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Race Day : October 12th 1997

Ferrari strategy leaves Williams dazed and confused

Irvine helps Schumacher to crucial victory

"Today we saw a great team, a great Eddie and a great Michael." ......

Jean Todt Ferrari team boss.


In a thrilling race of both mental and physical agility, Michael Schumacher has managed to keep his 3rd World Championship aspirations alive not only by scoring a definitive victory over second placed man Heinz Harald Frentzen, but also inflicting a crushing psychological blow to his adversary Jacques Villeneuve. The Suzuka circuit in Japan notoriously unsuited to the chassis designs of Ferrari in recent years, saw the expected dominance of the faster Williams cars demolished by a brilliant race strategy from the Maranello team and inch perfect driving by team-mate Eddie Irvine acting as the perfect foil to the Williams challenge for the driver’s crown.

A strong getaway by Schumacher was parried by the Williams driver who lunged forward and across the track to dive into the first corner ahead. The McLaren Mercedes of Mika Hakinnen fell in behind with a close following Irvine ready to pounce. "Jacque’s plan was to hold everyone up and to make life difficult, especially for me." Said a happy but slightly disgruntled Schumacher later. "He probably knows that he doesn’t score any points from this race, so he wanted me to lose as many points as possible which meant slowing me down and getting some cars in front of me. It didn’t work, as Eddie told me he (Irvine) might try and pass me at that point and it was quite funny when it happened. It was a very good manoeuvre."

That manoeuvre was a key point to Schumacher’s victory. A stunning pass by the Ulsterman at turn 2 on the 2nd lap enabled him to pass both Hakkinen and his team mate. His express train then went on to pass the leading car of Villeneuve a lap later and streak away to set a string of fastest laps over 2 seconds quicker than Villeneuve, who was doing his level best to slow things down to allow the field to bunch behind Schumacher. "We had an idea that Jacques was going to hold everybody up and we had a few ideas about how to get past him and it went pretty much to plan." Irvine said. "The opportunity to pass presented itself and although Jacques tried to block me, I went round the outside of him. I started pulling away and I was just waiting for the phone call!" By the end of lap 6 Irvine was 12 seconds clear and Ferrari’s strategy seemed to be working like a dream.

Irvine was the first of the front runners to stop on lap17, handing the lead to Villeneuve and rejoining to take up a rearguard position behind Frentzen in 4th. With Schumacher pitting a lap later and the Williams duo two laps later, Irvine found himself back at the front with a positive lead over his team mate. Villeneuve chased hard and almost came to blows with the Ferrari at the pit lane exit when he roared into Schumacher’s path in a desperate attempt to regain the initiative. "Jacques came out of the pits and tried to close the door and I’m not too sure that it was the correct thing to do, to move over the circuit and try to push someone." Said Schumacher. "I corrected my situation and took him on the inside, but it could have been dangerous." With new tyres he was able to stay close to the rear of Schumacher’s Ferrari but was unable to catch and pass it. To Villeneuve, it meant little. "My only objective was to try and slow him and I was surprised that nobody tried to overtake him." He said. "Then we lost the battle in the pit stops. We came out a little ahead of him but he was on the track and his momentum carried him past me."

The Ferrari master-plan was being unrolled and the baton was ready to be passed to the man behind. On lap 23, Irvine got his phone call via the pits to car radio and slowed sufficiently to allow Schumacher by in a precision move that placed him as the filling to a rather dangerous sandwich, keeping the frustrated Canadian at bay. "When Michael got past Villeneuve at the pit exit it was obvious that I was going to have to slow down and try to give Michael a bit of a gap." Irvine said. "then I was told to let Michael through and try and slow Villeneuve. We had a plan as to where we would do it and where it would give us the least risk." The plan worked, as Schumacher started to pull clear, with Irvine keeping a watching brief in his rear mirrors to ensure that the Williams stayed put. It must have angered Villeneuve that Irvine was doing everything that his own team mate Frentzen was failing to do.

Frentzen was having his own problems finding it hard to stay in touch with the leaders and remained behind Hakinnen who, despite having a three stop strategy was running yet another competitive race. "I ran very little downforce trying to be quick on the straights and I had a bit of understeer right from the start." Frentzen said later. "I had a lot of fuel on board and it was quite difficult to keep up with the other guys. my target was just to keep going." However, by staying in contention at the end of the leading gaggle of cars, he was able to take over at the front, if only temporarily, when teams started pulling their drivers in again, for fuel and tyres.

The 2nd Ferrari stops on laps 33 and 34, saw Schumacher and Irvine rejoin behind the new leader Frentzen who had yet to stop for a second time. A sticking fuel nozzle turned what should have been a routine stop of around 7 seconds into a 13.4 second time-warp for a demoralised Villeneuve who could do nothing but shake his head sadly as he saw a lousy situation turn even worse. He was now out of contention for the top honours, Irvine having done an excellent job of disrupting the Williams driver’s rhythm.

The only Hiccup to Ferrari’s plans occurred when Frentzen rejoined the circuit in front of Irvine who had fallen right off the pace and was now fighting to hold on to third from the McLaren of Mika Hakinnen. "He moved over onto the racing line, which you should not do when you came out of the pits." Explained Irvine. "The car understeered badly on the last set of tyres and I was locking the front brakes as well. I was losing front end grip and I was going further and further back on the brake balance. Hakinnen was always going to be quicker so I just had to drive whereby I was quicker in the important parts."

With Villeneuve even further down the field in 7th it was Frentzen’s turn to step in for the Williams team and ensure that they secured their eighth Constructors Championship. The fastest lap of the race was his and at 1.38.942 was only 3 hundredths of a second slower than Villeneuve’s pole position for the ’96 Grand Prix. Proof indeed that, as the rules make the cars slower, the designers make them go faster.

Schumacher passed the chequered flag a mere second or so in front of Frentzen, a lead decimated by outgoing World Champion Damon Hill’s uncharacteristic reluctance to let himself be passed by the faster car on the penultimate lap. "Hill made life very difficult for me." Said Schumacher. "There were a lot of blue flags and he should have let me through."

Villeneuve finished a miserable 5th with his two points expected to be taken away from him when the FIA court of appeal meets in Paris next week to examine his appeal against disqualification from the race (see earlier qualifying report).

Jean Alesi did well to be the last points finisher in the Benetton being forced to stop three times. "It's hard to say if we really got an advantage from it." He said later. "The car was going reasonably, except for a slight understeer. I got stuck behind Villeneuve and, although I was quicker, I could not overtake him." Team mate Gerhard Berger came in 9th having had to make a further unscheduled stop. "This was a frustrating race. I made the wrong choice of tyres and had to go for a three-stop strategy." He said. "But even that did not help as I did not manage to get a good performance out of the tyres and I was left behind. It was a gamble which unfortunately did not work!"

The Jordan-Peugeots were unspectacular all weekend and scored no points. Peugeot technical director Pierre Fauconnier, summed up the teams feeling when he said, "The fact that the drivers started from 9th and 12th on the grid, together with the reliability of the cars in front, means the final result was no surprise. It was, however a disappointment, since it is so removed from the excellent performances demonstrated in the second half of the season." Again Giancarlo Fisichella finished higher than co- driver Ralf Schumacher in 8th. Young Ralf said, "I was lucky not to spin at the end of the race as there was some oil on the circuit." Strange that no one else seemed to spot it.

An audible ‘Whoop!’ came from a jubilant and much relieved Schumacher as, cheered by an equally ecstatic Ferrari pit crew, he hugged team mate Irvine before the ritual Champagne shower. Paying a well deserved tribute to his partner and also scotching any silly rumours that Berger would replace him next season, he said, "It is thanks to him that I have this victory. I have always said he is a great driver and a great team-mate."

Schumacher’s win takes the race to the line in Jerez in a fortnight. Villeneuve’s lead is now down to a single point and should these be taken away from him as it is commonly expected, the German will have a one point lead in Spain and the psychological advantage. With the Constructors championship nicely wrapped up by Williams, the driver’s crown has still to find a fitting head. Spain will be the decider, the fickle finger of Formula 1 fate having seen fit to deal the cards to make it so. Fortunes have swung dramatically both ways in the past three races and as the barometer starts it’s downward path for Villeneuve, he will be thinking that nothing really has changed. He is still leading the championship and even if they level the score in Jerez he will have won by dint of the number of outright wins on his scorecard. The FIA however could play the most important role in this end of season drama.

Unsympathetic as they always seem to be with appeals, regarding them as mere delaying tactics, the FIA are wont to increase the penalty if the appeal is not upheld. The impetuous Villeneuve has had his run-ins with the governing body in the past, having criticised to the point of lude swearing, both the merits of next years cars and Mosley himself. He has been let off twice before for racing under a yellow flag and this disqualification is a result of infringing the rules whilst under a suspended ban for the same offence at Monza. There is therefore the possibility of the FIA banning Villeneuve from the final race also and handing the Championship on a silver platter, to Schumacher. No one, least of all the twice world champion, would want this and the FIA should realise that to do this would deprive the sport of one of the most exciting title defences for a long time. They should also be aware of the revenue they will lose as TV viewers world-wide switch off and crowds fail to show in Spain.

Again it all came down Villeneuve, ‘enfant terrible’ and recalcitrant young pup, but he has brought the sparkle back to a slightly tarnished sport and the powers that be, owe it to him to defend his hard fought championship till the last chequered flag drops.


Chris Richardson



Results of the Japanese Grand Prix Suzuka Oct 12th 1997



M Schumacher (Ferrari) 1h 29m 48.446s

H Frentzen (Williams-Renault) + 0m 01.378s

E Irvine (Ferrari) + 0m 26.389s

M Hakkinen (McLaren-Mercedes) + 0m 27.129s

J Villeneuve (Williams-Renault) + 0m 39.776s

J Alesi (Benetton-Renault) + 0m 40.403s

J Herbert (Sauber-Petronas) + 0m 41.630s

G Fisichella (Jordan-Peugeot) + 0m 56.825s

G Berger (Benetton-Renault) + 1m 00.429s

R Schumacher (Jordan-Peugeot) + 1m 22.036s

D Coulthard (McLaren-Mercedes) +1 lap

D Hill (Arrows-Yamaha) +1 lap

P Diniz (Arrows-Yamaha) +1 lap

J Verstappen (Tyrrell-Ford) +1 lap




T Marques (Minardi-Hart) 7 laps: gearbox

M Salo (Tyrrell-Ford) 7 laps: engine

O Panis (Prost-Mugen) 17 laps: engine

S Nakano (Prost-Mugen) 31 laps: wheel bearing

U Katayama (Minardi-Hart) 45 laps: engine

R Barrichello (Stewart-Ford) 47 laps: spin

J Magnussen (Stewart-Ford) 50 laps: spin

G Morbidelli (Sauber-Petronas) DNS: injury



Fastest Lap: H H Frentzen 1:38.942s Lap 48



Drivers Championship standings

(subject to ratification and pending FIA appeal)

Villeneuve (Williams) 79

Schumacher M (Ferrari) 78

Frentzen(Williams) 41

Alesi (Benetton) 35

Coulthard (McLaren) 30

Berger (Benetton) 24

Irvine (Ferrari) 22

Fisichella (Jordan) 20

Hakkinen (McLaren) 17

Panis (Prost) 16

Herbert (Sauber) 14

Schumacher R (Jordan) 13

Hill (Arrows) 7

Barrichello (Stewart) 6

Wurz (Benetton) 4

Trulli (Prost) 3

Salo (Tyrrell) 2

Nakano (Prost) 2

Diniz (Arrows) 2

Larini (Sauber) 1



Constructors Championship standings


Williams-Renault 120

Ferrari 100

Benetton-Renault 63

McLaren-Mercedes 47

Jordan-Peugeot 33

Prost-Mugen 21

Sauber-Petronas 15

Arrows-Yamaha 9

Stewart-Ford 6

Tyrrell-Ford 2







1997 Championship Contents

Formula 1 Contents