Japanese GP 1997

Japanese GP, 1997

Michael's blockbuster

THE JAPANESE GRAND PRIX was all about blocking tactics. Villeneuve did it to Schumacher, Irvine did it to Villeneuve. It was hardly sporting but I guess if both sides do it there is no-one you can blame. It worked for everyone: Michael Schumacher's hopes of winning the Drivers' title have been greatly enhanced; Eddie Irvine has saved his Ferrari drive and Williams won a record ninth Constructors' World title. Hopefully Jerez will be a blockbuster - but for other reasons...

We thought as we headed for Suzuka that we were going to Japan for the World Championship showdown. We knew before the race that nothing would be settled because Jacques Villeneuve - even if he won - was not going to be declared World Champion due to the fact that he was racing under appeal (see below). It was all very silly but it did guarantee that the European Grand Prix in Jerez de la Frontera will be a proper chin-to-chin finale. Given that Michael Schumacher has a big chin, Jacques will need to watch out.

As a result of all this Suzuka became less significant and so we could enjoy a little more of the unusual ways of the Japanese. The F1 circus is divided over Japan. Some love it because it is so different, some hate it for the same reason. It is certainly hard work: even simple tasks like catching a train or ordering dinner become like sketches from Monty Python. The locals are good-natured. They have taken F1 to their hearts and even if the demand for tickets is down from the days when seven million people wanted to come to see the Demi-God Senna, they are still fond of the sport.

Unusually, an important percentage of the fans are women, and this means that the drivers have to get used to be squealed at by drooling ladies, who seem to throw away the usual Japanese reserve and chase the stars wherever they go. For the cute blond drivers like Mika Hakkinen and Jacques Villeneuve (well almost) this can reach Rolling Stones-like adulation.

The F1 circus is fond of the Japanese race fan because he or she usually enjoys enviable spending power and everyone can have his own merchandising operation. If you want to buy an FIA-branded dressing gown, you can find one in Japan. It helps that F1 is still basically a European phenomenon. This is considered incredibly chic and cool in Japan. Everyone likes to be a little westernized and so the big brands like Gucci, Hermes and Louis Vuitton take on unwarranted value - and come at unwarranted prices.

One of the most recognized brands in the world is the Prancing Horse of Maranello - recognized by everyone, from the bushmen of the Kalahari to the eskimos of Greenland - and there are always a large number of Ferrari fans at Suzuka. Jacques Villeneuve, having raced in Japan for some years, is considered to some extent as a local talent and so he too has supporters and thus the battle for the World Championship - what was left of it - had the crowd hopping from foot to foot.

In the meaningless sessions on Friday the Ferraris were 1-2 at the end of the day with Olivier Panis in the Bridgestone/Mugen Honda Prost which was very quick when the engines were not exploding all over the place. On Saturday morning Ralf Schumacher - the man Germany loves to hate at the moment after his collision with brother Michael at the Nurburgring - tried to rekindle his career with the fastest time of the morning. But all this was meaningless when the qualifying session began.

After a few glorious days of sunshine, Suzuka was a little overcast on Saturday morning and there were a few spots of rain after the morning practice. It looked like it might rain at any moment and so there was a rush of cars in the first minutes of the session - 19 of the 22 cars taking to the track immediately. The result of this was that Gerhard Berger and then Mika Hakkinen were fastest. Jacques Villeneuve slotted into second and Michael Schumacher went fourth. And then everyone went back to the pits save for the three men who had not bothered with the rush hour traffic.

After a few minutes we started to get the first attempts at more serious lappery but it was not until 18 minutes into the session that Villeneuve bounced Hakkinen to second and then Eddie Irvine pushed the Finn back to third only to be knocked out of second slot by his team mate Michael Schumacher. The track temperature had shot up as all this was going on and for the rest of the session everyone struggled to set a better time.

It was building up to a big climax when Gianni Morbidelli made a mistake in the fast Esses behind the pits and smashed his Sauber backwards into the barriers, turning his rear wing into little bits of carbon composite which were spread liberally across the circuit, like confetti after a wedding.

The red flags came out, signaling a break in proceedings. It was a shame: many of the top men had been out and running at that moment and so their tires were ruined. Still, we had five minutes left and, after 15 minutes cleaning up Morbidelli's confetti, there was a rush of cars, ending the session as it had begun. No-one achieved a thing and Jacques Villeneuve and Michael Schumacher kept everyone guessing up until the very last minute when Jacques set off for a final run - and Michael did not bother. Jacques was too late anyway and turned into the pitlane as the final seconds of the session ticked away.

Jacques glossed over the mistake. "This is a track I love," he said, "and we came here expecting to be very strong. We did not expect Ferrari to be there. Yesterday our car was pretty bad to drive but today it felt good and we have improved it. I am actually happier with the car on full tanks. We should be good in the race."

This, of course, was assuming that Jacques would actually take part. In the Saturday morning session he had done something very silly, accelerating past waved yellow flags after Jos Verstappen had stopped his Tyrrell at the exit of the Spoon Curve. The rules are quite clear on these matters; when a yellow flag is waved: "Slow down. Do not overtake. Be prepared to change direction or follow an unusual line". Jacques has developed a habit of ignoring waved yellow flags and the FIA has not been impressed. He arrived at Suzuka with a one-race ban suspended for eight races for repeatedly ignoring waved yellow flags.

When Patrick Head saw on a TV screen what Jacques had done he showed signs of exasperation. The team knew that there would be trouble, and so there was. As dusk fell on Suzuka it was announced that Jacques was being excluded from the race. The pole man would not be sitting on pole. The team decided to appeal but the kerfuffling over Villeneuve and the yellow flag lasted until late into the evening. A pile of cameramen besieged the Williams office in the paddock. In the end it was decided that Williams would appeal - a dangerous move - but it was decided that it would be better to race and lose the points later, rather than not race at all.

Even without Villeneuve the team hoped to be able to wrap up its ninth Constructors' World Championship with Frentzen, who had qualified sixth on the grid after making a mistake on his fastest lap.

The big surprise in qualifying, apart from the yellow flag business, was the performance of the two Ferraris, which were conveniently quick again after several races of being completely off the pace. When you consider that six weeks ago at Spa - a track quite like Suzuka - the Ferraris were not competitive in qualifying, with Schumacher third on the grid but eight-tenths down on Villeneuve and Irvine 17th, the result at Suzuka seemed very strange.

Second-on-the-grid Schumacher was only six-thousandths slower than Villeneuve and Irvine was third quickest just three-tenths slower than Michael. Everyone reckoned that it must be down to some fancy electronic throttle control system.

Michael said that the team had not used it. "We have not worked enough on it to use it," he said. "If it gave us anything we would use it." When pressed Michael admitted that the team had used the system in the morning session.

The car's great leap forward was due, he said, to testing between the Luxembourg GP and the Japanese race. "We tried a different philosophy of set-up," he said, "and it worked." It must be nice when things like that happen. Normally finding 0.8secs takes months of chipping away and thousands of kilometers of testing.

The paddock is a cynical place but as the FIA boffins seemed to think there was nothing much wrong one must assume that, contrary to popular belief, there are miracles in motor racing. "I could have gone slightly faster," Schumacher reported, "but the position I am in is very good for the race."

Michael explained that his failure to go out in those final moments of the session was because there were a number of yellow flags around the circuit and he did not want to upset the stewards. "The start is going to be an issue," Michael pointed out.

Eddie Irvine agreed. "The ideal script is that I jump them both at the start," Eddie explained, "and Michael jumps Jacques. Then I let Michael through and away we go."

Fourth on the grid was Mika Hakkinen in the McLaren-Mercedes but David Coulthard was down in 11th position. Mika reckoned he would be competitive in the race while Coulthard was frustrated by a hydraulic problem in the morning session which deprived him of all-important set-up time.

The Benettons were fifth and seventh with Berger beating Alesi by a tenth of a second. Alesi had set his time using the spare car after an oil leak in his own B197. He did not better the flying lap of his first run. Berger reckoned he would have gone a few tenths quicker if Diniz had not spun in front of him.

Eighth on the grid was a very good effort from Johnny Herbert in the Sauber, who looked very feisty. Johnny reckoned he would have gone even faster if he had not been held up by Coulthard at one point. Gianni Morbidelli's efforts were spoiled with his car demolition trick, which left him rather confused and nursing a tweaked wrist and some bruised fingers. He was down in 18th on the grid but on Sunday morning was forced out of the race because of his wrist injury.

The Jordans were a big disappointment in qualifying - where they had been expected to be quite competitive and did well on Friday afternoon and again on Saturday morning. Giancarlo Fisichella was ninth on the grid with Ralf Schumacher 13th. While Fisichella put his lack of speed down to lack of knowledge at the track the same could not be said for Ralf, who raced here a lot last year during his Formula Nippon season. He screwed up twice under braking. "I was not on form," he said. This is not a good excuse for a Grand Prix driver: they are paid to be always on form.

Tenth position was a disappointment for Olivier Panis - the fastest of the Bridgestone runners at a track where one would have expected the Bridgestone men to be way ahead of Goodyear. The Mugen Honda engines were going bang a little too much in practice: Olivier had two failures and Nakano one. Panis hoped things would be better in the race. Nakano was down in 15th and similarly disappointed, this being his big event - and probably his last.

Stewart managed to qualify 12th and 14th, which was pretty uninspiring. Barrichello's efforts had been handicapped by an engine failure (not an unusual occurrence). He switched to the T-car - which was not handling very well. In the circumstances 12th was not bad. Magnussen lost his fastest lap because of the red flag and was not happy about it.

Arrows was deeply disappointed to be 16th and 17th on the grid with Pedro Diniz once again faster than Damon Hill. This was not exactly what engine-supplier Yamaha was looking to do in front of its home crowd.

Minardi qualified 19th and 20th with Ukyo Katayama ahead of Tarso Marques. Neither driver was ecstatic but in the current situation it was not a bad performance.

"The top teams improved on average by two seconds on last year's times," Ukyo reported. "We have improved by six seconds. The team is working really hard."

Tyrrell was firmly on the back row with Jos Verstappen outqualifying Mika Salo on this occasion - by two-tenths of a second. The major problem, of course, was a lack of horsepower from the Ford V8 engines.

THERE was not time to consider the implications of the yellow flag business on the race strategies but on Sunday morning the paddock was buzzing with stories. What would the Williams strategy be? At the start it was clear that Jacques wanted to be ahead of Michael: he signaled this intention by coming across the road to make sure that Schumacher did not get ahead.

"It was close," reported Schumacher, "but it was expected. I think I would have done the same thing. I would not say there was anything unusual about it. I was close to getting him but I had to pull back. For me it was more important that no-one else went past me."

It quickly became clear that the plan was to hold up Michael. "He drove that way to make things difficult for me so others could overtake," Michael suggested after the race. The computers suggested that this was the case with Jacques' lap times being remarkably slow.

Behind Jacques and Michael, Irvine had made a poor start and had dropped behind Hakkinen, while Frentzen made a better start than Berger and was able to take fifth place.

On the second lap Irvine passed both Hakkinen and Schumacher in what looked like a brilliant move going up through The Esses - an unusual place for overtaking maneuvers. In fact it had been pre-planned. "We had discussed it before the race," Michael confessed. "He said it was a possibility and he did it and I let him through."

When the opportunity presented itself Eddie went outside Hakkinen and Schumacher in one move. "Michael had a good idea I was going to try it," said Eddie, "and he assisted me."

Immediately Eddie was attacking Villeneuve. A lap and a half later, as they were braking for the chicane, Eddie made his move. "Jacques tried to block me," Irvine said, "so I sailed around the outside."

Once ahead Eddie showed just how slow Jacques had been going. His first lap free of Villeneuve gave him a 5.3secs advantage and within three laps he was 12secs ahead of the Williams. Jacques did not attempt to give chase, preferring to stay where he was, ahead of Schumacher. All the curious fluctuations in the normal pace of the front-runners had completely obscured the likely pit stop strategies. It looked as though Irvine was on a three-stopper: in fact Eddie was going for two stops.

The pit stops began on lap 13 with Hakkinen and Berger coming in. On the following lap Coulthard and Alesi came in. It looked as though both Benetton and McLaren were going for a three-stop strategy but McLaren was boxing clever and was in fact going for only two.

On lap 16 Irvine came in and handed the lead to Villeneuve. Two laps later Schumacher stopped and on lap 20 Villeneuve himself came in. Michael rejoined behind Johnny Herbert and for two laps the German ran behind the Sauber. Johnny was not holding up his old team-mate but Ferrari, keen to know what Sauber was planning, sent a man down to the Swiss pit to ask. When one supplies a rival with engines one has such power. The Sauber folk replied that Ferrari need not worry because Johnny was coming in shortly and the Ferrari man scurried back to tell his troops.

When Villeneuve rejoined Schumacher was belting down the main straight towards him. Jacques pulled across into the fast lane but was not going quickly enough to really justify such a move. Michael was not about to stand on the brakes and dived for the inside line, swepping past the Williams before it was up to speed.

While this was happening Frentzen was in the process of leading for a lap but then he too pitted. He was now ahead of Hakkinen but still fourth behind Irvine, Schumacher and Villeneuve. Irvine knew that his moment of glory would soon be over. "I was waiting for the phone call," Eddie reported.

It came on lap 23 and Irvine slowed down, allowing Schumacher to catch him up. As soon as Michael was past him, Eddie pulled in front of Villeneuve and began blocking. After the race he made no bones about it. "They said slow down and let Michael through and then try to slow Jacques down," Eddie reported. "It is not difficult to do here. I had three years of practice here when I was in Formula 3000."

In the end this would work against him - and against Ferrari - but it worked a treat for Michael Schumacher. Michael was able to build a lead of 7.2secs before his second pit stop. On lap 30 Jacques came hurtling into the pits intent on getting past Irvine during the pit stops. It would probably have worked as well, but there was a problem getting the fuel hose onto his car and he lost six or seven vital seconds. He would rejoin in seventh position. Irvine pitted on lap 32 and Schumacher on lap 33 but Frentzen stayed out longer and did not stop until lap 37. Irvine's blocking had lost him time and Frentzen was thus able to get into second place when he stopped but it was close. "Heinz came straight out across onto the line," Eddie complained later, "which you should not do when you come out of the pits."

If Eddie was an angel when it comes to driving behavior there might have been some sympathy for him, but he is not and there was not. Frentzen was second and, as a result, Williams was in a winning position for the Constructors' Championship.

Frentzen went after Schumacher but it was a hopeless chase, despite the best efforts of Damon Hill who made his Arrows very wide when Michael came upon him at the end of the race. One can hardly blame Damon for making life hard for Michael. One must not forget that Damon would have been World Champion in 1994 if Michael had not driven into him in Australia... It was actually surprising that Damon did not take him out of the race. Damon cost Michael 2.9secs to Frentzen but he crossed the line 1.3secs ahead of his fellow-countryman.

Irvine made it home just ahead of Hakkinen but Coulthard's eighth place evaporated on the last lap when an engine seizure caused the rear axle to lock up. He was pitched hard into the wall. "A bad end to a terrible weekend," he complained. He was classified 11th.

Villeneuve was fifth, having looked rather unconvincing in the final stint. He seemed to know that he will lose the two points when he would go to the FIA Court of Appeal in Paris and there was no point in pushing too much.

Jacques was chased home by Alesi but the Benetton strategy had not been a success. Berger made even less of an impression and ended up 10th.

Herbert's seventh place was not as good as a result as the team had hoped for. Johnny made a bad start and failed to make up any places but ran a steady race with a difficult car to finish not far behind Jacques Villeneuve and Jean Alesi. He would later be moved up to sixth position (and thus get a point) as a result of Villeneuve's exclusion due to the yellow flags issue.

After Coulthard dropped out, eighth place went to Fisichella. This was not a race that will be remembered in the Jordan history books. Ralf Schumacher finished 10th - a lackluster performance all round.

For Arrows, Hill finished 12th with Pedro Diniz 13th. This was not earth-shattering but if nothing else Yamaha did not blow up an engine. The fact that Damon was the first Bridgestone runner home was quietly forgotten after the event. The Bridgestone men had been expected to blow Goodyear away at Suzuka, but the boys and girls of Akron left their Japanese rivals looking for swords to fall upon...

Verstappen made it home for Tyrrell in 14th but Salo's race ended with an engine failure after 46 laps. Minardi's Tarso Marques dropped out at about the same time with a gearbox failure while Katayama's last Japanese GP ended with engine failure.

Engine failure put paid to Prost's hopes of a good result at Suzuka with Olivier Panis dropping out on lap 37 while he was chasing around in the midfield. Nakano's race ended with a wheel-bearing failure which sent him bouncing over the chicane after 22 laps.

The Stewart team could not blame mechanical failure for either retirement on this occasion. The team had opted for a one-stop strategy - which might have been a good idea - but a one stop plan is no good unless you actually make it to the pit stops: Magnussen spun out on lap 4 and three laps later Barrichello went for a wilder rotation at the high-speed 130R.

The result meant that Villeneuve was one point ahead of Schumacher as they headed for the final race at Jerez - although the FIA Court of Appeal rejected Villeneuve's appeal and he lost his two points.

"The situation is open," Michael Schumacher said. "Whoever is ahead of the other guy is going to be the champion. That is the way it should be."

Well, yes, that is true, but let us hope that the guy ahead is not blocking the man behind. It would be nice to see a proper race and not a ballet of blocking tactics.

Michael Schumacher Ferrari  53 1h29m48.446  1m36.133 
Heinz-Harald Frentzen Williams-Renault  53 1.378  1m36.628 
Eddie Irvine Ferrari  53 26.384  1m36.466 
Mika Hakkinen McLaren-Mercedes  53 27.129  1m36.469 
Jacques Villeneuve Williams-Renault  53 39.776  1m36.071 
Jean Alesi Benetton-Renault  53 40.403  1m36.682 
16 Johnny Herbert Sauber-Petronas  53 41.630  1m36.630 
12 Giancarlo Fisichella Jordan-Peugeot  53 56.825  1m36.917 
Gerhard Berger Benetton-Renault  53 1m00.429  1m36.561 
10 11 Ralf Schumacher Jordan-Peugeot  53 1m22.036  1m37.443 13 
11 10 David Coulthard McLaren-Mercedes  52 1 Lap  1m37.095 11 
12 Damon Hill Arrows-Yamaha  52 1 Lap  1m38.022 17 
13 Pedro Diniz Arrows-Yamaha  52 1 Lap  1m37.853 16 
14 18 Jos Verstappen Tyrrell-Ford  52 1 Lap  1m40.259 21 
19 Mika Salo Tyrrell-Ford  46 Engine 1m40.529 22 
21 Jarno Trulli Minardi-Hart  46 Gearbox 1m39.678 20 
14 Olivier Panis Prost-Mugen Honda  36 Engine 1m37.073 10 
15 Shinji Nakano Prost-Mugen Honda  22 Wheel Bearing 1m37.588 15 
20 Ukyo Katayama Minardi-Hart  Engine 1m38.983 19 
22 Rubens Barrichello Stewart-Ford  Spin 1m37.343 12 
23 Jan Magnussen Stewart-Ford  Spin 1m37.480 14 
ns 17 Nicola Larini Sauber-Petronas    1m38.556 18