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Race Day : October 26th 1997

All things equal in qualifying for 6th European Grand Prix


In yet another surprise in a season full of surprises, the top three qualifying times for the final race of the Season in Jerez, Spain, this weekend, are identical. The chance of this happening in any competitive sport against the clock is rare, but with lap times measured down to thousandths of a second the occurrence of two, let alone three identical times, must be a million to one. As President of the FIA, Max Mosley put it, "Measured in tenths, you might expect it every 150 years or so, but in thousandths, well we thought that Bernie Ecclestone had something to do with it!."

F1 boss Ecclestone’s wishes have come true. He said yesterday, "The perfect scenario now is to have them both on the front row of the grid and see them battling all the way to the chequered flag." This has indeed happened in the most dramatic way possible.

It was clear that Michael Schumacher’s team mate Eddie Irvine had succeeded in getting under Jacques Villeneuve’s skin by some irksome blocking tactics during the morning warm up session. This prompted a lightning visit to the Ferrari pits by the diminutive Canadian and some serious finger pointing, helmet to helmet confrontation and meaningful looks. Villeneuve clearly irritated by the situation commented, "He did it to me four times this weekend, so I went and told him to stop being an idiot. We all know he is a clown and he does not think like any of the other drivers. He is not involved in this championship scrap and he should stay out of it." Villeneuve in a final aside said, "Irvine just makes me laugh." To which the sprightly Ulsterman replied, "He wasn’t laughing earlier!"

With a stiff breeze and track temperatures rising, Villeneuve was the first to set what would be the fastest lap of the day at 1.21.07s, in his first of four runs and to clinch his 10th pole of the season. Both the McLarens put in early quick times and for a while looked as if either would be in contention for pole. David Coulthard and Mika Hakinnen were both briefly into second spot on their first runs with Schumacher following some 4 tenths down.

"It was really quite a troubled session." Said Coulthard. "There was definitely a quick time to be had from the car, but the 2 runs in the middle, I hit a bit of traffic. It’s the same for everyone and you just have to make your gap."

An early spin by Jean Alesi already in the spare car after spinning out in the warm up, put him down in 20th position and he did well to recover to finish 10th overall. The Benettons failed yet again to realise their potential as team mate Gerhard Berger, driving his last race for the team and probably for himself as he enters retirement, did his level best to mix it at the front, finishing in 8th position. Whilst engine supplier Renault may possibly get a win, they certainly will not go out with a full podium for their last race in Formula 1, as the team now under new management look for the time being at least, to be on the ragged side of disjointedness.

Just before half time and with a decreased downforce setting on his rear wing to counter balance the wind, Schumacher posted an equal time to Villeneuve passing yellow flags brought out by a spin by his younger brother Ralf. At first thought to be waving, there were fears of instant disqualification, however the track officials deemed the flags to be stationary but blown by the breeze. It seems destined that Michael’s brother should be of such a great influence on his performances this year, for a split second loss of concentration undoubtedly cost the German that final one thousandth of a second that would have put him on pole. However it was not to be and as Villeneuve set the time first that was to be Schumacher’s lot to start behind his arch rival.

"The start is going to be crucial." Said Schumacher. "Doing a good one brings me into the first corner in the lead. If the start doesn’t work that well, I am going to be stuck behind Frentzen. It is certainly a different sort of feeling for me from the two years with Benetton," he added, "but it makes no difference at all once I am in the car." Referring to a late charge by Damon Hill, he laughed. "The problem is that I am now surrounded by Williams drivers!"

The Ferrari of Irvine having posted early fast times, was now struggling and could manage no better than 7th in the final count and reversing the positions in Suzuka, Heinz Harald Frentzen put in a final shot at pole with ten minutes remaining to record incredibly the same time as 1st and 2nd placed drivers.

All the teams with the exception of Jordan-Peugeot opted for the soft Goodyear compound, as did the Bridgestone runners with the exception of Stewart Ford. Qualifying times for all four cars were notably slower, however as most teams will probably opt for a three stop strategy for the race, it would enable the hard compound runners to gain some extra time by only stopping twice. Indeed a poor performance by the Jordan team resulted in the teams worst qualifying performance of the season. One thing that has remained constant, however, is the fact that the two drivers will start close to each other albeit down the field, Ralf Schumacher in 16th and Giancarlo Fisichella in 17th places.

With less than a minute to go, both Schumacher and Villeneuve put in their final bids, but with the track speed dipping with the increasing temperature the early times set stood. A surprise lap by Damon Hill driving his last race as World Champion, put him onto the second row of the grid a mere 600ths of a second behind the fastest time. "I am happy," He laughed. "but to look at the time set and see that I missed pole position by half a tenth of a second - and I know that I lost a lot of time with the Minardi that spun on the last corner- I’m kicking myself, but it’s great to be up there."

Seeming to have regained his composure after his pre qualifying wobbly Villeneuve was amazed that zero thousandths of a second separated the first three places and joked, "If you weren’t here, you probably wouldn’t have believed that it had not been done on purpose! It makes for a great last race."

As Damon Hill commented, "The Championship comes down to a single race" If Schumacher wins then he will have done it through his own raw talent for taming an unruly car. But if Villeneuve wins, everybody will say that it was only expected and he should have done it anyway as he has the superior machinery. Each must fight his own personal battle and as they sit in their cockpits seconds before the lights go out it is possible that the race has already been won and capitulation is but 150 metres away.



Chris Richardson




Qualifying times for the European Grand Prix, Jerez Spain Oct 25th 1997


1. Jacques Villeneuve Williams 1:21.072

2. Michael Schumacher Ferrari same time

3. Heinz-Harald Frentzen Williams Renault same time

4. Damon Hill Arrows 1:21.130

5. Mika Hakkinen McLaren 1:21.369

6. David Coulthard McLaren 1:21.476

7. Eddie Irvine Ferrari 1:21.610

8. Gerhard Berger Benetton 1:21.656

9. Olivier Panis Prost 1:21.735

10. Jean Alesi Benetton 1:22.011

11. Jan Magnussen Stewart 1:22.167

12. Rubens Barrichello Stewart 1:22.222

13. Pedro Diniz Arrows 1:22.234

14. Johnny Herbert Sauber 1:22.263

15. Shinji Nakano Prost 1:22.351

16. Ralf Schumacher Jordan 1:22.740

17. Giancarlo Fisichella Jordan 1:22.804

18. Norberto Fontana Sauber 1:23.281

19. Ukyo Katayama Minardi 1:23.409

20. Tarso Marques Minardi 1:23.854

21. Mika Salo Tyrrell 1:24.222

22. Jos Verstappen Tyrell 1:24.301


1997 Championship Contents

Formula 1 Contents