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Race Day : October 26th 1997


No argy bargy in the 6th European Grand Prix as sportsmanship is expected at Jerez


"Duels between the men at the top are always exhilarating to watch and that's true not just for motor racing, but also for life in general." Alain Prost


It couldn’t be a better ending. Ask Michael Douglas Hollywood star turned producer of an upcoming Formula 1 based thriller, how his film will end and he would be hard pushed to find a better scenario than what we can look forward to this weekend. It seemed that a month or so ago, Michael Schumacher had it all wrapped up in scarlet and Jacques Villeneuve, the wayward head boy in the house of Williams, was playing truant on the track "nothing is ever what it seems." said technical director, Patrick Head. Then a few lucky breaks came Villeneuve’s way: a yellow flag driven ‘stop go’ penalty for the German in Austria, a damaged 50 pence oil seal washer on Damon Hill’s TWR-Arrows in Hungary, the Brothers’ Schumachers’ aerial antics and, a blown engine on Mika Hakinnen’s McLaren in Luxembourg and there he was, nine points ahead, about to go home from Japan in a blaze of blue glory.

As we know, the post race Karaoke night at the infamous Log Cabin club in the centre of the Suzuka circuit was not the usual scene of championship celebrations although Villeneuve managed a rendition of a Guns ‘N Roses song ‘Sweet Child of mine’ to take some of the disappointment away. The last reel is yet to run, for we saw highly unlikely events in Japan strip the Canadian of his 2 championship points in yet another yellow flag incident resulting in disqualification from a race that he attempted to control to the detriment of Ferrari. Brilliant teamwork and strategy however, gave the Scuderia a first and third position and now, here is Schumacher a point up, getting out the scissors and selotape for the second time. What a preposterous ending! Get some new screenwriters that know about motor racing! Formula one doesn’t end like this! Can we believe it, as we sit in our seats glued to phosphor screens around the world? It’s hard, but we have to, as the final showdown approaches. With 3200 miles covered in 25 hours or so of solid racing, it comes down to a single point. A tie break, a penalty shoot out, it’s all on the black or in this case, the red and the blue.

There are other contenders of course and several potential winners. McLaren is still looking for further spoils especially Hakinnen so richly deserving of a win this year having two potential podium finishes cruelly snatched away by mechanical faults. Jordan will be trying hard to make that first trip to the top of the podium for the ever improving Giancarlo Fisichella in his final race for the team before he moves to Benetton, who in turn having tasted success with the outgoing Gerhard Berger would dearly like to go out on a high.

The winning at this point in the game though, is irrelevant for the two arch rivals. Whosoever’s rubber crosses the line first, will take home the prizes, leaving the other to wonder where it all went wrong, pick up the pieces and start all over again next season.

Designed by the Spanish architect and urban planner Tato Nogues, Jerez was constructed in 1985, largely through the initiative of Pedro Pacheco, the City’s Mayor who thought it a sound investment for promoting the Country’s famous Sherry region to the world. Jerez, situated in the dry and under-populated Andalusian region, lacks atmosphere and has only been used six times for a Formula 1 event. Jerez succumbed to the new purpose built arena circuit of Montmelo-Catalunya in 1991, the stadium of which, was to become the centre piece of the Spanish Olympics the following year.

Modifications to the circuit, carried out in 1992 and again in 1994 for the European Grand Prix, removed the chicane on the back straight leading in to the appropriately named ‘Dry Sack’ to create some overtaking potential and added a chicane (Ayrton Senna) on the fast sweeping Ducados right-hander where Martin Donnelly crashed with near fatal results following a mechanical failure on his Lotus during Qualifying for the final Spanish Grand Prix at the circuit in 1990.

"It’s another driver’s circuit similar to Suzuka and Spa." Says Jordan Peugeot’s technical director Gary Anderson. "The pit straight leads into a third gear right hander which is an uphill braking corner and then into a tight second gear hairpin. This leads to the fastest part of the track, through two fast left handers and is very demanding." He continued, "There is an overtaking opportunity at the end of the back straight. This and the first corner are the only places to overtake. Coming out of the Dry Sack hairpin, there are two left handers, one flat and the second tightens up and needs some care and thought. It is easy to lose time on the following two right handers as the tendency is to overdrive the first which puts you out of line for the second. After the Senna Chicane put in after Donnelly’s accident a tight hairpin leads you back to the pit straight. The driver’s here have a big input on performance since there is more to doing a good lap than simply accelerating and braking."

The track should distribute it’s favours fairly evenly to most teams with equal amounts of high speeds and heavy braking, but Pole of course, will give a huge advantage to the quickest qualifier. Such a grippy track will be hard on tyres and it seems that Bridgestone may have the slight edge. A soft compound tyre for the Japanese company might just pay dividends to the mid field runners. Goodyear would be wise to bring the same spec rubber that they used in Japan as both the Williams and the Ferrari went well.

There has been speculation that the two drivers might have a ‘coming together’, as the leading protagonists did, so famously in Adelaide at the end of the 1994 championship. Schumacher, one point ahead of Damon Hill, lost control of his car and rebounded from a wall into the Englishman’s path, so taking the championship. Whether the direction of his Benetton could have been controlled to avoid Hill, will remain a contentious issue. Villeneuve however was on the offensive at the pre race press conference when he said, "If I am one point behind, all Michael, or his team-mate Eddie Irvine, need to do is take me off the track,"

Patrick Head commented, "The man who gets ahead is in a position where, as we’ve seen before, he can be very aggressive with the person behind. I think that’s what happened to Damon in Adelaide in ’94, a deliberate removal of a competitor. The man with less points has to be very careful if he’s challenging for the lead." Ironically, the same accusations were levelled at Williams before Suzuka when Villeneuve had the points advantage, but common sense has to prevail and both drivers are at pains to ensure that their fighting is fair up to a point, but most definitely legal. "I won't play it dirty," Said Schumacher, "I want the championship decided on the race track, not across a table in a court in Paris or in a collision."

Bernie Ecclestone, 67 year old F1 ringmaster issued a stern warning to both drivers and threatened severe repercussions if it came to dirty driving on the track. "The guilty party can expect to be a spectator in the first few rounds in 1998. We will also hit them where it really hurts, in their wallets, if they step out of line," he said. "Accidents do occur in the heat of the moment, especially when there is so much at stake. But we don't want them to do anything silly. But past championships have been decided by one driver taking another off and it must not happen again."

In a small but significant moment after a successful qualifying for Ferrari at Suzuka, Schumacher’s team-mate Eddie Irvine jokingly said, "I hope to make the best start, pass both of them and then let Michael pass me!". Which is exactly what he did. Any further jocular comments by Irvine this weekend before the race, should noted with the innuendo with which they were, in hindsight, probably intended.

Despite Williams having the upper edge mechanically, Ferrari have the driver to beat. On a sunny day it will be a close call, but if it rains as it did at the last European Grand Prix in Jerez in 1994, the SS Schumacher steamed to an easy victory. Nothing more, this year in Formula 1, can shock or amaze us and for history to repeat itself, would only be expected. But then Villeneuve is one of the few drivers that can overtake almost anywhere and tracks such as Jerez with little passing opportunity hold no fear for him. Either way, it’s almost as if the previous sixteen races hadn’t happened. Sixty nine laps will see the results of a truly amazing season.


Chris Richardson


1997 Championship Contents

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