|An Occasional Column from the Antipodes||by Rory Gordon, Australia|
Since we're now at about mid-season, I was asked elsewhere to come up with a "report card" on the drivers and teams so far.
It was interesting exercise. Not so much for the ratings I gave out, but for reflection on the season so far ... and for other peoples' thoughts.
The general consensus seems to be that Michael Schumacher is the pick of the lot in 1997 - I don't think that anyone would disagree with this too violently. Despite all the pre-season public doubts about the car, Schumacher has managed to wrestle the Ferrari round the circuits pretty well, to say the least. And, looking at Eddie Irvine's position in the Championship, you'd have to say that Ferrari seem to have got something right.
Meanwhile, the team that was supposed to blast everyone else off at just about every circuit, Williams, just isn't doing it. Jacques Villeneuve and Heinz-Harald Frentzen are up there ... but they're, especially Villeneuve, not where most commentators expected them to be - way out in front.
(I use the word "commentators" here in its loosest possible sense. I don't only mean the so-called experts, but also the fans and even folks like my family - who really care not one whit about F1.)
There was also quite a lot of thought, and even more spoken, about Damon Hill's chances this year. There were some people who seemed to think that Hill in the TWR Arrows was capable of a podium finish sometime this season. Okay. Right. To be brutal, if Godzilla rose up out of the ground, wiped out all the cars in front of Hill AND all those behind him, it looks like the car would grind to a halt on the next lap anyway.
But, speaking of Hill, the 1997 mid-season review becomes rather interesting when you look back at mid-season 1996.
If you remember, Hill was supposed to blast off into the distance, a good second a lap faster than anyone else. Following him would be the F1 novice, Villeneuve, in the other Williams. Behind Villeneuve, and another second-a-lap behind would be Schumacher in the evil Ferrari. Then there would be a two-second-a-lap gap back to the most of the rest. At the back of the field would be two or three teams fighting to stay out of the way and, comparatively, just trundling around.
In the end, that's pretty well how it all worked out. But it was very interesting that there were quite a few commentators who said that Hill was only in that position because of the car, and that Ferrari were only in that position because of Schumacher.
Hang on. Switch a few names around, and that's very similar to what was supposed to happen this season, wasn't it?
Villeneuve leading, then the "much-faster-than-Schumacher" Frentzen, followed by Schumacher, with the rest of them way behind.
To a certain degree, you could quite easily say that this proves absolutely nothing. And I would have to agree with you.
No, what interests me is that at this time last season, and many times both before and since, a lot of people were saying that Hill wasn't a great driver, that he didn't deserve to be World Champion, and that it was only the car that made him.
I'm not going to enter into the argument too much here, except to say that, deserved or not, it's in the record books that Damon Hill was the 1996 World Champion.
However, would it now be fair to say that Villeneuve and, perhaps Frentzen, are not the drivers that we have been led to believe they are? Do either of them "deserve" to be World Champion? Or is it the Williams car that might make them into the World Champion?
No-one has disputed Schumacher's qualities. Forgetting about his time with Jordan (personally, I would have really liked him to stay there for a couple more seasons), Schumacher has indicated that, given a semi-decent car, he has the skill and ability to make it into a World Championship car. Robotic, mechanical and focussed to the point of absurdity he may seem to be, but it would be difficult to deny his apparent ability to take a mediocre car and turn it into a consistent winner.
I'm sure that Villeneuve's fans will tell me otherwise, but AT THIS STAGE (the result of the British GP notwithstanding), it does look as though he is not the complete driver that a lot of us - me included - got the impression that he was.
I am fully aware that his car has broken down a number of times. But, even then, the Williams team has not dominated the races as much as many of us thought they would.
Don't, for a second, think that I have forgotten that Villeneuve is well up in the championship, as is Frentzen and so, therefore, is the Williams team. But, let's face it, are they doing as well as was expected?
And yet, there seems to be no outcry. No screams from the anti-Villeneuve factions, telling us that it's just the car. And, on top of that, I have heard quite a few times, despite his car breaking down quite a number of times that Hill's inability to finish races this season is proof positive that Hill is not a great driver.
While it may seem as though I am taking sides here, I'm trying desperately not to do so. But I do find the situation very odd. And, for the life of me, I am unable to work out why it is so.
Perhaps I'm looking too deep. Perhaps there's no such thing as an anti-Villeneuve faction. Perhaps if Hill was still with Williams, he would have had as many break-downs. Perhaps, Villeneuve would barely have finished a race this season if he was with TWR Arrows. And, perhaps, Michael Schumacher will prove us all wrong, and add the 1997 World Championship to his collection.
But that's just me.