|Argentinian Grand Prix Review|
|Max Galvin, England|
All the talk before the Argentinian Grand Prix centred around Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Eddie Irvine and the precarious situation both their careers were in.
Before the race
Once again, the Lola team took a lot of the headlines as the teams unpacked in Argentina. Eric Broadly stated that he was confident of getting the team back underway by the San Marino Grand Prix, albeit under a different title sponsor. Reports said that Ricardo Rosset had managed to raise over four million dollars from his sponsors and was also talking to Jordan about a test seat (although Eddie Jordan denied this). Both Rosset and team mate Vincenzo Sospiri were both said to view their break from F1 as temporary and were looking forward to return soon.
Another team from the blunt end of the grid making the news was Tyrrell, with the chassis sporting four new wings. The first pair were mounted on the nose of the car, and while somewhat odd to look at were nothing compared to the second two. On either side of the drivers heads, the team had mounted the final pair of wings, sticking up on stalks giving the car a head on appearance not dissimilar to the X-Wing fighters from Star Wars.
In practice and qualifying there were no huge surprises with an all Williams from row, albeit with Jacques Villeneuve almost a second ahead of Heinz-Harald Frentzen. As expected, the McLaren pairing were well down the list, both drivers complaining of poor handling, both apparently being unable to find a workable setup to suit the bumpy track.
The first minor shock was the performance of the number one Prost driver, Olivier Panis. Olivier had managed to drag the French built car up to third on the grid and looking good for a chance in the race if, as predicted, it rained on race day. Quite whether the performance is down to Panis, Mugen, Prost or Bridgestone is unknown, but facts indicate the latter as Stewart driver Rubens Barrichello managed to get his car onto the third row. While this surprises many people, it should not be forgotten that Stewart have the works Ford v10 and the Japanese Bridgestone tyres.
As the clock ticked past 1pm local time, the green flag was waved and the cars set off for their formation lap, but as the cars exited the first corner it became clear that the #4 Williams-Renault was missing from its place. Heinz-Harald Frentzen could then be seen scything through the field to regain his second place grid slot. Ominous as the delay was for Frentzen, Williams and Heinz-Haralds fans, there was no possibility for the team to look at the car before the start.
As the lights went out, Jacques Villeneuve made, for once, a superb start, easily out dragging the rest of the front runners, and getting through the corner cleanly. Michael Schumacher almost collided with a sluggish Olivier Panis, but the Frenchman swerved off line, choosing to lose a few places rather than be put out. As the cars entered the first corner, both Irvine and Barrichello were alongside Michael Schumachers Ferrari, with all three fighting for the corner. The issue was decided by the Ferrari team leader when he tapped the Stewart car into a spin, eliminating himself as he drove into the front of the Ford powered car. Whilst Irvine got through safely and ultimately Barrichello would get back underway, the ensuing chaos caused David Coulthard to run his McLaren-Mercedes into the back of Ralf Schumachers Jordan-Peugeot, tearing off his front left wheel and, obviously, forcing his retirement.
With the tail end of the grid, by and large, forced to take to the grass to avoid the melee, either the safety car or a red flag seemed on the cards. As the dust cleared, a marshal started to wave a red flag and for a moment, there seemed to be a reprieve for Schumacher and he took his chance, sprinting back to the pits to take the T-car. Sadly for him, and perhaps for the race, the flag was the only one like it and the rest of the field were, in fact, forming up behind the safety car. (Addendum: The race organisers have since been fined $10,000 for this breach of regulations).
For the next four laps the field followed the safety car around the circuit, with the top six in the following order:
Villeneuve, Frentzen, Panis, Irvine, Fisichella (Jordan-Peugeot) and Hill (Arrows-Yamaha).
On the restart, Villeneuve immediately began to pull out a lead (a legacy of his experience of rolling starts from Indycar perhaps), with Frentzen being hounded by Panis. Behind this pair, Irvines Ferrari was being pressed by Fisichella, the Italian looking on by far his best form of the season so far.
Sadly for Frentzen, yet another race was cut short, when on the start of lap six, the Williams pulled off the track with terminal clutch problems. While his form was not exactly convincing, things looked better for the German and he will be hoping to continue this in San Marino.
While Heinz-Harald will not have been very pleased with the failure of his clutch, both his former team and former team mate will have been overjoyed, as Johnny Herberts Sauber-Petronas was promoted into sixth spot behind Damon Hill. For Damon, the joy didn't last for long as he was quickly overhauled by both Ralf Schumacher and Herbert within 2 laps, the Yamaha clearly well down on power compared to the powerplants in both these drivers cars.
At the end of lap 9, the top six looked like this:
Villeneuve -> 1.080s -> Panis -> 9.610s -> Irvine -> 1.470s -> Fisichella -> 4.610s -> R. Schumacher -> 1.020s -> Herbert.
Within another two laps, Johnny Herbert had passed Ralf and was chasing the other Jordan hard. Irvine was maintaining the 1.5 second gap over Fisichella, but was still losing ground on the fast disappearing leading pair. At the front, try as Villeneuve might, he seemed unable to pull away from the Prost-Mugen Honda and, if anything, Olivier seemed to have the better of him but was hanging back a little.
Further back, Hill and Jean Alesi were battling hard for 7th position and Rubens Barrichello had managed to put his earlier setback behind him and had already passed his team mate and several other cars. Another surprise was that Pedro Diniz, Hills team mate at Arrows, had managed to rise from last place on the grid to 9th place (presumably more through the first lap contre temps than anything else).
On lap 17, Jean Alesi had clearly decided that his Benetton-Renault had been behind Damon Hill's Arrows for far too long and tried what can be described as an "optimistic" attempt to pass the World Champion. The inevitable happened and both Jean and Damon were pitched off the track, fortunately, not causing lasting damage, but both rejoining several places further down the field.
Lap 18 saw the retirement that apparently spelled the end of any form of leadership challenge, that of Olivier Panis. The Prost driver suffered a failure in the cars fly-by-wire throttle, ending what was his, the Prost team and Bridgestones first chance of victory in 1997. Based on this performance, this will not be the last time that Olivier has a chance of victory and this time I suspect that nobody will be able to call it a fluke.
On lap 20, just before the pitstops, the positions of the top 6 were:
Villeneuve, Irvine, Fisichella, Herbert, R. Schumacher and Diniz
On lap 21, both Herbert and leader Villeneuve stopped for rubber and fuel, both taking a little over 7 seconds, indicating a three stop strategy for both drivers. While Herbert emerged 5th, Villeneuve didn't lose a single place, partially because of his lead, partially because the pitlane permits very quick in and out times. On the same lap, Alesi had another go at passing Hill, but this time, he ran wide allowing Hill to repass him on the exit.
Eddie Irvine was the next to stop, dropping him from 2nd to 4th, behind the Jordan pairing. By this time, the Jordans were both running in formation, Ralf having closed the gap to his team mate to under 1 second. The same lap saw former Jordan driver Barrichello retire from the race, the poor Stewart reliability record pulling him out of yet another race before the chequered flag.
Apparently, the photographic opportunity offered by having the two Jordan cars so close to each other and both in the points was too much for Schumacher and in a move that started much too far back, he punted his team mate off. After the race, Ralf said that Giancarlo had been slow out of the previous corner and that he had thought that it was possible to get past. Since then, however, Ralf has apologised to his team mate and taken full responsibility for the incident. Regardless, Fisichella was livid and Eddie Jordan has said that he will have to take time out to make sure that both drivers and team are happy.
By this time, Jean Alesi had finally managed to pass Hill and had quickly set fastest race lap, chasing the McLaren of Mika Hakkinen who was by now in 5th place by virtue of the stops. This battle was then elevated to a battle for 4th when Ralf Schumacher stopped on lap 34 for his first of two stops. Damon Hill carried on his 0% finishing record on this lap when his Yamaha lost air pressure, causing him to stop out on the circuit.
One lap later Gerhard Berger also stopped for fuel and tyres, leaving the top 6 like this:
Villeneuve -> 12.300s -> Irvine -> 2.230s -> Herbert -> 7.270s -> Hakkinen -> 5.100s -> R. Schumacher -> 8.940s -> Alesi
This however was not the case for long as on lap 39, both Herbert and Villeneuve would again pit, and Eddie Irvine (on 2 stops) would take the lead for the first time in his F1 career. Eddie, by this point, was looking comfortable in the Ferrari and with the strategy that the team had chosen, actually looked in a position to win.
On lap 44, the X-Wing Tyrrell-Ford had yet another retirement, this time because the Ford ED4 engine in the back of Jos Verstappens car expired. Cosworth are hoping to have the ED5 ready for the next race and are expecting more power and better reliability from the revised engine. Ferrari chose this lap to bring in Eddie Irvine, leaving the Ulsterman a long run to the finish.
Laps 52 and 53 saw the retirement of Pedro Diniz (Yamaha failure) and Shinji Nakano respectively, marking the end of a miserable day for both Arrows and Prost.
This left the running order as:
Villeneuve, Irvine, R. Schumacher, Herbert, Hakkinen, Alesi, Berger, Magnussen (Stewart-Ford), Trulli (Minardi-Hart), Salo (Tyrrell-Ford) and Larini (Sauber-Petronas).
Jacques Villeneuve came in for his 3rd and final stop on lap 56, setting up what must be the best race finish so far this year.
Gerhard Berger soon passed his team mate and set about closing on the cars in front, setting the fastest lap of the race on lap 63 (1m27.981s), proving what a force Benetton could have been had they managed to get their collective acts together in qualifying. This also went to show how hard it is to overtake at the glorified kart track that is the Autodrome Oscar Alfredo Galvez, with the fastest car not being able to overtake slower machines.
At the end of lap 63 the top 6 looked like this:
Villeneuve -> 1.500s -> Irvine -> 4.410s -> R. Schumacher -> 16.190s -> Herbert -> 0.790s -> Hakkinen -> 2.190s
As you can see, the leading 6 cars were split into two groups, with Irvine and Hakkinen looking the most likely to gain positions.
As the laps counted down, Irvine closed down on Villeneuve and the television cameras decided to concentrate on this battle, missing the retirement of Nicola Larini because of a spin (lap 65) and Jan Magnussen on lap 67 with a mechanical failure.
On lap 69, Irvine had his best chance and was climbing all over the back of the Williams in an attempt to pass. Villeneuve is never easy to get past and with the added problems of overtaking and the pressure to score points from inside the team, Eddie chose not to force the issue, thereby settling for 2nd and the highest position of his career so far.
The podium, completed by Ralf Schumacher in 3rd in only his 3rd race, was another slightly less than emotional scene, with all three drivers apparently being non plussed with their positions, or too enamoured with each other (considering the Irvine-Villeneuve war of words this isn't surprising).
As the teams packed up and started to come back home for the start of the European season Heinz-Harald Frentzen can feel slightly safer at Williams and Eddie Irvine infinitely safer, with the more vociferous members of the Italian press apparently back in love with him.