Austrian GP 1997

SEPTEMBER 21, 1997

Austrian GP, 1997

Villeneuve wins - Trulli impressive

JACQUES VILLENEUVE took 10 points in the Austrian Grand Prix while Michael Schumacher made an uncharacteristic error and gave away the chance of a decent points score. He managed to salvage one point but Villeneuve is now only one point behind - and Williams is ahead in the Constructors' Championship. The star of the show, however, was F1 new boy Jarno Trulli who drove a brilliant race, displaying a maturity beyond his years. Teams will surely be fighting over young Jarno in the weeks ahead...

Austria is beautiful but, wandering through the hills of the Salzkammergut on the road from the glorious city of Salzburg through the lakeland to the spa town of Bad Ischl, you find yourself looking over your shoulder in case Julie Andrews arrives and starts to sing songs from The Sound of Music.

While the hills of the Salzkammergut are filled with the sound of music, over the mountains in Styria, the hills around the valley of the River Mur have traditionally been filled with the sound of racing engines - music to some.

There have been racing fans in these hills since the late 1950s when the enthusiastic local motor club decided to hold races on the military airfield at Zeltweg. They were an ambitious lot and hosted international races from the very beginning. The original circuit was laid out with marker cones and hay bales on the concrete runways of the air base and for the racers the track was bumpy, dull and not very popular. The locals were not perturbed and pushed on until they were granted a non-championship F1 race in 1961, won by Lotus driver Innes Ireland. Having achieved that the Austrians went after a World Championship race and, in 1964, the World Championship arrived. It was not a success but the rise of Jochen Rindt meant that Austria became much more interested in Grand Prix racing and so money was found to pay for a purpose-built circuit called the Osterreichring.

This was a magnificent high-speed circuit, sweeping, rising and falling in a natural arena on the mountainside overlooking the valley. It quickly emerged as one of the fastest of all the tracks with some impressive corners which quickly became part of F1 folklore: Hella Licht, the Bosch Kurve and the Texaco Schikane.

It became one of the favorite F1 races and as the race always took place in mid-August it became "The Holiday Grand Prix". It usually produced surprise winners: Vittorio Brambilla won here for March in 1975; John Watson scored Penske's only F1 win here in 1976 and in 1977 Alan Jones won for Shadow. The 1982 race was also extraordinary, providing Elio de Angelis with his first win. According to the Benetton press preview for this year's race Gerhard Berger won the 1985 event in an ATS-BMW. This, of course, never happened but as fantasy is normal in the Benetton PR department it seems curlish to suggest they do not know what they are talking about.

After the 1987 event, which had to be stopped twice because of startline accidents, Austria was dropped and F1 went off to Hungary instead.

The Austrian government would not pay to upgrade the track and so it slipped gradually into disrepair until private enterprise took over. Money was found from the telephone company A1 and the local commune of Spielberg must have coughed up some loot because as we arrived after 10 years away we discovered that we were going not to the Osterreichring at Zeltweg but rather to the A1-Ring at Spielberg. It was not the same place at all. The grand old corners were gone, replaced by the modern stop-go kind of track. One simply had to forget the old days and get on with business.

In fact many of the drivers were not as disappointed as they thought they were going to be although only one, Gerhard Berger, had raced at the old Osterreichring and, being the local boy, he had to be diplomatic.

"I think it is a good track for spectators," said Heinz-Harald Frentzen diplomatically. "It's a very safe track," said Jacques Villeneuve diplomatically. "The track is better than I expected," said Michael Schumacher diplomatically.

Some drivers said that they enjoyed bits of the new track but no-one said it was a good track except Eddie Irvine and he always seems to have a different opinion from everyone else no matter what the subject.

Mika Salo - bless him - said what he thought. "This used to be one of the best circuits in the world," he commented, "but the changes that they have introduced means that it is unrecognizable from the old Osterreichring. There are three decent corners but the rest are first and second gear which stops you getting into any kind of rhythm and the track is so narrow I don't think anybody will be able to overtake in the race."

The track was incredibly slippery throughout Thursday's familiarization testing and Friday's free practice and cars were regularly spinning off. In such circumstances it is hard to judge which tire company was doing the best job but that emerged on Saturday morning when Pedro Diniz set the fastest time.

"I think I picked the wrong Arrows driver," Eddie Jordan is reported to have muttered over lunch, mulling over his signing of Damon Hill.

The Bridgestones looked very good indeed. They were using a new construction front tire and this must have helped but the tires looked very competitive throughout, the Bridgestone runners able to use the softer tires, while most of the Goodyear men had to play safe and opt for the harder tires. Only four men decided to risk the Goodyear soft tires: Eddie Irvine, Johnny Herbert, Gianni Morbidelli and Jos Verstappen.

To some extent the tire performance in the race would depend on how hot it was on Sunday afternoon, but, with the weather in the Austrians mountains in mid-September tending to be quite cool, the Bridgestone men looked to be in with a very good chance of success.

In qualifying everyone knew that the best times would be set in the final minutes of the one-hour session and so no-one bothered to go out for the first 16 minutes.

"With the lap limitations you have," Jacques Villeneuve explained, "you do not want to go out, particularly if you know you are fighting for two-tenths of a second." It was certainly close, thanks to the short nature of the circuit and the lack of any good corner to sort the men from the boys. In the end there would be 14 drivers covered by a single second on the grid.

The serious runners did not actually appear until 40 minutes of the session had gone when Villeneuve went fastest and was then immediately bumped back by Mika Hakkinen's McLaren-Mercedes. Jan Magnussen showed that the Bridgestones must be taken seriously by setting the third quickest time and then we were into the final runs in a frantic last few minutes of the session with 20 cars on the track at the same time.

With a minute and 10 secs to go Villeneuve scraped a lap 0.094s faster than Hakkinen. Ten seconds later Frentzen grabbed third but he held it for only 20s before Jarno Trulli astounded everyone by taking third in the Prost spare car, which had been set up for Shinji Nakano. Ten of the drivers set their fastest laps in the last two minutes of the session. It was very exciting.

"We knew it was going to be tight," said Jacques. "There were six cars within a second this morning and we thought we would be fighting for fifth and sixth. The track was better as the temperature rose so we could get some heat in the tires so I could attack. I only barely got Mika. It is great to get pole and to do it at the end of the session like that when you really have to go for it. Doing two laps like that right on the edge can be almost as tiring as a race."

Frentzen was only 0.3s off the pole time but that meant he was down in fourth position. He reckoned he might have done better but for being held up in the weighing area and then having some electronic glitches as he was setting off on his final runs.

Hakkinen - who has still never had a pole position - was disappointed but at the same time delighted to be on the front row of the grid.

"The time difference was so little it is incredible," Mika said. "I am not too disappointed. I am on the front row. I think we were better here than we expected to be and that is good. The car is definitely improving during the weekend. Of course I wanted to be on pole. I think being on the front row here is really important because whoever gets the lead will have a huge advantage."

David Coulthard struggled a little more, after an accident in the morning session and was not happy with the balance of his car. He was 10th on the grid, despite being only seven tenths down on pole.

The big surprise was Trulli's performance because early in the session as everyone waited to see what he could do his Mugen Honda V10 let go smokily. He was lucky to be able to roll down the hill back to the pits.

He re-emerged from the pits with 15 minutes to go in the Prost T-car, which had been set up for Nakano. His first run put him 10th and then he really went for it in the final few moments of the session.

"I took some risks," he explained, "but I was prepared to take them because it would have been such a shame to have wasted the great work which the team has put in this weekend. The mechanics did a really great job switching the car to my settings in record time."

In the paddock everyone had to ask what might have happened if Jarno had been in his own car, rather than the spare. "The race car was better," he explained, "so I could have done better. I was very confident after the morning session and I knew I could possibly get pole." Third place, in the circumstances, was an astounding job.

Nakano was down in 16th on the grid although he was only 1.2s off the pole position time.

Fifth and sixth on the grid were the two Stewart-Fords, which was more evidence that the Bridgestone tires were a force to be reckoned with. The pair were split by two-tenths, Rubens Barrichello being just ahead of Jan Magnussen.

"This is a fantastic result," said team boss Jackie Stewart. "It is just what the team needed after a difficult couple of months and a real shot in the arm with the last four races to come. I believe it could have been even better as both boys were badly held up on what looked like being even quicker laps."

Seventh on the grid was another Bridgestone runner, Damon Hill, who reckoned that he would have been much higher up the grid if he had not had to navigate his way past a Jordan which he reckoned had cost him four-tenths of a second.

"I am disappointed about that," he admitted, "because the car felt much better than it had done until then. I didn't realize the full potential."

Diniz was back in 17th place and did not deserve to be. He had not one but two engine blow-ups in the course of the qualifying session. It was sufficient for Yamaha's Project Leader Takaaki Kimura to make a public apology to Pedro.

The Ferrari men were eighth and ninth with Irvine faster for the first time this season. It helped, of course, that Eddie was on the soft rubber while Michael was on hard tires.

Schumacher said that he would have been three or four places higher up on the grid if he had not been running out of fuel on his fastest lap. One can only wonder why he did not have enough...

The Jordans were not in the hunt in Austria with Ralf Schumacher 11th and Giancarlo Fisichella 14th. Neither driver had any real complaints but both felt that it was more a question of the car not suiting the track than there being any real problems. Fisichella complained of traffic without which, he felt, he would have done a lot better.

Twelfth and 13th on the grid was not a good result for Sauber, given that the Swiss team had opted for the softer tires. Herbert said he had made a mistake on his fastest lap while Morbidelli complained about gravel on the track.

If Jordan and Sauber were disappointed the morale at Benetton must have been dreadful with Alesi 15th on the grid and Berger 18th. The team said that the team had been unable to get any heat into the Goodyear tires. If the tires were not glowing, nor was the performance.

Down at the back was Ukyo Katayama in his Minardi, his team-mate Tarso Marques having been thrown out of the meeting after his car was found to be underweight. The team explained that the problem had been caused by Tarso losing weight and the team, not having checked this, had to add ballast to keep the car above the minimum weight limit. Frankly, it seems silly to have thrown Marques out of the race because the 6lbs would not have put him on pole position. But, for this race at least, a rule is a rule for the FIA. Usually these things are negotiable...

Last and least on the grid were the two Tyrrells, underpowered, unreliable and off the pace. On this occasion Jos Verstappen was faster than Mika Salo.

After qualifying there had been much talk about whether or not overtaking would be possible in the race and, as everyone would probably be going for one stop, this was an important question. "If you go off the line," Mika Hakkinen said, "you will not recover for half a lap because everything sticks to the tire and you lose the grip. It is easy to make mistakes on this track."

ON SUNDAY the warm-up saw Hakkinen and Trulli the men to beat although it seemed that not everyone was showing their hands as the two Williams-Renaults were down in 12th and 13th places.

There were no dramas until the end of the parade lap when Austrian fans groaned as Gerhard Berger came into the pits as the grid was forming up. "I had a signal on the dashboard and I came in for a check. The team told me to go and so I started from the pitlane." Gerhard accelerated away at the tail of the field and immediately spun off as his tires were not warm enough. It was not a great start to his home event.

Jacques Villeneuve should have gotten away well. He was in the shade of the grandstand which, in theory, would mean that none of the oils in the road would be brought out by the sun, giving the men on the left side of the grid a disadvantage. In fact he made a poor start.

"It was a very average start," admitted Jacques later. "I let the clutch go too quickly and I got a lot of wheelspin so I lifted the throttle and then accelerated again. Hakkinen got by me and Trulli was alongside me in the braking area."

Jarno went ahead and Jacques was left to keep the two Stewarts behind him. It was not easy. "The tires seemed to take a bit more time to heat up than the Bridgestones," Jacques said, "and so Barrichello got past me." This happened in the Gosser Kurve (the old Bosch Kurve) and for the rest of that first lap Jacques struggled to keep Magnussen behind as he slid about. As the temperatures came up, however, Jacques was ale to push a little harder and get away from Magnussen.

At the end of the first lap the timesheets flashed up the name Trulli. Hakkinen had suddenly slowed as he went into the shadow of the grandstand and was pulling up on the grass opposite the pits with an engine problem.

In the course of the first nine laps Trulli drove like a veteran, setting nine consecutive fastest laps. It was a textbook example for every racing driver. One should go quicker as the fuel load lightens. Some foolish people in the paddock say that Trulli has been a disappointment this year with Prost but one must remember that here is a man in only his 14th Grand Prix, who has done only one and a half seasons in single-seater racers, and he was driving away from the best racing drivers in the world.

By lap 24 Jarno had built a gap of 10.8s and looked to have everything under control. He did. "The gap over second place got bigger with every lap and whenever I saw from my pitboard that I had only pulled a tenth of a second clear, I gave it a bit more the following lap. Psychologically, I wanted the others to see that there was more to come if I wanted."

On lap 24 Villeneuve finally managed to overtake a sliding Barrichello going into the Gosser Kurve, after pressuring the Stewart driver for 15 laps. Jacques immediately began to pull away, setting four fastest laps as he cut back Trulli's lead. In fact Jarno had a problem.

"I started to sense that there was a problem with the engine," he reported. "That changed the situation and from then on it was a case of trying to hold on." When he pitted on lap 37 Trulli's lead had been cut to less than four seconds.

Jacques was pushing so hard when Trulli went into the pits that he put a wheel on to the dirt at the first corner and gave himself a worrying moment. In fact it was not Jacques's fast laps which gave him the advantage, nor was it the Williams pitwork, for the Prost team was actually quicker. The timesheets showed very clearly that Jarno had lost the advantage on his IN lap, which was nearly two seconds slower than that of Villeneuve when he pitted on lap 40. Jarno was faster in the pitlane and their OUT laps were identical.

Jacques came out just ahead of Trulli but Jarno had to cope with Fisichella - still out with a low fuel-load and trying to make up time. Giancarlo managed to overtake the heavier Prost. The Jordan then pitted but by then Villeneuve was nearly six seconds ahead.

He would never be headed. Trulli dropped back into the clutches of Coulthard but it is unlikely that David would have been able to pass him. In the end he did not need to because on lap 59 Trulli's Mugen Honda engine blew, spraying oil all over Coulthard. Trulli's Prost team-mate Shinji Nakano has blown up moments before while running 14th. He too had felt that all was not well with the engine.

Jacques reeled off the remaining laps with plenty in hand. "When I saw David pushing I knew I could go into the 1m11s if I needed to and could control him so I followed Gerhard. He has always been a difficult guy to lap, but after he was shown the blue flag [which informs a driver that he is about to be lapped] he lifted off and, in fact, I almost hit him because I did not expect him to do it on the straight. I started to push, basing my laps on those of David."

Coulthard knew it and settled for second place. "I was pretty sure that he would be able to respond when I caught him up," David reported. "On a track like this you have to be a lot quicker to be able to get ahead. At the end I was more concerned about Heinz-Harald behind me because I thought Jacques was taking it easy and Heinz-Harald was looking very strong."

Frentzen had made a poor start and both Stewarts had blasted past him at the start. He was then stuck behind Magnussen for the first part of the race. When the Stewarts pitted Heinz-Harald moved up to third but was held up by Berger - who was a lap down - and was then passed under a yellow flag by Michael Schumacher. All this helped David Coulthard overtake him during the mid-race stops.

Schumacher's overtaking maneuver would ruin his race because the stewards, quite rightly, felt he should be penalized for overtaking under a yellow flag, which prohibites such maneuvers due to a dangerous situation, and he was given a 10-second stop-go penalty.

"I never saw it," Michael said later. "The problem was that I was following two cars and fighting really hard. I think the flags should be made more visible and waved on both sides of the track."

In fact they were, as Michael's in-car camera proved conclusively after the event. Michael pitted after leading for a couple of laps and after all the stops were over was running third behind Villeneuve and Trulli. He was called in for his penalty on lap 50, coming in at the same time as Barrichello pitted for the second time. Rubens emerged slightly ahead. Michael pressured Rubens for the next 14 laps and finally the Brazilian cracked, sliding off into the gravel at the Rindt Kurve and demolishing his front wings. He was out.

Schumacher went after Hill who had moved up to sixth place when Trulli retired. Michael made swift work of his rival at the Remus Kurve on lap 70 and so managed to salvage a point. It was something but it may be that when the season is done Michael will have to reflect that passing Frentzen under yellow flags in Austria cost him second or third place in the race and a useful handful of World Championship points.

Eddie Irvine's race was pretty disastrous as well. He made a poor start to run 10th and then began to run into tire troubles because of his choice of soft Goodyears. He slipped back to 15th and never made a pit stop because he and Jean Alesi collided on lap 38 at the Remus Kurve. Alesi's car was launched over the wheel of the Ferrari and landed heavily on the road, breaking the suspension. Irvine wobbled round to the pits and retired there.

Who was at fault? No-one really. Neither driver is known for his willingness to give way in such situations and so an irresistible force hit an immovable object which I suppose you would call a racing incident.

Berger's day was simply dreadful. After his pre-race problem and his first lap antic, Gerhard fluttered about with the small fry, passing Salo and then Verstappen and hounding Katayama. He pitted on lap 32 but did not change tires. The logic of this was, apparently, that changing tires was not necessary as the new tires took so long to heat up that it was considered better to stay with the first set - despite the fact that Gerhard had driven them over a sandtrap at the start. With or without a tire change the pit stop was a cock-up as the fuel nozzle did not connect first time and Gerhard was three or four seconds slower than his rivals. At the end of the race his tires were so shot to pieces that he went off at the last corner. He came back on, showering stones and managed to finish in 10th place. All in all, it had been a disastrous weekend for the Benetton team - from the race preview all the way to the chequered flag...

Jordan finished fourth and fifth which was an amazing result given the fact that the cars had started 11th and 14th on the grid. It was nonetheless a dull success, gained largely thanks to the retirements of others.

Damon Hill finished seventh in the Arrows, which was a rather dull result. "The car was fantastic today," Damon said, "it was really good through the corners but hopeless on acceleration - we just don't have enough horsepower."

Pedro Diniz was more subtle - he is staying with the team next year after all - and complained of being held up in traffic. He retired with a shock absorber failure while running in 13th position.

Sauber's race was terminally boring and ended up with Herbert eighth and Morbidelli ninth. They started 12th and 13th and five cars ahead of them retired. The mathematics speaks for itself.

Katayama dragged his Minardi home in 11th place with nothing much to say about the race, while Tyrrell's Jos Verstappen was the last running car in 12th position. He pitted twice because of tire problems caused by excessive oversteer and never figured. Mika Salo did little better and retired with a gear selection problem.

Neither Stewart made it to the finish but the team had blown its chances by adopting a two-stop strategy which meant that after looking very good in the early part of the race both Barrichello and Magnussen faded out of contention. Barrichello might have finished seventh if he had not gone off into a gravel trap, under pressure from Michael Schumacher, while Jan Magnussen would have been a couple places behind if his engine had not blown up.

And so the World Championship has closed up again and as we head off to Schumi's home circuit there is everything to play for...

Jacques Villeneuve Williams-Renault  71 1h27m35.999  1m10.304 
10 David Coulthard McLaren-Mercedes  71 2.909  1m11.076 10 
Heinz-Harald Frentzen Williams-Renault  71 3.962  1m10.670 
12 Giancarlo Fisichella Jordan-Peugeot  71 12.127  1m11.299 14 
11 Ralf Schumacher Jordan-Peugeot  71 31.859  1m11.186 11 
Michael Schumacher Ferrari  71 33.411  1m11.056 
Damon Hill Arrows-Yamaha  71 37.207  1m11.025 
16 Johnny Herbert Sauber-Petronas  71 49.057  1m11.210 12 
17 Nicola Larini Sauber-Petronas  71 1m06.455  1m11.261 13 
10 Gerhard Berger Benetton-Renault  70 1 Lap  1m11.620 18 
11 20 Ukyo Katayama Minardi-Hart  69 2 Laps  1m12.036 19 
12 18 Jos Verstappen Tyrrell-Ford  69 2 Laps  1m12.230 20 
Pedro Diniz Arrows-Yamaha  67 Suspension 1m11.615 17 
22 Rubens Barrichello Stewart-Ford  64 Spin 1m10.700 
23 Jan Magnussen Stewart-Ford  58 Engine 1m10.893 
14 Olivier Panis Prost-Mugen Honda  58 Engine 1m10.511 
15 Shinji Nakano Prost-Mugen Honda  57 Engine 1m11.596 16 
19 Mika Salo Tyrrell-Ford  48 Gearbox 1m14.246 22 
Eddie Irvine Ferrari  38 Accident 1m11.051 
Jean Alesi Benetton-Renault  37 Accident 1m11.382 15 
Mika Hakkinen McLaren-Mercedes  Engine 1m10.398 
nq 21 Jarno Trulli Minardi-Hart   Disqualified 1m12.304 21