|The Day The Music Died|
|Chris Balfe, England|
Don McLean's 1972 hit "American Pie" was supposedly written in honour of the death of the late Buddy Holly... "the day the music died." The 25th/26th October 1997 is when F1, for me, finally lost it's magic. The memories of that weekend are as black as the events of a similar weekend in May 1994, only for different reasons. Then we saw the death of our heroes, here we witnessed the moral death of our sport.
Regular readers will know that for some time I have had serious misgivings about the route F1 has been taking. It would be unfair to lay the blame squarely at the feet of Ecclestone and Mosley, however they must accept their share of the responsibility. Mosley's recent remark that he was not concerned with the heritage and tradition of F1 says it all. I was under the impression that as president of the FIA that was part of his brief.
Now that the British Government has capitulated to Mosley and Ecclestone's threats, the public floatation can go ahead. Did any of you out there really fall for this? Did you really believe that Bernie and Co. would kill the goose that laid the billion dollar egg?
I read recently that Roger Penske has replaced Paul Tracy with Andre Riberio who will probably bring $10 million in sponsorship with him. This was followed by news that Riberio was hoping to attract backing from a major Brazilian brewery for 1999 "when new anti-tobacco legislation will be in force in the US". Does anybody expect me to believe that after all these years of trying to get the US of A to come back to F1 that Bernie would jeopardise it all again for the sake of the tobacco companies?
No, I don't single out Bernie and Max for the blame, for they have had plenty of willing accomplices.
On three occasions this year before the Japanese Grand Prix, Jacques Villeneuve had differences of opinion with race officials. At Imola, Villeneuve and Frentzen both received bans suspended for one race. This was for ignoring the waved yellow flags following Nakano's accident in qualifying. In Britain, Villeneuve was in trouble again. This time he was given a suspended one race ban after failing to keep within five lengths of the safety car following Katayama's accident. Then came Monza. This time Villeneuve chose to ignore the waved yellow flags following Michael Schumacher's off during the morning warm up on race day. On this occasion his punishment was a one race ban suspended until the fourth event of 1998.
No matter how the facts are presented, and no matter what arguments you make regarding Schumacher's violation of the rules during a previous testing session at Monza, there is no getting away from the fact that Villeneuve knew the risk he was running. He had clearly broken the rules on three separate occasions and been punished accordingly. In Japan however he proved that he had not learnt his lesson. Following his much publicised admonishment for again failing to heed the warning flags, he had the temerity to question the steward's decision.
What happened next was absolute farce, the blame for which lies squarely with the FIA. Villeneuve was allowed to race under appeal. The scenario existed whereby Villeneuve could have taken Schumacher out, subsequently lost any points earned in Japan, yet still win the World Championship. This was a clear case of brinkmanship on the part of Villeneuve and his employers, made all the worse by the FIA's decision to go along with it.
Within a few days Mosley was advising Villeneuve/Williams to withdraw their appeal. Why wasn't this done at Suzuka, indeed why was Villeneuve allowed to appeal in the fist place?
Recently my partner received her first ever endorsement on her driving licence. Her crime was to have been driving at 43 mph in a 40 mph zone at 5.45 on a Saturday morning. OK it was early, the streets were empty and she was only exceeding the speed limit by 3 mph - tough! She had broken the rules and had to accept the consequences. The same goes for Villeneuve, Schumacher, Marques, Sospiri and anyone else involved in motor sport. Obey the rules - or face the consequences. Furthermore, we have got to move away from the notion of punishment and instead place the emphasis on deterring drivers from breaking the rules. It is pointless to ban Marques from a Grand Prix for being 2kg underweight when another driver is allowed to participate after risking lives.
And so to Jerez, Bernie couldn't have scripted it better (I wonder if he tried). You thought the plot to "Grand Prix" was implausible?.. Scott, Pete, Jean-Pierre and Nino. The two protagonists for the title sharing the same time, down to one thousandth of a second - riveting stuff. Then it's Frentzen's turn - 23.069, 23.070, 23.071, 23.072, amazing ! Yes, and extremely dubious. I don't know about coverage where you were, but in the UK we were informed that the timing system crashed twice during the first twenty minutes of the session. But hey, maybe I'm being over sceptical. After all there has to be an optimum time for any lap and maybe at Jerez that time is 1:23.072. Then again did any of you watch the splits for each of these boys, they were all over the place. So yes that's where I'm coming from - I don't believe that these times were correct.
Then came the race, and what a race it was - until lap 47. Up until that point everything had gone perfectly. Schumi had made a superb start, his first pit stop had been faultless and he had dealt masterly with the traffic. The second stop had not gone so well and it began to look as though Michael had a problem. Then in a few fleeting seconds the dreams of Ferrari fans the world over were cruelly dashed.
So here we were, so close - yet so far away. I continued to watch not in the hope that some mechanical problem might rob Villeneuve of the title (honestly), but to see how the McLarens would progress.
Then something happened that caused me to lose interest in the race, the championship, and Formula One. As events continued to unfold before our eyes a comment was made by the television pitlane correspondent to the effect that Patrick Head was in the process of visiting the McLaren garage. He then added that during the course of the race both Ron Dennis and Mansour Ojjeh had visited Frank Williams. As if this wasn't enough, Martin Brundle then informed viewers that Villeneuve had visited the McLaren motorhome on Saturday and that amongst other things, the Japanese GP was discussed. Villeneuve had told McLaren of his plan to slow everyone at Suzuka in the hope that someone might have overtaken Schumacher. McLaren had then asked why they hadn't been informed, why hadn't they been let in on the secret.
As the race progressed, it became clear that something very strange was afoot. Coulthard who had been reeling in the leading Williams was now unable to make any impression on 14th placed Fisichella. At the same time, Villeneuve was finding it impossible to shake off 10th placed Nakano. All manner of thoughts went through my head. OK, I was suspicious of events in qualifying but surely the race developing in front of me couldn't be fixed. On the penultimate lap my worst fears were realised. Fisichella was shown the blue flag to allow the new second placed man, Hakkinen through. Seconds later we get a long distance shot and guess what? Fisichella can't be seen.. The man who Coulthard was unable to pass (and matched Coulthard's times) for lap after lap has suddenly been passed by Hakkinen, Coulthard, Berger, Irvine and Frentzen - within the space of three corners! In the mad scramble to the line Hakkinen and Coulthard pass Villeneuve to take 1st and 2nd, whilst Berger misses out on 3rd by half a car's length.
Whilst seemingly the whole world is lauding Villeneuve and condemning Schumacher, my attention is focused on what appeared to be a deal struck between two teams on the outcome of a race.
There has been criticism from some quarters concerning the team strategy employed by Ferrari at Suzuka. Team strategy is nothing new in F1. Might I point out that the very first win by a British team in F1 was as a result of Tony Brooks handing over his car (placed 9th at the time) to Stirling Moss during the British GP in 1957. A year before that at Monza, Peter Collins (himself in with a shot at the title) handed over his car to Fangio who claimed his fourth world championship. Team orders are not something new, collusion between teams is.
The faces on the podium said it all. Coulthard was disgusted at what appeared to be instructions not just to ease up on Villeneuve but to allow Hakkinen through. Mika too didn't look over the moon, did I detect a slight look of embarrassment?. This was more than he deserved, we had seen Mika come too close too often, when that first win came it wasn't meant to be like this. Ron Dennis subsequently admitted that a pact had been made, the McLarens would ease up on Villeneuve and hold position providing Hakkinen was given the win. "In the end, the good guys won" said Dennis, an obvious swipe at Schumacher/Ferrari, the bad guys.
For me the most shameful aspect of this race was that for the last 20 laps it wasn't a race. This "pact" made a mockery of the European Grand Prix, of F1, of everyone attending the event and every mug watching it on TV. Is this what we can expect in the future? With the public floatation of F1 and therefore the interests of shareholders taking preference to those of enthusiasts, are we to expect more of the same?
Please don't let this sport go the way of so many others. I want to see future World Championships fought out on the track, the best drivers in the best cars. I do not want championships decided in corporate meetings, motorhomes or via video conferencing.
In recent weeks, we here in Britain have been overwhelmed by the coverage given to the trial in the United States of a young girl accused of killing a child in her care. Everyone you meet has their opinion. All of us seem to know something that the prosecution missed or that the jury didn't understand. The one truth is that only one person on this planet knows whether that young girl is guilty or innocent and that is the accused herself. We read the newspapers and watch our television screens, and based on a rag-tag collection of second hand information decide that we know better than judge and jury. Instrumental in all this of course is the media.. they dictate to us as judge and jury and we go along with it.
And so it goes that on Monday 27th October, the world's press decided Michael Schumacher was guilty of deliberately trying to eliminate Jacques Villeneuve from the European Grand Prix. The last driver to be so ritually and publicly vilified by the press was the chauffeur of a black Mercedes through a certain underpass in Paris earlier this year. Then, as now, the press decided who was guilty... and no quarter should be given.
I have watched "the Jerez incident" many, many times over. I am still not convinced. Regular readers will be aware that I see the world through rosso coloured glasses, yet I am trying my hardest to be unbiased. Michael made a mistake in not anticipating that Villeneuve would make such a move, certainly at that point in the race. It is quite clear that Schumacher was caught off guard. However, it appears to me that Villeneuve made no real effort to turn into the corner until it was too late, in effect using Schumacher as his "brake". The move was brave, but cavalier. When he took his opportunity, it was written large that he would emerge either as hero or villain.
In Britain, the press had a field-day. From the lowliest tabloid to the grandest broadsheet everyone agreed that Schumacher was guilty. Much was made of the fact that the German and Italian press had also turned on the double World Champion. This in itself is shameful. Whatever happened to the concept of innocent until proven guilty? Germany should be singing their star's praises and being supportive, not turning on him. As for the Italian press... who put Ferrari in a position where with two races to go, they were realistically in with a chance of winning their first Constructor's Championship since 1983? Let's be totally honest, the 310B flattered to deceive. The reason Michael Schumacher was in a position to win the title in Jerez was Michael Schumacher.
The F1 correspondent for one of the quality British newspapers went into raptures about Villeneuve's sportsmanship, even calling him "Gentleman Jacques" for allowing Hakkinen through to win! In many ways, that is what upsets me most about the whole thing. Villeneuve has dyed blonde head first into a dung-heap and emerged smelling of roses. This same reporter wrote "despite the disappointment of Monaco, where the heavens opened for Schumacher" suggesting that we should sympathise with Villeneuve for Schumacher's mastery of such conditions. Only a week before Jerez Villeneuve's race engineer Jock Clear had said "He (Villeneuve) is handling the pressure now, Spa was a real kick in the guts... had it not rained he would have blown Michael away." Can you believe this? They're talking about the World Champion? Alain Prost, one of the greatest drivers in F1 history also hated racing in the wet, however he admitted this and never used it as an excuse.
At the root of the anti-Schumacher feeling in the British press lay Adelaide '94. This and Jerez were two totally separate incidents though they shared some similarities. In 1994 as in 1997 the Williams-Renault package was the class of the field. In both seasons, however, mistakes by management and drivers meant that Williams were unable to press home their advantage. By various means, the FIA managed to get Schumacher disqualified from one event and banned from two further races. Despite missing three races, Schumacher was able to take the Championship down to the wire.
There is no doubt that Damon had Schumacher totally rattled on that long hot afternoon. The pressure was immense and eventually the young German cracked. After hitting the barrier, he vainly tried to continue - all was not lost. Similarly, Damon made a fatal mistake. He had a split second to decide how he was going to handle the situation, should he go for the gap or pass round the outside? I am certain that had it been Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna or Nigel Mansell in the Williams they would have gone the long way round and thus secured the title.
The British press has never forgiven Michael for depriving them of a British World Champion, even though in 1994 as in 1997, Schumacher was without doubt, the best driver. In the days preceding the Jerez event, all the usual racial stereotypical adjectives were used in association with Schumacher - cool, machine like, arrogant. Little credit was given to his several stupendous drives this season and even less column space was given over to the fact that Villeneuve was lucky to be participating in Spain.
The pre-race publicity had Villeneuve blasting Irvine for his tactics in Japan and asking for a clean fight. This is the same Villeneuve who had shamelessly criss-crossed the track, vainly trying to taunt Schumacher at the start of the race. The same Villeneuve who made a kamikaze attempt to block Schumacher as he emerged from his pit stop.
So, Villeneuve is the 1997 World Champion and in the opinion of journalists all over the world rightly so. All the superb work done by Schumacher in the last two seasons and up to lap 47 in Jerez has been obliterated. Wrong. In the eyes of most enthusiasts, Schumacher is the 1997 World Champion, no matter what the history books might say.
When it was first announced that Schumacher was to drive for the Scuderia, I was heartbroken. When visiting Monza in '95 I was angered to see "Welcome Schumi" T-shirts on sale. I wanted to see Jean and Gerhard continue the fight, for they, like so many of their predecessors had Ferrari in their blood. How wrong, how stupid I was. I was thinking with my heart and not my head. If we'd continued with Jean and Gerhard in 96 and 97, would we really have won 8 GPs? I don't think so. Michael may not be the most passionate of men, but he gets the job done, and with style. I believe that like Lauda, he will bring back the glory to Maranello and pass into history as one of the Ferrari giants... I certainly hope so.