|French Grand Prix Review|
|Max Galvin, England|
Before the Race
For once, the main buzz before the Grand Prix was not who will drive for whom in 1998, but who would drive for whom for the race at Magny-Cours. With both Olivier Panis and Gianni Morbidelli sidelined due to accidents, and Gerhard Berger still out with sinus problems, there were suddenly several seats open for new (or old) faces.
Alain Prost, already a fan of Jarno Trulli, chose the Italian as his replacement driver, taking him from Minardi and giving him a contract that covered the 1997 season as well as giving him an option for 1998.
This left Minardi short a driver and they chose test driver Tarso Marques who had driven for them at the start of 1996, and was expected to be almost as quick as the departing Trulli.
Sauber had little time and few choices open to them for their replacement driver and logically chose designated reserve driver Norberto Fontana of Argentina. Even though his last test for the team was over 9 months ago (and even then the team were not that pleased with his performance) he knew the team and was available at short notice, so in he came.
At Benetton, Alex Wurz again subbed for Gerhard Berger and was looking forward to racing on a track he knew from both testing and his ITC races last season. For the record, his absence from the Mercedes GT team left a slot open that was filled by former Benetton and most recently Newman-Haas driver Roberto Moreno.
All over Northern Europe the rain was falling and it seemed that for the first time we would finally see the true state of play in the wet tyre war. Bridgestone were still expected to outperform Goodyear, but the question was by how much. In the wet sessions it seemed that Bridgestone rubber was the way to go, but on a drying track, both tyres were even and with all the front runners on Goodyear rubber, it looked like the Akron tyre company would again beat its Japanese rival.
In qualifying there were few surprises for once. Shinji Nakano was up in 12th and new team-mate Trulli was in 6th, but as this is their home circuit (the factory is, in fact, located near turn 1), they nearly always put in good times. Further back, Pedro Diniz outqualified his World Champion team-mate Damon Hill for the first time, although it must be mentioned that Damon had an engine explode in his race car and was forced into the T-car for half the session.
Although there had been heavy rain overnight and the cars had run on treaded tyres in morning practice, at the time of the race the rain had still not arrived and, if anything, the sky seemed to be clearing a little. The Bridgestone runners were hoping for a torrential downpour to help their cause, but that was not what happened.
On the formation lap, Heinz-Harald Frentzen was very slow off the line and there seemed to be a possibility that the clutch on his Williams-Renault was failing, raising fears that he would not be able to get off the line when the race started.
Luckily for his fans, as the lights went out Heinz-Harald made a good start and slotted in neatly behind the Ferrari of Michael Schumacher. Behind these two, both Ralf Schumacher and Jacques Villeneuve made less than ideal starts and were both passed by an on-form Eddie Irvine who was having a great weekend. Behind Villeneuve and Schumacher, David Coulthard led Mika Hakkinen by a whisker. Hakkinen was ahead of a slow starting Jarno Trulli and the Benetton pair, who were closely followed by Shinji Nakano.
At the back, Damon Hill scuttled his chances of a decent result by almost running into Jan Magnussen and swerving into the gravel trap. Although the gravel did little to stop his progress, it knocked the front wing and broke one of the upright supports necessitating a trip to the pits for a new nose cone.
Although Michael Schumacher had said that he didn't think the Ferrari could match either Williams in the race, his car was not only leading but pulling away from the chasing #4 Williams. At the end of the second lap the German was over 2 seconds ahead of his compatriot who was being pushed hard by Irvine. 2 seconds behind Irvine Villeneuve was also having problems with a Schumacher, this time Ralf in the Jordan.
Sadly for Ralf, he could not concentrate on passing Villeneuve as the McLaren pair were breathing down his neck, waiting for any mistake that would give them room to pass. This pressure caused the Jordan driver to drop back slightly and the momentum was lost for the time being.
On lap 4, Tarso Marques came into the Minardi pit and retired, ending a dismal race for the Brazilian driver who had impressed so much in the South American races at the start of 1996.
At the front Schumacher started to stretch his lead, adding as much as a second a lap to his lead over Frentzen. Frentzen in turn had shaken off the second Ferrari and was creating a gap between the two cars that would allow him to chase Schumacher without having to block his team mate. Irvine, however, was having problems of his own, and was being pursued by Jacques Villeneuve who was keen to start scoring points again in his chase for the title.
For the following laps it seemed that the French circuit would be host to yet another procession with few drivers being able to get close enough to the man in front to try anything without risking losing a place to the man behind them.
Lap 9 saw Shinji Nakano spin out of what was looking like his best race so far (the point in Canada being a result of pit-stops and an early finish) when he pushed too hard at Imola, the same spot where Jacques Villeneuve had gone off on Saturday morning.
By this time the top 6 looked like this: M.Schumacher -> 6.909s -> Frentzen -> 4.531s -> Irvine -> 2.597s -> Villeneuve -> 6.654s -> R.Schumacher -> 0.673s -> Coulthard
At this point, the lead that Schumacher had been so relentlessly extending seemed to become static. Whether this was so that he could conserve tyres, that Frentzen was pushing harder or for any other reason is hard to tell, but both cars were still going faster than the chasing group and it seemed a foregone conclusion that one of these two would be the victor.
On lap 11 Jos Verstappen and Pedro Diniz had a coming together that cost the Arrows driver his front wing. Jos, it seemed was undamaged by this coming together and continued the race without pitting for a precautionary stop even though the team were prepared for him to visit. Sadly for Tyrrell, the bump had apparently caused more damage than at first thought, and the Dutch driver skated off the track and into a tyre wall within two laps.
Lap 14 saw Mika Hakkinen end yet another race before the finish when he pulled his car off the track at the end of the main straight, apparently suffering from some kind of transmission related problem. Mika has had an up and down season so far and has borne the brunt of the bad luck that has afflicted the team since Melbourne.
Back at the front there was no change in positions, although distances between the cars was slowly changing, so that on lap 20 the times were: M.Schumacher -> 7.400s -> Frentzen -> 10.892s -> Irvine -> 7.557s -> Villeneuve -> 11.461s -> R.Schumacher -> 1.408s -> Coulthard
Behind Coulthard Jarno Trulli was holding back Alex Wurz and Jean Alesi despite the Benetton pair looking capable of going a good deal faster. Alex Wurz was again having a good race and it seems that both Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger have cause for worry now. In Wurz, Flavio Briatore, the team boss, has a capable driver to replace either of the if he feels that they are not up to par.
On lap 22 the first round of pit stops started when Michael Schumacher came in for rubber and fuel (8 second stop), followed on the same lap by Alesi (10.9s), on lap 23 by Irvine (8.4), Frentzen (8.3s) and Coulthard (8.1s) and on lap 25 by Ralf Schumacher (8.3s) and Villeneuve (8.3s).
Although Heinz-Harald Frentzen had only been on the jacks for 8.3 seconds, he lost a further 7 or 8 seconds when Jean Alesi steamed into the pit in front of him causing the chief mechanic to hold him back until the Frenchman was stopped in the Benetton pit.
With all the stops taking a similar time, the order at the front remained the same, except for Jarno Trulli popping up in 5th, having not yet made a stop. His stop duly came on lap 30 (taking 7.6 seconds) moving Ralf Schumacher back into 4th and his team mate Giancarlo Fisichella (another driver having a disappointing weekend) into 6th. Again this was slightly misleading as the second Jordan had not yet stopped for fuel and tyres, the Italian driver apparently planning a one-stop strategy where everyone else seemed to be doing two.
Michael Schumacher who had emerged from the pit stops with a 15 second lead over Frentzen seemed to be having an uncharacteristically hard time getting through the backmarkers and lost 4 seconds over laps 33 and 34, giving some hope to the crowd and viewers at home that there might be a race for the lead at last.
Whilst Schumacher was trying to scrabble past the backmarkers, Jan Magnussen (whom we are used to seeing at the back) was retiring in the pits with a mechanical problem. Sadly for Stewart Grand Prix less than two laps later, Rubens Barrichello also retired, this time with smoke pouring from his gearbox. Yet again, Stewart have been let down and are sure to take the mantle of "Most Retired Car" from Ferrari in 1997.
Lap 35 saw Giancarlo Fisichella make his only scheduled stop of the race (10.8s) which moved McLaren-Mercedes driver David Coulthard back into 6th, restoring the equilibrium until the second round of stops.
It was at this point that Michael Schumacher seemed to realise that he was losing time hand over fist to Frentzen and he immediately set about clawing some of the lost time back. On laps 36 and 37 he set fastest race lap, with the latter remaining so for the rest of the race.
With the second set of stops imminent, the sky was growing ever darker and spots of rain started to appear on the track. In the stands the crowd began preparing for rain and the teams started to look anxious, knowing that the wrong call on the stops could ruin the race for them.
For Schumacher there seemed to be no such worried as he extended the lead from 13.786 seconds on lap 37 to 21.931 seconds on lap 40, a result of both his fast laps and Frentzen reaching the backmarkers that had caused Michael to stumble. The timings of the top 6 at this stage were:
M.Schumacher -> 21.931s -> Frentzen -> 14.915s -> Irvine -> 10.671s -> Villeneuve -> 16.193s -> R.Schumacher -> 0.706s -> Coulthard
Although the top 5 were well spaced out, the changing weather conditions could easily have seen a dramatic change if any of the drivers made the wrong tyre choice at their stop.
Even though the rain was not falling heavily, the slightly slippery surface caught out Norberto Fontana who ending his race in both ignominy and the gravel. Sadly for a driver with so much promise, he will need a lot of luck to stand a chance of retaining the second Sauber seat for the British Grand Prix. After beating Ralf Schumacher to the German F3 title in 1995, it seems that the poor results of last season (Formula Nippon) have slowed the Argentinian driver and this could well prove to be the only F1 race he ever competes in.
Lap 43 saw Eddie Irvine stop and take on slick tyres as well as fuel, indicating that the teams thought the drizzle would soon stop and that then slicks would be the tyre to be running with.
Within seconds the rain started to fall harder on the track and it looked like everyone would soon be in for either full rain tyres or intermediate tyres. Certainly the weather seemed to be bad enough for Jarno Trulli to have the cut slicks put on his Prost car, although it has to be said that Prost looked like they were gambling in the hope of getting a podium finish.
When Schumacher pitted on lap 46, intermediates or wets seemed the way to go, but the Ferrari team fitted slick tyres and sent him on his way. This triggered the next round of stops proper and within 5 laps Ralf Schumacher, David Coulthard, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Jacques Villeneuve, Jean Alesi and Alex Wurz all stopped and taken on fresh slicks, indicating that the front runners were happier to let their drivers run slicks on a wet track than taking a risk on tyres that would need changing when their competitors were still on track.
On lap 60, the rain that had been threatened by the skies all day finally fell, soaking the crowd and track. With the amount of spray being thrown up by the cars, it seemed a foregone conclusion that the cars would all stop and take on wet tyres, yet even though most teams were clearly ready for their cars, everyone stayed out.
Sadly for Trulli, by this point his tyres were ruined thanks to the work out they had received on a dry track that they are not designed for and the Italian was unable run significantly faster than the rest of the cars. For Prost the gamble had not paid off, but would the slick-tyre runners lose theirs?
Almost immediately it looked like Schumacher had made the wrong choice when the Ferrari ran wide at the second corner, forcing Michael onto the gravel. For a few moments the race seemed to have been handed to Frentzen on a plate, but not for the first time that day, a car drove out of the gravel, with nothing worse than a red faced driver to show for it.
At this point all the pitting cars were taking on wet tyres and it seemed that it was the way to go, with Johnny Herbert passing Michael Schumacher on lap 63 with ease as the Ferrari slid all over the road, the driver fighting to find grip on the glassy surface. Magny-Cours is a purpose built circuit and is relatively slippery in the dry, but in the wet the surface is almost like ice unless you are on the right tyres.
Both Alex Wurz and Pedro Diniz fell victim to the conditions, drivers dumping the Benetton and Arrows respectively into the gravel at different points on the track. Whilst Wurz can be excused because of lack of experience, I would have expected better of Diniz who is into his third season of Formula One and should know Magny-Cours like the back of his hand after a year at Prost (then Ligier).
On lap 64 Mika Salo also fell victim to the conditions, adding his Tyrrell to the queue of cars awaiting extraction from the kitty litter.
Back in 10th, Jarno Trulli finally started to get some advantage from his tyres and passed Frentzen, so that he could close in on Schumacher and unlap himself, perhaps giving him a chance at scoring his first World Championship point.
This lap saw both Ralf Schumacher and Jacques Villeneuve take trips across the gravel and Giancarlo Fisichella stop for cut slicks, despite not needing fuel to make it to the end of the race.
Ralfs trip into the gravel enabled David Coulthard to get past him and the younger Schumacher immediately started to chase the McLaren to regain his position. Where the McLaren had clearly been the better car in the dry, the Jordan seemed to be head and shoulders above it in the wet and Ralf was all over the back of Coulthard.
On lap 68 both Eddie Irvine and Jacques Villeneuve decided to stop for intermediates, clearly deciding that discretion was the better part of valour and that an almost certain top 6 finish was more important than taking the risk of running to the end on slicks.
This left the top 6 thus:
M.Schumacher -> 34.236s-> Frentzen -> 25.923s -> Irvine -> 7.456s -> Coulthard -> 1.467s -> R.Schumacher -> 2.851s -> Villeneuve
For Villeneuve there was no room for error, with a similarly shod Alesi pushing him hard, waiting for any opening that would allow him to pass.
By lap 71, the Villeneuve - Alesi battle had caught the Coulthard - Ralf Schumacher battle and Villeneuve set about passing Schumacher. In a place that Martin Brundle said passing was impossible (Chateau d'Eau), the Williams pushed past the Jordan and started pushing Coulthard.
At the end of the main straight, Villeneuve dived inside Coulthard, followed, somewhat messily, by Ralf Schumacher. David was clearly not impressed by this and had to swerve to avoid taking both himself and Ralf out of the race. Less than 4 corners later, Ralf blotted his copybook again by dumping the Jordan into the gravel, and although he got back underway, he had dropped to 7th, was lapped by his big brothers Ferrari and there seemed little chance of getting even a single point out of the race.
Luckily for him, Michael was looking out for his little brother and with plenty of time in hand over Frentzen, the former World Champion slowed to allow him past at the Lycee, thereby giving him another lap to try and regain a place. Of course, with this being lap 71 for the younger Schumacher, Michael was on his final lap and crossed the line just behind Ralf, winning his third race of 1997.
Luckily for Ralf, Jean Alesi chose the final lap to try and pass David Coulthard. Although the Benetton looked faster, Coulthard was sticking to his line and was proving hard to pass. Alesi is not known for his patience and bumped the McLaren in his eagerness to get past on the latter half of the final lap, spinning the McLaren which then stalled.
Further forward Villeneuve had closed up on Irvine and decided to try and pass between the exit of the chicane and the entry to Lycee. From the start this looked almost impossible and the Canadian proved the point by getting a rear wheel onto the grass and spinning the Williams into the pitlane entrance. For a moment it looked like the car had stalled, but Jacques got it going and with the barge-board flapping around like loose tape he just crossed the line ahead of Jean Alesi.
Michael Schumacher arrived in France saying that Ferrari would be hard pressed to get on the podium and left admitting that he could be in line for a third World Championship if things continued to go well for him.