|British Grand Prix Review|
|Max Galvin, England|
The British Grand Prix has been and gone and the title race is wide open once again. Michael Schumacher is now the bookies favourite for the title, but is that a realistic choice or is it just the result of thousands of devoted Ferrari fans putting their life savings on him?
Yet again the skies threatened rain and duly delivered it, but in this case at the wrong time. This weekend, the clouds opened on Sunday morning, leaving the warm-up a sodden affair, but as the race dawned the sky cleared and the sun shone.
Before the Race
Team moves had stabilised at Silverstone, with the roster being the same as that in France. A good test by Norberto Fontana was, say Sauber, the reason that the Argentinean kept his seat, although cynical observers may say that this was more because there were no quality replacements available (Martin Brundle having turned them down). Fontana qualified a second away from Johnny Herbert, but the team was a lot happier with his performance than in the previous race. It was a disappointment, therefore, when his times were disqualified for failing to stop at the weighbridge when asked.
Damon Hill resumed his domination of Pedro Diniz by dragging the Arrows-Yamaha up to 12th on the grid. On Sunday morning he surprised even the most die-hard Hill hater by hustling the down on power car round the soaked circuit fast enough to set the best time of the session.
At Benetton, Alex Wurz carried on where he left off in France by out qualifying Jean Alesi in a fair fight. Whilst this looks to have been his last race for Benetton for a while, he has done more than enough to mark himself as a man of the future and has several teams clamouring for his attention.
In the tyre war, Bridgestone appeared to have been caught napping; Goodyear shod teams taking the first 11 slots on the grid. Whilst the Japanese made rain tyres were still the ones to have, the unexpected good weather seemed to have taken them by surprise, leaving the Prost team floundering in the wake of people that they really should have beaten.
The biggest buzz of the weekend centred on McLaren-Mercedes driver Mika Hakkinen, who had bucked the recent trend and out driven David Coulthard all weekend. Not satisfied with this, Mika also set about the rest of the field and was comfortably on pole position for most of qualifying. Sadly for Mika and his fans, both Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Jacques Villeneuve took advantage of slightly cooler conditions at the end of the session to set faster times, the latter eventually taking the pole position.
Yet again, there was no straightforward start to the race. This time, Heinz-Harald Frentzen stalled his Williams-Renault on the grid after the formation lap, causing the start to be aborted and forcing the German to start from the very back of the grid behind Rubens Barrichello (2 engine failures having ruined qualifying for the Brazilian) and Norberto Fontana.
As the lights went out, Jacques Villeneuve made a faultless getaway from pole position and was untroubled by other cars as he reached the first corner. The same could not be said for second row starters Michael Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen who had a fast starting David Coulthard to contend with. Initially it looked like the Scotsman had manager to beat both his team-mate and the Ferrari driver into Copse, but Schumacher squeezed past just in time and closed the door firmly.
Behind these three, Ralf Schumacher and Johnny Herbert completed the first few corners side-by-side before Ralf dropped back, giving Herbert 5th place.
Closer to the back of the grid, Ukyo Katayama spun without any encouragement, ending his pirouette against the pit wall, his Minardi stalled and sporting a front wing.
Heinz-Harald Frentzen, keen to set about catching the leaders, had already passed several drivers by the time the Williams exited Maggots, but at the entrance to Becketts, everything went wrong. As Frentzen turned into the second part of Becketts having just overtaken Jos Verstappen, he tried to regain the racing line and swerved abruptly to the left. Unfortunately for Heinz-Harald, the racing line was still occupied with the Tyrrell that he had just passed and with nowhere else to go, Verstappen stayed on it. The ensuing collision cost Verstappen his front wing and punctured the left-rear tyre on the Williams, causing it to drive into the gravel and retirement before the race was a lap old.
The dangerous position that the crippled Minardi was sitting in, was deemed serious enough for the safety car to come out and for three laps the field circulated in formation around the packed Silverstone circuit. Whilst the Minardi was clearly a hazard, the safety car is, in my opinion, being used far too often these days and is looking more and more like an excuse to keep the cars closely bunched and provide "close racing" like is seen in NASCAR and CART.
As if we didn't need further evidence of the influence of Stateside racing, before the restart, Jacques Villeneuve slowed to a crawl in a trick that is familiar to anyone who watches either of the above mentioned championships. By hanging back, Villeneuve allowed himself a better run off the last corner, ensuring that he would not be challenged in the run to the first corner. Whilst this may be acceptable in North America, the FIA regulations prohibit this and after the race the stewards handed the Canadian a suspended ban.
So on lap 4 the race effectively got underway with Villeneuve leading, and the scarlet Ferrari looming large in his mirrors.
David Coulthard, in third, was slower than his team-mate all weekend and the race was no exception. Coulthard was clearly not just holding up Mika, but Johnny Herbert, Ralf Schumacher, the Benetton twins and Giancarlo Fisichella. So much so in fact, that within 5 laps the gap to Michael Schumacher was over 7 seconds and within 10 laps it was up to 16 seconds. What made things even more obvious was that Shinji Nakano, leading both Damon Hill and Jarno Trulli, was catching the rear of the train.
In this situation, one can only wonder what McLaren were thinking, but there seemed no safe way of letting Mika past without letting at least one of the other drivers through at the same time. This is perhaps one of the biggest indicators so far this year that overtaking is nigh on impossible, with a car almost 2 seconds a lap slower than those around it holding up a queue of traffic and ruining any chance of a good race.
With Coulthard fast in a straight line, but lamentably slow in the corners, the leading pair had built up a 23-second cushion by lap 17, with the next 4 cars separated by only 2 seconds.
Running so far off the pace clearly forced several teams to rethink their pit strategy and both Johnny Herbert and Damon Hill stopped slightly earlier than expected in order to remove themselves from the queue of traffic that they were in and give them a chance of getting some fast laps in.
Three laps later, Michael Schumacher came in for the first "important" stop of the race so far and after 7.1 seconds got back underway, still ahead of third placed man Coulthard.
On the very next lap (21) both Ralf Schumacher and the leader, Jacques Villeneuve, came in for their respective stops. Ralf got in and out without a hitch, but for Villeneuve there was a 33.6-second stop that dropped him down to 6th place. According to Williams and their Canadian driver, the #3 car had been suffering from a loose wheel for most of the race and at the stop part of the left-front wheel nut sheared off when the mechanic tried to remove it. Getting it off and fitting a replacement took over 25 seconds, and it looked like a race win had escaped Villeneuve yet again.
By lap 26 only the Benetton and McLaren drivers from the leading group had not taken on fuel or tyres and were, it appeared, committed to a one-stop strategy as opposed to the two stops of the rest of the front runners.
Now in second place, David Coulthard was still successfully keeping Mika Hakkinen and the rest at bay, but was looking ever more ragged as the race progressed. Poor brake balance was causing him to lock his left-front wheel going into slow left hand turns like Vale and Abbey.
This was the chance that Mika was looking for and passed David on lap 29 when the Scot left the braking a little too late and understeered onto the grass at the exit of Club corner. Jean Alesi tried his best to sneak past as well, but Coulthard recovered well and limited the damage to his team-mate.
Whilst this was happening, Pedro Diniz left the race unnoticed after an uneventful run. The poor luck that has dogged Damon Hill has apparently been transferred to Pedro and the Brazilian was forced to retire in the pits with a mechanical problem.
This left Hakkinen clear to chase down Michael Schumacher and perhaps record his first F1 win in 88 starts. With the German over 22 seconds ahead, at best this looked a difficult job, and at worst impossible, yet the Finn gave it everything he had. Unfortunately, the McLaren team had scheduled stops for Coulthard and Hakkinen on laps 30 and 33 respectively, ending any immediate challenge that Mika could mount.
With the McLaren pair out of the frame for the time being, the Benetton team suddenly found themselves with both cars in the top 3. Although Alex Wurz was running very close to Jean Alesi he had already made the decision not to try and pass his team-mate on track, preferring to finish behind than risk an accident. This again marks him as a driver to watch as it is rare to see such a young driver put the team above his own ambition (as Jordan will bear witness to after the contretemps between their drivers earlier this year).
Amazingly this also moved the #3 Williams back into 4th place and within sight of a podium position or a win. Villeneuve was pushing Wurz as hard as he was able, but all the time was having to look towards his rear with Johnny Herbert and Eddie Irvine closing in, waiting to punish any mistake (like the move Villeneuve tied on Irvine in France).
This order only reigned for a handful of laps, because on lap 36, Jean Alesi came in for his first, and only, fuel and tyre stop, getting back out in a little under 9 seconds.
Michael Schumacher seemed to have the race in his pocket by this point, with only one stop left and more than a 30 second lead over second place. With this race win, the German would be well on his way to his third championship and would have at least an 18 point lead over Villeneuve. In other words, this was definitely not the time for the mechanical problems that plagued them in 1996 to return, yet this is exactly what happened.
Towards the end of lap 36 there seemed to be a small plume of smoke coming from somewhere around the rear of the Ferrari as it exited a corner, but as it quickly dispersed, it was assumed that Schumacher had locked a wheel and the smoke was from the tyre.
The next time around, Ferrari team called Schumacher in for his second stop, but signals were unclear whether or not it was planned. The tyre covers belonged to Eddie Irvine, but the tyres contained within were fitted to the Schumacher's Ferrari and the time seemed right for Schumacher to stop. Things were thrown further into doubt when Ross Brawn, the technical director of the Scuderia, ran to the left-rear wheel and seemed concerned at what he saw there.
The fears of the team and Tifosi worldwide were confirmed less than a lap later when the #5 Ferrari slowed, smoke pouring from the inside of the wheel. The race was over for Schumacher and Villeneuve was now within reach of the lead.
At the end of lap 38 both Alex Wurz (now race leader) and Johnny Herbert stopped for their regular stops, followed by the limping Ferrari, on the way back to the garage and retirement from the race. As with Damon Hill at the same time last year, a faulty wheel bearing, one of the cheapest parts on a modern F1 car, caused the retirement of the championship leader.
Schumacher was joined in retirement at this point by Rubens Barrichello, whose Ford engine had blown up yet again. For a company who once enjoyed an excellent reliability record for both their works and customer engine programmes, Ford seem to have given up longevity in the chase for increased power.
All this left Villeneuve the surprise leader, and the Canadian was making the best of the situation. Having finally broken away from Eddie Irvine, Jacques set about creating a cushion that would allow him to stop again without losing position. Both Irvine and Ralf Schumacher were both due for their second stops, meaning that 4th place Mika Hakkinen was the biggest threat. With around 16 seconds between Jacques and Mika it would take a big effort from Villeneuve to open up a big enough lead.
Meanwhile, Johnny Herbert had come back into the pits just a lap after his second stop with a cut tyre, but was also suffering from a gear selection problem. Another lap passed and Herbert was back in for a replacement steering wheel in an attempt to cure the problem. Sadly for Herbert and the fans that turn up at Silverstone each year to see him race, the problem was more serious than just a dodgy connection in the wheel and Johnny retired a lap later in the pits.
On lap 42 Ralf Schumacher came in for his second stop, followed 2 laps later by both Eddie Irvine and Jacques Villeneuve. Schumacher and Villeneuve received fresh tyres and a tank of fuel without any problem, but as Irvine accelerated out of his pit stall, the Ferrari slowed and pulled off the track with a broken drive shaft.
Also out on lap 44 was Mika Salo, the Ford engine in his Tyrrell having given up without any warning. Less than a lap later, the sister Tyrrell-Ford of Jos Verstappen also retired, suffering from the same problem. Three Ford engines down, one to go.
The second round of stops and the retirement of the remaining Ferrari left the top six looking like this on lap 45:
Hakkinen -> 5.508s -> Villeneuve -> 5.576s -> Alesi -> 2.695s -> Wurz -> Coulthard -> R.Schumacher
Finally, we looked set for a thrilling chase as the last 15 laps were reeled off. Hakkinen was on 12 lap old tyres with the same fuel load as Villeneuve who was on fresh rubber and had been faster throughout the earlier part of the race.
In less than 3 laps, Villeneuve had moved the Williams-Renault to within a second of the McLaren-Mercedes, but the nature of the sport kept him from passing on the exit of corners and the power of the Mercedes engine stopped him passing on the straights.
Lap 50 saw the remaining Ford engine spit the dummy, forcing Jan Magnussen out of one of his most competitive races so far.
All this time Mika looked easily capable of holding Villeneuve at bay, and it seemed certain that barring any mishaps, he would win his first race. Yet again the engine fairy waved her magic wand and, for the second race running, Hakkinen was put out of the race with an engine failure, ending what was his most competitive run so far in 1997. I suspect that this is a sign of things to come and we can expect that we will see a lot more of the McLaren cars over the rest of the season.
Considering the problems with his first stop, the fact that Villeneuve was leading at all was amazing, yet that he was over 10 seconds ahead of his nearest rival made it almost seem like a Hollywood movie plot.
Another strange sight was Shinji Nakano in the points on merit rather than through luck. Nakano was not only beating his team mate, Jarno Trulli, but was the highest placed Bridgestone runner. This seems to indicate that what he said earlier in the season about being slow because of not getting enough test time was true. With recent tests at Magny-Cours and Silverstone under his belt, the Japanese driver seems transformed and I hope that he will at least complete the rest of the season in his current team.
Several seconds behind Nakano was Damon Hill, the Arrows at last having enough staying power to last a full race. The crowd sensed that a point was possible if one of the top 6 retired and all of a sudden, all of the attention was focused on 7th place rather than the front.
With 2 laps to go, the Mugen engine powering Nakano suffered a failure and Damon Hill was moved up into 6th place, in sight of the chequered flag and his first point of 1997.
At the end of lap 59, Villeneuve crossed the line (apparently not that happy to have won), followed by Alesi and Wurz (both apparently over the moon), David Coulthard and Ralf Schumacher. Almost 40 seconds later, the #1 Arrows-Yamaha exited Luffield and passed the chequered flag taking 6th place. Damon had been waving to the crowd for most of the last lap and both driver and the spectators alike were ecstatic. For Damon the single point was as good as a win and the crowd treated it accordingly.
On the podium Jacques wore an expression that could only be described as relieved, having apparently realised how lucky he was to be on the podium at all, let alone on the top step. The Benetton drivers were visibly happy and said as much in the post race press conference. About his win, Jacques said "It was good for me to see Michael stop because it is time that they had some problems this year".
Quite right Jacques, but surely Mika Hakkinen deserved a little bit of luck for once?