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Race Day : March 30th 1997

An easy nut to crack for Villeneuve

Qualifying for the Brazilian GP threw up some surprising performances - quite a few of which were disappointing in the extreme... Chris Richardson reports.

As fickle as Formula 1 is, it now seems traditional that Williams should always make the running. They did of course, make the running as expected, with Champion elect Jacques Villeneuve never losing Pole position from his first flying lap of the qualifying session at Interlagos. The fickle factor involved the rest of the track, with regular midfielders making up a good part of the front end of the grid. Heinz Harald Frentzen proved to be the big disappointment, being well and truly upstaged by his team mate and it was disconcerting to see his early sector times regularly disintegrate as he reeled off a series of rather unspectacular laps.

With a track temperature of 29 degrees and rising, the Bridgestone brigade made the early running, all having chosen the softer compound tyres for both qualifying and race. The benchmark was set inevitably by Villeneuve with a 1.16.68. It has also become a familiar sight to see Michael Schumacher fighting a Ferrari that just wants to tango. It was no mean feat to get the big red jitterbug onto the front row with a final time of 1.16.59, albeit over half a second down on the Williams.

With the Benettons of Gerhard Berger and Jean Alesi burning harder Goodyear rubber, both looked agitated. Berger’s eagerness for good times was the cause of several ‘wobbly’ moments and the smoke coming from Alesi’s tyres signalled the Sicillian’s on-going struggle with his own eagerness. He was hard pushed to qualify higher than sixth.

Olivier Panis, given a new sense of self respect since his fortunate win in Monaco last year, did a brilliant job in putting his Prost Mugen-Honda onto the third row with an early fast time of 1.16.75, that he was not to beat. For a while it looked as though he might be on the second row but a slowly improving Mika Hakkinen in the West McLaren Mercedes shunted him down a slot. Coulthard, race winner in Melbourne, was conspicuous by his absence from the front of the pack. Suffering from set up problems, he was struggling to make headway, and finished up a thoroughly miserable 10th.

World Champion Damon Hill of course, knows all about winning and the rapid fall from the victor’s podium, to non-starter. It was therefore gratifying to see that a lot of the problems that plagued the TWR Arrows team in Melbourne, seemed to have been ironed out. Whilst suffering the same worrying throttle problem - that put him out on the warm up lap in Australia, during the first timed session on Friday - Hill’s qualifying went almost without a hitch. The hitch being, that he just wasn’t fast enough. However, it was the mark of a true champion that his smooth and economical driving, so reminiscent of ‘Professeur’ Alain Prost - his old mentor at Williams - brought a truly uncompetitive car from 17th to 9th finishing the session a mere 8 hundredths of a second behind the man that took over his seat at Williams, Frentzen. This must have given him some dour satisfaction and whilst the proximity of the two cars may be only a temporary thing it proves that there could be life in the Arrows A18. As Hill said, "I think we’ve shown we’ve got what it takes. There is more to come and we are working all the time to improve things. We have a lot of things in the pipeline a new engine and aerodynamic improvements. We are working with Bridgestone to adapt the tyres to do what we need them to do." His chances of holding on to Frentzen in the race are fairly slim, but that didn’t seem important to him. "We want to get to the finish," he grinned, "That’ll be a real achievement!"

Eddie Irvine in the second Ferrari languished at the back in 14th position to the rejoicing of Villeneuve with whom he had a first corner altercation at Melbourne. Asked about the importance of his start, Villeneuve replied, "Eddie is pretty far behind so we should be OK tomorrow".

As far as Villeneuve is away from Irvine, the luckless Johnny Herbert, another victim of Irvine’s impetuosity is, as dangerously close. Right beside him in fact. Herbert will no doubt feel his hackles rise as the red lights go out and wait for the inevitable bang. In the game reserves of Formula One Saubers and Ferraris are uneasy companions at the watering hole, despite sharing the same engine.

Both Giancarlo Fisichella and team mate Ralf Schumacher had an interesting session, finishing ahead of Frentzen on 1.16.9 and behind Hill with 1.17.17, respectively. Fisichella managed to stuff his car into the tyre wall a minute and a half from the end of practice causing a red flag to be shown. "I was going too much speed." Giancarlo said eloquently, which is probably what team boss Eddie Jordan will be, faced with the costs of replacing the Jordan Peugeot’s front suspension and wings. The Jordans should be finishing higher up the field and it looks doubtful that the relationship with Peugeot will proceed into 1998 if things continue in this manner. Ironically the red flag interrupted the fastest lap that Ralf Schumacher had done all session, "I was on a quick lap and when we hit the red flag it destroyed my lap." Schumacher found it pointless to rejoin the scrum when the session blipped into life for the final 109 seconds, "...and then we didn’t have a new set of tyres. We fucked up." Eloquent also, to his global audience.

Jarno Trulli put in a sterling performance in the Minardi Hart, now gaining respect and credibility and against fierce competition on the lower levels, finished 17th. The two Tyrells showing all the signs of yet another season with all hopes abandoned, ended up last and err,last, Mika Salo never managing a lap before the aging Ford powerplant gave up the ghost.

Last of the promising pursuers was Rubens Barrichello this year looking far happier in a smaller team that obviously cares for him and doesn’t put him under so much pressure. "I tried like hell on my last flying lap and the car was on the limit," said the smiling Brazilian, "but the time just didn’t come. I was disappointed when I saw it. But this is only our second race and its very satisfying to me to be 11th. I want to finish the race tomorrow. For me, that’s the biggest thing this weekend. I think we can finish in the top ten." Maybe Rubens was reading out his press release from Australia but his enthusiasm for Stewart Racing seems to know no bounds.

The mad scramble to get past the chequered flag before the time ran out, was futile. A water leak forced Villeneuve to drive the spare car and he could not better his time. Neither could Michael Schumacher who aborted his lap after realising that his Ferrari again wanted to go to the ‘Carnival’.

Both Berger and Coulthard ran out of fuel on the final lap illustrating the desperation of the teams to get as good a time as possible whilst carrying the minimum weight.

A mixed bag for the Brazilian Grand Prix. The outcome merely delayed for three weeks, has to be a top step for Villeneuve. Where Frentzen fits into the picture, even Frank Williams probably does not know. If Ferrari’s mechanics burn the midnight oil and sort out some of it’s handling problems, then Schumacher senior will be a hard man to beat also. However, throw in a little rain.........

Chris Richardson


What's with the Britpack?

Damon Hill's excuse for qualifying ninth is that he's driving a relatively poor car - but the other Britons have supposedly better equipment. Dave Coveney tries to find a reason for the poor British performance.

OOOKAAAY! David Coulthard did it! He finally won a race for McLaren at Melbourne! Everyone in Britain was elated. So what if Damon Hill was now relegated to embarrasing formation lap retirements and back of grid qualification - a new star was born at the first race of the 1997 season. Our top driver now had to be the square headed one from Scotland.

So tuning in to the qualifying session of the Interlagos GP must have seemed strange - where was the new hero? And how come Hill was leading him? Oh dear. Oh deary me. More worrying still was the fact Coulthard seemed unable to do anything about it. From hero to zero. 12th place on the grid. Not good enough if you want to stand out as a future champion.

This wouldn't have seemed so bad if Johnny Herbert had paid out on his promising practice form. On Friday at one point he'd been second only to Jaques Villeneuve in the dominating Williams and at the end of the day a fourth position looked comfortable. But instead of scintillating form, his qualifying session was sad to say the least. A final placing just behind Coulthard in 13th was an unhappy end to Saturday's driving.

And Lo! Who do we find, nestled up with these two other Brits but a third! Eddie Irvine - 12 places behind his team-mate Michael Schumacher. It's as if, having tasted the limelight in one form or other at Melbourne, these guys had all decided that they couldn't hack it and had to let the current World Champion come ahead of them. All that and in a car that until yesterday had looked like a very sad machine indeed. Damon Hill. 9th position. Top Brit.

Tom Walkinshaw and Damon Hill must be laughing their socks off. Messrs Irvine, Coulthard, and Herbert have often been quick to criticise the quiet Englishman. Too eager to point out his flaws, in public, on British TV, and in the press.

Although Hill stands almost zero chance of retaining his title this year, he already seems to be winning critical acclaim. Driving the best machinery over four years had left doubts over his true ability. The chance to prove himself would come when he found himself in a poorer team than Williams. He still has to prove the Arrows-Yamaha in a race, but should he manage to beat his compatriots in tomorrow's race then he'll have shown that he can never be discounted from the GP grid.

Dave Coveney

1997 Championship Contents

Formula 1 Contents