Brazilian Grand Prix 1997 - Race Preview   HomeContentsHelp

Back to F1 ChampionshipTop


Race Day : March 30th 1997

The carnival continues

‘Fat Tuesday’ has been and gone in Brazil. The costumes, the headdresses, the samba and the floats are all now locked away in various low rent suburbs of Rio De Janeiro until next year. The hangovers have cured themselves, the poor people, the petty crooks and pickpockets now have to jettison their fantasies and transient illusions to become the real people that they were before ‘Carnival’. But the daydreaming can linger for just a little longer as, in the bars of nearby Sao Paulo and in the squalid cardboard favelas of its sprawling suburbs, watched over by revered images of Ayerton Senna, Nelson Piquet, Emerson Fittapaldi and New hero Rubens Barichello, talk turns in earnest to the merits of their courageous Countrymen and how they rate in the Brazilian hall of hero’s. Grand Prix fever is upon the masses and, in the greatest show of capitalist propaganda in the world, the Formula One State Circus lands on the shores of South America, strutting its extravagant finery, putting on it’s own costumes and plumage and averting its eyes from the poverty and squalor surrounding it. The people of Sao Paulo and Rio don’t care. Their passion is motor racing and their drivers, like their Italian counterparts, are Gods. The definite possibility in years past of Fittapaldi or Senna winning the Brazilian Grand Prix would be enough to give the jaded revelers a touch more incentive for dancing in the streets.

Some Brazilians will tell you that the Golden age passed with the death of Senna yet the younger fans will remember last year’s stunning performance by current Stewart Grand Prix driver, Barichello who put his Jordan Peugeot on the second row of the grid to the unbridled jubilation of the whole of Brazil, albeit a second short of World Champion, Damon Hill’s Williams Renault. He said recently of last years race: " Last year in Brazil I had one of the best races of my career. It has normally been a good circuit for me. I put the car on the front row and I think that meant more to me than my pole position in Spa"

The circuit of Interlagos is tightly packed into a natural amphitheatre close to the urban sprawl of Sao Paulo, South America’s fastest growing city. Anticlockwise, it winds around itself crossing a lake in a 2 and a half mile mixture of sweeping bends, high speed straits and sharp hairpins. All the drivers complain about the inherent ‘bumpiness’ of the circuit and despite regular, but half hearted attempt to flatten them, the problem still persists. From an engine point of view according to European Director of Ford Motorsport Martin Witaker, "Power is obviously important because of the long straits, but a lot of lap time comes from flowing smoothly through the series of slow corners behind the pits. For an engine this means that driveability and smoothness of power delivery are vital." Sub tropical climate makes the weather extremely unpredictable. Last year an unexpected downpour half an hour from the start, turned the race into a lottery. It was won in commanding manner by Hill providing the platform from which to build his Championship title. Barichello, despite running a feisty race and for two laps running a close second to Hill, unfortunately spun out on lap 60 out of 70. Jean Alesi another Wet weather maestro had his highest finish of the season finishing second in front of Michael Schumacher. It went downhill for him from then on.

With the tyre war promised at Melbourne not materialising, there could be some fireworks this weekend if it rains, as Bridgestone’s wets have proved to be dominant in winter testing giving as much as a four seconds a lap advantage over Goodyear shod cars. The back markers are almost exclusively on the Japanese rubber so some midfield skirmishing could be a possibility before the big boys assert themselves.

Both Benson & Hedges Jordan drivers Ralf Schumacher and Giancarlo Fisichella will be racing in Brazil for the first time for a Formula 1 team. It is probably hard for Jordan Peugeot Boss Eddie Jordan not to have misgivings about his two raw recruits especially as Fisichella suffered a massive shunt attempting to do a race distance recently. But, always at the forefront in spotting new talent, he must take heart in the fact that his 24 year old German protégé Schumacher, was fastest by a country mile during the same testing session last week at Silverstone. This included the times of recent race winner David Coulthard’s West McLaren Mercedes but not significantly, the Williams’ who were brake testing elsewhere. The Italian was lucky to have suffered nothing but a bruised knee and will be fully recovered for the coming race weekend. According to Technical Director Gary Anderson, "We had not planned to test the new FIA rear impact structure, but we can reassure everyone that it works very well! Fisichella went off at Stowe doing 220kph and within 0.72 of a second was at a standstill. This represents a deceleration of between 11 and 12g. Without the new rear impact structure, the damage could have been quite severe."

It probably won’t be the World Champion that will be the crowd’s point of focus, but new team mate Pedro Diniz who finished a creditable 8th last year in the Ligier Mugen-Honda. Not much chance of that this year, but the Fans will cheer him on and turn the Samba up loud as he passes. The Arrows team will regard it as a plus just to be able to start the race at Interlagos and their best hope is to finish. Hill’s Arrows A18 was more than 2 seconds slower than Jacques Villeneuve’s Williams in testing at Paul Ricard last week

It is still Williams that is expected to take the first, if not second prize despite their poor showing in Melbourne. Heinz Harald Frentzen could be the hot favourite even with a flea in his ear from Williams Chief engineer Patrick Head who has let it be known that Frentzen was partly to blame for his shattered brake disk by over braking with simultaneous use of the throttle. This could make Frentzen a more cautious driver, leaving the way open for Jacques Villeneuve, a man who will give no quarter and certainly not to his team mate who is constantly trying to upstage him.

Second equal in the pecking order and which could provide some excitement, are the McLarens and the Ferrari’s. David Coulthard turning the expected procession of the Australian Grand Prix into an entertaining race by winning it - ending a 49 race drought for Team Boss Ron Dennis - and putting Schumacher in the middle of a silver sandwich, the bottom slice being Mika Hakkinen. Coulthard however, is realistic about his chances of a second win. "I’m not filling myself with false hopes," he said after the race, "I was 1.7 seconds off pole position and its doubtful that I can make that up in Brazil".

The Ferrari’s reputation for its unreliability could make the weekend a bit of a struggle for them. However Eddie Irvine says," The car is promising and we’re finding improvements all the time." After taking out both Johnny Herbert, Villeneuve and himself in Melbourne and unwittingly opening the race up for the rest of the field, Irvine remains unrepentant despite the majority of media opinion that, true to recent form, the Irishman tried to dive through the barn doors before they were fully opened. Writing in the London Times this week, he said, "Villeneuve was asleep when the lights signaled the start, but refused to concede he would have to lose places because of his mistake. He won’t be making a start like that again in a hurry or he won’t be winning the Championship".

The only other possible challengers could be the Benettons of Alesi and Gerhard Berger. Disappointing themselves badly in Melbourne due to a major error in setting up the cars and, compounded by Alesi’s blatant disregard for his crews pitboard instructions to pit for fuel, Boss Flavio Briatore must surely be looking for nothing short of a win to claw back Benetton’s rapidly diminishing credibility as a force majeur . Chief designer Nick Wirth, said of Benettons blunder, "It was a car problem and I’m disappointed we didn’t pick it up earlier. I’m just gutted about it." Despite Berger narrowly missing a podium step by only seven tenths of a second, the management will look to him rather than the Sicilian to provide the result that the team so desperately needs.

Best of the new Bridgestone runners after the first race of the year, were the new teams of World Champion’s Alain Prost and Jackie Stewart. Looking forward to Brazil Stewart said, "We must be careful not to set our sights too high after Ruben’s excellent qualifying effort in Melbourne. We’ve had little testing since then, alas, so we don’t come to South America with very high expectations." Both Barichello and rookie Jan Magnussen will be trying to keep up with the Jordans in their SF1’s but should have no trouble staying ahead of the Lola’s who’s dire form in Melbourne prevented them from setting times within the 107% qualifying rule. Things don’t look set to change until their new engine comes on line for Spa but the teams presence in South America is important, as funding is provided by the Brazilian arm of finance giant MasterCard. Eric Broadley Lola’s boss said, " We are treating it as a test session."

Both Olivier Panis and Shinji Nakano finished extremely well as did Jarno Trulli in the vastly improved Minardi Hart. It seems though that Stalwart campaigner Ken Tyrell will see little improvement from running last years specification Ford engine.

This could be then, the true indication of the direction in which points will go. If, as is commonly believed, the Williams trounce all and sundry the probability is, that McLaren and Ferrari will enter the fray as secondary contenders. Provided that the set up problems of Benetton have been ironed out we should expect to See Berger qualifying on the second or third row also and the third step which now has to be the holy grail of all contending drivers, seeing as the first two are spoken for, could be his for the taking. Hill will have no expectations. Qualification should be easier here but as Irvine reckons quite reasonably ‘he wont be higher than fifteenth’. Irvine has forgotten Hill’s knack of shaking the daylights out of a car and giving it a good kick in the pants to push it to its limit as we all saw in Melbourne. Hill I am sure will do all this and if Tom Walkinshaw who admitted ‘screwing up’ in Australia gets it together for the champ, his ride might not be quite so rough as everyone expects. But, don’t hold your breath.

This is the start of the Grand Prix season proper where all the cars will begin to reveal themselves and the drivers, getting used to the body jarring bumps at Interlagos, will be hoping that their cars will stay in one piece long enough to get over the line and before they themselves expire through physical exhaustion. This is a race about the survival of the fittest both in man and machinery, but if the rains come, and storms are forecast for race weekend, then all bets are off and you may even see the Minardis taking a brief spell in the spotlight. No matter what the weather the spirit of ‘carnival’ will be briefly re-ignited and irrespective of the outcome Brazil will have their talking points for the rest of the year.

Chris Richardson

1997 Championship Contents

Formula 1 Contents