Canadian GP 1997

JUNE 15, 1997

Canadian GP, 1997

Michael's lucky day

MICHAEL SCHUMACHER won a dramatic Canadian Grand Prix when the race was stopped following a nasty accident for Olivier Panis, which left the Frenchman with broken legs. For Schumacher it was the perfect result because his championship rival Jacques Villeneuve had dropped the ball and crashed on the second lap. The biggest threat to Schumacher came on this occasion from David Coulthard's McLaren - which would have won if David had not stalled the car because of a clutch problem just a few moments before Olivier crashed.

Almost everyone in Formula 1 likes Montreal. The city is so cosmopolitan that everyone has the chance to feel a little bit at home. In part this is because Montreal was once a great port with all the influences that this brings. In part it is also because the Quebecois politicians have been working hard to make the city a world class cosmopolitan kind of place.

"The Quebec politicians have been running the Federal government for the last 20 years," the cab driver ranted on the way into town from the airport. "They have been building up Montreal and not doing anything with Toronto and Ottawa. Without them Montreal would have been a dead town years ago."

The population is made up of a mish-mash of refugees - in the finest New World traditions - but this has not stopped the demands for Quebecois independence and a fairly heavy-handed approach to stopping English taking over as the dominant language. They even have something threateningly called the Commissariat aux Langues Officielles (Commission for Official Languages) which is some kind of language police.

In the days before the Grand Prix there was an election in Canada - which highlighted the split between the Quebecois and the rest of the country - but it seemed that Jacques Villeneuve was considered to be almost as important as the new government.

Perhaps he is: sporting heroes sometimes transcend their position and become national figures. Whatever the case, the whole of Canada seemed to be interested in Jacques's adventures in F1. Last year he was beaten by Damon Hill but this year - as the senior Williams driver - he was the hot tip for success.

But for whatever reason Villeneuve looked slightly rattled all weekend. His well-defined pre-race routines had been disrupted by the trip to the FIA in Paris; he was in his home country and under pressure from the local media; there were family members and friends to look after. The summons to the FIA was to reprimand him for using vulgar language in criticising rules changes for 1998.

There were also bigger problems. The nature of the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve did not suit Jacques. The Williams-Renault FW19 is a great car but the Montreal track does not reward this. It is a place where aerodynamic efficiency is not important. Drivers have to accelerate hard and brake hard. They do not have to scrabble for grip in high-speed corners.

"We have a very strong aerodynamic car," explained Villeneuve, "and whenever there are high-speed turns I think we have the edge. On a track like this - where you run low downforce - the difference is not there."

There were also problems for Goodyear which arrived to find that the organizers had not bothered to tell them that large sections of the track had been resurfaced. If they had known, the Goodyear engineers could have built a larger margin of safety into the tires chosen. Instead the choice was based on past experience which meant that Goodyear was able to adopt a slightly riskier strategy than Bridgestone - which has to be conservative because it simply does not know.

The Montreal circuit actually has quite low levels of tire wear but for some reason the Goodyear tires were retaining their heat and blistering. One point which might be worth making is that the new tarmac was a lot darker than the original and as such tended to absorb more heat than the lighter more reflective tarmac.

Tires are always rather difficult in Montreal because the track is always so dirty. When the F1 cars first emerged from the pits they were driving around with what looked like a bow wave of dust pouring over their front wings. There is not much that can be done about this because the wind tends to whistle down the St Lawrence River and picks up sand from the artificial beaches on the Ile de Notre Dame and dumps it on the track.

The track tends to get faster during a weekend and the last few minutes of the qualifying tend to be the important ones.

On Friday Villeneuve's team mate Heinz-Harald Frentzen was quickest. Everyone says that times are largely meaningless on Friday - and they are - but between team mates there is always a rivalry.

For whatever reason Jacques looked tense before qualifying began. As the minutes ticked away at the start of the session, no-one moved. There was no point in wasting tires, cleaning up the track for others, and so everyone stayed in the garages.

The Stewarts went out early but it was a waste of tires. After 20 minutes Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve finally set the ball rolling, Jacques taking provisional pole with a 1m19.418s. A few minutes later he was knocked off the top by Ralf Schumacher's Jordan but then Frentzen blew them both away and he in turn was ousted by Michael Schumacher. The pace was building. Next poleman was David Coulthard but it was short-lived as Michael did it again - and Jacques failed to do it. On his third run Jacques finally managed to bounce Michael and suddenly we were into the last 10 minutes. At this point Alexander Wurz planted his Benetton heavily into the wall at the last corner and out came the red flags, which brought a pause to proceedings.

This was not good for the drivers, who naturally unwound a little. Then after five and a half minutes they had to go for it again. Villeneuve's last lap looked ragged and not as concentrated as one might have expected. Barrichello held it together to grab third on the grid. And Michael Schumacher - cool as a cucumber - was as focused as ever. He flashed across the line, stopping the clocks 0.013s ahead of Jacques. It was a tiny margin, but a margin nonetheless.

"To be honest," said Michael, "I am a little surprised to be in this position. I did not expect it. The circuit is just chicanes where aerodynamics do not pay out much. At Silverstone and Magny-Cours we are probably going to be in more trouble but we are in the process of changing several pieces on the car. We will see."

His qualifying had not been without drama. In mid-session he had switched to his spare because of problems with the race car. The red flag, however, meant his own car could be fixed for the last run and he used it to the full.

"I missed a tenth in the hairpin," he said. "I braked a bit early and after that I was too conservative because I did not want to spoil my lap. But overall it worked out."

It was a good result for Ferrari but once again Eddie Irvine was way off the pace of his team leader - 1.4secs down in 12th position on the grid. Eddie could not understand what had happened. He had done a good time in the morning when it was cooler but he lost the balance in the warmer afternoon conditions.

Villeneuve had to settle for runner-up spot with Frentzen fourth, making it the first time since Hungary last August that a Williams was not on pole position.

"Last year was very close," said Jacques, "and this year it was very close again. It is very frustrating. We were looking pretty good. My third run was the best one but there were still a few tenths that could have been put into it. We tried to do that but it did not work out. Getting the perfect lap does not happen often. It did not happen here. That is part of qualifying. Today was very close. Still there are two races in Germany [at Hockenheim and the Nurburgring] so there are two times I can pay Michael back for this." The crowd did not seem to mind. Their hero was still on the front row.

Frentzen was fourth, but only 0.3secs off the pole time. "It was an interesting fight," he reported. "I thought I could have been third but I had a last try on a new set of rubber and I was held up. There was nothing I could do. There was a bit of traffic because the session had been stopped."

Third on the grid was Barrichello - which was a surprise. Rubens had been really pushing and, with the help of the Bridgestone tires, the rapidly-developing Stewart chassis and the ever-improving Ford V10 engine, he was able to record Stewart's best qualifying position to date.

"The car is working great," said Rubens, "but it is a surprise because of the big straight. We were not thinking about the top three. I am very pleased with the tires. They are really doing a great job. We are strong aerodynamically, it means we can run minimum wing - almost Hockenheim levels of wing - and the car is still very good under braking. I want to say thanks to Damon. He blocked me on my second and third runs and that made me very angry for the fourth run.

In the circumstances Jan Magnussen was a very disappointing 21st on the grid, complaining of bad understeer and traffic.

McLaren was more or less where one would expect to find them - which was a disappointment given that the new Mercedes-Benz V10 engine is clearly a very good engine. The result was much as it had been in 1996 when Hakkinen was sixth and Coulthard 10th. This year Coulthard was fifth with Hakkinen ninth. Both drivers should probably have done better. David had a crash on Friday and then had to stop with an engine problem in qualifying which meant he had to run back for the spare car. He then exited the pits as the red flags came out. He was not very happy with the spare car and went off the track a little while trying to push too hard.

Hakkinen was disappointed as well. "I could not get the grip I needed to give me confidence to drive the car faster," he said. "My place on the grid is not as good as I would have liked."

Mika arrived on the scene of Wurz's accident and had that to blame but in fact the truth was that it cost him very little time and the cars had simply lost the good balance they had in the warm of the morning.

The two Jordans were sixth and seventh with Giancarlo Fisichella again beating Ralf Schumacher. The two seemed to spend most of their time trying to beat the other rather than the opposition. Giancarlo complained of traffic and Ralf had to take to the spare car after second gear broke on his race car.

"Seventh is not bad," said the German, "but I would like to have done more. The T-car felt a little different but basically it was good and I have decided to race it tomorrow."

Benetton was not on the pace again after the flattering showing in Barcelona and it did not help that Gerhard Berger was out of action with sinus problems. His place was taken by the team's reserve driver Alexander Wurz who did a pretty competent job until he stuffed the B197 into the wall at the final corner on his final run.

Jean Alesi ended up eighth with Wurz 11th which was pretty uninspiring given that they qualified fourth and seventh in Montreal last year.

Olivier Panis was also a disappointing 10th in the Prost-Mugen Honda. "I found myself struggling for grip," said Olivier "Detailed adjustment helped improve the situation a bit with each run and I think I would have been able to set a faster lap on my final flying lap but I was caught in traffic in the closing minutes. It did not work up."

Despite this a lot of money in the paddock was on Panis for the race.

Nakano was 19th - 0.7secs behind Panis - and complained that his fastest lap had been disrupted by an errant Minardi slowing to enter the pitlane.

Sauber was a disappointment with Johnny Herbert 13th and Gianni Morbidelli 18th, both complaining that the cars were very unstable over the bumps. The tires were also blistering badly but the Two Johnnies reckoned they had a good set-up for the race.

Fourteenth on the grid was a good effort from Jos Verstappen in his Ford ED5-engined Tyrrell. The car was well-balanced but underpowered and the team was hoping that reliability - always an issue in Montreal - would give them much-needed points in the World Championship.

Mika Salo was down in 17th, complaining that Ukyo Katayama got in his way. On his one clear lap he made a mistake and dumped himself into a sand trap.

Damon Hill and Pedro Diniz were struggling again in the Arrows. The new D-spec engines were not very reliable and so Damon used a C-spec in qualifying to take 15th on the grid. He made a mistake at the end of his first run and spun off and so had to go into the spare car, which had a brake problem. On his fastest lap he found a Williams cruising into the pitlane as he was finishing his lap.

Pedro lost his C-spec engine on Saturday morning (another exploding Yamaha) and so had to use the D-spec in qualifying.

Down at the back were the Minardis - 20th and 22nd on the grid. The cars continue to be disappointing. Jarno Trulli spun off after hitting a curb and reckoned he could have gone two of three tenths faster and thus moved up a few places while Katayama complained of brake problems and damaged his tires.

"It is a mortal sin to spoil the qualifying session like we did," said Giancarlo Minardi "From what we saw in the sector times we had the chance to be 13th and 14th on the grid and we wasted it."

The big question on Saturday night was over tires. The Goodyear teams were all trying to work out what to do to stop blistering. Some chose to subject the tires to a variety of heat cycles, others let Goodyear shave the tires to try to find a way of getting the heat out of them.

It was the same story on Sunday morning as Olivier Panis set the fastest time in the warm-up with a confident display in his Prost-Mugen Honda.

The question was whether or not Olivier would be able to make up the disadvantage of a lowly grid position - or so we all thought.

IN fact the race was a very different story. At the start Michael Schumacher got away well with Villeneuve in his wake and a fast-starting Fisichella third. Giancarlo was nearly beaten into the first corner by an even faster-starting Jean Alesi. Behind them was Coulthard and then a slow-away Frentzen and Ralf Schumacher. Rubens Barrichello was the big loser, dropping from third on the grid to eighth.

Behind this lot there was a wiping out of the midfield as Mika Hakkinen stood on the anchors to avoid hitting Rubens and was run into from behind by race favorite Panis. The impact tore the rear wing off the McLaren and the front wing off the Prost. The various bits of car bounced across the road and made contact with Irvine, putting pay to his race. Damon Hill also hit some of the wreckage. Further back Magnussen and Nakano collided while trying to get avoid everything else. Magnussen was nudged into the barriers.

Thus at the end of the lap Panis and Hakkinen came into the pits. Panis had a new nose fitted and rejoined but Mika's race was over. Hill also came into the pits because of a vibration. The car was checked over and he was sent on his way.

Up front Schumacher pulled out a gap of over a second on the first lap and was even quicker on the next lap. This surprised second-placed Villeneuve.

"I was just following Michael from far away because he was eating up his tires. I was taking it easy, not pushing, aiming to look after mine. I was going to push later. It was amazing how slippery it was - it surprised me."

At the last corner on the second lap, Jacques dropped the ball and slid into the wall.

"I went into the corner a little bit fast," he said, "and I lost it. I made a mistake. It was a beginning's mistake I guess, so it's very annoying. This is going to be a hard one to swallow. There is no point in stopping eating or losing sleep over it but it is going to be difficult to accept."

With Jacques out Fisichella moved up to second with Alesi third and Coulthard fourth. Ralf Schumacher followed, having passed Frentzen on lap six. A few laps later Heinz-Harald came into the pits with a blistered left rear tire. He rejoined at the back and did a good job to climb right back up to fourth by the end of the race. It was some consolation for the disappointed Williams team.

Schumacher began to build a lead on those in pursuit but on lap six Katayama had a big off in his Minardi when its throttle stuck open. This brought out the Safety Car and the field was bunched up behind it for three laps as the mess was cleared away.

After the restart Michael set to work to build his advantage again, setting a string of fastest laps to pull out a 10 second gap by lap 28. He was on a two-stop strategy. By then Fisichella, Alesi and the impressive Wurz had all pitted leaving only David Coulthard to take the lead. As each lap ticked by the performance became more and more impressive. David was on a one-stop race and his pace with a heavy fuel load was impressive. The new Mercedes engine - which David was racing for the first time - was very strong and the tires were lasting the distance.

He finally came in on lap 40 and when Michael had to pit for his second stop on lap 44 David was 15secs clear. Michael blistered the next set of tires and so had to pit again and, seeing this, David came into the pits for a precautionary stop to get a new set of tires - just to be sure. And that is when it all went horribly wrong: the car stalled as David tried to accelerate away.

"The clutch did not disengage," explained David. The team did finally manage to start him up again but he was a lap down by then and the race was under another safety Car following Panis's accident. Three laps later the Grand Prix was red-flagged and ended 15 laps short of the scheduled 69. David was classified seventh, a disaster.

The team could, however, take some satisfaction from the fact that the car had been very competitive and that, even if the result did not show it, it had been McLaren's day. Let us hope that we see similar showings on different circuits as the season progresses.

Jean Alesi finished second having got past Fisichella during the first round of pit stops. Giancarlo tried to fight back but at the second stops Jean stayed ahead and was in a solid second place, albeit over 15secs behind Schumacher.

The Safety Car enabled him to get up behind Michael and so when the race was stopped Alesi was officially just a couple of seconds behind the winner. This was not a true picture of the competitiveness of the B197 but this did not stop Benetton issuing a press release in which Flavio Briatore claimed that the early ending of the race had maybe "cost us victory".

One can only assume that the team is trying to convince a potential sponsor which knows nothing about F1 that the team is competitive - which it is not. Jean Alesi's fastest lap was one second a lap slower than that of David Coulthard and if Schumacher had not stopped because of his blistered tire Alesi would have been 50secs behind after 50 laps - one second a lap.

If there was anything impressive about Benetton it was the performance of young Alexander Wurz. The Austrian was on his way to a minor points score - which would have been a great result for a rookie driver in his first Grand Prix - when his car let him down.

Third place went to Jordan's Fisichella, who reported having a rather quiet race, but was delighted to have finished on the podium for the first time and moved him well ahead of Ralf Schumacher in the World Championship.

Ralf was running fifth early on but lost control of the car on the run down to the first corner on lap 15.

"It felt like a puncture in my rear left tire but I looked at the telemetry with the engineers and we cannot tell if that was actually the case. At the moment we just do not know."

Fifth behind Frentzen was Herbert, which was a good result for Johnny and Sauber. Actually it was lucky there was a red flag because while they were cruising around behind the Safety Car Johnny Herbert had the misfortune to be punted from behind by his team mate Gianni Morbidelli, who was a lap down but behind Johnny in the queue.

"I was looking down trying to adjust the brake balance," Gianni reported. The incident ripped off Johnny's rear and Gianni's front wings.

The final point went to Shinji Nakano, which was a triumph of survival rather than speed. It was nonetheless something for the Prost team which did not have a good afternoon.

Panis's accident on the first lap meant he had to pit. He then set off at great speed to try to catch up and climbed back up to 11th but then had to abandon his plan of a one stop race because of a tire vibration. This dropped him to the tail of the field again and he drove yet more scintillating laps to get up to seventh by lap 43 when he had to come in again. He was closing fast on those ahead of him when he crashed heavily in the fast sweepers near the Casino. Something in the rear suspension had broken possibly as a result of a brush with a barrier on the lap before he came in the second time.

Whatever the case something broke and Olivier was pitched heavily into the wall. The front of the car was torn off and Olivier suffered fractures to both legs.

Pedro Diniz and Damon Hill gave Arrows a two-car finish in eighth and ninth places, which was quite an achievement given the unreliability of the cars this year.

Tyrrell failed to get either car home which was a shame as the team had a strong race with a good tire strategy which might have resulted in points for Jos Verstappen, unfortunately the Dutchman was forced to retire with gearbox troubles. Mika Salo had an engine failure but his race had been compromised by a blistered set of tires.

Barrichello's race for Stewart was highly disappointing. He made a bad start and then suffered wing damage in the first corner in a slight brush with Coulthard and the race engines were not as powerful as those used in qualifying. The planned one-stop strategy proved to be impossible and so Rubens lost more time and to add insult to injury was given a 10sec stop-go penalty for overtaking under yellow flags. After 35 laps Rubens retired with a gearbox failure.

Both Minardis retired as well: Katayama in his accident and Trulli with an engine failure after 33 laps. If the engine had held together the young Italian - who was on a one-stop strategy - reckoned he might have scored points.

Whatever the case, it was a strange and rather disjointed race and at the end there was little enthusiasm for celebrating as everyone was worried about poor old Panis, who looks like being out of action for most of the rest of the season.

Michael Schumacher Ferrari  54 1h17m40.616  1m18.095 
Jean Alesi Benetton-Renault  54 2.565  1m18.899 
12 Giancarlo Fisichella Jordan-Peugeot  54 3.219  1m18.750 
Heinz-Harald Frentzen Williams-Renault  54 3.768  1m18.464 
16 Johnny Herbert Sauber-Petronas  54 4.716  1m19.622 13 
15 Shinji Nakano Prost-Mugen Honda  54 36.701  1m20.370 19 
10 David Coulthard McLaren-Mercedes  54 37.753  1m18.466 
Pedro Diniz Arrows-Yamaha  53 1 Lap  1m20.175 16 
Damon Hill Arrows-Yamaha  53 1 Lap  1m20.129 15 
10 17 Nicola Larini Sauber-Petronas  53 1 Lap  1m20.357 18 
11 14 Olivier Panis Prost-Mugen Honda  52 2 Laps  1m19.034 10 
19 Mika Salo Tyrrell-Ford  47 Engine 1m20.336 17 
18 Jos Verstappen Tyrrell-Ford  43 Gearbox 1m20.102 14 
Gerhard Berger Benetton-Renault  36 Gearbox 1m19.286 11 
22 Rubens Barrichello Stewart-Ford  34 Electrics 1m18.388 
21 Jarno Trulli Minardi-Hart  33 Engine 1m20.370 20 
11 Ralf Schumacher Jordan-Peugeot  15 Accident 1m18.869 
20 Ukyo Katayama Minardi-Hart  Accident 1m21.034 22 
Jacques Villeneuve Williams-Renault  Accident 1m18.108 
Eddie Irvine Ferrari  Accident 1m19.503 12 
Mika Hakkinen McLaren-Mercedes  Accident 1m18.916 
23 Jan Magnussen Stewart-Ford  Accident 1m20.491 21