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Goodyear Tyres are now given names such as 'Optional' and 'Prime' compounds...





































Williams fastest by a country mile? Of course they were!
















To be happy to qualify second to last, must be a hard pill to swallow for the current World Champion who won this race last year.


Race Day : March 9th 1997

The Weary and the Wary.

The season finally gets under way. Somehow the old form of 1996 seems to be continued into this new season. Chris Richardson reports.

Psycho games in Melbourne

Friday (March 7th 1997) They can’t put it off any longer, the day of reckoning is at hand. With yesterday’s free practice, there was still time to make excuses, still time to pretend that they weren’t trying to set a fast time and there was still just the slimmest possibility of avoiding the dreaded exclusion zone of the ‘club-no-one wants-to-be-in’, the ‘hundred and seven percenter’s’.

With Bridgestone shipping in excess of 2000 tyres for its five contracted teams and Goodyear 1800 for their seven, the choice of rubber is quite bewildering. Goodyear tyres are now given names such as ‘Optional’ and ‘Prime’ compounds rather than code numbers as before, to quote their press release, "In view of the new competitive tyre-supply environment." If the race is wet, the drivers have three specifications from which to choose. Bridgestone shod teams will be expected to do well as winter testing has produced some spectacular results. Arrows driver and current World Champion Damon Hill who spent the best part of six months developing the tyres, unwittingly lit the fires of curiosity by turning in some pretty quick times. Now, with four other teams at the lower end of the grid similarly shod and gaining all the benefit of Arrows research without have to spend a copper, the competition will inevitably be split three ways between drivers teams and tyres.

So, with tyre controversy providing suitable camouflage for the real speed of the collective grid and the psychological games teams are wont to play on each other’ Friday practice closed in a cloak and dagger atmosphere. The fastest of the Bridgestone cars was Olivier Panis in the renamed Prost holding 12th place and with the exception of the two Tyrells, all behind had Japanese rubber.

Adversity could turn out to be Hill’s best friend this year. Fresh rumours of bursts of anger and contract ripping followed the story of the ‘Arrows that lost its wing’. Not content with giving the Champ one of the most miserable testing periods in Formula One history, with gearbox problems, water leaks expiring engines and inclement weather, adversity stripped the last vestiges of self-respect from his disillusioned frame when his front wing dropped off in what could have been an extremely dangerous accident. The rumour continued apace, with Martin Brundle recently appointed director at Arrows, having to take over and bed the new car in as Hill took an early flight to surf away his anger on the beaches of Southern Oz. No stranger is Hill to these feelings however, ask Frank Williams about it. Hill now pushing his car to 13th on the grid was probably fueled by his anger and against all informed media pundits’ expectations, has set an initial time that gives credit to his driving abilities.

With Mika Hakkinen the slowest of the two Mclaren drivers only 4 tenths of a second in front and the Ferrari of Eddie Irvine less than half a second in front of the Finn, the chances of a point for Hill, do not look as remote as they did less than a week ago. Schumacher the wily sandbagger, might just have been caught out, by setting the fastest time of the day. Maybe thinking that the Williams pair of Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Jacques Villeneuve would show their stride a little more forcefully than they did, he may have been a touch heavy handed with the throttle. How much the German has left under his foot and whether the Williams FW19’s were running under a leash, will shortly be revealed.

Traditionally teams concern themselves with set up, downforce adjustment , choice of tyres and pit stop configurations at free practice and the grid is fairly meaningless, but as it’s the first day of term, the guys that moved up a grade are being closely scrutinised by the new boys and are loth to give any of their secrets away. Who knows therefore, if the relatively poor showing of the Stewart Ford is just ‘setting up’ or, was Hill running ‘D’ compound tyres and just enough fuel for two laps? Did Williams run on full tanks today and, have Ferrari found a few more miles per hour with their re modified turning-vanes? Will the Lola’s qualify not only for this race but any of the races until they get their new engine? Could the sight of Sospiri sitting on the pit wall during the race be as regular an occurrence as the billowing smoke from the Yamaha of Hill’s or Diniz’ Arrows?

Here, conjecture becomes fantasy and the green light is just about to go on at the exit to the pit lane. Fridays times were just a taster and imminently, the truth will out. No more secrets now. The teams are collectively naked, the cloaks are off , the daggers are out and an audience of millions around the world are waiting in earnest to see who has the biggest balls.

Jumping Jacques Flash waltzes to Pole for Australian Grand Prix

(Saturday March 8th 1997) The questions that have been asked all winter have been answered in the hour of qualifying at The Albert Park Circuit today. Everybody of course got most of them right. Williams fastest by a country mile? Of course they were. McLarens and Ferraris in the scrum? Of course they were, Arrows way out of contention? Of course they were. Heinz Harald Frentzen playing second fiddle to King Jacques? Of course he is and Jean Alesi fails to deliver, right again. The big question that most of us got wrong however was the Tyre question. Bridgestone remained firmly at the back of the grid with only Olivier Panis again making a brief showing of speed to end up in 9th place.

With the front runners mostly on soft compounds with the exception of Schumacher and the Bridgestone brigade running hard, it seemed a pretty even match and judging from the extremely poor performances of the second half of the grid, probably made no significant contribution to overall lap times.

With a rising track temperature in excess of 30C the cars trickled out one by one, Villeneuve setting the early pace, mildly harried by the two McLarens looking splendid in their new livery. Damon Hill managed an early lap before the Arrows gremlins struck again forcing him to sit in the spare car looking out at the pit wall whilst mechanics feverishly worked on a water leak. This was in addition to the problems he had in the warm up session in the morning when he only managed a lap before being towed in. The red blur that passed his line of vision was Schumacher struggling with an unwieldy Ferrari, fighting it every inch of the way, yet almost throwing it across the line to make the upper side of the second row. The Williams pit saw Villeneuve sitting quietly in his car and Heinz Harald Frentzen totally demoralised by Villeneuve’s blistering opening salvo, over driving the car in desperate retaliation and aborting his run, locking his brakes when he came dangerously close to Rosset’s struggling Lola.

The Benetton of Gerhard Berger failed to make any impression on the promising times of yesterday, showing a severe drop in performance. Despite new parts added to the front wing and extra downforce applied to the rear wings on both cars, he failed to rise above tenth slot by the end of the session.

Diniz eventually made it out onto the track with 25 minutes left having also sat in the spare Arrows for a while and, with a singularly unspectacular performance failed to qualify for the race, as indeed it looked as though Hill might not either as, on his first proper run and on cold tyres, twitched around the circuit over six second down on the leader. A second and final run with only two laps remaining of his twelve, put him just 4 tenths inside the 107% cut off time. There was a visible sense of relief on his face as he said with the greatest of understatement, " I am a touch disappointed but we are in the race." To be happy to qualify second to last, must be a hard pill to swallow for the current World Champion who won this race last year.

The session was stopped with 2 and a half minutes to go when Nicola Larini hit a wall leaving debris on the track and a mad rush ensued when 20 cars streamed from the pits to grab a last lap as the session restarted. A tussle for position outside the pits between Villeneuve and his team mate proved that sparks will indeed fly between these two in races to come and an inspired last lap from Frentzen brought him up from a miserable seventh to sit rather uncomfortably alongside the Canadian on the front row.

Villeneuves time of 1.29.369 was almost a second faster than Frentzen’s and another second quicker than the third place of Michael Schumacher. Had Villeneuve gone faster in his final lap, and it looked like he would have done had he not hit traffic, then Hill would definitely have been pushed into the 107% club and taken an early plane home. These are not good times for Damon and unless his team can sort themselves out, this reporter fears that he could become best friends with the Lola drivers-who both failed to qualify-in the 107% club canteen for a great deal of the season. Rubens Barichello finished an excellent 11th behind Berger and in front of Ralph Schumacher’s Jordan showing a fine turn of speed in his first outing in the Stewart Ford. The Jordans falling further down the grid than both Eddie Jordan and the Peugeot bosses would probably like.

With the expected trouncing of the field by the Williams in the most emphatic manner, the expected opinions, regarding the most actively contested field for years, look like being way off the mark. Whilst it is early days yet, the front runners, Williams, Ferrari and McLaren seem set to dominate the season and the fighting for the remaining points looks set to be a rather scrappy affair.

The race could of course be different but when Villeneuve, blowing away the smoke screens of secrecy from the Williams pit door says "We could have gone quicker at the end", you know that he will give no quarter and he already has the Championship sewn up. This will indeed be sad for Formula one if the level of competition remains as it was today.

Chris Richardson

Race Practice

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Race Qualifying

1997 Championship Contents

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