German GP 1997

JULY 27, 1997

German GP, 1997

Gerhard in Wonderland

ISN'T it lovely. There are still fairy tales in F1. Gerhard Berger has had a terrible time in recent months. He was out of action with sinus problems; his father was killed in an airplane accident and his future F1 career was looking shaky - and then he arrived at Hockenheim, took pole, set the fastest lap of the race and won a truly memorable victory. Everyone went home and lived happily ever after - except for the Williams team management, which went home spitting razor blades because its two drivers had thrown away another busload of World Championship points.

Now you might think that in the week leading up to the German Grand Prix, Michael Schumacher would be the most talked-about sporting figure in Germany. We have grown used to such things in recent years as Schumi Mania has swept through the German working classes, transforming Michael from being a racing driver into a symbol of German national pride.

A couple of years ago we started seeing Schumacher flags with a lightning S - a memory which many Europeans do not wish to recall - and there were worries this year that if there were two Schumacher Brothers we might start to see flags with the double lightning S, which would have looked too much like the symbol of the SS of World War Two. Whatever the case with three Germans in top cars and Mercedes-Benz finally beginning to look a lot more serious a challenger in F1, one might have expected a fever of enthusiasm from the crowds.

It was not the case at all. They were there in their tens of thousands as usual. The grandstands seemed to have a rather wealthier class of Hugo Boss-wearing suburbanites but out in the woods the traditional Schumi fans were up to their usual tricks: drinking large amounts of beer, sausage-gnoshing and then heading off to caravans and tents to copulate as much as possible. They would make an interesting sociological case study.

No doubt someone will one day write a learned treatise on "The growth of the ear-ring as a macho working class symbol in the Reunited Germany". It will probably be rather boring but will undoubtedly make mention of Jan Ullrich, the youngster who was been taking all the attention away from Schumacher in recent weeks.

Ullrich has spent the last few weeks winning the Tour de France. This may not seem very exciting but one has to go back to 1932 to find a German cyclist of the same caliber. His name was Kurt Stoepel and he finished second on the famous Tour. Ullrich was not only winning, he was dominating, and since Germany's involvement with the bicycle seems to have been limited to the use of a few hundred bikes "borrowed" from the Dutch by the retreating armies in 1944 - an event which still prompts drunken Dutchmen to enrage Germans tourists if they might have their bikes back - this was big news.

It is probably just a matter of timing and without Ullrich the Schumacher Brothers would be as popular as ever they were but it was interesting to note that for a few days at least Mr. Ullrich's physical prowess and ear-rings seemed to have more appeal to the German masses than the clean-cut Swiss-dwelling, watch-selling Schumacher boys. If Michael shows up in Hungary with an ear-ring you will know why.

One has to say that some of the Schumacher fans in the woods have probably never heard of Ullrich as their brains have been confused for some days because of excess alcohol intake but they seem to like it and do not mind that they are missing out on the nicer parts of the region. The big cities of the Rhineland - Mannheim and Ludwigshafen - have little to commend them. They were redesigned in the mid-1940s by the Bomber Command School of Architecture and are rather soul-less places. One or two of the old towns on the great Rhine plain survived and in between the great oxbow lakes of the river one can enjoy the cathedral of Speyer or the spectacular baroque palaces of Schwetzingen and Bruchsal. The old university town of Heidelberg is also a popular spot for the F1 visitors to Hockenheim.

It has not always been a popular race track - this is where Jim Clark died in an F2 race in 1968 - but today Hockenheim is a race which most people in the paddock do not have strong feelings about. We are into the mid-season stream of races and it is just another blink of a weekend. On Friday it was wet and horrible, which is not how to see the track at its best, but on Saturday things improved.

For Gerhard Berger, the whole event was something special. It was his big comeback after six weeks out of action with sinus problems - and following the death of his father in an airplane accident. The weekend began with Gerhard telling the media that he will not be staying on with Benetton next year, following the announcement that Giancarlo Fisichella will be a Benetton driver in the next season. Gerhard said he did not know what he is going to do in 1998 but he still wants to race. "The more I think about it, the more I love to race," he said. "At the Monza test it took me about 15 laps to get used to the car before I was on the pace again - but I love it."

On Saturday he showed that love of the sport in the best possible way, blasting his Benetton-Renault to the team's first pole position since the days of Michael Schumacher.

For the Austrian it was a very emotional moment but one which he was going to enjoy to the maximum. "My life is always like this. It goes up and down. I am here to win and I am very happy for myself because this brings back the confidence, but also for the team. It needs this to get the morale up because they have had a difficult time." But how had he achieved the step forward? "I know the way around the circuit," Gerhard explained, "but at the end of the day you need the car to do it and we got the set-up right. The time was more or less what the car was capable of doing. In fact I overdrove it a bit on both the last two fast laps. On the last lap I nearly lost it twice and then spun it in the Sachs Kurve."

It made no difference because on this occasion he had only himself to beat, having set the fastest time in the first 15 minutes of the session and then having knocked himself off pole with 15 minutes to go. The last efforts were not important.

Benetton's other driver, Jean Alesi, did a very competent job to qualify sixth, despite a last-minute spin, but was a little frustrated that he was not able to match Gerhard's pace.

For some reason - probably aerodynamic - Hockenheim has been a Benetton track in the last couple of years. The cars have not been great but the long blasts of Hockenheim seem to act in its favor, the Renault engine not being handicapped by the deficiencies of the chassis. It was a similar story last year when Berger was second on the grid with Alesi fifth.

Last year, however, the Benetton boys were fighting at the front with Williams, this year Frank and his team were not on the pace in qualifying and it was Jordan's Giancarlo Fisichella who got closest to Berger, recording his best-ever grid position and being edged out of pole by just two-hundredths of a second. At the recent testing it was clear that Jordan had an aerodynamic package which suits the really fast tracks and this was true throughout Friday and Saturday morning with Ralf Schumacher fastest. But Saturday afternoon - the important one - was a different story. "My last run was very good," he said, "but I missed the first corner and lost four-tenths. If that had not happened I would have done better."

Ralf had to make do with seventh on the grid, 0.6secs slower than the pole man. Fisichella was, of course, delighted. In fact he seemed almost delirious as at one point he was bold enough to say that he and Ralf had become "friends now" and were working together happily. The major reason he was happy, the cynics said, was because he had blown Ralf away on the German's home soil.

Mika Hakkinen qualified third for McLaren-Mercedes, which was not really a surprise given the team's form in recent races. Like the Benettons, the McLarens run well at Hockenheim thanks to very strong engines from Mercedes-Benz. Last year Hakkinen was fourth on the grid with Coulthard sixth. The engine is better but there is no doubt that the car is also improved. This year Mika was third, David eighth. The Scotsman said that his poor showing was because he had lost set-up time in the morning as the result of an engine failure and that this led him to push too hard in the final minutes of qualifying and spin out.

He was probably right. The Mercedes-Benz V10s looked very strong but there were signs that they remain fragile - Hakkinen suffering a blow-up in the course of Friday morning.

Mika was a tenth off Berger's pole time and reckoned he had lost out at the Ostkurve on his last flying lap. "I went in too fast," he explained. "Actually I went straight through it and then I found Gerhard sideways across the track so all in all it was very interesting. I think we are going to do well in the race but it is really a question of reliability."

It is a very long time - probably five years - since we had to look as far back as fifth position on the grid to find the first Williams-Renault and the team looked to be struggling a little. Heinz-Harald Frentzen was the faster of the two drivers on this occasion, lapping half a second faster than championship challenger Jacques Villeneuve. Heinz-Harald was mystified and fifth and Jacques was depressed and ninth. "It was really difficult to get a good lap," said the French-Canadian. "I did not have the straight-line speed. Despite having the same downforce level as Heinz I was quite a bit slower down the straight."

Initially it looked like an engine problem and on Friday night the team stuck a new Renault V10 in the back of Jacques's FW19, but Saturday morning proved to be a similar story. "Jacques suffered a top speed deficit of 3kph," explained Renault 's Bernard Dudot. In the end it was decided that Villeneuve would use Frentzen's spare car - his third engine in two days - and the problem remained the same. "We do not believe the problem is with the engine," added Dudot.

Michael Schumacher was none too impressed with his fourth on the grid either although in the finest of recent traditions he said it was exactly what he had expected to happen. He was happy to see Villeneuve in trouble. Eddie Irvine was over a second behind his team leader on this occasion and so ended up down in 10th position on the grid. "My car would not ride over the curbs as well as the others and you have to do that to get a good qualifying lap." Irvine was confident that he would be much more competitive in the race.

With the top five teams filling the top 10 grid positions it was left to Jarno Trulli to be the best of the rest, although it was quite a battle for 11th place between the Italian, Rubens Barrichello and Damon Hill - all three being Bridgestone runners.

Trulli found a good set-up but was not able to gain as much in the detailed changes as he had hoped. The tires were also obviously quite a factor as Bridgestone has not been producing astounding qualifiers of late, although the tires have run well in the races. Shinji Nakano was six places behind Trulli - more or less where one would expect to see him - and was 0.9s slower.

Stewart arrived in Hockenheim hoping that the dreadful series of Ford engine failures at Silverstone was behind them. This seemed to be the case but it was the gearboxes which caused troubles on Friday. On Saturday things were better and Barrichello reckoned that if he had not encountered a spinning Tarso Marques on his fastest lap he might have been able to grab ninth on the grid. Jan Magnussen was 15th and had struggled with the settings of his car. This resulted in him being sent out too late in the qualifying session to get across the line in time to start his final flying lap.

Arrows had Hill in 13th position on the grid with Pedro Diniz 16th, the pair separated by 0.7secs on this occasion, and Damon said this was more or less what he had been hoping to achieve. "I was able to get the most out of the car," he reported. "I expected we would have difficulty getting into the top 15, given the level of horsepower we have at the moment, so I am not at all disappointed with that."

Diniz had a less easy time. He was down on power in the morning session and it was decided to change engines before qualifying. The new engine then stopped so Pedro had to jump into the spare which - much to his surprise - proved to be a good deal quicker than his own car...

Probably the biggest disappointment in qualifying was the performance of the Sauber-Petronas, which had been expected to come on strong on the faster tracks and it looked as though this was going to happen with Johnny Herbert third fastest on Friday and Norberto Fontana fifth. But on Saturday everything went wrong: Herbert went off in the Ostkurve in the morning which did not help and both drivers had trouble getting their power on to the road coming out of the chicanes. As a result Johnny ended up 14th with Fontana 18th, 0.9secs slower. All the pair could do was to hope for a stronger showing in race trim, as has often happened with the team this year.

The final four places on the grid belonged - as expected - to the Tyrrells and the Minardis. Mika Salo and Jos Verstappen were 19th and 20th with no real problems to report - except the obvious one that they did not have enough horsepower. The Minardis were a similar story and the only point of note was that Marques out-qualified Ukyo Katayama.

ON RACE DAY Jacques Villeneuve was fastest in the warm-up - and that had the paddock talking - and then with about 40 minutes to go we had a small rain storm, which left the road a little damp in places. Once the clouds had moved on, however, there did not seem to be an awful lot wrong with the weather and so everyone lined up on the grid much as one would expect.

When the five red lights went out, signaling the beginning of the race, the first three all made good starts, Berger getting away perfectly. Fisichella, however, found himself under a little pressure going into the first corner from Michael Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen. Further back was a bit of a mess with a slow-starting Frentzen and a fast-starting Irvine arriving at the first corner side-by-side. It was probably not the moment for Frentzen to try to force the issue but he did and as a result the two clashed wheels: Frentzen's right front hitting Eddie's left rear. Behind them Jacques Villeneuve had to swerve to avoid the incident and in the kerfuffle Coulthard was hit by Frentzen. At the first chicane he went off, bouncing over some curbs.

David, Heinz-Harald and Eddie all trundled around to the pits. Coulthard rejoined but retired almost immediately with a driveshaft problem. The damage to Irvine's Ferrari was such that the rear bodywork caught fire because of the heat generated with the wheel rubbing on the ground, while Frentzen's front suspension was so bent that his race was run. They were all suitably disappointed. "I made my best start ever in an F1 race, from 10th on the grid I was trying for fifth place," said Irvine. "I am unhappy."

"I had no place to go," said Frentzen. "The only place I could have gone to avoid an accident was over the grass. I could not go on the dirt at that stage to leave Eddie alone on the track - so we collided."

"My sense of relief at avoiding any trouble was short-lived," said a resigned David. All this meant little to the boys up front, with Gerhard pulling away from the rest at his own pace. Fisichella and Michael Schumacher spent the first few laps together and behind them Hakkinen played with Alesi, while further back Villeneuve had his mirrors full of Trulli and Barrichello.

Berger was on a two-stop strategy and had to build a gap as fast as possible. He did it in style with a string of fastest laps which meant that he was 8.5secs ahead after 10 laps. The gap would grow to 12.3secs before the Austrian peeled off into the pits for his first stop on lap 17.

This enabled Fisichella to take the lead. He had been shadowed early on by Schumacher but gradually began to pull away. "At the beginning he was holding me up slightly," explained Michael later. "I was following him and using my tires a bit harder than planed and that gave me a problem so about eight laps before I did my tire stop he started to get away."

Michael pitted on lap 22 and Fisichella came in on lap 24, allowing Berger back into the lead again - his advantage now having grown to around 16secs. It continued to grow but with one stop still to make Gerhard needed every tenth he could get. With a pit stop taking just less than half a minute he needed that kind of advantage. On lap 28 he had 19secs advantage over Fisichella and six laps to make up the necessary 10secs more. It was decidedly touch-and-go because his laps times were only about a second a lap quicker than the Jordan. The strategy looked like it was going to fail.

It was good fortune for the Benetton strategists that at this moment Jan Magnussen's Ford engine went boom - as they have tended to do in recent months - and suddenly Gerhard found himself driving through a bank of oil fog. It gave the team an excuse for the strategic failure. "I had been calculating lap by lap to make sure I would have enough time and then it was so foggy that I had to slow right down," said Gerhard, reckoning it had cost him four or five seconds. "I thought I had lost the race. I was very disappointed because I knew this was too much to keep me ahead of Fisichella."

The time sheets actually showed that Gerhard's loss to Fisichella on that lap was only slightly less that two seconds. It was a lot but the strategy would probably not have worked anyway.

Annoyed at the loss of time Gerhard now pushed really hard but he was only three or four tenths a lap faster than Fisichella. The Austrian stopped on lap 34 and it was a very quick one but as he came out of the pits there was Fisichella ahead of him. "I was quite surprised that I only missed him by a half second," said Gerhard. "I knew it was going to be hard to pass him and I was preparing myself. It would have been very difficult because he had good speed on the straight. I knew I had to give him pressure straight away but if he had not made a mistake it would have been difficult to overtake him."

Berger does not look a gift horse in the mouth and when Fisichella went wide, the Austrian was through in a flash. "I think I get some special powers sometimes," said Gerhard mysteriously later on. "I know what it was but it's a personal thing."

Once ahead Gerhard had the whole thing under control again. It was put beyond question on lap 39 when Fisichella had a puncture. The game was over. Gerhard stroked the car for home to win a glorious victory.

You can call it grabbing victory from the jaws of defeat but it does not matter what it was. Gerhard won despite a wrong strategy and it was an immensely popular and deserved result. "This was my best ever victory," Gerhard added. "It is a special weekend for me. Very special."

Team mate Jean Alesi's two-stop strategy was even less successful than Berger's. The Frenchman ran fifth on the first lap and ended up in sixth place, having dropped behind both Trulli and Ralf Schumacher. If Fisichella had not retired Jean would have been out of the points.

Fisichella really deserved better than he got but there was no getting away from the fact that he had only himself to blame for the mistake which put Gerhard ahead. The puncture was down to bad luck. "It was marginal whether he could have won the race," said Eddie Jordan later, "but to be up there fighting for victory gave me and the team a tremendous feeling. This is without doubt our best performance ever." The puncture was not just a delay because a radiator problem as a result of the damage meant that Giancarlo was sidelined on lap 41.

Ralf Schumacher gave Jordan some small consolation with fifth place but it was not a great effort. His lowly grid position and a bad start meant that there was not a great deal he could do.

Fisichella's demise meant Michael Schumacher was able to pick up six points for second position - and he was very pleased with his haul of points, particularly as in the mid-race he lost fifth gear and had a real problem shifting from fourth to sixth. He also had to do a last-minute pit stop for more fuel. "We were about five laps of fuel short," he explained, "I don't know what it was but I had to come in again." With Fisichella gone he was able to do this without losing his second position. "For the championship," smiled Michael, "things go well."

All these excitements meant that Mika Hakkinen ended up in third place - his first podium finish since Melbourne. It was not really a very impressive result and Mika knew it. Jarno Trulli had been a lot quicker in the race but, having been held up early on by Villeneuve, was unable to grab third position during the pit stop sequence and once stuck behind Hakkinen could not find a way past him in the closing laps. "I had good speed on the long straights and he could not overtake me," said Mika. "I was flat out at the end of the race but my straight-line speed was good."

In the Prost Trulli drove a very fine race for a youngster. He profited from the first lap incidents to move from 11th on the grid to seventh at the end of the first lap. He then pressured Villeneuve for the whole first half of the race. After Jacques got out of his way on lap 21 Jarno was able to put the hammer down and make up some lost time but when he came into the pits he was only 20secs ahead of Hakkinen, which meant that he behind him when he rejoined and that was that. Jarno was so keen to make a good pit stop that he came rushing in a little too quick and went onto the grass beside the pitlane. It probably cost him two seconds and it meant that when he rejoined he was behind Villeneuve again.

He put the pressure on again and this time Villeneuve cracked. On lap 34 Jacques made a mistake in the first corner. "I ran wide and Trulli got close to me," said Jacques. "Then he got me on the outside and pushed me too close to the grass. I was about to run out of road and so had to lift and get behind him. Then he was following me in his mirrors: left, right, left, right and when we got into the barking area I was too much on the inside and locked the wheels." It would perhaps have been simpler to say "I screwed up again".

Later Jacques went to see Trulli and told him that they were not driving in Formula 3 cars. Trulli agreed and explained that he did not see anything wrong with what he had done. It was not a dramatic conversation but Trulli was not in the mood to kneel before Villeneuve and beg forgiveness. In the end there was a half-hearted handshake and they went their separate ways.

One could not help but notice as this was going on that Jacques's never-absent manager, Craig Pollock, was sliding between the TV cameras gathered under the Prost awning, deflecting them from his blond boy. What is becoming of F1? I have always thought that driver managers are supposed to be people who supply guidance and sensible advice to their charges. People who help them do their job properly. The World Championship is slipping away from Villeneuve this year and it should not be doing so. The Williams is a winning car - and the faces of the team management after the race told that story. They are not happy. Perhaps Pollock would be advised to spend more of his time getting his driver's head together and less worrying about setting up new racing teams and greasing camera lenses. Jacques may never again get as good a chance at the World Championship as this.

The rest of the field provided little interest. Prost's Nakano drove around in the midfield and finished seventh thanks to others retiring. Damon Hill was eighth in the Arrows, the high point in his two-stop race being overtaking Johnny Herbert on lap eight. About the only thing that Damon could say was that the Yamaha engine lasted the race - which in itself is something of a triumph for the hand grenade builders of Hamamatsu.

Pedro Diniz might have finished as well had he not made an absolute mess of trying to copy Damon's overtaking maneuver of Herbert and running straight into poor old Johnny. "He said he had just made a mistake," complained Johnny later, "but by then it was a bit too late."

Johnny had looked quite good early on - clearly planning a one-stop strategy - but struggling a little with the fuel-heavy Sauber. Fontana finished ninth but had a totally uninspired race.

Jos Verstappen brought home his Tyrrell a long way behind - in 10th - running out of fuel on his slowing down lap. Salo had a better afternoon but clutch problems made the car impossible to drive and he retired on lap 33.

The two Stewarts of Rubens Barrichello and Jan Magnussen retired with Ford engines going bang once again, and for the Ford men who had given journalists a hard time for rubbishing the engines there would be more platefuls of humble pie to suck upon.

Minardi, as always, managed to be a little more colorful than most of their rivals: Marques retired with a broken transmission on the startline but Katayama tightened his headband and went for it holding a solid last place. When he finally managed to catch up with Verstappen he made a bit of a mess of the passing maneuver and the two touched. This meant that his car began to bounce and he could not read his pitboard and the radio appears to have been somehow disconnected so he could not hear the calls of his frantic engineers - and so he ran out of fuel.

Down in the Renault garage they were happy to salute professionalism of a different level. The vastly experienced engineer Jean-Francois Robin summed it all up perfectly. "Today Gerhard proved to be a super champion. He drove a faultless race. The strategy which could have been tricky was perfect - thanks to the driver's expertise."

Gerhard Berger Benetton-Renault  45 1h20m59.046  1m41.873 
Michael Schumacher Ferrari  45 17.527  1m42.181 
Mika Hakkinen McLaren-Mercedes  45 24.770  1m42.034 
14 Olivier Panis Prost-Mugen Honda  45 27.165  1m43.226 11 
11 Ralf Schumacher Jordan-Peugeot  45 29.995  1m42.498 
Jean Alesi Benetton-Renault  45 34.717  1m42.493 
15 Shinji Nakano Prost-Mugen Honda  45 1m19.722  1m44.112 17 
Damon Hill Arrows-Yamaha  44 1 Lap  1m43.361 13 
17 Nicola Larini Sauber-Petronas  44 1 Lap  1m44.552 18 
10 18 Jos Verstappen Tyrrell-Ford  44 1 Lap  1m45.811 20 
11 12 Giancarlo Fisichella Jordan-Peugeot  40 5 Laps  1m41.896 
22 Rubens Barrichello Stewart-Ford  33 Engine 1m43.272 12 
19 Mika Salo Tyrrell-Ford  33 Clutch 1m45.372 19 
Jacques Villeneuve Williams-Renault  33 Spin 1m42.967 
23 Jan Magnussen Stewart-Ford  27 Engine 1m43.927 15 
20 Ukyo Katayama Minardi-Hart  23 Fuel 1m46.499 22 
Pedro Diniz Arrows-Yamaha  Accident 1m44.069 16 
16 Johnny Herbert Sauber-Petronas  Accident 1m43.660 14 
10 David Coulthard McLaren-Mercedes  Damage 1m42.687 
Heinz-Harald Frentzen Williams-Renault  Damage 1m42.421 
Eddie Irvine Ferrari  Damage 1m43.209 10 
21 Jarno Trulli Minardi-Hart  Transmission 1m45.942 21