|Spanish GP Review|
|Max Galvin, England|
Another race finished and another close fight at the front that should, if not for the intervention of backmarkers, have produced an exciting finish.
Before the race
Predictably, the Williams-Renault pairing of Jacques Villeneuve and Heinz-Harald Frentzen were on the pace from the word go and were around the top of the sheets in each session for the entire weekend. Benetton-Renault seemed rejuvenated in Barcelona with Jean Alesi topping the time sheets in the first session and Gerhard Berger following closely behind.
Sauber-Petronas were another team doing well, Johnny Herbert continuing their run of good times keeping himself inside the top 10 for all the pre-race practice runs. Gianni Morbidelli had a superb test at Barcelona before the race on the strength of which he ousted Nicola Larini from his seat in the team. Sadly, Gianni did no better than his departed compatriot reflecting badly on himself and shining a favourable light on his British team mate.
Whilst on the subject of poor performances, the Ferrari team were as good as their word and had a poor showing, with Michael Schumacher and Eddie Irvine qualifying 7th and 11th respectively. Likewise the Stewart-Ford team reminded the world in general that Monaco was a great result, but a fortuitous one with both cars at the wrong end of the grid.
Two teams brought new engines to Spain, McLaren using the new specification Mercedes in qualifying only and Tyrrell using the Ford ED5 throughout the weekend. Both teams were transformed with both McLarens qualifying on the front 3 rows and Mika Salo managing to get the previously slow Tyrrell up to 14th.
As seems usual in 1997 the first action started before the red lights went out, with Gerhard Berger stalling on the grid as the field took off for the formation lap. Luckily for Berger, Ralf Schumacher repeated this act when the Jordan-Peugeot arrived on the grid, necessitating a complete restart but with Schumacher at the back as opposed to 9th and Berger back in his 6th place grid position.
The lights went out and Jacques Villeneuve made a perfect start, whilst Heinz-Harald Frentzen (also on the front row) bogged down and was immediately swamped by the cars behind him. David Coulthard moved his McLaren over to the right to avoid the slower Williams, Michael Schumacher was another driver who made a lightening start, so quick in fact that he had to back off to avoid Jean Alesi who was hemmed in by Mika Hakkinen and Frentzen.
At the first corner Coulthard appeared to have the better of Villeneuve, but the Canadian held his line until the second bend gave him the better line and he could force the McLaren wide. This apparently unsettled Coulthard and at the next corner he let 3rd placed Schumacher into 2nd place which did as much as any other event to decide the outcome of the race.
Behind Coulthard, Jean Alesi held off Mika Hakkinen, Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Johnny Herbert. A short distance behind Herbert, Gerhard Berger was being pressured by Mika Salo (managing to get the Tyrrell into a place it had no business being), Giancarlo Fisichella and Damon Hill.
As has been the pattern so far in 1997, the front of the field appeared fairly evenly matched, with around 4 seconds covering the top 6 by the end of the 3rd lap. There may not be much overtaking in F1, but at least the cars are closer in performance than they have been since the start of the decade, with no one driver seeming to have a massive performance advantage over the others.
Sadly this couldn't, and didn't, last for long. All weekend the teams had complained that the cars were chewing up tyres at an unprecedented rate and most, if not all, of the Goodyear teams had 3 stops planned. Bridgestone, whilst not quite on the pace of their U.S. rivals, had the better durability of the two and most of their drivers had 2 stop strategies planned for the race. For Michael Schumacher, the problems started around lap 5 when he started to become increasingly slower in the back section of the track.
Of course this allowed Villeneuve to start to pull out the lead he needed to allow him to control the race as he saw fit. Over the next few laps, the Williams driver pulled away from the Ferrari at over a second a lap (at one point he put 2.5 seconds on his lead in one lap) and Schumacher came under fire from the chasing cars.
First up was David Coulthard who was swarming all over the gearbox of the scarlet car in a vain attempt to force an error. The former World Champion was equal to the challenge in the twisty parts of the circuit but was on shaky ground as soon as the cars hit the start-finish straight. Luckily for Schumacher the sweeping final bend would invariably force the McLaren driver to back off to prevent understeer that would ruin the tyres.
On lap 9 Coulthard got close enough to the Ferrari to get into the slipstream and as the two cars approached turn 1, David pulled out and tried to slingshot past. Schumacher responded to this in the only way he could if he was to retain the position and chopped across the bows of the McLaren, balking Coulthard and giving himself a little breathing room.
3 laps later the Jordan of Ralf Schumacher was in for fresh rubber and fuel. Lap 12 was also the lap where the older Schumacher lost 2nd place to David Coulthard. In a copy of his earlier maneuver, David chased the Ferrari down the straight and this time managed to get enough of a tow to get his whole car past the Ferrari, taking the racing line long before the first corner.
Such was the condition of Schumacher's tyres that he was immediately attacked by 4th placed Jean Alesi and was forced into a show of almost perfect defensive driving. This in turn allowed Coulthard to pull away from the battle raging behind him, opening up a respectable margin before pulling into the pits for his planned stop. Whilst the team were not to know that he had got past, it seems strange that Coulthard could not continue and this decision probably cost him a podium finish.
Similarly, both Michael Schumacher and Gerhard Berger made their stops followed, a lap later, by Hakkinen and, a further lap later, by Frentzen. Frentzen, it must be said, was having a dismal race, his Williams using up its tyres very quickly when its sister car was still running well.
This left Villeneuve leading Alesi by 20 seconds, who in turn had a 32 second lead over Fisichella. Coulthard emerged in 4th place, 35 seconds behind Fisichella's Jordan, followed at some distance by Eddie Irvine and Damon Hill. At this point Murray Walker, commented that Damon could well be in line to score his first points of 1997 if he could only keep the Arrows running. Once again, Murrays kiss of death came into action and as Damon arrived on the start-finish straight, the Yamaha engine expired and the outgoing World Champion coasted to a halt in front of his former teams pit wall section, a position that he left his car in the same time last year.
On laps 19, 20 and 21 the front runners who had yet to stop (Fisichella, Villeneuve and Alesi respectively) came in for their stops. The cars emerged with 2nd placed Coulthard under 4 seconds behind the man still leading the race, Jacques Villeneuve. In 3rd (7 seconds behind) Olivier Panis had yet to stop, but the durable Bridgestone rubber seemed not to be causing any problems for the Prost-Mugen Honda driver. 6 seconds behind Panis, under 2 seconds separated Hakkinen, Alesi and Schumacher, all three battling hard to improve their standing in the drivers Championship.
On lap 26 Alesi managed to squeeze by Hakkinen and the Finn was put off sufficiently to allow Schumacher past as well. For Hakkinen this was not a massive problem as he was due for his second stop. This was very early, coming as it did only 11 laps after his first stop and the team were either trying to give him a long middle stint or his tyres had been destroyed in his fight with the Benetton and Ferrari. This lap also saw Frentzen in for his 2nd stop, his tyres completely shot to pieces, and Panis in for the first of his two stops.
This left the top 10 as Villeneuve, Coulthard, Alesi, Schumacher, Herbert, Panis, Fisichella, Berger, Hakkinen and Irvine. Heinz-Harald Frentzen's tyre problems had left him circulating in 12th position after his second stop, well out of contention for the win and almost out of touch for even 1 point. It seems strange that Frentzen's Williams was using its tyres quicker than Villeneuves despite having more downforce. Some argue that Frentzen is showing his weakness and that he overdrives the car when he is behind and trying to catch up.
At the end of lap 28, the next round of drivers started to come in for their 2nd stops. Over the next 5 laps, Irvine, Coulthard, Berger, M. Schumacher, Fisichella and Herbert took on their second set of Goodyear rubber and a tank of fuel.
On lap 34 the positions were:
Lap 34 also saw the retirement of Shinji Nakano during his stop, his Prost having lost sixth gear before he arrived in the pits. As he tried to engage first to set off after his stop, the car refused to move and the team pushed him into retirement. Whether or not this is his last race for the remains to be seen (although the rumours of Damon Hill joining Prost appear to be wide of the mark), but he cannot have done his stock much harm with a solid race up to that point.
Shinji was joined in retirement a lap later by Mika Salo when the Tyrrell driver had a tyre explode on him. Mika had been complaining about the balance of his car all weekend and as he predicted, it was the left rear that caused him the problem. The Tyrrells (well the one driven by Salo at least) seems to be transformed with the new engine and the team are challenging Arrows and Stewart at the front of the midfielders.
2 laps later Rubens Barrichello retired from the race, compounding the misery of the team, with the second Stewart running way back in 16th place.
Back at the front, Olivier Panis was using his tyre advantage to its fullest and was putting David Coulthard under pressure to take 3rd place from him. By lap 39, the Prost car was past the McLaren. Panis was clearly faster than Coulthard and immediately started to pull away from the Silver Arrows and set about catching both Alesi and Villeneuve.
Shortly after this event, Frentzen, Coulthard and Berger all stopped for their 3rd stops of the race, setting themselves up for a long final stint. Again this triggered another round of stops, with Alesi, Panis, Hakkinen, Villeneuve and Schumacher all stopping over the period from lap 44 to lap 46. Johnny Herbert stopped slightly later (lap 49), but neither gained nor lost any positions by being out of step with the rest of the top 6.
So, after the final set of stops, the top 6 looked like this:
Villeneuve, Panis, Alesi, Schumacher, Herbert and Coulthard.
This, however, was not the order for long as David Coulthard was attacking Johnny Herbert and took 5th place from him on lap 50. This lap also saw the retirement of Ralf Schumacher because of a blown engine, the first Peugeot that has been seen to explode in a race for a long time.
Olivier Panis had come out of his final stop ahead of Jean Alesi and was just over 11 seconds behind the leader, Jacques Villeneuve. With Alesi and Schumacher chasing, but the Prost clearly the fastest car on the track, we seemed to be set for a thrilling race climax with Panis chasing down Villeneuve and battling for the lead.
Sadly, a string of backmarkers ruined this and their stubbornness combined with the wishy-washy way that Panis tried to get past them, meant that he was almost caught by Alesi.
Eddie Irvine, for his part in the fiasco, received a 10 second stop-go penalty, having blocked Panis shamelessly in an effort to allow team leader Schumacher to close back up and perhaps pass both Oliver and Alesi to get another podium slot.
Justly, Panis was able to get past without Alesi or Schumacher getting too close, but by this point Jacques Villeneuve was too far down the road to be caught and all that Panis could do was get as close as possible and try to claim fastest race lap.
Although the action right at the front was over, the fight for 5th was not. Johnny Herbert was pushing David Coulthard hard to regain the 5th place that had been taken from him by the McLaren driver. On the final lap, Johnny was successful, relegating the winner of the Australian Grand Prix to 6th place and the final point (finally taking Coulthard off 10 points).
As the cars arrived in the Parc Ferme, Villeneuve left the car quickly to get weighed, closely followed by Panis. Coulthard and Schumacher engaged in conversation for a moment, neither driver having to make the climb to the podium. The award ceremony was a surprisingly happy affair, perhaps because all 3 drivers are native French speakers and feel a common bond.
In the press conference, all three drivers appeared happy to be where they were, but Jacques seemed more relieved to be back to winning ways after the "stupid" race in Monaco. If he can continue this type of performance, controlling the races from the front, he will doubtless win the Championship, but Schumacher and Frentzen have 10 more races to overturn this.