JANUARY 6, 1997

Who drives where in 1997?

WITH just eight weeks to go before the start of the 1997 FIA Formula 1 World Championship in Melbourne, Australia, there are only two drives still open in the field, which will comprise 12 teams fielding 24 cars.

WITH just eight weeks to go before the start of the 1997 FIA Formula 1 World Championship in Melbourne, Australia, there are only two drives still open in the field, which will comprise 12 teams fielding 24 cars.

Now that Nigel Mansell has decided that he does not want to race for the Benson & Hedges Total Jordan Peugeot team, there is a seat available alongside F1 debutant Ralf Schumacher, while the Minardi team has a second car available alongside the recently-confirmed Ukyo Katayama.

Italian rising star Giancarlo Fisichella is a candidate for both of these drives and will almost certainly get one or the other. Fisichella is under a long-term contract to the Minardi team, which he signed in November 1994. He spent the 1995 season testing for the little Italian team - while being loaned out to the Alfa Romeo factory team in the International Touring Car Championship. Fisichella made his F1 debut with Minardi in Melbourne in March last year, after Japanese pay-driver TakichihoÊInoue failed to come up with money he had promised. Fisichella had to make way for Brazilian Tarso Marques for the two South American races but then returned to the team for the major part of the European season. He scored the team's best result of the year - eighth place in Canada - but in August Giancarlo Minardi was forced to drop his prot?g? because he had been unable to find money to keep the team running. As a result, pay-driver Giovanni Lavaggi was drafted in.

The takeover of Minardi by Flavio Briatore in the autumn saw Fisichella testing for Benetton in September and he represented Benetton (and won) in the annual F1 sprint races at the Bologna Motor Show in early December.

After Nigel Mansell decided that he would not be joining Jordan, the team immediately contacted Fisichella and he was given clearance to test for Jordan for two days at Jerez shortly before Christmas. If a deal can be found between Briatore and Eddie Jordan then Fisichella looks likely to be Jordan's second driver next year. He impressed Jordan engineers at Jerez with his ability to adapt to the car in changing conditions and was able to match the times set by Ralf Schumacher in all conditions.

The likelihood of Fisichella staying at Minardi is slim although initially it had been thought that he might race for Minardi while acting as test driver for Ferrari - which needs to replace Nicola Larini. With Minardi now being sponsored by Japan Tobacco's Mild Seven brand, however, and Ferrari being sponsored by Marlboro it is unlikely that such a deal can now happen.

This would seem to leave the door open at Minardi for Brazilian Tarso Marques, who made his F1 debut with the team in South America last year. Marques is rumored to have a budget available for the Minardi drive, but the fact that he has not yet been confirmed suggests that there are still some financial or contractual problems to be sorted out. Marques had been doing some Bridgestone testing work for the TWR Arrows team and this would also prove useful for Minardi which is to run the Japanese tires this season. The fact that well-supported Ricardo Rosset decided to sign for the new Mastercard Lola F1 team suggests that he had been told that there was no chance of a drive with Minardi. He would have been a good choice as he has a full season in F1 behind him, plus experience with Brian Hart's engines and with Bridgestone tires.

The existing driver line-up is thus as follows:

1Damon Hill (GB)Danka Arrows YamahaArrows-Yamaha

2Pedro Diniz (BR)Danka Arrows YamahaArrows-Yamaha

3Jacques Villeneuve (CDN)Rothmans Williams RenaultWilliams-Renault

4Heinz-Harald Frentzen (D)Rothmans Williams RenaultWilliams-Renault

5Michael Schumacher (D)Scuderia Ferrari MarlboroFerrari

6Eddie Irvine (GB)Scuderia Ferrari MarlboroFerrari

7Jean Alesi (F)Mild Seven Benetton RenaultBenetton-Renault

8Gerhard Berger (A)Mild Seven Benetton RenaultBenetton-Renault

9Mika Hakkinen (SF)West McLaren MercedesMcLaren-Mercedes

10David Coulthard (GB)West McLaren MercedesMcLaren-Mercedes

11Ralf Schumacher (D)B&H Total Jordan PeugeotJordan-Peugeot

12To be nominatedB&H Total Jordan PeugeotJordan-Peugeot

14Olivier Panis (F)Equipe Ligier Gauloises BlondesLigier-Mugen Honda

15Shinji Nakano (J)Equipe Ligier Gauloises BlondesLigier-Mugen Honda

16Johnny Herbert (GB)Red Bull Sauber PetronasSauber-Petronas

17Nicola Larini (I)Red Bull Sauber PetronasSauber-Petronas

18Jos Verstappen (NL)TyrrellTyrrell-Ford

19Mika Salo (SF)TyrrellTyrrell-Ford

20Ukyo Katayama (J)Minardi TeamMinardi-Hart

21To be nominatedMinardi TeamMinardi-Hart

22Rubens Barrichello (BR)Stewart FordStewart-Ford

23Jan Magnussen (DK)Stewart FordStewart-Ford

24Ricardo Rosset (BR)Mastercard Lola F1 TeamLola-Ford Cosworth

25Vincenzo Sospiri (I)Mastercard Lola F1 TeamLola-Ford Cosworth

Nominated drivers can be changed up until 6pm on March 6, the day before the Australian Grand Prix meeting kicks off in Melbourne.