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Race Day : October 12th 1997

Villeneuve gets pole for clash of the Titans, but Schumacher gets psychological advantage as Canadian races under suspension.

Jacques Villeneuve will be contesting the Japanese Grand Prix under protest of disqualification on Sunday, after not taking quite the definitive pole position that he had hoped for. Already competing under a one race ban suspended for 9 races from a similar misdemeanour at Monza, he was deemed to have ignored a yellow flag waved in the mornings warm up session when the Marshals were clearing Jos Verstappen’s stricken Tyrrell from the track and disqualified. "I find this difficult to accept." Said Villeneuve. "It’s a blow now that we are fighting for the championship and It’s the most difficult season I have been part of in any form of racing."

The appeal will be heard by the FIA court of appeal next week and should he lose, which is highly likely, then any points he gets today will be discounted.

Five cars also on the track at that point received the same sentence, suspended for 2 further races. However, drivers Michael Schumacher, Johnny Herbert, Heinz Harald Frentzen, Rubens Barichello and Ukyo Katayama are not under any penalties at present so all will be racing tomorrow.

This represents a severe blow to Williams’ chances of securing both championship titles this weekend. Technical director Patrick Head was none too pleased, but philosophical about the incident. Indicating that Villeneuve was undaunted by his predicament, he confirmed that the Canadian was determined to win the race, no matter what the outcome. He added that, "In the case of Jacques already being under a suspended ban, he might have been wiser to have made a deliberate point of slowing down but he didn’t."

This opens up the battle for the Championship title and gives Ferrari driver Schumacher a distinct psychological advantage over the Canadian. With team mate Eddie Irvine putting in a brilliant drive for third, he has his back covered against any incursion that Villeneuve’s team-mate Heinz Harald Frentzen may make from the third row. "I will try and help Michael for the Championship," said Irvine, "which makes my job ten times harder as I have to think about both of us." Flippantly he joked, "I hope to make the best start, pass both of them and then let Michael pass me!"

Under the threat of dark stormy clouds there was a rush for the pit exit as qualifying got under way. Mika Hakinnen continuing his brilliant form in the McLaren Mercedes showed the way with the first provisional pole time of 1:36.46s and even with Villeneuve and Schumacher both on the track making the first of their four runs, his time stuck for the first fifteen minutes of the session. An explosion of oil from the engine of Rubens Barichello’s Stewart-Ford left oil spread over the first two corners and consequently lap times suffered until the slick had been ‘driven away’ by other cars.

With the threat of rain receding, Villeneuve gained the pole on his second run out, followed 6 minutes later by Eddie Irvine into second place. Schumacher’s Ferrari, like his team mate’s, seemed to run well on the thin rubber of the Goodyear soft compounds as the track temperature during the early stages was not critical and the German slotted in behind Villeneuve, 3 tenths of a second up on the Irishman pushing him to third. A rising track temperature saw the end of Ferrari’s competitiveness although Schumacher thought he could achieve faster lap times. "Maybe I could have gone a little bit quicker," He said, "but I had too much understeer on my last run."

Bridgestone continued to disappoint. With the accumulated data from constant testing at their home track, they were surprisingly uncompetitive. Using a special compound formulated for the circuit the choice was about evenly split between hard and soft, the harder winning through to give Prost driver, Olivier Panis the highest position for the Japanese tyre manufacturer, at 10th place.

Damon Hill’s performance was disappointing for the Arrows team, the inferior power of the Yamaha forcing the TWR team to make compromises with the downforce to enable the car to be at least competitive on the straight. It was therefore down to the driver’s skill to pilot the cars safely through the corners and it was in those corners that the time was lost. Hill finished a lowly 17th, one place behind his ever improving partner Pedro Diniz.

The session was stopped for fifteen minutes with five minutes remaining, when Giani Morbidelli’s Sauber hit the tyre barriers. Schumacher was on his third run and about to start his quick lap but aborted his mission and returned to the pits, the stickers on his tyres still showing. The rush back to the track didn’t produce any dramatic changes at the front of the grid. Villeneuve who was concerned over his slender pole position lead, was forced out with two minutes remaining, fearing the German would be on his tail. He failed to capitalise on his premature actions, when Irvine, trying for a better time in the dying seconds of the session, was put to the side of the track with a fuel flow problem prompting the yellow flags to be fluttered again. Schumacher, seemingly playing ‘cat and mouse’ with his rival and looking like he was about to shadow the Canadian’s every move, chose to stay in the pits. "I wasted my third run when the red flag came out and did not go out at the end of the session, because I saw that the yellow flags were out again." He said. "If I had done my quickest lap at that point, I would have lost that time.." Whether he talked about self preservation or ‘gamesmanship’, it was not noticeable on his countenance and one has to assume that it was indeed, as he said. "I saw all the cars were stopping and I knew it was going to be a mess and I would just waste another set of tyres."

It was clear that Villeneuve’s session had not gone the way he had hoped. Not withstanding his disqualification. An hour before the Stewards’ announcement he was guardedly confident. "I wasn’t expecting the Ferrari’s to be so close to us." He said. "The bad thing is that my team mate is behind and he’s not in there to help us." Aware of the threat that the two Ferrari’s present at the first corner, he continued, "We’ll have to wait and see what Eddie does without having Heinz there to do the same."

As darkness descended over the pits, the Williams mechanics continued their work on setting up a car that they knew might not even garner a single point despite it winning the race, but, it had to be done. The life of Jim Morrison, Villeneuve’s current reading material, is likely to remain unopened in his hotel room at the circuit tonight and Schumacher will be in his pits long after everyone else had gone home, briefing his engineers on the finest details of his lap performance. An extra tenth of a second here or there could make all the difference. But with the threat of disqualification for the Canadian and no matter what the outcome of the race, there will be no championship celebrations until the FIA have had their say next week. Spain could be the unlikely venue for the final confrontation for the victor’s crown.


Chris Richardson



Unofficial qualifying results for the Japanese Grand Prix, Suzuka 11th Oct 1997


1. Jacques Villeneuve, Williams-Renault, 1:36.071s (subject to appeal)

2. Michael Schumacher, Ferrari, 1:36.133.

3. Eddie Irvine, Ferrari, 1:36.466.

4. Mika Hakkinen, McLaren-Mercedes, 1:36.469.

5. Gerhard Berger, Benetton-Renault, 1:36.561.

6. Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Williams-Renault, 1:36.628.

7. Jean Alesi, Benetton-Renault, 1:36.682.

8. Johnny Herbert, Sauber-Petronas, 1:36.906.

9. Giancarlo Fisichella, Jordan-Peugeot, 1:36.917.

10. Olivier Panis, Prost Mugen-Honda, 1:37.073.

11. David Coulthard, McLaren-Mercedes, 1:37.095.

12. Rubens Barrichello, Stewart-Ford, 1:37.343.

13. Ralf Schumacher, Jordan-Peugeot, 1:37.443.

14. Jan Magnussen, Stewart-Ford, 1:37.480.

15. Shinji Nakano, Prost Mugen-Honda, 1:37.588.

16. Pedro Diniz, Arrows-Yamaha, 1:37.853.

17. Damon Hill, Arrows-Yamaha, 1:38.022.

18. Gianni Morbidelli, Sauber-Petronas, 1:38.556.

19. Ukyo Katayama, Minardi-Hart, 1:38.983.

20. Tarso Marques, Minardi-Hart, 1:39.678.

21. Jos Verstappen, Tyrrell-Ford, 1:40.259.

22. Mika Salo, Tyrrell-Ford, 1:40.529.



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