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Race Day : July 27th 1997

‘Special powers’ help Berger to complete unfinished business at Hockenheim. The ‘Old guard’ remains in command.

"I finish my dream ... my target was the podium and now ... nothing." Giancarlo Fisichella, driver for Jordan Peugeot



The firecrackers went off and the crowd roared but it wasn’t the red car they all expected to turn the last corner into the home straight, but a blue one and not even the darker shades of a Williams. The outside chance of a non German to take the honours, was a pretty slim one at the beginning of the weekend, with the brothers Schumacher in fine form and a highly charged Heinz Harald Frentzen, desperate to soothe the ever shortening tempers of his bosses. But a rejuvenated Gerhard Berger, returning to Benetton after a three race absence due to sinus surgery and the decision to look for fresh fields next season, shared the front row of the grid with Giancarlo Fisichella, the young driver who is to replace him and then showed him a clean pair of heels for the entirety of the race.

A weekend, where all the talk was of ‘young blood’ drivers, hungry for the spoils of their elders and at a fraction of the cost, amounted to just that: talk. The dinosaurs have roared back with a show of strength which proves that experience can be on occasion, worth more than motivation.

The two shining stars were, however, the aforementioned and it was only down to a rotten piece of luck that Fisichella didn’t score a truly deserved 2nd place on the podium. Michael Schumacher again ‘lucked’ in to higher position through the demise of the Italian, gaining a further six points on Jacques Villeneuve, who, having a most unsatisfying weekend, lost interest in the race and gave it all away, mixing it with the back-markers on lap 33 and spinning out. With Mika Hakkinen balancing out the last podium step, two and a half seconds in front of another Italian rising star, Jarno Trulli and Jordan at least getting some return on a day of unfulfilled potential, with a disappointing fifth place for Ralf Schumacher, it was a ‘feelgood’ victory for the Austrian, who’s father died recently in a light aeroplane crash and no doubt, giving genuine pleasure to the whole of the Formula 1 community.

The odds of Heinz Harald Frentzen being a Williams driver next year shortened considerably with his second ‘first corner’ crash in a row. Admittedly it involved the Ferrari number two driver Eddie Irvine, much experienced at ‘first corner’ incidents and as such, Patrick Head, William’s technical director, was right to voice his concern at Frentzen’s proximity to the Irishman on the grid. However, Irvine was blameless on this occasion and suffered a similar punishment to that which Frentzen meted out to Tyrrells Jos Verstappen at Silverstone. William’s, nil points.

Berger made the perfect start from the line with The Jordan of Fisichella hot on his tail. A brief skirmish between McLaren’s Mika Hakkinen and Schumacher, amounted to little and the German settled in behind Fisichella as the Berger’s Benetton immediately started to pull out a gap which never really shortened.

Frentzen meanwhile starting from 5th place, took the long way round the NordKurve corner out of the stadium complex and Irvine, making the best start of his life, shot from tenth place to take the Germans 5th. Frentzen forced on to the grass by his own mistake and attempting to regain the track, clipped Irvine’s rear left tyre, instantly puncturing it, damaging his front wing which in turn, caused his own right front to deflate also. By the time both cars returned to the pits, the Ferrari’s rear section was on fire from bodywork, damaged by the flailing rubber of the shredded Goodyear falling onto the engine. "If someone runs into the back of you. there’s not a lot you can do." Said Irvine and, for once the evidence was plain to see, despite further excuses from Frentzen. "I was on the outside and I had no place to go." He said. "I could not go on the grass. He (Irvine) ran over my right tyre. I think that was not necessary." The video evidence proved that the opposite was true and the luckless German could only look forward to a roasting from his team, this time around.

Similar misfortune befell David Coulthard, also victim to Frentzen who took out part of his right wing, damaging his transmission and ending his race before it even began. How the pendulum of fate swings with such alarming regularity for the McLaren drivers. It was now the ‘Flying Finn’ Hakinnen’s turn for the spotlight, staying in the beam of the leading string of four and was never far from Schumacher’s wing until the race order changed temporarily during the pit stops.

As Berger continued to pull away to a 7.7 second lead by lap 9, Fisichella was doing a great job under pressure, resisting the advances of Schumacher Senior. A further 10 seconds down the track Villeneuve in a most unusual position of 6th was unable to catch Jean Alesi, 5 seconds in front of him and was in danger of losing his place to Jarno Trulli in the Mugen-Honda powered Prost.

By lap 11, Arrows driver Pedro Diniz had taken the Sauber of Johnny Herbert out and it was pit stop time for some of the front runners, on laps 14 and 15. The Benettons on two stops were at a disadvantage to the Jordans and the Ferrari who were one a single stop but Berger managed to rejoin the race in 4th position behind Hakkinen whom he soon caught and passed. By lap 23 both Fisichella, leading a Grand Prix for the first time and Schumacher had stopped and Berger was once again leading the race and pushing as hard as he could to build a lead for his final stop on lap 34.

With Berger increasing his lead to 19 seconds over the Jordan driver, the Stewart-Ford Zetec Project 7 engine of Jan Magnussen decided to let go as Berger was coming up to lap him. "I think I lost four or five seconds when someone’s engine broke in front of me and it was very foggy! I almost stopped completely and I really felt that I had lost the race." Said Berger. "It was a real surprise for me to continue in the lead."

The procession continued unchanged with the exception of Berger’s increasing lead but by lap 34 when he pitted, he had not bought enough time to get in and out in front of Giancarlo who had inherited the lead again. This was not to last, for a small mistake made at the Ostkurve allowed Berger to slip through and regain his rightful place at the head of the field.

Schumacher maintained station about 20 seconds adrift of the leader with Hakkinen a further 5 seconds down. With just 7 laps to go and a certain 2nd place finish, Fisichella picked up a puncture and it was to his credit that, at a little under 200mph, he managed to keep the car under control and despite spinning at the pit lane entrance, had enough presence of mind to keep the engine running, enabling him to pit for fresh rubber. This put him out of contention and a further lap saw him retire from a hard fought race with a damaged radiator caused by the incident. "That second place was mine!" said a downhearted Fisichella "To have finished second would have realised another lifetime dream for me and I am trying to overcome the disappointment not only for me but for the team." Referring to the fact that Schumacher picked him up on his way back to the pits after taking second place, he added, "Thanks to Michael for giving me a lift home-he is a gentleman and I have a lot of respect for him."

Damon Hill in the Arrows finished another race, albeit in 8th position. After gaining the first point for the team at Silverstone, Hill was disappointed not to have finished higher. Having tasted the minor league success of a championship point, an experience he will remember with abundance from his previous season with Williams, he said, "A few weeks ago perhaps we would have been delighted to finish. But now we have got to the stage where we’re disappointed because the car was very competitive for the circuit and we didn’t get any points." It must be galling for him to see his old seat with the Grove team being squandered to such a degree.

As a result of the increasing ban on tobacco advertising several cars were adorned with cryptic versions of their sponsor’s logos. The question mark on the Williams car was symbolic also of the confusion that must now reign within the team. Schumacher has strengthened his hold on the driver’s championship and the constructor’s title looks tentative at the very most for the team. With arguably, still the best car on the grid, their performance, despite a fortuitous win by Villeneuve at Silverstone, has taken a drastic slide for the worse. The decision to replace Hill with Frentzen must now look, even to boss Frank Williams, as one of the few blunders of his career. Despite Patrick Head’s assurance that the German will still be on their books next year, it looks increasingly unlikely, unless he can utilise the finest of tools he has been given and start producing top podium results for the rest of the season. Williams can’t afford to throw it all away at this stage of the game.

As the Austrian National Anthem played for the first time in two years, ironically at the same circuit where Berger had his last victory, he shed a private tear, no doubt thinking that his father would have been overjoyed by the occasion had he been there to witness it.

"I really felt I had some special power here this weekend," said an emotional Berger at the end of his race. "This sport is a locked mind. I knew when I came back that all the Media sharks were waiting to get some negative headlines and I wanted to show them that it’s different and I did it." Berger certainly did it alright. The ‘old dog’ has taught himself some new tricks and has raised the anti into the bargain. Instead of facing retirement in the absence of a competitive drive, there is now a price on his head.



Chris Richardson




Results of the 45th German Grand Prix,

HOCKENHEIM, Jul 27, 1997

1. Gerhard Berger Benetton-Renault 1hr 20m 59.046sec

2. Michael Schumacher Ferrari) +17.527

3. Mika Hakkinen McLaren-Mercedes + 24.770

4. Jarno Trulli Prost-Mugen-Honda + 27.165

5. Ralf Schumacher Jordan-Peugeot + 29.995

6. Jean Alesi Benetton-Renault + 34.717

7. Shinji Nakano Prost-Mugen-Honda) 1:19.722

8. Damon Hill Arrows-Yamaha one lap

9. Norberto Fontana Sauber - Petronas one lap

10. Jos Verstappen Tyrrell-Ford one lap

11. Giancarlo Fisichella Jordan-Peugeot five laps





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