Australian GP 1997

MARCH 9, 1997

Australian GP, 1997

Melbourne goes West

LUCK and the Irish helped McLaren win its first victory in 50 Grands Prix. Race favorite Jacques Villeneuve was taken out at the first corner by Eddie Irvine and while Heinz-Harald Frentzen looked to have the race in his pocket brake problems shifted the advantage to McLaren. The team's one-stop strategy on soft tires worked well. While qualifying may have proved that the McLaren is a lot slower than the Williams, the race proved that the team is once again a force to be reckoned with. This was a clever victory - and a lot less lucky than it appeared.

The city of Melbourne had perked up this year, after sitting on the fence a little bit last year when F1 came to visit for the first time. This year you could not go anywhere without evidence of the race. Trams were painted up to advertise the event, every shop seemed to have adopted a GP theme, the local papers were full of Grand Prix stories. Melbourne was doing it right. Sure, there were a few protesters still complaining about the race and a few malevolent trade unionists who felt that screwing up the city's plans during the Grand Prix weekend was a good move, but in general Melbourne was making the most of the race - and the F1 folk were making the most of Melbourne.

Racing in Albert Park kicks the season off with a certain amount of uncertainty. The surface in the parkland roads is smooth and dusty and so, for the first day or so, it is difficult to know much about your car and your tires. As more rubber goes down things become clearer but it is still a bit of a scramble, particularly as F1 now has to cope with a tire variable as well.

A lot has been written about the F1 tire war but the reality of it all came home to roost in qualifying on Saturday. Teams had spent Friday pottering around trying the different compounds available and seeing how they worked in different temperatures. At midday on Saturday they had to choose and then they were stuck with the tires for qualifying and for the race. Some of it, of course, would be down to luck, but there was plenty of scope for calculation and strategy as well. It was not just a question of having two tire companies, Goodyear and Bridgestone. Each of these had two compounds of tire and the teams did not want the opposition to know which cars would be running which tires. The choice of compounds could have a dramatic effect on race performance. On a high-wear circuit a soft compound might be good for qualifying but would not last the distance in racing trim. On a low-wear track like Melbourne logic might suggest that everyone should use soft compounds but there would always be those teams who would want to adopt the strategy of deliberately choosing a different tire to the front-runners and relied on luck making it a sensible choice.

Much of it would be down to luck anyway because predicting the weather at most F1 races is impossible. Imagine trying to decide what the weather will be 24 hours ahead at Spa, where weather traditionally changes by the minute...

The time necessary to do the tire work, and the continuing restrictions placed on the number of laps allowed, means that set-up work on the cars has suffered. This means that a good engineer/driver combination has the advantage - and with everyone scrabbling about that could become a very big advantage. In some respects set-up work is less important than it once was as these days teams are transmitting all the telemetry information back to their home bases where engineers work through the night running cars on four post rigs to simulate the race track, working through different set-ups to establish optimum set-ups. Well, that's the theory. The problem is that a driver still has to drive the car and what each driver wants from a car is very different.

On Friday Michael Schumacher was fastest in warm sunny conditions with Heinz-Harald Frentzen second for Williams and Jean Alesi third for Benetton. Jacques Villeneuve was a sedate fourth and then came the impressive young Ralf Schumacher who was anything but sedate: in fact most of the time he looked like an accident about to happen.

The only session which really matters is the hour of qualifying and in Melbourne it was a pretty scrappy one although Jacques Villeneuve shone from the start of the session. It was probably wise in the circumstances to get some laps in the bank because at a track like Melbourne it is dangerous to wait for the final minutes of a session because of the likelihood of accidents as drivers make mistakes pushing too hard on circuits they do not know well. That is good tactical engineering and Jacques had it. He did two runs early on - one to warm up, one to nail a good time. And so after 20-odd minutes Jacques was on pole with a lap of 1m29.369s, 2.1secs ahead of David Coulthard's McLaren. Frentzen had a go on his first run but decided to abort the lap when he stumbled over a slower car. He tried again but the tires were not up to matching Villeneuve. Frentzen did not have a second run for another 15 minutes and perhaps he should have done.

Instead he had a very scrappy session and when he tried a fast lap in mid-session he was not quicker. This confused him. In the final minutes of the session, as everyone came out for the traditional last-minute shoot-out, the pressure was on Heinz-Harald. He had to deliver, and then there was an incident and a red flag, which signalled a halt in proceedings. In the end Heinz-Harald managed to scramble a time in the dying moments of the session. He was still 1.7secs behind Villeneuve - a massive margin in modern F1 - but he was on the front row of the grid, which was all he really needed. There were suspicions that perhaps he was using a harder tire compound than Jacques but investigation revealed that this was not the case. The two were using the same soft tires. This, of course, did not reflect well on Frentzen but it is unlikely that there will be such a huge gap in the races ahead - unless it gets to Heinz-Harald's confidence.

The fact that Frentzen did not have a good session should not obscure the fact that Villeneuve had done remarkably well. It was a very good lap time - three full seconds under his pole lap in Albert Park last year. One felt that he could have gone quicker on the final run but for whatever reason he did not.

"The car was great," he said, "very driveable on the edge. You can get sideways and control it. It is difficult this year to know which tires to use, and we have to work on that instead of working on the set-up. The car doesn't feel great but apparently it is."

Frentzen's performance was disappointing but one must remember that Villeneuve is a big Melbourne fan and that when he started out in the Williams last year he struggled badly in a couple of races before finding his feet.

"I wasn't very happy with my session," said Heinz-Harald. "The gap could have been smaller but it was a very good time from Jacques. I was surprised. I think it will be interesting to see what happens tomorrow."

Third on the grid was Michael Schumacher and, with Eddie Irvine fifth, the Ferraris looked moderately competitive - albeit 2.1secs slower than Villeneuve's pole lap. Two point one seconds is a heap of time in F1 and with the talent of Michael Schumacher handicapped to such an extent one has to wonder if there is any hope of a real contest this year.

The Ferrari drivers chose to use the harder of the two Goodyear compounds - while most of the other front-runners went for the softer choice. The Ferrari was certainly using its tires more than its rivals but the choice of harder tires seemed to be a purely tactical one: if everyone else was on soft rubber, conditions might conspire to give Ferrari a win.

"I expected the Williams to be fast," said Michael, "but not two seconds a lap. That means we have to work very hard. We know we have a program which will bring us forward." What he left unsaid was the fact that even enormous progress would only get Ferrari to where Williams is now - and Frank and his boys will be developing as well.

Irvine's fifth place was better than he had expected as he had struggled for much of the session.

The two Ferraris were split by David Coulthard's McLaren and with Mika Hakkinen in sixth position on the grid it was clear that the Woking team has succeeded in maintaining the momentum from the end of last year. Having said that, the team is still way off the Williams pace which does not reflect any better than Ferrari's performance in relation to Williams. We will have to see whether or not the Melbourne performance of the cars continues in the races ahead but that was the case last year.

While most of the Williams challengers were forced to admit that they were disappointed with their performance, there was a great deal of optimism down in the Sauber pit. Johnny Herbert was seventh on the grid in his Petronas (nee Ferrari)-engined C16 and that had been achieved despite the fact that Johnny's last run was interrupted by the red flag halting proceedings, which had been caused by the second Sauber of Nicola Larini being pushed into the wall by Gerhard Berger's Benetton.

Larini had matched Johnny's times in the morning session and was thus disappointed to be a second slower in the afternoon because it meant he would have to start in 13th position on the grid. "A very frustrating day," he said.

If there was optimism at Sauber the same could not be said of the Benetton garage where smiles were thin on the ground, Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger having qualified a disastrous eighth and tenth on the grid, which left everyone confused. It was clearly a problem of grip related to temperature. Things were not helped by the fact that Berger then ran into Larini's Sauber. "He tried to overtake me on the outside while I was expecting him to come down the inside," explained Gerhard.

Given the fact that the team is using Renault engines, which are the equal of those used by Williams, the performance would probably be best described as pathetic.

Ninth on the grid was the first of the Bridgestone tire runners, Olivier Panis in his Prost Mugen Honda. Olivier had been flying on Friday morning but in the afternoon he went off into a gravel trap as a result of a brake problem. This put the program back and the team never seemed to catch up, so instead of fighting it out for pole position Panis had to make do with the fifth row of the grid. "The race promises to be a different matter," said Panis. "My Bridgestones are very consistent and that is likely to be an important factor tomorrow."

Olivier's team mate, F1 new boy Shinji Nakano, did a competent job to qualify 16th.

Given the fact that Bridgestone went to Melbourne without any data of the track the result was impressive because when the circus starts to visit tracks where Bridgestones have been tested we are going to see a much more impressive effort.

The performance of the Stewart-Ford - also using Bridgestone tires - was pretty impressive given that the outfit is new and the test program has not been as easy as had been hoped. Rubens Barrichello qualified 11th while Jan Magnussen had to make do with 19th on the grid because of a water leak during qualifying.

"We said it would be a fantastic result if we qualified between 10th and 15th on the grid," said Paul Stewart, "and by qualifying 11th we've achieved that. The result is a wonderful reward for everything we've been through in the last year."

The big disappointment in qualifying was the performance of the two Jordan-Peugeots of Ralf Schumacher and Giancarlo Fisichella, which would line up 12th and 14th on the grid. Both drivers had been very fast in free practice but for some reason the car lost grip as the temperature rose.

"I really don't understand what was happening out there," said Ralf. "The car felt completely different and I just could not make a faster time." Fisichella agreed. "It was like driving on oil!" he said.

The faster of the Minardis was 15th, driven by Ukyo Katayama while young Jarno Trulli impressed a lot of people with his 17th place first time out after very little testing. It will not be long before he is beating Ukyo.

Mika Salo and Jos Verstappen were disappointed to be 19th and 21st in their Tyrrells but no-one else was very surprised as the team is down-on-power, particularly in qualifying. In the race it looked like they would be stronger.

Down in the Arrows pit there was not much talk about winning races this year - as there had been a few weeks earlier when the A18 was first launched. Damon Hill and Pedro Diniz had a string of mechanical troubles and even when the car was running well it was not running quickly. Things were so bad in fact that for a time it looked like Damon was not even going to qualify. He did it on his very last lap.

"I thought for a moment that I was going to have a Saturday night out in Melbourne," he admitted. "We had so many problems with the race car that I went to the spare and it wasn't set up right. I don't think qualifying 20th is representative of our true pace. We haven't done too well in testing and when we get some running I think we can do better."

Pedro Diniz did not make the 107% cut but Tom Walkinshaw being as he is he tried to convince the stewards that Pedro be allowed to race. The rules state that in "exceptional circumstances accepted as such by the stewards" a driver should be allowed to race despite not qualifying within the 107% limit.

Exceptional circumstances? The cynical folk reckoned that the exceptional circumstances were that Pedro Diniz is paying a vast sum of money to drive for the team. In fact, Tom argued that Pedro had lapped much faster in the morning session and that he had not been able to set a time because of mechanical trouble and that he would be quick enough not to get in the way of the fast boys. The stewards in their infinite wisdom accepted this logic. The cynics - not to be defeated - said that it was a pointless decision because the reliability of the Arrows was such that it would be out of the race before it was lapped.

"We can't make excuses for the problems," said Tom. "Both drivers need more running in the car and so testing will be top priority between now and when we go to the next two races in South America."

In the Lola pit they were glum, although no-one had really expected the new team to qualify, as the cars had barely been shaken-down before being flown out to Australia. The team had worked around the clock several times in the week before the race and there was no reward at the end of it all, Vincenzo Sospiri being 11.6secs off pole and Ricardo Rosset being 1.1secs behind him.

It was an object lesson for anyone who thinks you can wander into F1 with dreams of glory. Even with facilities and people such as they have at Lola, making it in F1 is playing with the big guys.

And even if Williams isn't the biggest in terms of budget or personnel, it is still the biggest in terms of performance.

IT was the same story in the Sunday morning warm-up with Villeneuve and Frentzen 1-2 once again. The big news was Johnny Herbert as third fastest in the Sauber-Petronas, although Olivier Panis's fourth fastest time was also impressive.

It was then down to deciding strategies while the organizers put on a Busby Berkeley musical on the main straight, involving large numbers of local schoolgirls. This kept the F1 circus suitably amused as one can imagine. Eventually everyone lined up on the grid and we got ready for the start of the 1997 season.

You have to feel a little sorry for Damon Hill. The World Champion had a humiliating time in qualifying and that turned out to have been a pointless exercise as the Arrows stopped on the circuit on the parade lap, the fly-by-wire throttle having failed. The Arrows disaster continued on the first lap when Diniz ran into the back of Jos Verstappen's Tyrrell and had to pit to replace a broken nose section and a bent front track rod. He lost two laps.

You didn't have to feel at all sorry for Eddie Irvine who wiped himself out on the run down to the first corner. The sad thing was that, in doing so, the impetuous British driver took out pole position man Jacques Villeneuve and Johnny Herbert, who had made a quite brilliant start in his Sauber Petronas and was about to take second place behind Frentzen. There was no doubt from the aerial TV cameras that Irvine was to blame.

It was such a shame because Irvine had made a terrific start. He sliced across top the inside of the road and went past Coulthard, teetering on the edge of the tarmac and was alongside Villeneuve at they came into the first corner.

Most of the cars were going for one-stop races and so the cars were heavy with fuel. The brakes and the tires were not yet up to full temperature. It is a time for caution and for good judgment. Irvine showed a talent for neither, misjudging the gap and getting on to the dirty and dusty track. He braked hard - very hard - but his momentum carried him into Villeneuve and this pushed the Williams into the path of Herbert.

"I had made a very very good start," said Johnny. "I was alongside Jacques and I was going to get out of the corner ahead of him. Then I saw that Jacques was not turning. Eddie had braked so late that he was pushing Jacques. We had a thing later with the FIA. Eddie said he was on the inside and that it was his line and he wasn't going too fast. Jacques and I didn't agree."

Eddie's explanation was as follows: "Villeneuve moved over on me. He obviously had not seen me. The impact punctured my left front tire. It was simply a typical racing accident." Typical of Eddie maybe...

The man who gained most from the mayhem was Coulthard. "I have Eddie to thank for causing a bit of confusion," he said afterwards. Irvine slide across the road, taking Villeneuve and Herbert with him, cleared the track for Coulthard and David followed Frentzen. Schumacher (of the M variety) tucked in behind ahead of Hakkinen, Alesi, Panis, Berger and Larini. Behind them were the two Jordans, Schumacher (of the R variety) ahead of Fisichella and Barrichello's Stewart.

Now it was down to the strategies and here we had some interest because Williams had adopted a two-stop one. After the race this seemed to have been an odd choice but there was a reason for it: the cars did not have enough brakes. The team uses British AP brake calipers rather than the more common French Brembo units. The AP units are smaller and neater but cannot fit 30mm brake pads. In an effort to stop the brake pads wearing out during the race the Williams engineers decided that they had to stop twice for re-fuelling. This meant that on the track the cars would be a lot lighter for most of the race, which in theory would use less brakes. In fact it was not sufficient and from early on in the race Frentzen was struggling with brakes. In those early laps, however, Heinz-Harald did not have to worry about such problems. The car was light and he had an empty road ahead and no-one challenging. The gap went out rapidly: 2.7secs on the first lap; 3.7s on the second; 5.3s on the third; 7.2s on the fourth and so on. By lap 12, however, the progress stopped and for the next six laps the gap stayed at 17-18s. Heinz-Harald pitted on lap 18 and rejoined third. In the laps that followed he was able to close up on Coulthard and Schumacher but it was not as dramatic as one might have expected. Heinz lost time in traffic, struggling with the brakes and looking rather tentative on occasion. Coulthard and Schumacher pitted in mid-race and so Frentzen moved ahead again and ran very quickly for a few laps before he began to fade again. On lap 40 he came in for his second stop. The gap to Coulthard was only 23secs and with the time in the pitlane being around 22-24secs it was touch and go whether he would emerge ahead. In fact it was an academic question because his right rear tire caused problems and Heinz-Harald sat there for an extra six seconds by which time Coulthard and Schumacher were ahead.

It was all over. Heinz-Harald might be able to catch up but in modern F1 overtaking is so difficult that even a car with a two-second advantage every lap struggles to get by a slower car.

Frentzen closed up on Coulthard and Schumacher who were by then running together but with three laps to go the brake pads had worn out. The disc exploded as the German braked at the first corner and he was pitched into the sand. Game over.

Heinz-Harald trudged in, shrugged and muttered "Brakes".

And so McLaren won its first race in 50 Grands Prix, the first since the days of Ayrton Senna and Mercedes-Benz's first modern F1 triumph. You can argue that it was not won on speed but who cares? A win is a win and it doesn't matter how you get it.

McLaren has worked remarkably hard to return to competitiveness and for a team which was used to winning it was a particularly frustrating period which brought plenty of criticism (notably from this reporter). To win you must be there at the finish and the two McLarens were.

"The win was so much better than my first one with Williams," said Coulthard. "On the slowing down I did something I have never done in a racing car. I cried. There was so much pressure on the team. It was a mixture of relief, disbelief, everything. If you looked at the qualifying times you wouldn't have said we had a chance to win, but in racing anything can happen and that gives me a big confidence boost for the rest of the season.

"I think it is fair to assume that if the two Williamses had been out in front they would have pulled away and you would have been looking at coming third. My goal was trying to get onto the podium. I didn't really think I was going to win the race."

Mika Hakkinen finished third and said that he had never felt very confident with the handling of his car.

"I don't think it could have been better than this," he said. "All the hard work is starting to pay off now."

After the race Schumacher reckoned that the Ferrari had been a faster car than the McLaren and he was probably right. When he rejoined after the pit stops he quickly made up the gap and when he dropped time behind backmarkers it was not long before he was on Coulthard's tail again but to overtake is another story.

"How do you overtake?" he asked after the race. "If you are 50 meters behind, you can do something like Eddie tried, but look how that finished up!"

Michael was called into the pits late in the race for a quick splash-and-dash for fuel, which suggested that Ferrari had miscalculated. Certainly the engineers were busy doing calculations for some laps before Michael was called in and thus lost his second place to Frentzen until Heinz-Harald went off and Michael was back behind Coulthard again.

Michael was not pleased with the extra stop but reckoned that six points was a good start, particularly given that Jacques Villeneuve failed to score. "It opens up the championship a little bit," he said.

Ferrari explained the extra pit stop saying that there had been a malfunction in the refueling system. This seems the most likely explanation. Serious race teams do not make mistakes with fuel calculations.

One wonders what on earth was going on with Benetton. At half distance Jean Alesi simply forgot to pit and duly ran out of fuel in his Benetton. Afterwards the team said there was a radio failure. This may be so but one has to ask why Jean was not looking at his pitboard which showed him an IN arrow for at least three laps before the Benetton ran out of fuel.

"I didn't realize it was time for me to come into the pits for refueling. It was a terrible feeling to waste the race for such a silly reason."

Flavio Briatore said that the team could be satisfied with the result - Berger trolled around to finish fourth - but one imagines that this is not what he said to Alesi when the Frenchman returned to the pits. If it was, one must conclude that Briatore is in the wrong business...

Panis finished fifth in the Prost-Mugen Honda and was pretty happy with the result. He had set the sixth fastest lap of the race and had run reliably and quickly. It was, he reckoned, a foundation on which to build in the months ahead. Shinji Nakano looked a bit ragged - and had one very hairy moment when he went off over a sandtrap - but he made it to the finish in seventh place - which is a good result for an F1 new boy.

Sauber's disappointment at losing Herbert at the first corner was somewhat offset by Nicola Larini coming home in sixth place to score a point for the team on his debut with the Petronas V10 engine.

"We are very encouraged that our engine and chassis package proved so strong and reliable," said Peter Sauber.

Jarno Trulli made it home on his F1 debut as well, bringing the Minardi into ninth place, three laps down because of engine problems. It was a good performance given that Jarno had done very little testing before the season began. Ukyo Katayama failed to finish because of a fuel system failure.

Stewart, Tyrrell and Jordan all failed to get a car home. Both Jordans were out in the first few laps with Ralf Schumacher falling victim to a transmission failure on the second lap, while Fisichella ended up in a sandtrap after an highly ill-considered move on Rubens Barrichello on lap 15.

Rubens ran as high as eighth and enjoyed a good battle with Larini's Sauber but was sidelined after 50 laps with an oil pressure problem, while Jan Magnussen ran ninth but had to retire because the rear suspension of the car was flexing to such an extent that the Dane decided that it would not be intelligent to continue.

Jos Verstappen went off at high speed on lap three when he put a wheel in the dust at high speed and had a dramatic ride across a sandtrap, the car being launched worryingly high into the air by the gravel. Luckily it landed upright and slowed to a halt before it hit the fence. Mika Salo ran around in the midfield but retired with engine trouble on his 43rd lap.

10 David Coulthard McLaren-Mercedes  58 1h30m28.718  1m31.531 
Michael Schumacher Ferrari  58 20.046  1m31.472 
Mika Hakkinen McLaren-Mercedes  58 22.177  1m31.971 
Gerhard Berger Benetton-Renault  58 22.841  1m32.870 10 
14 Olivier Panis Prost-Mugen Honda  58 1m00.308  1m32.842 
17 Nicola Larini Sauber-Petronas  58 1m36.040  1m33.327 13 
15 Shinji Nakano Prost-Mugen Honda  56 2 Laps  1m33.989 16 
Heinz-Harald Frentzen Williams-Renault  55 3 Laps  1m31.123 
21 Jarno Trulli Minardi-Hart  55 3 Laps  1m34.120 17 
10 Pedro Diniz Arrows-Yamaha  54 4 Laps  1m35.972 22 
22 Rubens Barrichello Stewart-Ford  49 Engine 1m33.075 11 
19 Mika Salo Tyrrell-Ford  42 Engine 1m34.229 18 
23 Jan Magnussen Stewart-Ford  36 Suspension 1m34.623 19 
Jean Alesi Benetton-Renault  34 Fuel 1m32.593 
20 Ukyo Katayama Minardi-Hart  32 Electrical 1m33.798 15 
12 Giancarlo Fisichella Jordan-Peugeot  14 Spin 1m33.552 14 
18 Jos Verstappen Tyrrell-Ford  Spin 1m34.943 21 
11 Ralf Schumacher Jordan-Peugeot  Gearbox 1m33.130 12 
Eddie Irvine Ferrari  Accident 1m31.881 
Jacques Villeneuve Williams-Renault  Accident 1m29.369 
16 Johnny Herbert Sauber-Petronas  Accident 1m32.287 
Damon Hill Arrows-Yamaha  Throttle 1m34.806 20 
nq 25 Vincenzo Sospiri Lola-Ford    1m40.972 23 
nq 24 Ricardo Rosset Lola-Ford    1m42.086 24