal with Eau Rouge and Blanchimont.

"Eau Rouge is really the most tremendous corner, " says Schumacher. "It is like flying downhill and seeing a big mountain in front of you. You get the feeling that you are driving into the road and then you go up and it is a sensation which is probably the best you can experience and the most satisfaction you can have as a racing driver."

That is if you get it right. If you get it wrong you can have a mother and a father of an accident. It is bad enough in the dry but Spa in the wet is only for the really brave.

After glorious sunshine on Thursday it was pouring with rain on Friday which meant that a normally meaningless day became totally meaningless. The two Benettons were fastest. Saturday morning was little better but for the second of the two 45 minutes sessions the track was dry and the times started to come down. It meant that the teams had around half an hour in which to decide on which tires to use for the weekend. Lengthy runs to check tire wear and other such luxuries were simply not possible and so almost everyone went for the safest available tire option. The only people willing to take a risk were those with nothing to lose: Arrows and Minardi. The softer tire choice would mean a better showing in qualifying - which always looks good - and might, depending on the temperature, give an advantage in the race on Sunday.

Fundamentally, however, it was just a matter of guesswork and hoping for the best. The teams which did the best job in qualifying were those with the best computer-generated basic set-up for the circuit. Those who tried to make big changes in the limited time available found themselves rather confused and rather pressured. Those who made mistakes paid heavily for them.

And thus it was at the front of the grid with Williams' Jacques Villeneuve on pole position and Benetton's Jean Alesi alongside him. Their respective team mates, Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Gerhard Berger, both had crashes and were seventh and 15th on the grid.

It was a big disappointment for Berger who had been fastest in the wet on Friday. Early in qualifying Gerhard spun at the Bus Stop chicane and clonked the wall. He had to take to the spare car and did not feel confident in it and so could not get a really quick lap.

Frentzen made a bit of a pig's ear of qualifying by going off at Les Combes on his third qualifying run and bopping the barriers rather hard. He was able to drive the car back to the pits but it was not going to be fixed for the final run and so he had to jump into the spare which was set up for Villeneuve.

Frentzen and Berger were both confident for the race however as Spa is a track where overtaking is not a problem and thus the fastest cars and drivers tend to be able to get to the front rather than spending the races stuck behind slower machinery.

But being at the front is still a big advantage which is not easily overcome by those giving chase and Jacques Villeneuve was delighted with his pole position.

"The set-up was great," explained Jacques, "so the car was really good. I came here feeling strong and very confident and that always helps. The best thing in such a situation is not to change the car but to work on the limit of the tires. It is difficult to know what to expect in the race. I don't think anyone will be properly prepared."

Jean Alesi too was delighted. "I have a good reliable car for this circuit," he explained. "The tire choice was easy. We decided to go in one direction and we went for the safe option and we are quite happy about the choice. We did not do much in the qualifying session. Yesterday the car was really well-balanced and easy to control and the lap time was very competitive and so we decided to stick on the base set-up."

The mood of optimism did not extend to the third-placed man on the grid, Michael Schumacher, who seemed somewhat pre-occupied after qualifying was over. His day had been spoiled by "a problem" with his race car in the morning which meant that he had to jump into the spare for qualifying. The Ferrari people did not seem to want to explain exactly what the problem might be but it seems that a crack had been found "at the rear of the chassis" and could not be repaired. After each run the engineers made changes to the car but Michael was never really in the hunt for pole position and ended up 0.8s down on Villeneuve.

Eddie Irvine was deeply in trouble - as he often is in qualifying - and ended up a miserable 17th on the grid, blaming Ralf Schumacher for forcing him off-line, a maneuver which did his tires no good at all. Even with Eddie's earth-shattering starting ability, there seemed little chance that he would be a factor in the race.

Fourth on the grid fell to the Jordan-Peugeot of Giancarlo Fisichella which was a very good effort for the little Italian who had never raced an F1 car at the circuit before. He raced a Peugeot touring car not so long ago in an effort to figure out the layout of the track but that was fairly meaningless when related to the lines and speeds of an F1 car.

"The car was well set up and I was driving well so the combination worked well," reported Giancarlo, "but to be honest I was not expecting to be fourth in qualifying. If everything goes well we can make the podium."

Ralf Schumacher was only 0.05s slower than Fisichella but the pair were split by Mika Hakkinen's McLaren. Schumacher reckoned he would have been nearer the front if he had not had an engine problem on his third run which meant he had to finish the session in the T-car which understeered too much for his taste.

But if Ralf had complaints they were nothing compared to the tale of woe of Mika Hakkinen. Looking forward to getting some dry running, Mika went out in the second part of Saturday morning's session and was dialing himself into the track when the McLaren suffered a disastrous rear suspension failure which tore the left rear wheel off the car and sent Mika gyrating into the barriers at Les Combes. The problem was later traced to a structural failure of the lower left rear wishbone - a composite item; these were replaced with metal suspension parts on all cars for qualifying. Whatever the details it was not the kind of failure one would expect to see on a McLaren, the team priding itself on its ability to produce pieces of the highest aerospace quality. Very odd.

In the afternoon Mika did a remarkable job to qualify fifth fastest and then had to face the ignominy of being booted out because of a fuel sample which did not match the chemical profile of the fuel which had been given to the FIA earlier. The team argued the case and on Sunday morning Mika was reinstated under appeal but with McLaren unlikely to be able to come up with any new evidence in front of the FIA judges, the team faces potentially huge punitive damages for wasting the court's time.

David Coulthard had a relatively calm qualifying in comparison but 10th on the grid was disappointing, largely thanks to smacking into a wall at the Bus Stop in the final moments of the qualifying session.

Eighth and ninth on the grid were the two Arrows-Yamahas with pay-driver Pedro Diniz showing why he is worth $12m to any team willing to take it from him. Damon Hill, who received most of that money this year, was behind Pedro - a curious state of affairs.

Although qualifying looked good one had to remember that on soft Bridgestones the race might be a little more difficult but then if the weather on Sunday afternoon was right Damon and Pedro could conceivably produce a major result.

Eleventh on the grid was Johnny Herbert in his Sauber with Gianni Morbidelli 13th - just a few tenths behind. As usual the Sauber boys reckoned they would be a lot more competitive in the race than in qualifying and there was some quiet optimism in the Swiss garage.

Rubens Barrichello did well to get his Stewart-Ford into 12th position but Jan Magnussen was again rather disappointing in 18th place, nearly a second behind his team mate. He did however have a good excuse because in the morning session he had lost vital time in the dry with - whisper it - another blown Ford engine.

The Prost-Mugens were rather disappointing with Jarno Trulli 14th and Shinji Nakano 16th. Neither driver knew the track and things were not helped when Trulli spun off when the layout was dry on Saturday morning. They would be better in the race - as they usually are.

The Tyrrells and Minardis were mixed up at the back of the grid as usual with Jos Verstappen slower than Ukyo Katayama as a result of going off in the qualifying session. The Minardis too seemed to spend a lot of time spinning and bouncing off the walls.

SUNDAY morning was beautiful and in the cool of the morning Jacques Villeneuve was fastest in the warm-up with Ralf Schumacher second fastest and Johnny Herbert right on the pace in his Sauber.

It was lovely until about 20 minutes before the start when all the cows of the Ardennes suddenly sat down and the sky began to spit rain as the cars were getting ready to take up their positions on the grid. Then a tropical rainstorm broke over Spa and there were a lot of very wet-looking beautiful people on the grid and pit crews panicking to get their bits and bobs in the right places. In all the excitement Ralf Schumacher did a very stupid thing, spun off at Stavelot and then had to jog up the track to the pits to get into the spare. He would start from the pitlane.

As his brother Michael arrived on the grid he splashed though a huge puddle in the Bus Stop chicane. There were hurried consultations on the grid and then the Ferrari mechanics were ripping off the rear wing and putting on a little more downforce. But Michael decided that the rain was going to stop and that the right choice would be to run with intermediate tires. This was a gamble.

The Race Director then decided that it was too wet to have a normal starting procedure and so it was announced that the race would start behind a Safety Car - as allowed for in the regulations. This was the correct decision because trying to race with rivers across the track, spray everywhere and puddles against the curbing would have resulted in chaos.

"It would have been a major disaster," commented Mika Hakkinen.

The problem in such exceptional occurrences is that most people in F1 are not quite sure about the rules and so there was doubt in some quarters - not least among some of the drivers - as to whether the race had started or whether there would be a parade lap as normal. Certainly the grid marshals did not know. They were waving their number boards to remind the drivers of their grid positions as usual when the field came back at the end of the first lap and were rather surprised when no-one paid them any attention.

Hakkinen may have appreciated the decision to use the Safety Car but he clearly did not know the rules as he somehow contrived to go off the track.

"There was so much water on the track," he reported later. "I lost two places and it was difficult to get them back."

Deliberately overtaking during the parade lap was also completely illegal but the FIA stewards being a law unto themselves decided that all Hakkinen needed was a reprimand and a suspended one-race ban.

After all the fuel business on Saturday night and the amazing collapsing suspension trick in the morning the McLaren team really did not need any more dents in its reputation for complete professionalism.

Trying to figure out who was using which tires in such circumstances is very difficult because you cannot tell by just looking at them. Goodyear has three kinds of tire in these circumstances: the full-blown 1996-spec wet tire (called the Quattro), the V-cut wet (a wet tire new this year) and the intermediate (a kind of slick with grooves). Villeneuve, Frentzen, Alesi, Irvine and Ralf Schumacher went for the Quattro. Fisichella went for the V-cut wet and the rest went for intermediates.

After the race the men at Bridgestone refused to tell anyone what their cars had been using at the start - which was very silly, although as soon as the race was underway it was really rather irrelevant as, for whatever reason, none of the Bridgestone men really figured in the race.

There is no doubt at all that the three laps which were run behind the Safety Car at the start of the race gave the intermediate users an advantage because the wet-users would have left them for dead while there was standing water on the circuit, but one has to say that it seemed prudent at the time not to let the field go in those conditions.

When the Safety Car pulled off there was still enough water lying about to allow Jacques Villeneuve to stay ahead for the first lap but then the intermediates began to look like the right choice. Schumacher passed Jean Alesi at La Source at the start of lap 2 and then tiptoed past Villeneuve in Rivage.

"With Jean it was fairly tight," Schumacher admitted later. "I decided I was going to take the line and he saw the situation and just moved over. Jacques knew that he didn't have a chance to keep me back with the kind of tires he was using and he was quite fair and stayed on his line."

As soon as he was ahead Michael lit the afterburners on his Ferrari and disappeared into the distance. The gap went from 5.8secs on the first lap ahead to 16.9s on the second, 22s on the third and 28s on the fourth. By the time he had completed nine racing laps he was a minute ahead and could have stopped to let a busload of nuns across the road and still have been ahead by the time he reached the pits.

The game was over. He pitted for dry tires on lap 14, ran a 15 lap stint until his second stop and rattled off the last 15 laps letting those behind sneak a little closer but was still able to cross the finish line with a 26s advantage. It was a magnificent victory won in those touch-and-go first 10 laps when he was in a class of his own.

"I was not too optimistic after practice," he admitted, "and if the race had been in straightforward circumstances we would have struggled. But with the weather and making the right choices, everything was perfect. Difficult circumstances suit me well. It was a very difficult decision but when I was sitting on the grid I had a smile on my face because I knew they were the right circumstances for me."

Eddie Irvine did not do quite as well as his famous team mate. He stayed on wet tires until lap eight but the slicks were too slow to gain any real advantage over those around him as he was so far back down the field. He moved up to eighth before his second stop but that dumped him back to 10th and he found himself dicing with Pedro Diniz for eighth on the last lap. Pedro went to pass him at Les Combes and the two collided. The stewards thought it was a racing incident but most people in the paddock felt that Eddie had been rather less than judicious turning across the path of Pedro, who had captured the inside line.

Giancarlo Fisichella ended up in second place which was largely due to his tire choice in the early laps. The 1997 wet is a bit quicker than the 1996 tire and so as the track dried out in the early laps he was able to get past Alesi and make a break with clear air ahead - Schumacher being so far up the road by that point that Giancarlo could not even see him. This enabled him to get an advantage of around four seconds which Mika Hakkinen then chipped away at for the rest of the afternoon. The two were never far apart but Fisichella always remained ahead. Fisichella was delighted, of course, it being his best result to date in F1.

Boss Eddie Jordan was also happy because his team closed the gap to McLaren in the Constructors' Championship. "It will make my day when we pass McLaren," he said.

Ralf Schumacher started from the pitlane in his T-car, had an early off and then did some pretty quick laps before dropping the ball hugely and going into the wall heavily in the Les Combes chicane on lap 22.

Third place went to McLaren's Hakkinen which was a good - if temporary - result after a fraught weekend. Mika had an off on lap 11 but this did not seem to have any effect. He complained of a technical problem late in the race but refused to say what it was. The lap times did not make sense as he set his fastest lap of the race two laps from the finish. Whatever the case he had to hold off Heinz-Harald Frentzen in the closing laps of the race.

David Coulthard's race was a short one. He stopped for slick tires at a good moment and was able to run sixth but was then pushed back to seventh by Frentzen. A few laps later he hit the curb and spun out.

In the Williams Frentzen's race was a case of a good recovery from the decision to run full wet tires. He stayed out until lap 8 by which time he was swamped by the midfield but then put on slicks and began a charge which dragged him up to fourth place by the time he had to stop again on lap 24. He then hounded Hakkinen all the way to the flag.

Villeneuve's race was rather less impressive. The decision to run wets was wrong and Schumacher left him behind quickly. There was then a comedy of errors as Jacques braked for the Bus Stop on lap six, under heavy pressure from Fisichella. He overshot the turn-in and ended up in the pits. It was too early for slicks and so the team - which did not know he was coming in - bolted on intermediates. Within a lap or two he knew that that had been a mistake as well and had to come in again for slicks. By the time all that was over he was a solid 16th. He charged back and, as the track dried up quicker and quicker, set a string of fastest laps in the closing stages as he tried to catch up with fifth-placed Herbert.

Johnny had done a good job for Sauber, starting on intermediates and pitting at the right time for slicks. This put him solidly into the top six and there he stayed. A good job. Gianni Morbidelli finished tenth but early delays meant that he was too far back to catch up, despite setting the ninth fastest lap of the race.

Gerhard Berger finished seventh for Benetton with Jean Alesi ninth which was a poor result given that Jean had been on the front row of the grid. The problem was blistering tires when the track dried which meant that Jean had to make a total of four stops. Berger made a better job of it but had lost too much time in the wet to get a decent result.

Pedro Diniz finished eighth in the Arrows - despite the last lap assault by Irvine - and it was a good result. Unfortunately he lost around 10s during his first pit stop when a wheel nut stuck on. Otherwise he might have finished in the points. Damon Hill was quite overshadowed. He started on intermediate tires and then switched to intermediates again when everyone else was going for slicks. This meant he had to make an extra stop which put him a lap down. Late in the race he felt a front wheel coming loose and pitted on the last lap. He was classified 14th.

Mika Salo was 12th for Tyrrell but Jos Verstappen had been the Tyrrell star of the day, starting on intermediate tires (Salo was on wets) and climbing to eighth. Unfortunately, under pressure from Irvine, he spun off on lap 26.

Jan Magnussen made it home for Stewart but had put on too much wing before the start which made him very slow on the straights. He then lost a lot of time in the pits trying to get wing taken off the car. Rubens Barrichello had to retire early on when his front suspension was bopped by Frentzen in the early laps.

Prost had a rotten day with Trulli starting a lap behind because his race car refused to fire up. He then had a slow puncture with his first set of slicks but on the final set he put in some useful lap times. Nakano's race was short-lived, the Japanese driver suffering electronic problems after five laps which sent him out of the race.

Minardi nearly got Katayama to the finish but on the last lap something went wrong and he came trundling into the pits to retire. He was classified 15th. Marques spun off after 18 laps.

McLaren's bad week-end was not over. Hakkinen was later disqualified for having used, during the practices, fuel which was regular but which did not conform to the samples approved by the FIA. As a result, all those behind him were moved up a place.

And so we go to Monza with Michael Schumacher 12 points ahead in the World Championship and a lot of Ferrari fans will be getting very hot under their collars...

Michael Schumacher Ferrari  44 1h33m46.717  1m50.293 
12 Giancarlo Fisichella Jordan-Peugeot  44 26.753  1m50.470 
Mika Hakkinen McLaren-Mercedes  44 30.856  1m50.503 
Heinz-Harald Frentzen Williams-Renault  44 32.147  1m50.656 
16 Johnny Herbert Sauber-Petronas  44 39.025  1m51.725 11 
Jacques Villeneuve Williams-Renault  44 42.103  1m49.450 
Gerhard Berger Benetton-Renault  44 1m03.741  1m52.391 15 
Pedro Diniz Arrows-Yamaha  44 1m25.931  1m50.853 
Jean Alesi Benetton-Renault  44 1m42.008  1m49.759 
10 17 Nicola Larini Sauber-Petronas  44 1m42.582  1m52.094 13 
11 Eddie Irvine Ferrari  43 1 Lap  1m52.793 17 
12 19 Mika Salo Tyrrell-Ford  43 1 Lap  1m52.897 19 
13 23 Jan Magnussen Stewart-Ford  43 1 Lap  1m52.886 18 
14 Damon Hill Arrows-Yamaha  43 1 Lap  1m50.970 
15 20 Ukyo Katayama Minardi-Hart  43 1 Lap  1m53.544 20 
16 14 Olivier Panis Prost-Mugen Honda  42 2 Laps  1m52.274 14 
18 Jos Verstappen Tyrrell-Ford  25 Spin 1m53.725 21 
11 Ralf Schumacher Jordan-Peugeot  21 Spin 1m50.520 
10 David Coulthard McLaren-Mercedes  19 Spin 1m51.410 10 
21 Jarno Trulli Minardi-Hart  18 Spin 1m54.505 22 
22 Rubens Barrichello Stewart-Ford  Damage 1m51.916 12 
15 Shinji Nakano Prost-Mugen Honda  Electronics 1m52.749 16