European GP 1997

European GP, 1997

The Red Baron goes down in flames

MCLAREN scored a 1-2 finish in the European Grand Prix at Jerez de la Frontera but this was not significant. It was like Sandro Nannini's win at Suzuka in 1989 - an undeserved victory. The win belonged to Jacques Villeneuve but on the last lap, under pressure from the two McLarens, he let Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard through since he would be sure of the World Championship.

Michael Schumacher deposited a truckload of egg on his face on lap 48 when he tried to take Villeneuve out of the race when Jacques challenged for the lead. It was exactly the kind of move one would have expected from the man who took out Damon Hill to win the 1994 World title in Adelaide. If there were doubts about that incident there were none on this occasion. It was a cynical attempt to save the World Championship but this time it was executed with an amateurism which must have made Enzo Ferrari rotate in his grave.

As Schumacher's Ferrari bounced off Villeneuve's Williams and slid into the gravel, Michael had only himself to blame. There was no sympathy for him in the paddock. He had damaged his reputation considerably. If this is the best racing driver on earth, they said, why does he need to resort to such unsportsmanlike behavior? He may be a great driver but he will never be a good sportsman.

The FIA - having had the glorious showdown they wanted - contrived to conclude that the crash was a "racing incident" - which was a scandalous decision and just goes to prove that the FIA stewards are either not qualified for the jobs they hold or that they were told what to decide.

When the decision was announced in the press room, the place broke into outraged boos: Mr. Paul Gutjahr, Mr. Jacques Regis and Mr. Javier Conesa - a pox on the lot of you. Let us hope we never see the three of you ever again.

Formula 1 racing visits more continents than it thinks it does: Europe, Asia, the Americas, Australasia and Africa. Africa? Well, if you have ever been to Jerez de la Frontera you will probably know what I mean. One does not want to be unpleasant to the folk of Andalusia, but finishing the Formula 1 World Championship in Jerez de la Frontera was really depressing and miserable.

Yes, it is the sherry capital of the world and the town of Jerez is full of all the great sherry houses: Gonzalez Byass, Domecq and Harvey; yes, it is the home of flamenco and of the Royal Andalusian School of the Equestrian Arts; yes Jerez has a 3000-year history and is a city chock full of ancient churches and fortresses, mosques and all the rest of it. But, frankly, it's a bloody awful place to have to work. In the mornings the race track smelled like Sao Paulo drains and the electrical systems were hopeless. Everything at the circuit was unfinished or overcrowded and, unless you were one of Bernie's beautiful people, and did not get one of the few nice hotel rooms and either had to stay helicopter range away or had to put up with 12th century plumbing ideas.

I suppose it just goes to prove that if you throw enough money at Formula 1 the circus will accept the deal and go anywhere. There are supposed to be standards for these things. I think the FIA should actually fine itself for agreeing to hold a race at the track.

Renault was very happy because it had bought every inch of signage around the town. Even the rodents one saw scampering across the roads seemed to be carrying Renault badging and every advertising hoarding screamed the news that Renault was leaving F1 after winning six consecutive Constructors' World titles. The weekend in Spain would reveal whether or not they would go with four or five Drivers' titles.

The build-up for the Villeneuve-Schumacher showdown was much the same as they are in these situations with everyone analyzing every hint of activity of each of the challengers for indications that they were losing their cool. If Villeneuve left a certain button undone on Thursday, did this suggest that he was panicking so much when he was dressing himself that he would do something silly in the car? The Italian journalists, for their part, were sure that there was a conspiracy afoot and that the World title was already decided between Ferrari and the F1 bosses. The only evidence to back this up was that the Ferrari team decided to change the take-off time of the charter plane back to Italy from Sunday night to Monday morning. This was to allow for the celebration party.

Championship showdowns always bring out curious sports feature writers who do not always understand the sport completely and so the whole cycle becomes more and more absurd.

The conspiracy theorists had a field day on Saturday, of course, when Villeneuve, Schumacher and Frentzen all set exactly identical times in the qualifying session, lining up in that order on the grid because the rules state that the first man to set the time gets the first position. Formula 1 could not have hoped for a more perfect showdown.

Villeneuve had shown signs in practice of being a little under pressure. He had a cold and on Saturday morning became fed up by being blocked by Eddie Irvine, who seemed intent on getting in Jacques's way whenever the pair were together on the race track. Jacques stalked down to the Ferrari pit, called Eddie Irvine something unpleasant, and stalked back to the Williams pit, trailing his managers and PR types like ducklings in his wake.

"This is the fourth time he has done that to me here in two days," Villeneuve complained. "It's just a stupid psychological game they are playing. Schumacher has said he does not want to do anything bad or for anything bad to happen in this race, so I just hope that is what happens for his sake - but this shows how far Ferrari are prepared to go to help Michael win this Championship."

Although he looked like a man under pressure, Jacques said that, actually, he had less pressure than in Suzuka. "I am in the underdog position now and we have to fight back. There is no choice of strategy for us, we just have to be in front. That makes it easier in a way. Of course if something goes wrong then Michael wins it."

With pole position Jacques certainly had the advantage for the race but, as Schumacher was quick to point out, everything would ultimately depend on who made the best start.

The potential for trouble at the first corner was no doubt there, although Irvine was not fast enough in qualifying to pose much of a problem, being down in seventh on the grid.

Villeneuve's pole lap was set on his first set of tires and he admitted later that he was surprised that he had done enough to retain pole position. He aborted a second run after locking up his wheels in the first corner. He was nonetheless delighted to be there. Frentzen was in third place but reckoned that he might have been ahead had he not gone sideways in the chicane on his fastest lap.

Schumacher was pretty satisfied with his position and joked that it might not be necessary for him to be ahead of Jacques to win the World Championship if they were back down the order. This was an interesting point as several teams looked quite threatening. Damon Hill looked very strong in his Bridgestone-shod Arrows-Yamaha, qualifying fourth, just 0.058s off the tri-pole position. If the three front men had not been locked to the thousandth of a second, Hill's performance might have been noticed more than it was.

"If it hadn't been for Katayama, who spun right in front of me at the last corner and cost me some time," Damon reported, "I could have been on pole. Everyone in the team was pushing to find the last little bit. We've got a good set-up on the car and I am happy with the tires Bridgestone has brought here. They are a little more adventurous and I know they will be good for the race. I am really optimistic."

Pedro Diniz was less pleased. He was down in 13th position, complaining that two of his qualifying runs had been spoiled by traffic.

The two McLaren boys - Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard - shared the third row of the grid with Mika fifth and David sixth. Mika complained about traffic problems and reckoned that the gusting wind had made it difficult to find the right balance with the car. David also had trouble with traffic. The team had hoped for better.

Sharing the fourth row on the grid with Irvine was Benetton driver Gerhard Berger in his last race in F1. Gerhard had been quite quick in practice but things did not go well in the qualifying session and he was not sure whether the problems had been caused by small set-up changes the engineers had made or whether or not the gusting wind had been to blame.

Team mate Jean Alesi was two places further back in 10th position which was not bad considering he was in the spare car after smacking his own race car into a wall during the Saturday morning practice. He also had two spins which did not help his lap times.

Olivier Panis was ninth on the grid in his Prost-Mugen Honda which was a big disappointment for the Frenchman who had been very quick in the practice sessions. He complained of having too much oversteer but was actually ahead of the pole men on his last flying run only to find Minardi's Ukyo Katayama stopped in his path.

Shinji Nakano's last race with Prost was much the same as most of his others. He was 15th on the grid, six-tenths of a second behind his team leader. Although the Prost team did not say it openly they would have preferred to have been running the more inspirational Jarno Trulli.

The sixth row of the grid was shared by the two Stewart-Fords with Jan Magnussen beating Rubens Barrichello for the first time this year. Rubens had a good excuse because late in the morning session he had gone off and so had to qualify in the spare car because his race car took too long to be brought back to the pits by the disorganized Spanish marshals.

The team ran the new P9 version of the Ford Zetec-R V10 without drama but decided that it would be better to use the older P7 versions for the race.

Sharing the seventh row of the grid were Pedro Diniz of Arrows and Johnny Herbert in his Sauber. Being 14th on the grid was a bit frustrating for Johnny who complained that the rear end of the car was very loose.

With Gianni Morbidelli out of action because of his qualifying crash in Suzuka the Swiss team again called in its test and reserve driver Norberto Fontana to drive and he qualified 18th, a full second behind Herbert. He complained of bad traffic problems.

Behind Prost's Nakano in 16th position on the grid we found Ralf Schumacher in the faster of the two off-the-pace Jordans. The young German had made a bit of a mess of the session, spinning off in his race car and having to get into the spare for the rest of the session. This oversteered rather more than the race car. "I am surprised we did so badly because I thought the car did not feel bad," Ralf reported. "Obviously we are really off the pace today."

Giancarlo Fisichella was in similar trouble but he blamed the circuit. "I think our car is not really suited to this track," he reported. "It felt very slippery and I had a lot of snap oversteer in the low-speed corners."

This was curious when you consider how competitive the Jordans were at the start of the year on the similar swerves of Buenos Aires. Insiders mumbled that perhaps there were things about electronic diffs which are not all advantageous... Whatever the case the Jordans did not look like being a threat for the race.

The back two rows of the grid were filled by the Minardis and Tyrrells as they usually are. On this occasion Katayama was ahead of his team mate Marques on row 10, while the Tyrrell battle for supremacy on the last row of the grid was headed on this occasion by Mika Salo, who beat off Jos Verstappen's challenge by less than a tenth of a second.

THE morning warm-up saw Hakkinen fastest with Berger second and Panis also very quick in the Prost. Villeneuve was fifth fastest and Schumacher was seventh. In the drivers' briefing FIA President Max Mosley made a great song and dance about the Draconian penalties that would be inflicted on any driver who dared to influence the outcome of the World Championship. The paddock was full of people discussing the possibilities and as the start time came closer so battalions of journalists headed for the first corner where there might be a good story.

The atmosphere was highly charged as the field revved up and the red lights came on one by one. Given all the problems with the local infrastructure in the days before the race it was a miracle that they managed to find five red lights which were all working. These went out as they should have done - this has not always been the case at Grands Prix in Spain - and the field was off. Villeneuve and Schumacher went away together but Schumacher seemed to get more traction, probably because he was using a new set of tires, while Villeneuve was taking the start on a used set of rubber. Whatever the case Michael was ahead as they went into the first corner and Frentzen also made a better start than Jacques and got ahead, Jacques leaving the door open for him to avoid any contact.

Behind them Hill made a poor start and fell behind the McLarens of Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard. In those early laps Schumacher grabbed a lead of two seconds over Frentzen while Villeneuve prepared his counter-attack. On lap eight Frentzen - who was also racing on used tires and was struggling to keep up with Schumacher - let Villeneuve through to give Jacques the chance to go after the Ferrari star. Schumacher held the gap until his first pit stop on lap 22.

Villeneuve's plan was to shadow Michael's strategy through the race and so on the next lap Jacques came into the pits. This left Frentzen to lead with Hakkinen ahead of Michael and Jacques with Coulthard mixing it with them as well. In the excitements Jacques tried on one occasion to get past Michael but thought better of it.

During that first pit stop sequence Frentzen fell behind the two McLarens, and in the process Coulthard was also able to get ahead of Hakkinen.

With the major stops out of the way and all the front-runners on the same strategy there was little in the way of action in the middle stint. It was not helped by the fact that Villeneuve lost over two seconds as he and Michael Schumacher tried to lap Norberto Fontana (who it must be remembered uses a Ferrari engine disguised as a Petronas V10 in the back of his Sauber). This created a sufficient gap to give Michael a breather, but then Jacques began to close again.

At this point the two leaders came up towards the two Jordans. This sent Ferrari team boss Jean Todt marching down towards the Jordan pit. He signaled to Eddie Jordan - what this meant we will never know - and then turned around and marched back to the Ferrari pit. Later Ron Dennis would visit Jordan as well to suggest that Eddie get his men out of the way of Mika and David as they chased after Villeneuve...

Schumacher pitted for the second time on lap 43 and his stop took slightly longer than normal. As planned Villeneuve came in on the following lap and emerged from the pits right on Schumacher's tail. For the next three laps they diced and then on lap 48 they hammered down into Dry Sack Corner and Jacques made his move.

"I was quicker on the new tires," Jacques explained. "I knew I had to make a move. Even though I was 10 meters behind him I went for it and I braked late."

It was a good move and Schumacher was taken by surprise. "When he looked in his mirror I was way behind," Villeneuve reported. "I knew I was taking a big risk but I was surprised that he turned in on me. But he didn't do it well enough because he went off and I did not. My car jumped in the air and I thought something must be broken. The car felt very strange. The hit was very hard. It was not a small thing. I took two laps very slowly to see if the suspension was attached and everything was still working and then I started to push again. I knew Michael was capable of doing that."

After the race Schumacher concocted a ridiculous story about not seeing Villeneuve, which no-one believed - and just added insult to injury. It did not matter. Michael had lost and that was reward enough for Villeneuve and the Williams team.

Villeneuve still had to get to the flag to get the points necessary to win the title and with the car handling oddly he could not lap as fast as he had been before the crash.

"When I pushed for a few laps my tires started to overheat and so I had to slow down. Everyone behind me was getting closer and then they were in my mirrors and it was a question of whether to risk going off or let them through. I did not fight then. It was better to let them through and win the World Championship. It is a good exchange."

And so it was that Mika Hakkinen won his first Grand Prix. Thanks to Jacques Villeneuve and in no small part to David Coulthard as well, because David had let Mika get ahead with three laps to go - probably on orders from the pits. The team did not bother to give details of this but David was not bubbling with joy after the event... Hakkinen himself was speechless and made little sense after the race.

The last lap fun and games meant that the next chasing group was right behind Jacques at the flag with Benetton's Gerhard Berger just a tenth behind. It was a good effort from Gerhard and F1 was sad to say goodbye to one of its more colorful - and gentlemanly - characters.

Jean Alesi was charging along in the midfield - fighting with Olivier Panis for a lot of the race - but went off just after his second stop and had to stop again for new tires. He rejoined and raced home in a distant 13th.

Irvine finished fifth which was a dull result after a dull race but thankfully he was not able to get involved in the World Championship battle which was a good thing.

Frentzen came home in sixth but blamed his poor position on the fact that just before he was due to stop for the second time he came across team mate Villeneuve trying to recover from the incident with Schumacher. Without that he reckoned he would have been ahead of the two McLarens - and he was probably right.

Panis finished seventh for Prost after a feisty showing which saw him make up two places early in the race. After that he found himself stuck behind Jan Magnussen for most of the race, which was frustrating. Shinji Nakano finished his race down in 10th place, which was nothing special.

Herbert finished eighth for Sauber reporting a rather dull race while Fontana trogged around as he usually does and did nothing of any real value apart from holding up Villeneuve.

Magnussen came home in ninth place for Stewart which was a good effort. Rubens Barrichello retired with a gearbox failure after 30 laps.

The Jordan-Peugeots were completely off the pace throughout the race but Fisichella managed to get to the finish in a lowly 11th place, a lap down on the leaders. Ralf Schumacher did not get to the finish, retiring after 44 laps with an engine problem.

Salo upheld the honor of Tyrrell with a pretty good three-stop run to finish 12th ahead of the likes of Alesi and Fontana and he enjoyed actually racing other drivers rather than running around at the back of the field. Verstappen also made it to the flag but was down in 16th position.

Both Minardi boys, Tarso Marques and Ukyo Katayama, also made it to the finish in 15th and 17th places which was a pretty good result given the team's run of problems in recent races.

Neither Arrows made it to the flag. Pedro Diniz spun off after just 12 laps while Damon Hill slipped back in the race and dropped out with a gearbox problem on the same lap as the Schumacher and Villeneuve collided.

And so ended the 1997 World Championship with a slightly sour taste in the mouth. Max Mosley said he wanted the race to be "a proper and fair contest", adding that a range of penalties could be imposed on drivers who ignore the warning. Schumacher chose to ignore this but was allowed to get away with it.

Is that really the best way to teach young drivers how true World Champions behave? I suppose you could argue that if a champion has cheapened himself there is no need for punishment. He has done himself more harm than the FIA ever could...

Mika Hakkinen McLaren-Mercedes  69 1h38m57.772  1m21.369 
10 David Coulthard McLaren-Mercedes  69 1.654  1m21.476 
Jacques Villeneuve Williams-Renault  69 1.802  1m21.072 
Gerhard Berger Benetton-Renault  69 1.919  1m21.656 
Eddie Irvine Ferrari  69 3.789  1m21.610 
Heinz-Harald Frentzen Williams-Renault  69 4.537  1m21.072 
14 Olivier Panis Prost-Mugen Honda  69 1m07.145  1m21.735 
16 Johnny Herbert Sauber-Petronas  69 1m12.960  1m22.263 14 
23 Jan Magnussen Stewart-Ford  69 1m17.487  1m22.167 11 
10 15 Shinji Nakano Prost-Mugen Honda  69 1m18.215  1m22.351 15 
11 12 Giancarlo Fisichella Jordan-Peugeot  68 1 Lap  1m22.804 17 
12 19 Mika Salo Tyrrell-Ford  68 1 Lap  1m24.222 21 
13 Jean Alesi Benetton-Renault  68 1 Lap  1m22.011 10 
14 17 Nicola Larini Sauber-Petronas  68 1 Lap  1m23.281 18 
15 21 Jarno Trulli Minardi-Hart  68 1 Lap  1m23.854 20 
16 18 Jos Verstappen Tyrrell-Ford  68 1 Lap  1m24.301 22 
17 20 Ukyo Katayama Minardi-Hart  68 1 Lap  1m23.409 19 
Damon Hill Arrows-Yamaha  47 Gearbox 1m21.130 
Michael Schumacher Ferrari  47 Accident 1m21.072 
11 Ralf Schumacher Jordan-Peugeot  44 Engine 1m22.740 16 
22 Rubens Barrichello Stewart-Ford  30 Gearbox 1m22.222 12 
Pedro Diniz Arrows-Yamaha  12 Spin 1m22.234 13