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Race Day : September 21st 1997


VILLENEUVE LEAVES SCHUMACHER CLINGING TO HIS CHAMPIONSHIP CHANCES.It was a result that was not unexpected, but for all the negative press that the A1-Ring at Zeltweg has received in recent weeks, the newly reconstructed Osterreichring threw up a race of incidents that made it one of the more interesting outings of the season. Under threat from McLaren and Prost for the most part, Jacques Villeneuve drove a steady if unspectacular race to take a much needed ten points and bring him to just one point short of Michael Schumacher who finished sixth by the skin of his teeth passing Damon Hill on the last lap.

Mika Hakinnen made a lightning start from the grid leaving Villeneuve struggling on colder tyres to slip and slide uphill into the first corner. The Bridgestone clad Prost of Jarno Trulli made an expeditious start also, passing the Canadian before the turn. By the third turn both the Stewart-Fords of Rubens Barichello and Jan Magnussen also sporting the ultra grippy Bridgestone tyres started to harry the Williams and a fine pass by Barichello would have put Villeneuve down in fourth had not Hakinnen’s McLaren expired approaching the start-finish line at the end of the first lap. "I had a very average start and lost a place to Mika." Said Villeneuve afterwards. "Then Trulli got me under braking. We had a lot of fuel and somehow we couldn’t get out of the corners very well compared to the Bridgestones. They (Goodyears) took a bit longer to heat up and Barichello got me on the first lap also."

Having lost pole by seconds the day before, the unfortunate Finn must have thought that his streak of bad luck had run it’s course, but statistically it could only continue and the familiar scenario began to unfold once more as team mate David Coulthard began picking up the pieces. "It looks like my engine failed." Said Hakinnen matter of factly. "...and when that explodes the game is over."

Trulli’s game was just beginning for he started to edge out a lead from Barichello at over half a second a lap and the first three cars began to separate from the rest of the field. Trulli reeled off an unbroken string of 10 fastest laps bringing his time down from an early 1:15.6s on lap 3 to 1:13.2s by lap 21.

Gerhard Berger meanwhile had started from the pit lane having seen an ‘error’ light come on in his cockpit. He was waved through as the race commenced, promptly spun off on lap 2 but regained the race to run mostly at the back finishing a sad 10th place at his home Grand Prix.

Michael Schumacher did well to gain 3 places at the start and by lap 5 was closing in on 5th placed Heinz Harald Frentzen. With Coulthard running hard after Schumacher and Damon Hill only a couple of seconds behind the Scotsman, there was a gap of some 8 seconds to the trailing Jordan-Peugeots of Ralf Schumacher and Giancarlo Fisichella.

As the rubber content on the track surface increased, so it’s grip improved, bringing the Goodyear tyres back into contention and it became clear that Magnussen was holding up all the cars from 5th onwards. On lap 23, his tyres finally working at full efficiency, Villeneuve found an easy way passed Rubens Barichello at turn 2 into 2nd place and commenced his charge after the distant Trulli.

Both Stewarts running a two stop strategy, were the first to pit clearing the running for the quicker cars who started making time on the front two who were by now half a lap ahead. Villeneuve had cut Trulli’s 11 second lead to under 7 seconds when the young Italian pitted giving the Williams it’s first taste of freedom at the front. This was the last time that the Stewarts were in contention. Rejoining in 13th and 14th place and with a further stop to come, they faded into obscurity, Magnussen retiring with a blown engine on lap 58 and Barichello, spinning off trying to catch Hill and defend his 7th position from the overtaking Schumacher at the same time, on lap 64. "We had opted for a two stop strategy which is not what the leading teams pursued and that was the point at which the shape of the race changed." Said team director Paul Stewart. If they have a little to learn about strategy, they can none the less be pleased with their outing today and it bodes well for the rapidly improving Ford V10/Bridgestone combination for next year.

The leader pitted on lap 37 rejoining behind Coulthard in 5th giving the Williams a temporary 1,2 at the front with Schumacher now in a strong position to challenge for the lead as none of the top three had made their stops, a fast couple of laps in clean air and a second or two’s advantage in the pit lane could decide the race. But it was all to change and it started with Alesi.

A fairly innocent outside passing manoeuvre by Eddie Irvine on Jean Alesi at turn 2, produced a convincing reason for all F1 drivers to have their own pilots licence. Irvine had come up to Alesi carrying a full fuel load after pitting on lap37 and, giving the Frenchman a wide berth, had passed the Benetton when Alesi, either refusing to let go of his line or just losing control, slid into the Ferrari and launched itself into the air, across the nose of Irvine’s car, narrowly missing his head, landing heavily in the gravel. "He was heavy on fuel and I was light and he kept the inside." Said Irvine. "I braked up around the outside and he stayed on the inside and then just gradually slid out and hit my front wheel and went over the top." Irvine has seen the underside of more cars than some mechanics in his career to date but this time it appeared that he was blameless. However as usual Alesi saw it differently. "He tried to overtake me from the outside and suddenly I fly and I finish my race there!" His ice blue eyes glowed with rage as he talked about the potential pasting he would impart to the nonchalant Irvine, should he find him in the Ferrari garage. "It’s as well I didn’t find him otherwise it would surely have cost me a $10,000 fine because I am extremely angry about what he is doing. He’s dangerous, he’s extremely rude and I don’t like this kind of attitude." Little should be read into the fiery Sicilian’s statement as it is not the first time he has exploded with such vitriol in similar circumstances.

As this mayhem occurred and the yellow caution flags came out, another innocent move, this time by Schumacher on Heinz Harald Frentzen, brought the German up to second and then into the lead as Villeneuve made his pit stop on lap 40. All the front runners then pitted around the same time giving Coulthard his brief turn at the front, Schumacher rejoining the race in 4th behind a light and quick Jordan of Giancarlo Fisichella who along with his team mate Ralf Schumacher, had made up huge amounts of time with the help of traffic and by leaving their pit stops till the last moment.

With the top three positions seemingly settled, Jarno Trulli running magnificently behind Villeneuve, and Schumacher a creditable third after such a poor qualifying position, a 10 second stop and go penalty was awarded to the Ferrari driver for overtaking Frentzen under the yellow flag condition. "This stupid thing with the yellow flag is a shame." Schumacher said. "The problem was that I was following two cars and fighting very hard and I didn't notice any yellow flags as in my view they were only on the left hand side and I can’t look through the cars. The flags should be more visible." Probably with the knowledge that he has got away without penalty before in a similar incident whilst testing at Monza, and angry with himself, he did however take his medicine gracefully, rejoining the race down and out of the points in 9th place.

Schumacher then started his charge, frightening Barichello into removing himself from the track at the Jochen Rindt Kurve and setting his sights on the last remaining point held by Hill. "The penalty made me angry." Said Schumacher later. "I had to take risks. I had to go for it and Damon was clever enough not to risk a crash." Go for it he did, pushing the Arrows out of the way without a pause or backward glance, such was his intent. "I saw Michael behind me and I thought he was far enough back that if I braked late enough he couldn’t get through.... but he got through." With worn brakes and an underpowered Yamaha, he had no choice but to let the Ferrari go and the German disappeared amongst a sea of fluttering scarlet flags waved on by the Tifosi who had turned out in their thousands to cheer their hero on. "I was driving my nuts of and I was braking later and later and had a soft pedal. I thought, ‘bugger’, he was able to brake later than me!" It was as far as Schumacher could go. Next in line was his brother young Ralf and speculation was that, had he managed to get any closer, family ties might have allowed the red to pass the yellow, but it remains a tantalising scenario as the season nears it’s climax in Spain next month.

The Jordans did extremely well to finish 4th and 5th (Fisichella’s 3rd 4th and Schumacher’s 3rd 5th of the season) after their disappointing qualifying times. Ever the smiling face of optimism even in defeat Fisichella said, "I don’t believe my result...I am very pleased. I drove very well too! The car was a little difficult at the start and then after 15 laps, I had hydraulic failure on the differential. I turned it off which meant I suffered a little in the slow corners. It was the one stop strategy plus a very good pit stop that helped me finish fourth."

Ralf Schumacher was not so happy. Constantly being upstaged by his team mate, he could say little in a positive vein in reply to the young Italian’s jubilance. "I am not completely satisfied with my own performance and because I started ahead of my team mate but finished behind him. I lost time in the pits because of a crossed wheel nut. I had a lot of traffic in the last three laps and nearly spun when I late braked twice. I was not able to pull ahead as much as I would have liked." Their positions give them a total of 33 points so far, 3 greater than they have ever achieved before which is cause for celebrations of some kind and clearly the team on present performance are set to take over Benetton’s place as the fourth team of standing in the grid pecking order.

With Schumacher out of the frame, Coulthard continued his slow progress through attrition, to the front. In a strange set of events, he was subjected to first the oil cloud of white smoke from Shinji Nakano’s Prost as he was about to be lapped and moments later another oil cloud of exactly the same composition as the other Prost of Trulli’s let go. In literally a puff of smoke, Coulthard found himself a reasonable safe second with an outside chance of catching Villeneuve to make it two wins in a row. "It was a question of hanging on to the end." He said. "Back-markers were a big problem, but it was a fairly straightforward race." It was indeed for him and despite being held up by Berger in his pursuit of the leader, he finished on the second step of the podium more by luck this time round than driving skills.

"This is a very important win for us." Said a jubilant Villeneuve. ""The positive thing is that we took nine points from Michael and the championship is looking much better now. We have a better package overall, and I am very confident for the rest of the season." Rarely does Villeneuve use the word ‘I’ preferring the safety and comfort of ‘we’ and it denotes a new air of seriousness about him that perhaps makes him realise that his is the championship to lose rather than win. Despite the single point difference the cards look set to be dealt his way and Schumacher, never complacent over William’s temporary weakness, will recognise the urgency now to wrap the proceeding up. "I think I could have finished second today without the penalty." He said finally. "But at least I managed to pick up a point and If you tell from where I came, starting from ninth and coming sixth, I have a reason to be happy.... somehow."

Villeneuve is more likely to make a mistake under pressure than Schumacher and it will be interesting to see how they conduct themselves on the track in the last three races of the season. For now everyone is happy up to a point. Hill’s future is secure for two years at least with a potentially winning team, Villeneuve has bridged the psychological gap to take him to the edge of stardom and Schumacher, hanging on by his fingernails, still goes into the next round in the lead onto a track he knows well. The Luxembourg Grand Prix at the Nurburgring, will reveal more of both drivers’ resolves than ever before.

Chris Richardson

1. Jacques Villeneuve Williams-Renault 1hr 27min 35.999sec

2. David Coulthard McLaren-Mercedes + 2.909sec

3. Heinz-Harald Frentzen Williams-Renault +3.962

4. Giancarlo Fisichella Jordan-Peugeot +12.127

5. Ralf Schumacher Jordan-Peugeot + 31.859

6. Michael Schumacher Ferrari + 33.421

7. Damon Hill Arrows-Yamaha + 37.207

8. Johnny Herbert Sauber +49.057

9. Gianni Morbidelli Sauber +1:06.455

10. Gerhard Berger Benetton-Renault +one lap

11. Ukyo Katayama Minardi-Hart +two laps

12. Jos Verstappen Tyrrell-Ford +two laps

13. Pedro Diniz Arrows-Yamaha + four laps

14. Rubens Barrichello Stewart-Ford + seven laps

Fastest lap: J Villeneuve Williams-Renault 1:11.814s

(average speed 210.228kph)


1997 Championship Contents

Formula 1 Contents