Argentine GP 1997
APRIL 14, 1997
Argentine GP, 1997
A deceptive victory
IT was a Goodyear day in Buenos Aires with Jacques Villeneuve, Eddie Irvine and Ralf Schumacher giving the American tiremaker a 1-2-3 result in Buenos Aires. In winning his sixth Grand Prix victory, Jacques equaled his father Gilles' total of victories and moved into a commanding lead in the World Championship. The top three ran to different pit stop strategies: Villeneuve stopped three times; second-placed Eddie Irvine, who finished just 0.979s behind the Williams driver, did two stops and Ralf Schumacher - who finished third - stopped only once, finishing 11secs behind. In short, all three strategies had basically the same result - indicating that both Goodyear compounds were capable of winning. But what most people in the paddock knew after the race was that Olivier Panis had the race sewn up and would have given Bridgestone its first F1 victory if his Mugen Honda engine had not failed him...
The Latins are a funny lot. Whenever you go anywhere with a planeload of South Americans they applaud every time the planes touches down safely. Perhaps they know that these days most landings are done with computers and are just thankful that the machines worked on that occasion. Machines in South America do not always work, that would be too robotic for the Argentines. They like to live. They like to express themselves. They dance the tango and they drive like men who have eaten too much red meat. The fact is that they probably have because this is where one finds the best steaks in the world.
The machismo habits of the locals - all the policemen look like Saddam Hussein - come from the vast plains of the Pampas where men are men and cows are scared. It doesn't take these heroes long to turn entire herds into steaks, leather goods and tins of Fray Bentos corned beef.
You don't see many gauchos in downtown Buenos Aires, a city which prides itself on being civilized. The shops are good, the buildings are positively Parisian, the women elegant and the wine rather better than one would expect.
For some reason, however, Argentina never seems to agree with Grand Prix drivers. Last year you may recall Damon Hill won the Argentine GP despite being gastrically-challenged for three days. This year it was the turn of Villeneuve to suffer internal eruptions which were causing him to spend too much time "on the big white telephone".
In order to give the others teams a chance, Williams organized that Heinz-Harald Frentzen should suffer from flu as well and so qualifying became a battle of the walking wounded with HH sweating a lot and not sleeping and Jacques making periodic dashes to small rooms.
The Williams must be a really great car because, despite all of this, the pair still managed to line up 1-2 on the grid. The paddock spies reported that they had been using the softer of the two Goodyear tire compounds. On Saturday evening this looked like a good choice because those who had picked the harder rubber were in deep trouble. But it was really a gamble because no-one knew what the weather would be like on Sunday.
The most impressive thing about Villeneuve's pole lap was that it was almost SIX seconds faster than Damon Hill's lap last year. "The tires we had last year were way too hard for the circuit," explained Villeneuve.
In last year's Argentine GP Hill was only two-tenths ahead of Michael Schumacher but this year Villeneuve was a good 0.798s clear of Frentzen - and he was 0.220s ahead of the third placed Olivier Panis. That was a pretty impressive gap given the fact that Jacques was really not well.
"I'm a bit worried," he admitted after qualifying. "I haven't been able to keep in any fluids. But three poles in a row is great. That is as many as I had last year. The car feels great and I am actually happier with full tanks than with low fuel."
"Brazil didn't work out for me," he explained. "In my opinion it was a set-up problem. I was not happy with the car. I changed my philosophy and tried something else here and it is going better."
At the moment there is a lot of Frentzen-bashing going on in the paddock - mutterings that he has caved in under Villeneuve's pressure and such things. For those with a memory of more than a couple of weeks, it should be pointed out that in the early part of last year the paddock was saying much the same about Jacques Villeneuve because, after his impressive start in Melbourne, it was not until the mid-season that he became competitive with Damon Hill.
The Williams is still the car to beat - no question about that - but things have become a little bit more complicated this year because of the tire situation. And thus it was that Olivier Panis was able to qualify third for Prost. This was Olivier's best ever F1 grid position. It is not all down to the tires. The Prost JS45 is a good car, the Mugen Honda V10 is a good engine and Panis is confident and driving well.
"My best lap was very good," explained Olivier, "but I made a mistake when I braked for the first corner on my final flying lap. It was too late and not possible to gain back the time I had lost. Jacques is very quick and I think that third on the grid was the best that I could do. This is fantastic for me and for the team.
"The car is also very good with a lot of fuel," he added, "so we will have to decide on which strategy to use. We will have a very strong race tomorrow."
Given the strong performance of Bridgestone tires in the race in Brazil, there were suggestions in the paddock on Saturday evening that perhaps Olivier was going to be a very serious challenger in the race on Sunday. His team mate Shinji Nakano was no such threat, being a disappointing 20th on the grid, three seconds slower than Panis.
It has been a long time since Michael Schumacher has been as far back as fourth on an F1 grid and given that Ferrari was using the same tire compound as Williams there seemed to be little hope of success on Sunday.
Schumacher once again made the point that he thinks that the Goodyear tires are not quite as good as the Bridgestones but the Ferrari looked a bit of a handful again, riding the bumps of Buenos Aires with all the grace of a bricklayer on roller-skates.
Eddie Irvine looked a little bit better than he has done for some time but he was still half a second down on his team leader, which meant that he had to settle for seventh on the grid.
Behind Schumacher we had a big surprise in the form of Rubens Barrichello's Stewart-Ford. The Stewart team had a big rethink after Brazil and realized that perhaps it had been going the wrong direction on settings. As a result the car was softened up all around and it worked. Rubens was on the pace throughout practice. In qualifying it looked like there might be a hiccough as both he and Jan Magnussen had to share the spare car at the start of the session, but it came good in the end with Rubens fifth and Magnussen 15th.
The Jordans were more or less where one would expect to see them, although one cannot help but wonder what an experienced driver like Damon Hill might have been able to do with the Jordan, which is clearly a very quick car. The new boys did a good job, however, with Ralf "When is the accident going to happen?" Schumacher qualifying sixth (after an armful of spins in practice) and Giancarlo "I've had two big crashes and I'm starting to learn" Fisichella ninth.
Eighth on the grid was not where Johnny Herbert wanted to be. Not because it was not a good effort from Sauber but rather because it meant that Johnny would have to start alongside Irvine's Ferrari and, as we have discovered in recent events, whenever the pair of them get are within a few feet of each other they miraculously end up crashing. If Johnny can get through the first corner, he looks like he could turn in a really good result or two this year.
Nicola Larini was down in 14th on the grid, a second behind Herbert, which was not a bad effort given that it was his first visit to Buenos Aires and had he lost time when he spun and stalled on Saturday morning.
You may by now have noticed that we have made no mention yet of McLarens and the Benettons. Last year in Buenos Aires the two McLarens qualified eighth and ninth and it seemed at the time to be a major disaster. This year David Coulthard and Mika Hakkinen were 10th and 17th on the grid.
Coulthard's win in Melbourne was well-timed to take pressure off the team, but things will need to get better if they wish to avoid the kind of criticism which it had to absorb last year. The team argued that the choice of harder tires had turned out to be wrong. This may have been so but in similar conditions on race day that ought to mean that the McLarens would be quicker in the race. This is not really a logical argument as being fast on the race track does not mean one can overtake.
Ron Dennis said that the performance was not a true representation of the potential of the car - which is a story we have heard many times in the last couple of years.
Benetton was in similar trouble. Having flattered in Sao Paulo it was back to being in difficulties again - just as it was in fact throughout last year. An overdriving Jean Alesi was a miserable 11th and Gerhard Berger was a frustrated 12th.
"We need more horsepower and downforce to be able to compete more strongly on circuits like this," explained the World Champion, who gave his best as always.
The Tyrrell team sprouted some curious looking wings beside the cockpits, which made the cars look like they had an overhead-projector strapped onto each sidepod. Beautiful these were not but they seemed to work and Jos Verstappen (using an upgraded engine after the two Tyrrell drivers tossed a coin on Friday night) managed to qualify 16th with Mika Salo 19th. The Tyrrell boys are looking forward to the arrival of the next version of the Ford V8. The team was so keen to begin testing this that the spare car was packed up on Saturday evening and shipped back to Europe so that testing could begin earlier.
Finishing off the grid were the two Minardis with Jarno Trulli 18th and Ukyo Katayama 21st, the pair split by 0.3secs. Trulli, who made a mistake on his fastest lap, is more and more impressive with each passing race... The same cannot be said for Katayama.
SUNDAY was warmer than had been expected and that was bad news for the drivers who had opted for soft tires on Saturday. Despite this the two Williams boys were ahead in the warm-up, although Heinz-Harald Frentzen had to take to the spare car when his race car suffered a fuel-line problem. It was not Heinz-Harald's weekend. Before the race he had difficulty getting off the line and had to catch up places on the grid during the final parade lap. It was very nearly a question of starting from the back of the grid...
The most important thing in any race these days, however, is not the strategy but the ability to get through the first corner without hitting anyone else. Overtaking is so difficult that the first corner is now more often than not a place where the drivers have to risk everything.
We had crashes in Australia and in Brazil and, sure enough, we were to have another in Argentina. Most of the front-runners got away well, though Frentzen seemed rather slow away. Further back, Irvine made a blinding start while Damon Hill was also away faster than a greyhound.
The silly business started even before the cars reached the first turn. Michael Schumacher had made a slightly better start than Panis and the two were alongside one another on the run down to the corner. Perhaps Olivier is not intimidated by Michael, though he may be after the vicious chop he received. It was a typically ruthless Schumacher (M) maneuver and Panis was clearly rather shocked at the World Champion simply driving into the side of him at high speed. He swerved dramatically to the right and was off the race track on some old tarmac beside the circuit. The impact had bent Panis's steering but Olivier kept his foot in.
Villeneuve went into the corner ahead, followed by Frentzen and a very fast-starting Irvine who had gone to the outside on the run down to the first corner. Then came Panis. On the outside of Olivier was Barrichello - who had profited from Schumacher and Panis getting mixed up with one another on the run down to the corner. Schumacher (of the M variety) was right on his tail.
Michael said that he had oil on his visor from Frentzen's Williams ahead of him and so he could not see very well. Whatever the case he ran into the back of Barrichello, tipping the Stewart into a spin and they ended up nose-to-nose and it was all over. Behind them everyone was trying to avoid one another. In the course of the mess, Coulthard brushed Ralf Schumacher's Jordan and his left front wheel was torn off. On the inside Verstappen and Magnussen ran into one another, while on the outside most of the backmarkers took to the dirt and picked it up on their tires.
Villeneuve emerged with a big lead over Frentzen, Irvine, Panis, Fisichella, a very fast-starting Damon Hill and Johnny Herbert. Up in the control tower it was decided that a Safety Car was needed in order to slow everyone down and clean up the mess left by the accidents. Before the cars caught the safety car at the end of the first lap Panis blasted past Irvine for third place.
Down at the first corner some clown of a marshal had got it into his head to wave a red flag, signalling that the race had been stopped - which it hadn't been - and this confused everyone. The organizers were later fined $10,000 by the FIA for allowing this twerp to be employed as a flag-waver. Next year we can only hope he is selling hamburgers instead...
Ferrari were somewhat annoyed at the fact that the race had not been stopped.
"I don't understand why after the first lap incident the same procedure adopted in Brazil two weeks ago was not applied here," said Jean Todt neatly forgetting that the reason the race was stopped in Brazil was not because of the incidents at the first corner but rather because Barrichello's car had stalled on the grid and stranded on the racing line. The Safety Car was the right decision - whether Todt and Schumacher liked it or not.
The Safety Car would stay out for four laps which, in itself, was not very interesting, apart from the fact that it was having a nasty effect on the relative strategies of the front-runners. For those planning three stops with fast blasts between them it was very costly. For those planning fewer stops it was an unexpected bonus.
We would lose Frentzen before he could do anything, the German retiring with a clutch problem just a lap after the Safety Car pulled off. This put Panis into second and he began a series of fastest laps which pulled him right up onto Villeneuve's tail. After looking for a way through for a few laps Olivier settled back to shadow Jacques.
"Despite having to run with a bent front steering arm I was pretty much able to match Villeneuve's pace," he reported. "It was becoming apparent that Villeneuve was planning to refuel three times, as opposed to our two-stop strategy."
There is little doubt that if his car had kept going Panis would have won the Argentine Grand Prix. There can be no disputing that on this particular day Bridgestone had the advantage. It did not happen like that and at the end of the day Goodyear was able to put out a press release boasting a "clean sweep" of the top six finishing positions, but it will not have gone unnoticed in the F1 paddock that this was not really the true story, the Bridgestone tires having still given a good account of themselves. For weeks there has been talk of the top teams switching to Bridgestone. We will see in the days ahead if any of them have the balls to take on the Goodyear legal department over their contracts and try to get a tire advantage over the other top teams.
"I am now convinced that I will often be up there in the fight for victory this season," said Olivier.
Irvine had been planning a three-stop race but now Ferrari decided to switch strategies and Eddie was told to stay out for a couple more laps as Ferrari would try for a two-stop race. It was the right decision.
Villeneuve was committed and it soon became clear that the hot temperatures were too much for the tires and at the end of each stint Jacques was struggling.
"I think we chose the wrong tires," he said. "They were great in qualifying but we were not expecting the higher temperatures and the tires blistered. On low fuel on those tires Eddie was quicker than us."
As the race unfolded it became clear that Irvine would lead when Jacques stopped for the second time but Eddie lost the lead again when he stopped a second time himself and was not quite fast enough to be able to beat Jacques at the final stop. At the end he was right behind Jacques, which made for great TV viewing but was not really very significant.
"I could catch him in the slow corners at the end of the lap," explained Irvine later. "And at one stage I backed off to clean up the tires and then went at him and got very close. But on the straight he just disappeared. There was not much chance I was going to overtake him."
For the weakened Villeneuve it was a struggle. "It was a very tough race," he admitted. "Eddie gave me a really hard time. The only worry I had was that the gear lever was getting stuck and it was difficult to change gear and so I slowed down until we noticed that Eddie had a different tactic."
A strong second was still a good result for Irvine - who had been through lean times of late. He drove a strong and sensible race - without any of the lunacy we have sometimes seen in the past and he deserved the result.
Third - and only 11secs behind at the finish - was Ralf Schumacher, which on the face of it, was a great result for a young guy in only his third Grand Prix. He had driven very well, having been lucky not to damage his car in the startline business. It was a much-needed boost for Jordan as the team tries desperately to convince Peugeot to continue to supply engines for next year. So why was there not more rejoicing down at Jordan?
The two Jordans were running a one-stop race on Goodyear's hard compound tires. As others pitted so the Jordans rose through the order to be running second and third on lap 24. At the time Ralf was lapping 0.3secs faster than Giancarlo and it was clear that he was better placed to challenge Villeneuve, who was less than 10secs ahead and had one more stop to do. It was the right moment for the team to radio Fisichella and ask him to move aside. No such call was made and an impatient Schumacher thought he saw a gap and made a crazy maneuver, ending up smashing into Fisichella. He was lucky to be able to rejoin, while Fisichella was out. The incident cost Ralf only five seconds but these were significant. It meant that he ended up behind Irvine after the mid-race stops. But it was even more significant than that: when Villeneuve pitted for the second time - on lap 38 - Ralf was only 25secs behind him. If he had been five seconds closer Jacques would have come out behind the Jordan.
"We could have won the race," said a frustrated Peugeot man.
"If both of them had been out after the crash I would have killed the pair of them," said Jordan designer Gary Anderson, "but it's difficult to criticize. They should not have to be told. They should have the respect for each other."
Johnny Herbert brought his Sauber home in fourth place, which was a good showing. Johnny picked a curious two-stop strategy with two short stints followed by one long one. This worked fine and Johnny was able to challenge Irvine in the mid-race. Unfortunately his engine then began to cut out whenever he ran over a curb and so had to avoid them, which meant that he could not lap as fast as he might have done. In the closing laps Johnny was under heavy pressure from Hakkinen and Berger but he held on to the position.
Larini dropped right back early on but fought back only to lose half a minute when there was a problem with his refueling machinery. In the late stages of the race he spun off when Magnussen shut the door on him.
Hakkinen's hard tires made him choose a one-race strategy and, given the warmer temperatures and the fact that those with fewer stops gained most from the Safety Car, fifth was about as good as might have been expected, particularly as Mika had been 17th on the grid.
Having hard tires proved to be an advantage In the race and Benetton decided to run a one-stop race. The first corner incident delayed Berger badly and in the early laps he didn't make much progress - when the cars were carrying a lot of fuel - but he gradually fought back and was seventh by the time he pitted. He was able to move up to sixth by the end of the race.
Alesi adopted a similar strategy but lost time when he spun with Hill, though he climbed back up to fifth before his pit stop. He rejoined sixth but faded at the end of the race, was overtaken by Berger and had to settle for seventh place at the flag. Berger did, however, manage to set the fastest lap of the race.
Eighth was a pretty good effort from Mika Salo in the Tyrrell, although the Finn complained of a boring race as he had no-one to play with for most of the afternoon. Verstappen survived a first corner collision with Magnussen and ran as high as seventh before retiring with an engine problem on lap 44.
Ninth was Minardi's Trulli, who had the misfortune to be involved in the first corner accident and had to take to the grass - which meant that his tires were dirty. He adopted a one-stop strategy and, in spite of a few mistakes in the second part of the race, managed to make it to the flag. Ukyo Katayama did not. He had trouble with a sticking throttle which caused him to spin off after 36 laps.
There were no other finishers. Stewart had a miserable start with both cars being damaged in the first couple of laps. Barrichello had to pit after being assaulted by Schumacher (of the Ferrari variety). A lap later Magnussen came in after a brush with Larini. Both rejoined by both retired with engine-related problems.
Arrows failed to get a car to the finish despite some dramatic driving from both Hill and Diniz. Damon went from 13th onto the grid into sixth in the early laps while Pedro gained 11 places on the first lap. Afterwards both had to hold off the faster cars behind them - as they were carrying large fuel loads for a one-stop race. Hill collided with Alesi at one point and the pair spun. Damon retired in the end with engine trouble, while Diniz fell by the wayside with a gearbox failure.