Luxembourg GP 1997

Luxembourg GP, 1997

That's motor racing!

JACQUES VILLENEUVE and the Williams team were extremely fortunate at the Nurburgring. Michael Schumacher was taken out at the first corner by his brother Ralf and then the two dominant McLaren-Mercedes cars of Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard blew up - one after the other - and so Jacques Villeneuve was able to get maximum points on a day when not even the armies of Schumi fans could help their hero...

In the middle of the last century the leading lights of the Great Powers of Europe used to get together from time to time at big Congresses to go shopping, have lunch and tidy up the map of Europe. By doing so they avoided fighting wars which was cheaper and much better for commerce than the bad old days when the British, French, Russians, Prussians and Austro-Hungarians spent their time marching armies here and there, naming railway stations after their victories.

It was during one of these European spring cleaning sessions that it was decided that the nasty gap on the map where Belgium, France and Germany met should be given a monarch and called Luxembourg. This was logical because there had been an independent state there for some years and the fortress of Luxembourg - which used to be called "the Gibraltar of the North" - would have been too difficult to storm. To avoid the need to do this it was declared neutral and given the status of a Grand Duchy with a leftover royal put in charge.

The country covers 999 sq. miles, has its own language and its own currency. It now also has a Grand Prix, which is a remarkable achievement as the race was taking place 50 miles outside the Grand Duchy - at the Nurburgring, which, when F1 last visited in 1996, was definitely in Germany. Given the number of drunks chanting the name "Schumi" and the facts that the Luxembourg Franc was not a currency that the wurst-salesman were keen to accept and they did not seem to understand Letzeburgesch - which is, apparently, a language rather than a kind of fast food. One must assume that the Nurburgring is still in Germany, despite the legal twist which allowed the F1 cars to run in full tobacco livery...

There must be a moral in all this somewhere, although one must conclude that it probably has something to do with the hundreds of camper vans full of moneyed louts which keep turning up at every race, leaving trails of Bitburger on the roads behind them.

Still, His Schumi-ship is in the running for the World Championship - although, given the car he is driving at the moment, if he wins it the victory will be entirely down to his abilities behind the wheel.

In a perfect world Schumacher would have been on pole in front of his compatriots but this seemed as likely as peace in the Middle East when serious practice got underway on Friday morning. The Friday sessions revealed nothing really - which is usually the case - and provided McLaren-Mercedes with the opportunity to get the locals excited about German engines. Would it be a similar story on Saturday?

It did not look that way in the morning when Heinz-Harald Frentzen went fastest in the Williams-Renault. Mika Hakkinen was only 0.062secs behind. The qualifying session would be a fight between McLaren and Williams. To begin with Frentzen and Hakkinen exchanged pole a few times but with 20 minutes to go Mika broke into the 1m16s.

From then on it was a matter of waiting for the Williams reaction.

"We went a bit early for the last run," Mika admitted, "and obviously that gave the others the opportunity to improve. I was really nervous."

There was no need to be because in those final minutes of the session Villeneuve and Frentzen both failed to bounce Mika off the top of the time sheets. There was a tenth of a second between the three of them but the McLaren was still ahead.

"Mika did a good job," admitted Villeneuve afterwards. "We improved the car throughout the weekend and finally got it going well. I made a few mistakes and Mika stayed in front but the good thing for me is that Michael Schumacher is behind me."

Heinz-Harald was disappointed, wondering how to get "the magical extra tenth". He reckoned he had lost time because other cars had put dust on the circuit which meant that track conditions were changing all the time.

David Coulthard was disappointed to be only sixth but had the excuse that his morning session had been ruined with an engine failure on his first lap out of the pits. He lost the whole of the first 45 minute session but the McLaren mechanics then achieved a remarkable engine change in just 35 minutes which gave him 20 minutes of running in the second 45-minute session. This meant that he was short on set-up time and so sixth was not such a disastrous result.

Fourth fastest was Giancarlo Fisichella in his Jordan-Peugeot, which was a bit of a disappointment because the Jordan boys had decided that it would be possible to use the softer Goodyear compounds while all the other major teams were running the harder tires. The Jordan logic was to qualify well because overtaking would be very difficult in the race. Ralf Schumacher was three-tenths slower than Giancarlo but this meant that he was down in eighth position on the grid after having pushed too hard trying to compete with Fisichella. He spun off once and made a mistake on his final set.

Michael Schumacher was fifth on the grid and reckoned that he had got everything out of the car. Michael was being diplomatic, saying that he had no complaints but the fact that the Ferrari was not quick enough will not have escaped the eagle-eye of His Schumi-ship. Eddie Irvine was way back down the grid in 14th place but took some comfort in the fact that he was only half a second slower than Schumacher. There is little one can do from such a position.

The Benetton team was in the news during the weekend with the departure of Flavio Briatore and the arrival of David Richards. The cars were much the same as ever with Gerhard Berger and Jean Alesi complaining that they had trouble finding a balance for the car and pointing out that their lowly grid positions were due to the fact that the grid was very close together. Gerhard qualified seventh while Jean was 10th, they were only a few hundredths apart.

Rubens Barrichello made it into the top 10 in his Stewart-Ford in ninth position, evidence that the package is getting better as long as the Ford V10 engine stays in one piece. It did not for Jan Magnussen, the Dane's qualifying session being spoiled by a large cloud of smoke. The Ford men gabbled on about Project this and Step that but the fact is that at the moment they all seem to go bang. This is not really criticism because Ford has clearly adopted a policy of going for horsepower first and reliability later. As Peugeot and Mercedes have proved this is the way to do it. It is just rather painful for the first year. Despite his blow-up Jan jumped into the T-car and was able to grab 12th on the grid. A good effort.

Eleventh on the grid was a reasonable comeback from Olivier Panis on a day when the Bridgestone men were clearly struggling a little against the Goodyears. Olivier has a slight limp but otherwise seems to be pretty much as he was when we last saw him racing in Canada. It was nice to have him back. It was only a shame that we have lost Jarno Trulli as a result and, while it would be churlish to suggest that the second Prost is being wasted on Shinji Nakano, there is no doubt that Trulli would have been higher than 17th on the grid. Still Nakano is important for the Mugen engines, I suppose, and so his presence can be explained.

The Arrows crew was not very competitive on this occasion with Damon Hill 13th and Pedro Diniz 15th. The two were split by just 0.2secs which was surprising as Diniz had spent the entire qualifying session in the T-car. Perhaps Tom Walkinshaw will be applying his boot to Damon's rear end again shortly...

Damon reckoned that the engine was the thing lacking speed. "The grip is good," he explained, "the balance is good but you cannot get around the fact that we are slow down the straights."

The Saubers were deeply in trouble for reasons which were not apparent to anyone, least of all the team itself, with Johnny Herbert 16th and Gianni Morbidelli 19th. The problem is maximum understeer. "An unpleasant result," grumbled Peter Sauber.

Some teams are used to such dire situations and so there was no great sobbing or grinding of teeth at Tyrrell and Minardi - both teams have ground their teeth so much they are down to the gums. The battle of the V8s was won on this occasion by Tarso Marques, who was a tenth faster than Mika Salo with Jos Verstappen five one thousandths behind. Ukyo Katayama was trolling around the back.

It had not been a vastly entertaining qualifying session and on Saturday night the prospects for the race were none too special.

"We did some good homework and we should be well-prepared for tomorrow," Jacques Villeneuve explained. "The car is pretty strong and I am very confident for the race. It is more difficult to overtake here than it was in Austria so this race will happen either at the start or in the pitlane.

Sunday would be Hakkinen's birthday and he was hoping that finally he might be given a bit of good fortune after a series of mechanical failures at vital moments so far this year.

There was plenty to celebrate for McLaren and Mercedes-Benz: it was McLaren's first pole position since Ayrton Senna's last race with the team back in Australia in 1993 and Mercedes-Benz 's first since the Italian GP of 1955.

RACE morning saw the warm-up completely dominated by McLaren with Mika Hakkinen over a second clear of Coulthard. It no doubt impressed the visiting Mercedes-Benz top brass. The race start was much the same as Villeneuve came away slightly slower than he hoped. Behind him Fisichella had a clutch problem and was quite slow away while Coulthard made an amazing getaway from sixth to grab second position as they all braked for the first corner. As they turned into the corner Villeneuve banged wheels with Frentzen, who knocked off his ignition switch by accident. By the time Heinz-Harald realized the problem he had dropped back to 13th position.

But this was nothing compared to the chaos that was going on behind them as Michael Schumacher and the two Jordans came thundering into the corner. On the run down from the start Michael Schumacher had got alongside Fisichella but he then found his brother Ralf going faster on the outside of both of them. Wisely Michael decided to get out of the Jordan sandwich and switched to the outside, leaving Ralf to continue his charge towards the apex. This was not bright because Fisichella had nowhere to go when they arrived in the corner.

"I went round the corner and hit him because there was nowhere I could go. It would have been worse if I had braked because I would have gone straight on."

And so the two Jordans collided and Ralf was lobbed across the track and landed on his brother Michael's Ferrari, destroying not only his race but any real hope he had of winning the World Championship. One day some Greek will write a tragedy along these lines...

Michael will no doubt see the video and will make up his mind about the incident, although we will probably never know what he really thinks of his brother's maneuver. He said all the right things, of course, but then he was trained to do that by the Mercedes-Benz Junior Team. After the crash the two brothers spent some time together in the Ferrari truck and as Ralf emerged without a bloody nose one must assume that they made some kind of peace.

"There was just not enough room," Ralf said. "I was hit by Giancarlo and my car jumped in the air and I hit Michael. It was potentially quite dangerous so I suppose we should be happy no-one was hurt."

Michael looked rather down in the dumps afterwards - as one would expect. "It is a shame that the incident happened with my brother but I don't think anyone is to blame for what happened as it was not a deliberate move. That's motor racing."

While all this was going on Gerhard Berger had to take to the sand to avoid the crash and in the dust and sand Ukyo Katayama plowed into Fisichella's car and ripped a wheel off his Minardi.

It was not a good day for Ferrari as Irvine, who was trolling around in the midfield, retired on lap 22 with an engine failure.

Villeneuve heard the news of Schumacher's demise from the pits but was able to get it confirmed as he watched one of the big screens and saw Michael climbing out of his Ferrari in the pitlane.

"On the big screen outside the hairpin I saw Michael in the pits, getting out the car," Jacques said. "It was a very comforting thought."

The team to gain most from all this was Stewart, Rubens Barrichello finding himself in a miraculous fourth place - from ninth on the grid - with Jan Magnussen sixth (from 12th). The pair were split by an equally lucky Jean Alesi.

Hakkinen began to pull away, setting a string of fastest laps, to build a lead of 10 seconds in the course of the first 17 laps. Coulthard could not keep up but Jacques Villeneuve was able to hang on to David's tail. "Their car seemed to be really flying on this track," Jacques admitted.

The top positions remained unchanged - as is now the norm - until the pit stops began on lap 16 with Herbert becoming the first of the two-stoppers to come in. He was followed by the two Benetton boys and on lap 28 by the leader Hakkinen. Villeneuve chose the same moment to stop and so when they rejoined they were second and third behind Coulthard. David would spend three laps in the lead before he too came in, rejoining behind Mika but ahead of Jacques thanks to a very rapid 4.9s stop, the McLaren strategy being for David to do a short middle stint on a clear track before his second pit stop to get clear of Villeneuve, who had been pressuring him before the first stop.

It was total McLaren domination until the end of lap 42 when David suddenly slowed as he came past the pits and the car trickled down past them. David shook his head in disbelief.

Moments later Mika Hakkinen's birthday and the Mercedes Septemberfest ended in another cloud of smoke as Mika's Mercedes engine digested itself. There is no doubting that the Mercedes V10s are great engines but they are not reliable. Risks are still being taken on reliability and the team is suffering as a result.

"What can I say," said Mika. "I really thought we were looking good today. That's motor racing!"

This and the demise of both the Stewarts left Jacques with an enormous advantage. The Benettons pitted for their second stops and he was suddenly nearly a minute clear of Alesi. Frentzen was behind him. The two Williams men had to pit again, of course, but this was executed without drama, although Heinz-Harald was just a little too slow to get ahead of Alesi. He was ahead of Berger and that was how they stayed all the way to the flag.

Alesi was delighted - but surprised - when he found himself second after his second stop.

"I saw P2 on the pitboard and I did not believe it because when I stopped I was eighth," said Jean.

Well. Um. That is not strictly true because he was actually second when he pitted but in the press room after the race the only possible explanation put forward was that the last time Jean had looked at his pitboard he had been eighth - but that was eight laps before his stop. He was actually second when he stopped...

Alesi was delighted nonetheless. "Especially as the team is a little bit giving up," he said. "It is good to remind them that the Championship is not finished."

It was thus a Renault 1-2-3-4 finish which in Mercedes-Benz country is just about as good as it gets... But McLaren had sent a message to the opposition. The fact that there were grumbles in the paddock afterwards about the team's electronic systems was, more than likely, just sour grapes.

The decimation at the start and the mid-race self-destruction of the McLarens and Stewarts meant that there was not much running at the end but Pedro Diniz was a worthy fifth in the Arrows, holding off Olivier Panis (Prost), Johnny Herbert (Sauber) and Damon Hill (also Arrows).

Hill would have finished third or fourth had he not stalled during his pit stop. This was not a good idea and Tom Walkinshaw was none too impressed with his number one driver (again) although the official team version suggested that Tom accepted the mishap with the rallying cry of: "That's motor racing". Somehow I doubt it; Tom is not like that.

Panis's sixth place was a good result and evidence that Olivier is back to his old form despite his leg-breaking crash in Canada in June. "The only remaining doubt I had after my accident was that I did not have the stamina for a full race distance. That doubt is now gone." Nakano's race ended on his 17th lap when he suffered an engine failure.

Herbert finished seventh which was some consolation for Sauber which did not have a good weekend at all. "The car was never quite quick enough in the right places to let me challenge Panis and Diniz," reported Johnny. Gianni Morbidelli finished ninth and had to struggle for the last part of the race without a clutch and in the final laps with brake trouble as well.

Mika Salo finished 10th for Tyrrell, half a minute behind Morbidelli. "All I could hope was that some more people would fall off," he reported. "And they didn't!" Jos Verstappen retired on lap 48 when his engine failed, locked his rear wheels and pitched the unfortunate Dutchman into a spin which made it look as though he had dropped the ball. It was not the case at all - Ford was to blame for this one.

The Stewart challenge fell apart at mid-race with Magnussen suffering a driveshaft failure on lap 39 and Barrichello's gearbox breaking on lap 42. This was a shame as the team might have been on for a podium finish.

Minardi's race does not really bear thinking about. At the first corner Katayama smashed into a parked Jordan and retired while Tarso Marques lasted little longer before retiring with an engine failure.

And so Williams needs six points for another Constructors' World Championship and Villeneuve needs to score only one point more than Michael and he has won the Drivers' Championship. With seven wins this year to Michael's four it is only logical that the title should go to Jacques. It looks easy but you never know, something strange might happen.

That's motor racing...

Jacques Villeneuve Williams-Renault  67 1h31m27.843  1m16.691 
Jean Alesi Benetton-Renault  67 11.770  1m17.620 10 
Heinz-Harald Frentzen Williams-Renault  67 13.480  1m16.741 
Gerhard Berger Benetton-Renault  67 16.416  1m17.587 
Pedro Diniz Arrows-Yamaha  67 43.147  1m18.128 15 
14 Olivier Panis Prost-Mugen Honda  67 43.750  1m17.650 11 
16 Johnny Herbert Sauber-Petronas  67 44.354  1m18.303 16 
Damon Hill Arrows-Yamaha  67 44.777  1m17.795 13 
17 Nicola Larini Sauber-Petronas  66 1 Lap  1m19.490 19 
10 19 Mika Salo Tyrrell-Ford  66 1 Lap  1m19.526 20 
18 Jos Verstappen Tyrrell-Ford  50 Engine 1m19.531 21 
22 Rubens Barrichello Stewart-Ford  43 Gearbox 1m17.614 
Mika Hakkinen McLaren-Mercedes  43 Engine 1m16.602 
10 David Coulthard McLaren-Mercedes  42 Engine 1m17.385 
23 Jan Magnussen Stewart-Ford  40 Driveshaft 1m17.722 12 
Eddie Irvine Ferrari  22 Engine 1m17.855 14 
15 Shinji Nakano Prost-Mugen Honda  16 Engine 1m18.699 17 
Michael Schumacher Ferrari  Damage 1m17.385 
20 Ukyo Katayama Minardi-Hart  Damage 1m20.615 22 
21 Jarno Trulli Minardi-Hart  Engine 1m19.347 18 
12 Giancarlo Fisichella Jordan-Peugeot  Accident 1m17.289 
11 Ralf Schumacher Jordan-Peugeot  Accident 1m17.595