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Race Day : May 11th 1997

‘Rainy Day Winners Nos 5 & 22’

William’s blunders cost championship lead... and tears for Stewart as tartan team take 2nd.

As Bob Dylan, purveyor of a different kind of climate in the ‘60’s once sang, "You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows". It’s a pity that Frank Williams didn’t pay heed to that portentous phrase, for had he done so, his two drivers may have been languishing in the winners circle and enjoying the accolades that, even as the team were packing up their equipment, their rivals Ferrari, were now enjoying.

The unpredictability of the weather in Monte Carlo once again played it’s part in the outcome of the Monaco Grand Prix and in what may turn out to be the single most ill-judged decision of the season, Williams threw away a race that they had every chance of winning and for the time being at least, handed the lead for both Constructors and Drivers Championship to the riders of the Prancing Horse. With 19 of the 22 cars on the grid sporting full or intermediate wet weather tyres and the rain pelting down, it was unbelievable to see the two Williams FW19’s shod with dry slicks. David Coulthard’s McLaren Mercedes too had them, which led one to wonder what mis-informed meteorological secret the two teams were privy too, for, to send your driver out in such conditions was either stupendously foolhardy or fabulously hopeful.

Heinz Harald Frentzen’s hard work obtaining pole the day before, came to nothing as the Ferrari of Michael Schumacher on intermediate wet tyres and in the spare car, set up wisely for a ‘damp’ race, rocketed away from the line leaving his fellow countryman desperately trying to keep the car under control, his slicks providing zero adhesion on the soaking track. Jacques Villeneuve immediately behind was in the same boat and could do nothing but watch as the Jordan of Giancarlo Fisichella swanned by, leaving him in fourth with a gaggle of sure footed machinery behind and all of them about to pounce.

By the start of lap 3 Schumacher had pulled out a lead of over 12 seconds and the slithering Williams of Frentzen had been passed by Ralf Schumacher Johnny Herbert, and Bridgestone Runners, Rubens Barichello and Olivier Panis, while Villeneuve had dropped to a miserable 8th. It took both Williams drivers the best part of 5 laps to realise that if they wanted any chance of a race finish they would have to pit for treaded tyres by which time really, the damage had been done. Villeneuve fell off the track 12 laps later after being ignominiously lapped by Schumacher, hitting the Armco and damaging the rear suspension. This was his third retirement in five races and to lose almost two minute to the Ferrari in just a dozen laps, must have been a humbling experience. "We had data telling us it wasn’t going to be wet after half an hour but it turned out it actually rained more!" he said seemingly non-plussed," So our dry set up with slicks was useless. Even with intermediate tyres (wets) the car was not set up for these conditions and it was very difficult to drive. Eventually, I hit the guard rail and the car was too damaged to continue."

Maybe on reflection, Jacques will recall a similar situation at Barcelona last year when the ‘SS Schumacher’ steamed through the field leaving main protagonist Hill, spinning out of contention in front of the pits, the victim of an imperfect meteorological judgement. Despite a dark sky, pregnant with rain and following a wet warm up session, a gamble was taken on a dry race. One would have thought that Williams would have taken heed of past experiences.

As early as lap 2, carnage at the Nouvelle chicane put paid to both McLaren drivers. Coulthard, suffering bad oversteer, crashed into the rails after exiting the tunnel and ended up facing the way he had come, making an unwelcome surprise for team mate Mika Hakkinen who followed a second or so later. Trying to avoid his team mate he found himself wedged between Jean Alesi’s Benetton and the barriers, and removed himself from the race with only three wheels on his wagon. As the third string of cars threaded their way through, The Ferrari of Eddie Irvine came accross the freshly thumped Benetton at the chicane’s exit. Braking heavily to avoid a collision, he was railroaded from behind by the close following Arrows of Damon Hill. "I was right behind Irvine and there were a lot of cars that fell off, coming out of the tunnel," he said later, "Coulthard spun and there was a Benetton that had spun also and as we went round the chicane we made our way through all these crashed cars. A Benetton came over the curb and stopped right in the middle of the track. So Irvine had to stop and I was right behind him and I just went up the back of him." Irvine was quite unconcerned by it all. Having gained the middle ground during the early part of the race after such a disastrous qualifying position, the ongoing attrition was doing him nothing but good. "The first few laps were crazy," He grinned, "I was hitting people, they were hitting me up the back and on the side. God knows how many times I was hit, The Ferrari must be a very strong car."

By lap 4 the Schumacher’s Ferrari had a 16 second lead over the extraordinary Giancarlo Fisichella, continuing to put his stamp on the Jordan team and dominating for the third race in a row, team mate Ralf Schumacher. Spinning at Loew’s hairpin, the young German was caught and passed by a storming Rubens Barichello having the drive of his life in the Stewart Ford, who now, had his teeth bared for Fisichella’s Jordan. The impetuous Schumacher junior was to lose a wheel on lap 11 at Saint Devote, a corner that trapped several drivers, including on lap 36, Michael Schumacher who’s diligent and quick thinking action saved him from disaster.

Meanwhile 4th placed man and winner of Last years race, Olivier Panis was rapidly approaching the remaining Jordan of Fisichella, who was driving with all the smoothness and confidence of a champion. Panis by contrast was evidently anxious to pass and at stages he was lucky to keep the car under control losing it on several occasions in his desperation to pass. Fisichella’s calmness under such pressure was indeed commendable, but eventually Panis harried his way through to take third place on lap 31. "This was a difficult race," said Fisichella afterwards, "We started on intermediate tyres hoping the circuit would dry, but it began to rain very hard and our tyres were not providing good grip, especially under braking. This made the car very difficult to drive and I was never able to apply full power otherwise I would have slid off the course. I feel it was a miracle to have finished the race! It was a complete 'Casino' which is appropriate for Monaco."

Fisichella also succumbed to Irvine at the exit from the tunnel a lap later. The Irishman having already made his pit stop, then stole the march on Panis’ Prost to cement third spot for the remainder of the race.

Mika Salo in the Tyrrell Ford, running an incredible non stop race, overtook the Jordan during their fuel stop, to take fifth slot, the Italian regaining the track in 7th position behind Jan Magnussen. "We reduced the fuel mix and the revs and I started coasting through the comers to stay off the power and changing gear earlier." Said Salo, "It was great thinking, but I wasn't sure I would make it. My tyres were completely shot."

By lap 40 the race was all but over. Johnny Herbert had spun into a barrier at Saint Devote on lap 8. Alesi spun and stalled his engine at Portiers on lap 16, Larini retired after hitting a barrier on lap 24 as did Nakarno on lap 36 and, to top it all Frentzen’s nightmare came to an end with a front end nudge at Louis Chiron by the swimming pool complex on lap 39. Williams, ‘zero points.’

Schumacher took the flag with ten cars out of twenty two remaining, a massive 53 seconds ahead of a delighted Barichello. "It’s just great to be here, on the podium at Monaco." beamed the Brazilian, "It’s not so long ago that I used to get up at eight in Brazil, to watch Ayrton Senna at Monaco. For me to be on the podium here is something else." It was also something else for team owner and three times Champion, Jackie Stewart who, emotional and hardly able to speak, managed to say, "I have never been happier in my whole career. Not from a victory not from a championship, NEVER. When Rubens crossed the line Paul (Stewart) and I burst out crying." The tears didn’t mask a gleam in his eyes when he added, "I have never been second before and but for a certain Mr. Schumacher, Ferrari would have been second today."

After giving Ferrari team boss Jean Todt a joyous chair lift the two Ferrari drivers abandoned Barichello on the podium to give their pit crew a liberal dowsing of Moet.

It seems extraordinary that two of the most experienced teams in Formula 1 were caught out on such a simple call. There was no sympathy for Frank Williams who remarked at the end of the day, "If it had worked out, it would have made us heroes." Well, so what? If this writer had won the lottery he would be rich. A high tech sport such as this should not be subject to such long odds and the Williams strategists must have noted that, had it stopped raining, it would have still taken 15 minutes for a dry line to emerge to warrant the use of slicks. The time gained by the slick shod drivers, whilst the rest of the grid dived in for dry tyres would certainly not have been anywhere near enough to warrant the decision to run a dry set-up at the outset.

Again Jordan Peugeot put in a satisfying show despite Eddie Jordan’s disappointment. "It is frustrating to come away with only one point but Giancarlo did a fantastic job under very difficult race conditions." He said.

Apart from Ferrari the race belonged to the second string teams all of which had a fair bite of the apple and it is to Jackie Stewart’s credit that his faith in Barichello has reaped its just reward.

There will be a new pecking order in 1997. Whilst Williams may just be hanging on to the top spot by a thread from Big Red, The Jordans and Stewarts and Prosts are already reserving their places and, if Benetton and McLaren don’t watch out, there will be no tickets left.


Chris Richardson May 11th 1997


Top Ten Finishers

Monaco Grand Prix 1997


1 M Schumacher     2.00.05
2 R Barichello     2.00.58
3 E Irvine         2.01.27
4 O Panis          2.10.50
5 M Salo           2.00.18	(1 lap down)
6 G Fisichella     2.00.25	(1 lap down)
7 J Magnussen      2.01.52	(1 lap down)
8 J Verstappen     2.00.20	(2 laps down)
9 G Berger         2.00.44	(2 laps down)
10 U Katayama      2.01.49	(2 laps down)

1997 Championship Contents

Formula 1 Contents