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Race Day : June 29th 1997

Schumacher dominates French Grand Prix. Ferrari's superiority leave Williams wondering

Michael Schumacher took the French Grand Prix by the scruff of the neck, shook it and deposited the remains in front of a bewildered Williams pit. Celebrating his third victory in 4 races, he put paid to pre race doubts as to his competitiveness by saying "Why does our car work suddenly? My predictions for this race were wrong and this was a convincing win. to take pole position and win the race, is the best you can do". Heinz Harald Frentzen finishing second was as perplexed as his team, having barely managed to keep the Ferrari in his sights. "I was astonished by Michael’s speed at the start. I thought he must be on three stops instead of two because he was pushing like hell, he pulled away and it should have been the other way round, so I just let him go." He said, "I was desperate for points before this race, but I’m finding more tricks and it’s getting better."

It took merely a few seconds after the red lights had gone out for Schumacher to power cleanly away and out of sight with Frentzen just about keeping station behind. With Eddie Irvine bridging the gap to 4th placed Jacques Villeneuve hotly contested by Ralf Schumacher’s Jordan Peugeot, the front of the pack was largely to stay unchanged throughout the race.

It also took merely a few seconds for World Champion Damon Hill to exit the race temporarily, as he was squeezed from the back of the pack funnelling in to Estoril, the first right hander. Trailing across the gravel with a broken nose unit, he was forced to pit for a replacement fighting his way through the contents of a fire extinguisher that had been inadvertently set off in the Arrows pits. "I came out a lap down and got blue-flagged until I found my rightful place in the grid and pressed on from there." Hill said afterwards. "I just wanted to finish really, and, we finished." And so he did, last and three laps down. His humiliation now seems complete and he goes forward to Silverstone and his home crowd, not as a returning hero, but as the guy who used to drive for Williams.

By lap 15 Villeneuve was struggling to stay in the frame, 5 seconds behind Irvine and 20 seconds behind the leader. The Benettons were faring no better, Jean Alesi working hard to stay ahead of replacement driver and novice to Formula 1 Alexander Wurz.

The first round of pit stops did little to alleviate the drudgery and it was only the onset of rain around the time that the second stops were due, that caused the race to come alive. Most drivers settled for fresh slicks as the rain was not severe enough to warrant the heavy time penalties of intermediate rain tyres, Jarno Trulli being the exception in the Prost who promptly started slipping down the order.

By lap 60 it was tipping down and the scramble started in the pits to get wets on both team cars. Schumacher took a brief turn onto the gravel as his slicks tried to keep a grip on the soaking track, but he was shrewdly observing Frentzen, his only threat for the top step of the podium. If Frentzen didn’t pit neither could he and so the game of cat and mouse continued until the end of the race. Frentzen was a marked man in the Ferrari garage. "I was just watching to see what Frentzen would do." Said Schumacher. Frentzen did nothing, but Villenueve pitted for wets having spun at the chicane, dropping down to sixth place and giving up his fourth slot to David Coulthard in the McLaren Mercedes, who again was driving a brilliant race.

Schumacher was on the last lap and on his way to the 25th Grand Prix win of his career equalling those of Jim Clark and Niki Lauda. A brave if foolhardy move by his brother saw him give Coulthard a fright as he passed him at the Adelaide hairpin and promptly spin on the 180 degree bend. Coulthard was far from pleased. "Ralf took a silly dive down my inside at the hairpin." He said "I gave him room because I wanted to finish. He then spun in front of me." Schumacher Junior saw things differently. "He’s a bit unhappy, I hear about my manoeuvre. I’ll have to talk to David. It was very slippery, like driving on soap. I saw the possibility there and it obviously worked, but I spun again."

Fate was to deal Coulthard another cruel hand in the shape of Alesi and this time it was terminal. He was rear ended by the mercurial Frenchman in a braking mistake, knocking him out of the race and a certain two points. When asked what happened the Scotsman said through gritted teeth, "Alesi happened, but he has apologised, so I suppose that makes everything okay doesn't it?" He said later, "We’ve seen it so many times from Jean. He can pass me fairly he can race me hard, but to barge into me is very disappointing. Today McLaren deserved a point and we didn’t get it."

The silliness continued to the final corner . Villeneuve on a charge from his sixth position and desperate to stay in touch with the top three, made a desperate lunge at 3rd placed Irvine as he bought his Ferrari into the final Lycee turn. Realising that he wouldn’t make it, the Canadian, braking heavily, spun across the track, over the curbing and into the pit lane entrance. "I had him covered, and then he wasn't there as I gunned for the line." A bemused Irvine said. With debris and superstructure flying from his car, he kept the engine alive and executing a 180 degree turn rejoined the track almost taking Jean Alesi out as he came steaming round the bend. A stewards enquiry later decided not to apportion blame on Villeneuve for the incident, but it was yet another example of a reckless approach that has been in evidence in the past few races and Williams Technical Director Patrick Head will no doubt be none too pleased.

A minute and 23 seconds earlier, Michael Schumacher had taken the chequered flag at the same time, allowing his young brother to unlap himself and take advantage of Coulthard’s plight by grabbing the point left by Alesi. "I was really lucky to get that extra lap from Michael and win a point. I owe him one, or perhaps this is my birthday present to me for tomorrow!". Said a happy Schumacher Junior. Team boss Eddie Jordan was not so happy however. With a messy performance by the young German and a disappointing 9th place from an unhappy Giancarlo Fisichella in an unprepared spare car due to engine failure, he said, "We cannot be remotely satisfied with winning only one point, but it is good that we are closing the gap on the other teams."

Schumacher’s victory now gives him a 14 point lead over Villeneuve and will ensure that he goes to his home Grand Prix in Germany in three weeks time, the Championship leader. Ferrari too are showing Williams the way and the Didcot team will be scratching their heads and wondering why.

Never higher than fourth except for pit stops, Villeneuve revealed another tactical weather related error by his team when he said that his car had been prepared for rain and was difficult to handle throughout the race. But it’s not that the Williams is particularly slow, it’s the Ferrari that’s now faster. With a redesigned front wing and the promise, from newly appointed Technical Director Ross Brawn, of further improvements to come, the Scuderia are set to be come the dominant force in Formula 1, a position that has up til now been the privilege of Williams to hold. Recent publicity regarding the outspoken Villeneuve and the physiological pressures put on Frentzen cannot have helped team moral and for once Frank Williams choice of drivers now seems marginally suspect.

The race was of course down to the driver and the driver was the class of the field. His superiority was evident from qualifying, to the flag and if the Ferrari improves further by mid season, it will be a hard struggle for Williams to catch this runaway horse.


Chris Richardson






1. Michael Schumacher Ferrari 1.38.50

2. Heinz-Harald Frentzen Williams 1.39.14

3. Eddie Irvine Ferrari 1.14.80

4. Jacques Villeneuve Williams 1.21.78

5. Jean Alesi Benetton 1.22.73

6. Ralf Schumacher Jordan 1.29.87

7. David Coulthard McLaren 1.38.40 DNF

8. Johnny Herbert Sauber 1.39.35 1 lap

9. Giancarlo Fisichella Jordan 1.40.16 1 lap

10. Jarno Trulli Prost 2 laps

11. Ukyo Katayama Minardi 2 laps

12. Damon Hill Arrows 3 laps


1997 Championship Contents

Formula 1 Contents