|Formula Parity, Part II|
|by Rob Paterson, Canada|
Perhaps Gerhard Berger said it best at the Brazilian GP. "It is unbelievably competitive at the moment. I can never remember it being so tight in all my years in Formula One. You can be second one minute and eighth the next, but it is good for the sport and it means there will be a very close race."
With only six races run , Berger is one of 15 drivers to have scored points so far this season. In those six races, four different drivers have won, including first time GP winner Heinz-Harald Frentzen. When you consider on 25th May last year, only the two Williams drivers had won, and Hill had a 27 point gap on the closest non-Williams competitor. This season is shaping up to be far more competitive.
Williams still has a stranglehold on pole position, in fact that's the only area where things are worse than last season. Villeneuve has virtually owned the pole up until Monaco. And, when he faltered ever so slightly, Frentzen picked up the slack. Of course, it was only slightly better last season when Schumacher was the only non-Williams pole man for the whole season. Chances are there will be a race this season where Ferrari and Schumacher get everything right, it just hasn't happened yet. The key will be seeing someone else line up in the number one grid slot, perhaps Panis, Hakkinen or one of the young Jordan hot shoes.
While Williams has had a lock on pole position, it can be said that the gap from the front to the back of the grid has closed. If you take Lola out of the equation, there has only been one driver who has failed to qualify under the 107% rule, and that was Diniz. He was (quite rightly in my view) reinstated because he had a gearbox problem after he ran well within the limit in practice in Australia. Imola is the only other race so far this season where the last qualifier has even gone above 106%. In contrast, after five races last year both Forti drivers, Badoer and Montermini, failed to qualify at Albert Park and Nurburgring, and Badoer had the only Forti at Imola having just scraped under 107%.
The points table shows an interesting comparison between this year and last. After five races there were 12 drivers to have scored point in '96. Hill and Villeneuve accounted for 65 of the 130 points awarded, and Williams was only 15 point away from a perfect score of 80 possible points. Ferrari lagged 40 points behind Williams in second with 25 points. Benetton with 18 in third was the only other teams in double figures in the constructors championship. 1997 brings us a Constructors Championship gap of only 8 points from first to second, four teams in double figures, and no team over 40 points -- which was the gap between first and second at the same point last year.
There are lots of reasons to be optimistic about this season as several teams continue to improve on their performance over last season. Alain Prost's guidance coupled with Bridgestone rubber make Olivier Panis a consistent points scorer. Eddie Jordan's choice of Ralf Schumacher and Giancarlo Fisichella has propelled his team closer to the front of the grid, especially during qualifying. And, even Arrows has improved -- believe it or not -- but the reliability of the Yamaha engine is still a major problem.
Minardi has improved, if only through the finacial reorginazation they went through this winter. I firmly believe Minardi exists partially as a holding area for Flavio Briatore's talent and equiptment. Briatore holds the contracts of both Fisichella, last years Minardi rookie, and Jarno Trulli -- this years model. Both are touted as future Benetton drivers. Like Ligier before them, Minardi may have a role in Briatore's future engine plans for Benetton. By placing the Mugen/Honda with Minardi next season, Flavio continue's his relationship with Honda which should aid him in securing a works engine deal as soon as they decide to return to F1. If that role is enough to keep Minardi from folding, then so be it. Sometimes your victories aren't scored on the track.
With everything looking so good for a competitive field for the rest of 1997, the proposed rule changes for 1998 may put an end to the potential parity after this season. Whether you like the idea of grooved tyre or not, at least the major cost of the development will be bourne by the two competing tyre companies. The main problem is the new narrower chassis, which will mean another redesigning of the cars for next season. If these changes go through, I'd imagine that the better funded teams like Williams, Ferrari, McLaren and Benetton will have a competitive car right away. This leaves fledgling top teams like Prost, Jordan and probably Stewart, scrambling to keep up once again.
There has been alot that goes into a season that's so competitive. New tyres from Bridgestone have helped as have two years of relatively stable rules. There are numerous other factors as well, like Adrian Newey's departure from Williams or Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne leaving Benetton for Ferrari. All these factors have made this season at least a little more competitive. So, if it all comes crashing down next season, and one of the top four teams runs away with both the Drivers and Constructors Championship, at least we had Paris... err I mean the 1997 F1 season.