Spanish GP 1997

MAY 25, 1997

Spanish GP, 1997

The two-stop two-step

THE Spanish Grand Prix proved to be a race dominated by tires. Jacques Villeneuve used his Goodyears with great care and was able to dance home the winner while Olivier Panis charged up from 12th on the grid to finish a strong second on his impressive Bridgestones. Jean Alesi completed a French-speaking 1-2-3 by finishing third for Benetton, driving an intelligent race to preserve his tires. Villeneuve now leads the World Championship as the circus heads to Montreal...

There was a time - from 1926 to 1935 - when the Spanish Grand Prix was held on the roads in and around the charming and picturesque little port of San Sebastian. In the Basque country on the Bay of Biscay, just a few miles from the French border and the royal resort of Biarritz, San Sebastian was as popular a venue as Monaco.

Racing in Spain in those days was - by all accounts - a civilized affair. The first Spanish Grand Prix in 1913 had been won by a Rolls Royce and was more a social event than a Grand Prix. In the years that followed, Bugattis, Delages, Maseratis and Alfas were the order of the day at San Sebastian; and then the Spanish Civil War came and the games had to stop.

Thereafter the Spanish GP began a gypsy-like existence at different tracks around Spain until in 1991 the transporters tipped up in Barcelona.

The Circuit de Catalunya at Montmelo is still on the road to France but the vistas of San Sebastian have been replaced by the uninspiring industrial suburb of Barcelona, on Spain's Mediterranean coast. It is not the stuff of romantic novels.

There are, in the valley of a scrubby and polluted stream, a collection of car-crushing plants, smelly factories and ugly warehouses, untidy wastelands and roads which go nowhere. Next to the circuit is a spaghetti bolognese of highway link roads. Across the highway rise a series of curious white metal orbs, connected with all manner of piping, which look from a distance like some vast memorial to Dolly Parton.

A few VIPs and team bosses stay at the glitzy big hotels in downtown Barcelona but most of the F1 circus prefers to hang out in modest hotels (with dodgy plumbing) in and around the charmless suburbs of Sabadell, Mollet, Granollers and Montmelo itself.

If there is a saving grace of this place it is the circuit itself, for it provides not only a challenge for the drivers but also the possibility of overtaking maneuvers. There is no secret in this: if you have a fast corner followed by a long straight followed by a tight corner you will get overtaking. It is amazing that so few F1 circuit designers seem to understand this.

The F1 troops know Montmelo well, largely because these days much of the testing work is carried out at the track. Drivers go round and round so much that most of them could drive Barcelona with their eyes closed.

But that doesn't mean that setting up the cars is ever easy. "F1 cars have different balances on different days," commented David Coulthard. "It can be different between a morning and an afternoon session. Things change."

And so it was for the Williams team, which had dominated the pre-race test but arrived on Friday to find that the track was completely different.

"In the morning the car felt undriveable," said Jacques Villeneuve. "We spent last week tweaking it to perfection and we found that the work we had done was very little use. The car felt completely different."

As a result we had the unusual situation on Friday morning of Giancarlo Fisichella fastest in his Jordan-Peugeot. In the afternoon it was Jean Alesi for Benetton. Given the recent performance of the team this was a revelation, although whether or not it is indicative of a general improvement or simply because the Benetton engineers have managed to find a good Barcelona set-up is a matter of debate.

On Saturday, of course, it was back to business as usual with the two Williams boys well ahead of the game, fighting it out between them. After qualifying, poleman Jacques Villeneuve had an advantage to the third fastest car of one second. Then there were eight cars covered by a second. It was, in fact, a very similar story to last year when Damon Hill was a second quicker than Michael Schumacher who was followed by the gaggle.

Such facts must be depressing for the Williams chasers. They have made no progress - in relative terms to Williams - since last year.

Despite the Didcot Dominators (the team's new base at Grove does not alliterate), the battle for pole was an interesting one with Heinz-Harald Frentzen once again looking very strong. The German had been quickest on Saturday morning and went fastest after eight minutes of qualifying, and there he stayed until the last five minutes when Villeneuve pulled out a blinder of a lap to pip him at the post. Frentzen tried again in the last seconds of the session but the lap was not quick enough and he aborted it, pulling into the pits and accepting that this time Jacques had won the day - by 0.26s.

"After my quick runs I noticed a little wind change," said Heinz-Harald. "I had a bit more oversteer but I didn't want to change the car because I was sure it was only the wind causing that. It did not work out for the last run."

Villeneuve's pole lap was four seconds under last year's quickest qualifying time but he admitted that he had been pushed to get it. "It was a good battle. The car is very good, but we are eating up tires like everyone else. Heinz-Harald gave me a really hard time. We changed a lot of small things on the car during the session aero-wise and that changed the handling a lot. We managed to get it together thanks to the good chemistry we have in the team."

It was something of a surprise to find a McLaren in third place given that last year the team managed to qualify only 10th and 14th in Barcelona.

"I'm am bit surprised after last week's testing," admitted David Coulthard. "We have picked up some speed with the work Mercedes has been doing with the engine. It certainly helps a great deal. I hope it continues. We tend to struggle with understeer in high-speed corners, but when the rear is not affected we tend to be quite quick."

While most people in the paddock talked about a new qualifying engine from Mercedes-Benz very few people realized the scale of the change. The new V10 was a completely new engine without a single shared component with the engine which has been used so far this season.

Whatever the case, it worked and David was third on the grid with Mika Hakkinen fifth. On Saturday night, however, the new engines were taken out of the McLarens and the older units put back in for race day. The new engines were simply too new to be risked for a race distance.

Fourth on the grid was something of a surprise as well as we have not seen Jean Alesi as far up the grid anywhere this year, and with Gerhard Berger sixth the Benetton fans were once again talking about a revival. We shall see. Last year the Benetton boys were fourth and fifth on the grid.

The sudden improvements from McLaren and Benetton meant that Michael Schumacher was pushed back to seventh on the grid, by far his worst qualifying position of the year, and with Eddie Irvine down in 11th place, Ferrari's fears of a poor showing at Barcelona were clearly justified. Things were not helped when Michael suffered a major blow-up with one of the new Ferrari 046/2 engines.

"Qualifying went more or less the way I had expected," said Michael afterwards. "We managed to improve the car compared to its performance in last week's test but it was not enough. The car does not have sufficient aerodynamic efficiency, which is why we are not very quick." Irvine complained of understeer.

The Jordan-Peugeot youngsters were eighth and ninth on the grid with Giancarlo Fisichella again out-qualifying Ralf Schumacher, although the gap was just three hundredths of a second. The team had not expected to do very well at Barcelona and so the drivers were not too unhappy with the situation.

Johnny Herbert had a new teammate in the Sauber team in the form of Gianni Morbidelli - Nicola Larini having been ditched - and Gianni was making Johnny work a little harder than he has been used to this year. Herbert lined up 10th on the grid with Gianni 13th. Morbidelli somewhat blotted his copybook on Friday afternoon when he crashed coming out of the pitlane but fortunately damage to the car was light. The Swiss team was a little disappointed, having expected rather better grid positions.

If the Sauber boys were disappointed the folk at Prost were in deep depression with Olivier Panis 12th and Shinji Nakano 16th. This was odd: Panis has been hugely quicker than Nakano all year long and now all of a sudden the Japanese driver has closed the gap to within a second. The split times were interesting and suggested that perhaps the Japanese driver had a few more horsepower in his Mugen Honda than his French colleague. Whatever the case strange things are going on with engines at Prost at the moment... Things were not helped by the fact that the Bridgestone tires were quite clearly not a match for the Goodyears in qualifying. The interesting question was whether or not the Goodyears would be able to survive in the race.

Mika Salo was 14th fastest for Tyrrell - using the new ED5 Ford V8 engine (which has finally turned up) and this was a good performance because Mika had to spend half the session in the pit because of an engine sensor problem. The new ED5 is obviously a little better than the old ED4s but it is not enough to leapfrog Tyrrell into the big league.

Jos Verstappen was 19th and was sent out at the start of qualifying in the T-car because his own was being fitted with a new ED5 for the first time. By the time his car was ready for action he had to rush to set a lap time in it but, unused to the engine, he found himself struggling.

The Arrows team was also struggling with Damon Hill 15th and Pedro Diniz 21st. The team was not using the disappointing new version of the Yamaha engine but work is continuing to try to make this more competitive.

The Stewart team was also pretty disappointing given the hype which followed Rubens Barrichello's second place in Monaco. Expectations were simply too high. Rubens was 17th with Jan Magnussen 22nd and last on the grid.

Minardi was pretty much where one would expect to find the little Italian team with Jarno Trulli 18th and Ukyo Katayama 20th, two tenths behind.

SUNDAY was a strange day. It was overcast and cool as the cars revved up for the warm-up and 30 minutes later we had a very different picture to that we had seen in qualifying. Villeneuve was quickest but there were eight drivers covered by a second, including Panis (Nakano was again within a second of his team leader).

The start process was disrupted firstly when Berger failed to get away on the parade lap and had to start at the back of the field. Gerhard was lucky, however, because as the cars lined up Ralf Schumacher stalled his Jordan and so the start was aborted and around everyone went again. Gerhard went back to his grid spot and it was Ralf who had to start at the back.

When the lights went out to signal the start of the race, Villeneuve was away well. Frentzen's start was not as good and so he was quickly dispensed with by the fast-starting Coulthard.

The man who was really on the move, however, was Michael Schumacher. The Ferrari driver got it all right and was past Berger and Hakkinen in a flash. Coulthard had gone ahead and so Michael found himself in the company of Alesi and the fading Frentzen. It was one of those moments that racing drivers like to dream about. Jean and Heinz-Harald, for whatever reason, both decided that they were going to go left. Michael found a nice chunk of open road in front of him and, being the opportunist he is, he simply drove down it and emerged in third place, behind Villeneuve and Coulthard, who were trying to get around the corner side-by-side.

David had managed to get the inside line. "It was close," explained Jacques later. "but it was OK. David was inside, I tried to block him but he didn't lift off so I left him room. There was no point in crashing. We went into the corner and he braked a bit earlier, and he came off the brake again and so we went side by side. The grip on the outside was good and so I was able to stay ahead and then Michael managed to get in front of David and that allowed me to pull away."

Jacques could not have asked for more. After a few laps, during which Schumacher used up the advantage of his brand new Goodyear rubber, the tires began to deteriorate and suddenly Jacques began to pull away in a dramatic fashion. The gap went from 1.6s on lap six to 3.4s, 5.7s, 8.7s and 11.6s. By lap 14 he was 20 seconds ahead. Schumacher and most of the gang giving chase went into the pits on lap 14, 15 and 16 - indicating that they were going for a three stop strategy. Jacques and the other two stoppers (Jean Alesi and Olivier Panis) went on.

Jacques lost the lead of one lap to Jean Alesi when he pitted on lap 20 but as Jean came in next time around Jacques was soon back in front with Coulthard second and then Panis - who kept going on his first set of tires until lap 25.

Thereafter Jacques was able to control the race as he pleased. His second pit stop coincided with the third stops of most of his rivals which meant that Schumacher was able to lead for a lap before he came in. After that Jacques was ahead of Panis by 10 seconds. Olivier was charging along on his Bridgestones - which were lasting a great deal better than the Goodyears - and was catching Jacques. And then Eddie Irvine popped out of the pits - a lap down - in front of Olivier and proceeded to get in the way for the next six laps. It cost Olivier around 10secs.

After the race he said that he thought passing Villeneuve would not have been possible but he would have been a lot closer at the end. "Eddie is incredible to overtake," said Olivier. "I think he didn't see. Maybe he has a problem with his eyes or something. There's no point in getting upset about the fact that I was held up for seven or so laps because I think it would have been difficult to snatch victory from Villeneuve had I caught him."

Olivier's delays were such that Jean Alesi and Michael Schumacher were able to close right up on the Prost and Jean being Jean it led to much gesticulating from the cockpit.

"I do not know what Irvine was doing," he said later. "I was waving to wake up the clerk of the course." It worked. Eddie was given a 10s stop and go penalty for delaying cars which were actually ahead of him. "I saw the flag," he said later. "but as Verstappen and I had a car to pass in front of us, I assumed the flags were for him."

As usual in such controversies Irvine's view of what had occurred was very different from what everyone else thought they had seen happening. There must be a moral in that somewhere.

Anyway Villeneuve duly won with Panis an impressive second and Alesi was third in the Benetton. They had one thing in common: they had all chosen to do two stops rather than the three which everyone else tried.

"Three stops is usually a gamble," said Jacques, "because if you have a bad start you are finished. With two stops you have to push like a maniac all the way. We knew we had to make a few slow laps with each set so the tires would last. There was no point in pushing and getting blisters."

For Panis it was a different story. "It was easy to push hard every lap. The tires were too hard in qualifying but they were good in the race and there were no blisters. With my strategy I had a lot of fuel in the first part of the race - to go 25 laps - but the car was very good and the tire wear was good for the two stop strategy."

Nakano looked good in the race as well, running with Olivier early on with a similar two-stop strategy. He was unable to keep up the pace however and faded backwards, retiring after 34 laps with gearbox failure.

For Jean Alesi and Benetton a third place was a much-needed boost. "The beginning of the season has been a nightmare for us. We have finally found a good set-up for low fuel and for full tanks. It is a breath of fresh air for everyone in the team."

While Villeneuve and Alesi were able to finish without tire dramas both their team mates suffered seriously from tire trouble.

Frentzen made a very bad start and ended the first lap in sixth position. The levels of tire wear meant that he had to stop three times and his rear tires blistered each time. He ended up snatching eighth place from a fading Fisichella on the last lap of the race - eighth place in a Williams is no great achievement.

"The car was handling well all weekend," said Heinz-Harald. "We will have to look into it. According to Goodyear's information my car had been one of the best on tire wear but for some reason I got blisters during the race."

Careful analysis of the lap times showed that the difference between Frentzen and Villeneuve was marked in the OUT laps from the pits. At the first stop Frentzen was nearly three seconds faster than Jacques but the tires were shot within five laps. At his second stop Heinz-Harald took it a little easier but was still pretty quick. The tires lasted longer. At his third stop he was very slow on the OUT lap and the tires survived.

It was a similar story with Berger's Benetton. He was slower on his OUT lap at the first stop and his tires lasted well but in the second and third stops he was too fast and the tires did not survive and the lap times went haywire. He finished a depressing 10th. "We don't understand what happened," he complained.

After his early laps of glory Michael Schumacher faded quickly, having blistered his tires trying to keep a train of cars behind him - involving a brush with Coulthard on lap 11. This led to a change of strategy and he stopped twice more, ending the day in fourth place.

Irvine ended up way down in 12th place. He had to change his tire strategy because of a fading second set of tires and then had the penalty to contend with.

Johnny Herbert in his Sauber snatched fifth place on the last lap of the race after a side-by-side battle with David Coulthard in Turns Four and Five.

Johnny went for three stops and realized as the race went on that the first couple of laps on new rubber were absolutely vital and so paced himself on the final set and found that he had a tire advantage over Coulthard and used this to outfox the Scot. "I am really pleased to come from 10th to fifth without anyone ahead of me dropping out," said Johnny.

Gianni Morbidelli's race was spoiled from the beginning when he was given a 10sec stop-go penalty for jumping the start. He explained that this had been caused by a clutch problem which caused him further trouble later in the race. He finished 14th.

Coulthard finished sixth with Mika Hakkinen seventh and the team blamed tires for the general drift backwards through the field although it is not the first time we have seen such a phenomenon from McLarens in recent years. Still a point is a point.

Fisichella finished ninth for Jordan and complained of chronic tire wear problems. The fact that Giancarlo was able to set the fastest lap of the race at one point did, however, indicate that perhaps he too used up his tires too quickly after the pit stops.

Ralf Schumacher did not get to the finish. He charged up through the field as best he could in the early laps. By lap 50 he was running 13th when his engine failed.

It was an unusual day in that 15 cars managed to get to the finish which meant that there was no premium on reliability. Jos Verstappen did a good job to finish 11th in his Tyrrell. He went for a two stop race and noticed early on that a lot of his rivals were in deep tire trouble and so took it easy. It paid off and he was able to fight with Irvine's Ferrari for much of the latter part of the race.

Mika Salo had a sparkling early few laps but suffered for it later with blistered tires. His tires were so ruined, in fact, that they simply gave up the ghost on lap 36 and dumped Mika into a sandtrap.

Jan Magnussen managed to coax his Stewart home in 13th position and - being a Bridgestone runner - had no complaints about tires. It was odd, therefore, that he was quite as far back as he ended up. Rubens Barrichello had done a lot better, running as high as 11th, but he retired with engine failure after 37 laps.

For Minardi, Jarno Trulli made it home as well, two laps down, but his race was spoiled by a brush with Mika Salo during his second stint, which resulted in a stop to change the nose of his car. At the end of the race he was lapping very quickly but he was too far back to make any real impression. Ukyo Katayama suffered a gearbox hydraulic pump failure after 12 laps.

The only team to retire both cars was Arrows, Damon Hill and Pedro Diniz both going out with engine failures. The only good thing to report was that both drivers stopped on the pit straight and thus they did not have far to walk to get back to base.

When he retired Damon was running in tenth place - ahead of Panis - and was planning a two-stop race. "We know we need more reliability," reported Damon. "The engine has just got to hold together. Yamaha are trying their hardest to make that happen and to give us a more powerful engine as well."

Tom Walkinshaw departed, talking of the need for "crisis meetings" in the weeks ahead... He was not kidding.

Jacques Villeneuve Williams-Renault  64 1h30m35.896  1m16.525 
14 Olivier Panis Prost-Mugen Honda  64 5.804  1m19.157 12 
Jean Alesi Benetton-Renault  64 12.534  1m17.717 
Michael Schumacher Ferrari  64 17.979  1m18.313 
16 Johnny Herbert Sauber-Petronas  64 27.986  1m18.494 10 
10 David Coulthard McLaren-Mercedes  64 29.744  1m17.521 
Mika Hakkinen McLaren-Mercedes  64 48.785  1m17.737 
Heinz-Harald Frentzen Williams-Renault  64 1m04.139  1m16.791 
12 Giancarlo Fisichella Jordan-Peugeot  64 1m04.797  1m18.385 
10 Gerhard Berger Benetton-Renault  64 1m06.670  1m18.041 
11 18 Jos Verstappen Tyrrell-Ford  63 1 Lap  1m20.582 19 
12 Eddie Irvine Ferrari  63 1 Lap  1m18.873 11 
13 23 Jan Magnussen Stewart-Ford  63 1 Lap  1m21.060 22 
14 17 Nicola Larini Sauber-Petronas  62 2 Laps  1m19.323 13 
15 21 Jarno Trulli Minardi-Hart  62 2 Laps  1m20.452 18 
Pedro Diniz Arrows-Yamaha  53 Engine 1m21.029 21 
11 Ralf Schumacher Jordan-Peugeot  50 Engine 1m18.423 
22 Rubens Barrichello Stewart-Ford  37 Engine 1m20.255 17 
19 Mika Salo Tyrrell-Ford  35 Puncture 1m20.079 14 
15 Shinji Nakano Prost-Mugen Honda  34 Gearbox 1m20.103 16 
Damon Hill Arrows-Yamaha  18 Engine 1m20.089 15 
20 Ukyo Katayama Minardi-Hart  11 Hydraulics 1m20.672 20