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Race Day : June 15th 1997

McLaren’s choice gives Schumacher victory as race is stopped after Panis crashes.

"I’m always pleased for 10 points, but there’s no point in celebrating a victory in these circumstances." So said Michael Schumacher, the winner of the 19th Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal. The race was curtailed on the 56th lap of 69, after Olivier Panis, losing the rear of his Prost Mugen-Honda, kissed a barrier that sent him ricocheting to the other side of the track, hitting a wall of tyres at 140 mph. He was immediately air-lifted to the Sacre Coeur hospital in Montreal with multiple closed fractures of both legs. He is said not to be in any danger. Schumacher went on to echo the sentiments of the drivers, all of whom shared a universal concern for the injured Frenchman. "I am very happy to hear that Panis' injuries are not too serious, as at the moment that is the most important thing."

There was an air of glumness as the winner held his trophy aloft, not only from the three triumphant drivers present on the podium, but from the crowd too, who, in addition to the dismay of Panis’ accident, had been robbed of the one thing that they wanted to see most, their local hero, Jacques Villeneuve embracing the adoration of the crowd under the glory of the Canadian flag, to the emotive sounds of their National Anthem.

It was a race of high incident and again, as in Spain, tyres played a major role in the outcome of the race. As the lights went out, Schumacher made his characteristic lightening getaway, whilst Villeneuve fumbled for grip. Quick off the mark also was the Benetton Renault of Jean Alesi and Giancarlo Fisichella’s Jordan Peugeot, who immediately started to harry the Canadian for second place. With David Coulthard’s McLaren and the other Jordan of Ralf Schumacher clear of the rest of the field at the Senna Hairpin, the second half of the field bunching uncomfortably together, started to negotiate the tricky left/right hander. In a portent to future events, perhaps, Olivier Panis changed the face of the race by letting his car slip momentarily from his control, driving into and removing, the rear wing from Mika Hakkinen’s McLaren. The wing, acting like a scatter bomb amid the oncoming traffic, took out Eddie Irvine’s Ferrari straight away. "I made a good start," said Irvine, "but everyone was crowding into the corner. I noticed Panis and Wurz on the outside line and on the second corner I got past them on the outside. But two cars touched in front of me and a piece of bodywork went under my rear tyre which made me spin and the engine cut out."

Johnny Herbert in the Sauber was next to clip it, sending it into the Path of Damon Hill who was lucky to limit the damage to his Arrows by riding over the debris with his front left tyre. Meanwhile Both Shinji Nakano, Panis’ team mate and Jan Magnussen in the Stewart Ford collided in their attempts to avoid the rogue body part. For Magnussen it was ‘race over’ too. "I was running close with Nakano when we had to avoid Panis’ wing (sic)" the Dane said. "I tried to go round the outside, he went the other way. When I began accelerating again, he seemed to fish-tail as he came round. He side-swiped me and I hit the barrier."

Feverish pit stops ensued with Panis going in for a new front section, and Hill to check his wheel balance. Hakkinen didn’t make it back out, an unfortunate victim of yet another first corner fiasco.

Further fiascoes were to follow as the beleaguered Villeneuve, coming not only to the end of a grueling week of media and beurocratic pressures, but to the end of his second lap, misjudged the corner leading onto the pit strait and tucked it neatly into the wall. As the 120,000 crowd, watching on giant monitors, let out a collective groan, the Canadian in a gesture of ‘How stupid can I get?’ smacked his hand against the side of his helmeted head and stalked away, no doubt fuming at the basic error he had made. "The track was very slippery and I just misjudged the corner." Said Villeneuve "I didn't really expect to go sideways going into the turn. I made a big mistake and I am highly disappointed." So were the crowd who started to vacate their seats even at that early stage.

This placed Fisichella in a strong second place and on a charge to keep Schumacher within range, setting an early fast lap in doing so. Panis having dropped to 18th, was setting the trail alight and also setting fastest laps.

Turn 9 was the scene of the next incident when Ukyo Katayama put his Minardi into the tyre wall leaving a serious mess on the track which put the race under a course yellow flag forcing the field to close up behind the safety car for 4 laps. To add to William’s woes, Heinz Harald Frentzen was having a troubled time with blistering rear tyres similar to that which he suffered in Spain and had to pit early on lap 10 for fresh rubber. This was to be rather futile as the problem persisted throughout the race and in spite of three more stops, the German was lucky to hold on to a final fourth place. With a gaggle of cars getting back into their stride, Schumacher started to pull out a useful lead whilst further back down the road Jos Verstappen in an unusually aggressive Tyrrell was tangling with a leaden Rubens Barichello who was very shortly to fall prey to Mika Salo and to Johnny Herbert. It was not to be the Stewart driver’s day, a gearbox selection fault was to put him out on the 34th lap. Commenting on a thoroughly disappointing weekend that started with so much promise, Barichello said, "I just got bogged down at the start-maybe the car was too heavy with the fuel load we were running. I had so much trouble in my fight with Salo. It was impossible to hold on." He continued, "Maybe in the changing track conditions we had the wrong setup. In the end I had a problem with the gears and I couldn’t select 6th."

Ralf Schumacher running well in 5th, suffered what he thought was a deflated tyre and he too slid of the track, running along the Armco like a billiard ball down a cushion and into the waiting jaws of a tyre wall. He walked away resigned to the fact that there was little that he could have done. "It felt like a puncture in my left rear tyre," explained the German. "But now I have looked at the telemetry with my engineers, we can not tell if this is actually the case. At the moment we do not have an explanation for what happened."

The first round of stops changed the race order. Fisichella and Alesi pitted at the same time on lap 26, but the Jordan team apparently caught by the Italian’s unscheduled stop, produced a ragged tyre change giving the Frenchman the advantage, leaving the pit lane two seconds ahead of Fisichella. Coulthard on a one stop strategy inherited the lead on lap 28, as Schumacher pitted with heavily blistered rear tyres gaining 10 seconds on the Ferrari and 25 seconds over Alesi now in 3rd place.

With the positions on the front runners unchanged Coulthard made his only intended stop on lap 40 handing the lead back to Schumacher who had yet to make his last stop. With Herbert into fifth on the same strategy as the McLaren, but temporarily forfeiting his place with a ten second ‘stop & go’ penalty for pit lane speeding, it looked like the race was duly won by the Scotsman who regained a strong lead of over thirty seconds after Schumacher’s second pit stop on lap 44.

By this time Gerhard Berger’s temporary replacement and fellow Austrian, Alexander Wurz had retired with a broken drive shaft on lap 37 after a brilliant first drive for the team and Verstappen, shining brightly if briefly for Tyrrell, suffering from a jammed gearbox, retired on lap 44.

Excitement and despair were to come shortly however, when Schumacher, obviously in trouble, made an unscheduled stop with badly pitted tyres only 6 laps later. This gave Coulthard a seemingly unassailable lead of over 30 seconds, but his tyres too were on the way out and it was down to team boss Ron Dennis to make the decision to bring him in. "I had to take responsibility for the call." said a philosophical Dennis after the race. "We could have carried on with the blistered tyres or we could have had a puncture." Coulthard duly pitted on lap 52, and with the fresh problem of a faulty clutch, he stalled the engine. As they tried in vain to get the McLaren out ahead of the German, the pitch of the crowd rose as the Ferrari approached the final turn into the pit straight and as it roared past the start finish line the crowd erupted with glee to the extent that it could almost have been Schumacher’s home Grand Prix rather than the, by now forgotten, Villeneuve’s.

Coulthard was lost either way when Panis crashed and the safety car bought the race to a halt with the positions standing as of lap 54. Had he stayed out on the track for another lap and a half, the race would have been his. Had his tyres blown out it would have made no difference. It was Dennis’ choice and the whole team will have to live with it. "I’m not quite sure what happened." Said Coulthard, Putting on a remarkably brave face. "I had a small problem before my first stop when I almost didn’t get the gear. We only pitted because Michael pitted and we thought we had a big enough advantage and we thought it was the right thing to do, just in case there was another pace car and clearly it worked against us this time. It was my race, but that’s motor racing."

Fisichella followed second placed Alesi home, 6 tenths of a second behind. Excellent results for both teams, needing the credibility of podium finishes. Frentzen took 4th, salvaging another rotten weekend for Williams. It looks like they will have to wait a little longer to attain the magical 100 Grand Prix wins and it is now by no means certain that it will come sooner than later. "I still find the new two pedal set-up difficult." Frentzen said after the race. "I started totally differently here then what I normally do. It took the clutch a very long time to grip and I had tyre problems after just four laps. It was difficult for me to keep up as my left rear was blistering."

Herbert held on to his well deserved fifth position and Panis’ team mate Nakano, ironically in the points for the first time, rounded of the top six. Damon Hill should have been jubilant having actually finished, albeit still not a full race distance, in 9th place. "It was a very lonely race, I was dead last for a long time." He said, "I paid careful attention to engine revs and I had a vibration related to hitting Hakkinen’s wing, but it was nothing more than a wheel weight problem."

With scenes of Panis being lifted from the wreckage of his car, distressing memories of Ayrton Senna’s crash at Imola in 1994, resurfaced and it is certain that the safety aspects of the track at Montreal will now come under scrutiny. Michael Schumacher a key figure in the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association, said: "We will discuss the safety issues with the FIA. We have improved safety and we shall continue to look after it. That’s why the GPDA is so important."

There were no Champagne showers, the bottles stayed on the podium. No one felt like celebrating and it is to all the drivers’ credit that their one concern was for the well-being of a member of a family and despite it’s off-track squabbles and public denouncements, in times of crisis, it closes ranks to show the world that there is an acceptable human face to the real live danger and macho posturing of Motor racing.


Chris Richardson




1997 Championship Contents

Formula 1 Contents