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Race Day : June 29th 1997

Three Germans cross the line, but Frentzen spoils ‘Parlez Vouz’ with Schumacher family...

Michael Schumacher heads the grid for this Sunday’s French Grand prix. A not unexpected outcome for the Ferrari driver and, with team mate Eddie Irvine a couple of rows behind in 5th position all looks set for them to retain their constructors lead over the much beleaguered Williams team. The surprise of the qualifying session at Magny Cours however is that his brother Ralf Schumacher so nearly shared the front row with him. In an hour that produced little drama save for a spectacular spin by eventual 10th placed McLaren driver Mika Hakkinen, young Schumacher surprised himself by putting in an early quick lap to establish his credibility as a potential front runner. "I did not really expect this result and so I am very happy," He said afterwards. " but I want to keep my expectations realistic, meaning that my aim is to finish the race, obviously in the points if I can."

Amid new controversy over fresh verbal outbursts from a bleach-headed Jacques Villeneuve, the drivers took a protective stance over the gravity of the accident that caused Prost driver Olivier Panis to break both his legs at Montreal. Villeneuve, expressing his disapproval over the ‘political correctness’ of Formula 1 said, " When someone has an accident everyone acts as if they are sad, but they don’t really care. As a driver you take risks and if you can’t accept them you shouldn’t be out there." He went on to say "If you consider it, two broken legs is not that bad. Skiers get hurt every winter. Olivier is having a great season and he will be able to come back in a racing car. If he was a skier he would be off a long time." The same could of course be said about Ice skaters and Ballet dancers but the ever present risk of fatal injuries is not so omnipresent as it is when one is travelling at 150 km/h and David Coulthard spoke for many when he said, "The last time we saw a driver laid out on the side of the track like that was Ayrton Senna. The drivers are sincere in their concern." Coulthard a close neighbour of Villeneuve in Monte Carlo added, "I am equally sure that they would be equally concerned if they saw Jacques laid out on the track."

Ironically, Jacques Villeneuve had a massive ‘off’ during the morning’s warm-up session damaging his car so badly, that it took the William’s mechanics until the last 15 minutes of the session to repair it. Hence, having to drive first, the spare car, set up for HeinzHarald Frentzen and then his own for his last two laps, he only managed 4th in a session that he no doubt fully expected to dominate. The honours for Williams were left to Frentzen and with a late charge, broke the family monopoly of the front row by posting a time of 1.14.74s, six one thousandths of a second faster than the Jordan Peugeot. Schumacher junior’s team mate Giancarlo Fisichella despite his turn of speed in untimed practice yesterday was not showing his usual form and finished in 11th position. "I had problems with the car this afternoon," He said "The main problems were understeer and lack of grip. The tyre temperatures were too low and I don’t know why. I was held up by Irvine on my last run so did not make a better time." Eddie Jordan can feel quite pleased especially as Peugeot is putting off it’s decision as to whether he can keep the much vaunted power supply, until the end of July.

Damon Hill no matter what he says, and these days there isn’t much he can say, must secretly harbour some regrets at not signing with the Jordan team at the end of last year. The car in it’s present configuration would have made Hill look very good indeed and there is little doubt that his name would by now be on the points table. Finishing a miserable 17th in the Arrows Yamaha nearly two tenths of a second behind his team mate, ‘rent a driver’ Pedro Diniz, he said, "We can’t find any more things to make the car go faster." There is no more to be said and if next season sees him with the same team, with the current availability of good drives on offer for next year, then his credibility as a driving force could be seriously undermined.

Of the three new drivers, Gerhard Berger stand-in Alex Wurz, finished a creditable 7th for Benetton and over 2 tenths quicker than old hand Jean Alesi. The remarkable Jarno Trulli always under rated with Minardi finished 6th in his first time out for Prost as a temporary replacement for Panis. Clever money could see him as Panis’ number two for next season.

Norberto Fontana filling in for Sauber’s Gianni Morbideli who broke an arm in testing last week finished in 20th place in front of Minardi regular Ukyo Katayama and new team mate Tarzo Marques deputising for the transferred Trulli rounded up the session last, 4.2 seconds behind the German polesitter.

Villeneuve’s final quip was aimed at Schumacher when he echoed a thought that many journalists harbour in the light of Schumacher’s suggestions that with the faster circuits he would not be able to maintain his championship advantage. "He always plays down his chances because, if he wins, then he seems an even bigger hero." He added in deference to the two times World Champion, "He’s a great driver. He drives the Hell out of the Ferrari."

Schumacher, whilst admitting that none of the drivers were very close, did talk of ‘looking after each other’ but when it came to the bottom line, "It’s our job to make the sport as safe as possible." Schumacher has of course, made the fewest mistakes of most in his career so far and it may be easy for him to say. For a young ‘hothead’ like Villeneuve, desperate for the thrill of the chase and the glory of winning, it’s equivalent to him putting on slippers and taking up a pipe. He should take heed however of his coming together with the barriers today, for if he had hit them as Panis did maybe he would be ‘resting up’ for the next two months.

The sight of three Germans heading a Grand Prix however briefly, is a sight not seen since the war, but it will surely be one that is probably not likely to maintain its presence over 72 laps. A certain Canadian might see to that.


Chris Richardson


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