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Race Day : July 13th 1997

Lucky Jacques gives Williams the ton.

Walkinshaw’s Arrows get the point from Damon.

Mechanical bugs return to Ferrari.

In a race of high attrition and disappointment for both Ferrari and McLaren, it was fitting that a relieved Jacques Villeneuve won his fourth race of the season, giving Williams not only a revived status as the team to beat, but also their 100th Grand Prix win: their first, won by Clay Regazzoni, being at the same circuit 18 years ago. However, it was not by being the ‘class of the field’ that the laurels were taken. A major wheel bearing failure on Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari and a failed half shaft on Eddie Irvine’s gave Villeneuve the impetus to push for home, the final shove coming with the retirement of Mika Hakinnen’s McLaren with a blown Mercedes engine when almost in sight of the flag. With Williams co-driver Heinz Harald Frentzen falling off at the first bend, technical director, Patrick Head was only too aware of this fortunate set of circumstances. "We were very very lucky today because of Michael’s problems." He said. "He was immensely fast. Second place was the best we could have achieved."

Under billowing clouds and with the imminent threat of thunderstorms, a massive crowd, buoyed up by the sight of local hero Damon Hill fastest in a wet warm up session that morning, were vociferous in their appreciation for the man that has taken the slings and arrows of his boss and the press, however unfairly dealt, on the chin and replied in the only way that could silence his detractors.

Not that Hill was doing a rain dance before the start of the race, but his Bridgestone tyres were providing superior grip to the Goodyear competitors on the rain soaked track and a deluge now would more than likely have changed the outcome of the race to the advantage of several mid-field runners. This was not to be however. Blue sky dotted with clouds in all shades of grey heralded the formation lap and with 22 cars gunning their engines to the point of overheating, a gear selection problem with the Williams of Heinz Harald Frentzen set the race start back a further ten minutes and Frentzen effectively to the back of the grid. This left a rather large space in front of the Ferrari of Michael Schumacher, 4th on the grid and every opportunity to get ahead at the first corner.

When the race did get underway, Villeneuve made a good enough start to take the lead with Schumacher following. A blinding start by McLaren’s David Coulthard from 6th position, saw him pass his team mate Mika Hakkinen and draw level with Schumacher before the first turn. Holding off the attack, the German began to pull away immediately, in pursuit of the Williams.

Meanwhile back on the grid, the Minardi of Ukyo Katayama had inexplicably spun halfway down pit straight and was firmly lodged in the Armco in front of the Ferrari pits inviting the yellow flag and the Safety car on to the course until the carnage had been cleared. The scrum at the rear of the grid is always fraught with danger as any back marker will tell you, but Frentzen clearing the grid cleanly, made a rather careless move on the Tyrrell of Jos Verstappen at Copse corner, cutting into the Dutchman’s front wing and puncturing his own rear left tyre. "As I was making my way through the field, I was bumped from behind and forced off the track with a rear tyre problem." He said with some lack of conviction later. The gravel trap was the furthest he got to the chequered flag and even the walk back to the pits was not long enough for him to think of a decent excuse to tell his boss Frank Williams already displeased with his erratic services this season.

Into the pits went the safety car and into the distance went Villeneuve and Schumacher, leaving a gaggle of fairly evenly-matched cars to fight it out for the rest of the points. At the head of the following crocodile, in third place, was Coulthard, already holding up team mate Hakkinen running closely behind but, benefiting from such a magnificent start, was not about to give up his place easily and so a disorderly queue followed the Scotsman round the track for the next ten laps until the first round of pit stops began to change the order of the race.

Schumacher put in an early fast lap of 1.25.5s on lap 8 but by lap 17 the two leaders had pulled out a considerable gap on Coulthard and although 22 seconds ahead of the McLaren, Villeneuve was unable to shake the Ferrari from his tail and the gap remained a resolute 1.6 seconds.

Both cars were on two stop strategies and pitted within a lap of each other on laps 21and 22. The German was in and out in 7.1 seconds and having built up a 25 second lead over the heavily fuelled-up McLaren on single stop tactics, took the lead anticipating a renewed skirmish with Villeneuve on his next pass of the pits. The Canadian was having a bad time of his stop and as the German sailed passed the pit exit expecting to see the Williams ‘popping up’ ahead, mechanics were scrambling all over the front left wheel of his car trying to screw on a cross threaded wheel nut. It took them over 33 seconds to find a replacement it and get the car on it’s way, losing 6 places in the process. "The left hand wheel became loose about 10 laps before my first stop and it was very difficult to drive the car." Said Villeneuve. "You had to turn the wheel from one side to the other and it became very heavy and the grip wasn’t good. When we pitted, the wheel nut stuck and it took a while to change it . When you’re just sitting there helpless in a situation like that, you become frustrated and more aggressive too. I had to push."

Schumacher continued to gain on Coulthard who was having all sorts of problems with his brake balance, locking his front and then his rear tyres at almost every other corner. This afforded the opportunity for Hakkinen to pass but, having been forced to wait in line for so long found that he was now 22 seconds down on the Ferrari. The McLarens both pitted for fresh rubber and fuel leaving the door open for both Benettons of Jean Alesi and Alex Wurz, who was having the time of his life, to inherit 2nd and 3rd.

The German’s Ferrari was flying and with another fastest lap of 1.24.47 he did indeed look invincible. But all this was about to come to an end with a tell-tale puff of smoke from the left rear wheel, yet all appeared to be well until, after pitting again for a brief inspection, the car speed died on the circuit and Schumacher coasted it home to the garage, his wheel bearings shot. "I am not too disappointed as I was comfortably in he lead when it occurred." Said a Schumacher brightly, "It’s the first technical problem we have had this year and it’s no reason to be upset. Williams still has a slight advantage in qualifying trim, but we are competitive in the race." He can console himself with the fact that he still maintains a four point advantage over Villeneuve and goes to his home Grand Prix, the Championship leader.

Faces were even longer in the Scuderia pits when 6 laps later, Irvine didn’t get past the pit exit after his second fuel stop. In a sobering reminder of events at the Canadian Grand Prix last year when a similar event occurred although more spectacularly, a half-shaft failure effectively put a temporary halt to Ferrari’s indomitable march to both titles. The Irishman echoed his team-mate's sentiments regarding Ferrari’s unexpected fallibility. "At my second stop the mechanics noticed there was a problem with the rear right wheel. It is the first time this season that Ferrari has had a mechanical problem and until now it has been incredibly reliable. In race trim we are very near the Williams, but we need to improve our qualifying. We are still competitive."

This put Hakkinen firmly in control leaving Villeneuve, having made his second stop, the task of carving a way through the Benettons of Alesi and Wurz who were maintaining station albeit quite a distance behind the McLaren. The Jordans of Ralf Schumacher and Giancarlo Fisichella were proving to be a disappointment after setting the fastest time during testing at Silverstone and fell easy prey to both Villeneuve and Coulthard. A one stop strategy which could have lead Fisichella to the podium failed after he was forced to make an unscheduled stop for new tyres after damaging them in a spin in the gravel. "I am very angry with myself." He said "After my pit stop, I came off the first bend and wasted everything."

For the third race in a row lady luck saw fit to bestow her favours anywhere else but with McLaren and as Villeneuve roared up to Hakkinen’s tail, the excited crowd clamoured in anticipation of a race to the finish. With a badly blistered rear tyre, the Finn was making a race of it, anticipating the moves of the marauding Williams. But then the Mercedes let go and Villeneuve, scooping the good fortune that let fly from the McLaren, was given the race. Looking more confident than he really should have in the circumstances, Villeneuve didn’t think there would have been a problem overtaking the McLaren. "I could see that Hakkinen had blistered his rear tyres and I was waiting for the last laps to make my move but then he broke something." But he recognised his change in fortune during the race by unwittingly complimenting Ferrari on their consistency this year. "It’s great to see that it happened to them too, as we have had our share of mechanical problems too." He added, "It balances out the Championship."

Jean Alesi driving well, and lucky to finish second and Alex Wurz driving brilliantly in only his third Grand Prix, gave Benetton the Silver and the Bronze, something that boss Flavio Briatore hasn’t seen in a while. "Our selection of a one-stop strategy was the perfect tactic today. I felt slow and not in good shape driving a race with a lot of fuel, but it was amazing to see my position improving all the time." Alesi said afterwards. Wurz at a loss for words and obviously a novice at driver interviews said. "I always thought about what I would say at these press conferences and now I’ve lost everything! Without the brilliant tactic of going just for one stop, we would not have managed to secure this result. I am delighted." His modesty, with Just the right amount of deference to the team, should see him set fair for a future with the Enstone-based outfit.

A disappointed crowd still had one man to shout for and having trundled round in 12th place for most of the race, Hill now found himself in seventh in the Arrows and with an outside chance of getting in the points. The four second gap between him and old adversary, Shinji Nakano looked fairly insurmountable until the Japanese driver’s Mugen-Honda engine gave up the ghost on the penultimate lap. Hill couldn’t believe his luck and started to wave to the crowd as if he was to be first passed the line. Bringing back a situation he hasn’t experienced since last year, Hill was in a jubilant mood afterwards. "I feel like I’ve won something!" he said, "I only got a point but everyone was waving and cheering. I thought, if I got a point it would be nearly as good as a win. When I saw Nakano’s engine blow up, I went past and I was actually waving at the crowd I was so excited!"

No matter that Hill was nowhere to be seen when the Champagne started spraying, the crowd had been satisfied, Hill had regained a great deal of dignity and from an outside observer’s point of view at least, his relationship with Tom Walkinshaw seemed on slightly firmer ground. Asked if he was happy with the result Hill said: "I am pleased but I would have done just as well without the criticism. The best we could have hoped for was a point." Walkinshaw’s acknowledgement of Hill’s achievement was tempered with a touch of the self-righteous when he said, "Sometimes you have to do hard things to get the best out of people."

It wasn’t obvious to the thousands of Hill’s loyal fans either, that he was doing it because he got told off in public. "I am going to give it my all for myself and for my supporters, who have stuck by me all along." He told a newspaper over the weekend. "To have people cheering and waving their banners means a lot to me." Carrying the Yamaha V10 with a deficit of over one hundred horsepower round 59 laps of one of the fastest circuits of the season and to finish in the points, will not have gone unnoticed by several teams who will undoubtedly have vacant seats for next year.

All the Fords suffered major engine failures as did a Mercedes and a Mugen-Honda, proving that Silverstone is one of the toughest circuits on engine performance. In comparison, Villeneuve’s victory was the seventh in succession by a Renault-powered car and the sixth for Williams in the last seven British Grands Prix.

The traditional Jordan party pit-side, went ahead despite the disappointment of team boss Eddie Jordan. "I thought we had a very good chance to get a podium but unfortunately it didn’t work out and I’m disappointed especially here at Silverstone." Before the music started and the beer began to flow he said, "We need to learn to maximise our opportunities and achieve better results in the race."

This could also have been the watch word at Williams this weekend and for a race, the outcome of which, was directly related to the amount of luck dished out, it seemed a fair result and one that has, by mid season, opened up the competition at the point when the championship was in danger of becoming a foregone conclusion.


Chris Richardson



Race results for the 32nd British Grand Prix

Silverstone July 13th 1997


1. J Villeneuve (Williams-Renault), 1h 20'01"665

2. J Alesi (Benetton-Renault), + 10" 205

3. A Wurz (Benetton-Renault), + 11" 296

4. D Coulthard (McLaren-Mercedes), + 31" 229

5. R. Schumacher (Jordan-Peugeot), + 31" 880

6. D Hill (Arrows-Yamaha), + 1'13" 552

7. G Fisichella (Jordan-Peugeot), + 1 lap

8. J Trulli (Prost-Mugen-Honda), + 1 lap

9. N Fontana (Sauber-Petronas), + 1 lap

10. T Marques (Minardi-Hart), + 1 lap

11. S Nakano (Prost-Mugen-Honda), + 1 lap


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1997 Championship Contents

Formula 1 Contents