Two consecutive wins had put Jacques Villeneuve in control of the 1997 F1 championship. But as the series headed to Europe for the fourth race of the season, the points leader had more on his mind than just the title fight.
Villeneuve takes on the FIA
Following the huge leap in performance seen in the opening races of the season, due in part to the resumption of a ‘tyre war’ between Goodyear and new arrivals Bridgestone, the FIA had imposed a controversial rules change for the following season. From 1998 cars would have to use grooved tyres designed to reduce cornering speeds.
Villeneuve tested Goodyear’s development grooved tyres and didn’t like what he found. In an event at the Zandvoort circuit ahead of the Imola race he strongly criticised the FIA’s plans, claiming they were dumbing down the sport.
“When you do a sport like this, when you want to become a race car driver it’s because you see the other race car drivers in a way as superheroes,” said Villeneuve. “They just keep pushing their limit and you’re impressed. You get that in so many other sports.”
“Formula One is getting to a point where you reach the limit of the car, the material, before you even reach your human side so it becomes more of a show than a sport. So you need stakes, the stakes need to be high. And you need a small sense of danger. You don’t need a big sense of danger, nobody’s looking to kill themselves, that would be pure stupidity. But you need a small sense of danger and that sense of danger has on most tracks disappeared.”
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“It scares me because it’s not going to be Formula One anymore. I’m afraid that this level of racing will be destroyed, it won’t exist. I managed to get one set of those grooved tyres, ’98 design, to test so I would know what I’m talking about. And it’s a joke. It’s not pure anymore. They might as well tell us to buy Formula Threes and let’s call it Formula One. It’s levelling everything downwards and anyone will be able to drive in F1 because the mechanical limit is so much lower than the human limit.”
“At least this year with the softer tyres it’s pushed the barrier a little bit higher so you have to push yourself you have to find strength inside of yourself to really do those good laps, and that’s interesting. But from ’98 onwards, if the regulations don’t change, that side is going to disappear.”
“It might be good for TV because all the lap times will be closer. But the mediocre driver will be very close to the very good driver and you won’t be able to tell a big difference because of that. So it’s going to hide a lot of what should be the best in car racing. You won’t need the best drivers there, you’ll need the best drivers in IndyCar where it’s still going to be the same type of racing.”
1997 San Marino GP grid
|1. Jacques Villeneuve 1’23.303
|2. Heinz-Harald Frentzen 1’23.646
|3. Michael Schumacher 1’23.955
|4. Olivier Panis 1’24.075
|5. Ralf Schumacher 1’24.081
|6. Giancarlo Fisichella 1’24.596
|7. Johnny Herbert 1’24.723
|8. Mika Hakkinen 1’24.812
|9. Eddie Irvine 1’24.861
|10. David Coulthard 1’25.077
|11. Gerhard Berger 1’25.371
|12. Nicola Larini 1’25.544
|13. Rubens Barrichello 1’25.579
|14. Jean Alesi 1’25.729
|15. Damon Hill 1’25.743
|16. Jan Magnussen 1’26.192
|17. Pedro Diniz 1’26.253
|18. Shinji Nakano 1’26.712
|19. Mika Salo 1’26.852
|20. Jarno Trulli 1’26.960
|21. Jos Verstappen 1’27.428
|22. Ukyo Katayama 1’28.727
Villeneuve was still only in his second year of Formula One. Unlike most of his rivals on the grid, he arrived after the trauma of the double fatality at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.
Three years on the impact of that weekend was still being felt. The Imola circuit unveiled a new statue of Ayrton Senna, who along with Roland Raztberger had perished that weekend. A short distance away in Bologna the court case surrounding Senna’s death, which had begun two months earlier, continued.
The Imola circuit had been drastically overhauled in the immediate aftermath of the crashes. But this was also something Villeneuve took a dim view of. “It’s one of the worst circuits,” he complained.
“They just put chicanes everywhere. They had to react because it was the political good thing to do. So they’ve been seen to react, but now it’s a disgusting track. It’s not fun to drive and it’s not good for racing either.”
Michael Schumacher, enjoying one of Ferrari’s two races on home ground, was more positive. “They have done in my view a good job,” he said. “With the chicanes it actually produces some overtaking possibility.”
1997 San Marino Grand Prix qualifying
In the car Villeneuve faced the biggest challenge yet from his new team mate. Frentzen put up a fight in qualifying, hanging on to the Williams as he rounded the Acque Minerali sweep flat-out, but had to settle for second while Villeneuve took his fifth pole in a row.
Frentzen’s first three races for Williams had been point-less, but he was beginning to get the car to his liking. “Before it was more in Damon Hill’s direction,” he explained. “He liked a car that understeered a bit. I don’t like an understeering car. I like the car a bit more loose on the rear, and so that I can steer a bit more with the throttle.”
Both Williams drivers collected $5000 fines and suspended one-race bans after failing to slow for yellow flags – an infraction which would come back to haunt the team later in the year.
Ferrari used its new 046/2 engine for the first time in qualifying and Schumacher used it to take third. Olivier Panis again impressed on Bridgestone tyres and took fourth for Prost.
The Jordan pair shared row three but relations between the pair had deteriorated following their collision in Argentina. “For me the friendship is finished,” said Giancarlo Fisichella. “I am always correct with my team mate, we work together. But when we are out, nothing.”
In a Sauber with a year-old Ferrari engine Johnny Herbert out-qualified one of the factory cars, as well as both McLarens. Australian Grand Prix winner David Coulthard had been rattled by a heavy shunt on Saturday morning which sent him to the medical centre.
Both Benettons failed to reach the top ten, their drivers struggling to generate heat in their tyres over a single flying lap. “We are nowhere, absolutely nowhere” a dejected Gerhard Berger told his team after qualifying 11th. “You go out, the car just slides everywhere.”
His 200th grand prix weekend was proving a miserable one. Bernie Ecclestone’s pre-race gift to him raised a smile: the sport’s commercial chief presented Berger with a silver statue of himself holding “what you’re dreaming about, the world championship, and this is a contract for next year, 35 million dollars”. But endless media questions about the anniversary and ongoing sinus problems took their toll.
Later in the season Berger took a break from driving to recover. The team’s engineering head Pat Symonds later admitted Berger should have done so before the Imola race.
1997 San Marino Grand Prix
Wet conditions greeted the drivers for the Sunday morning pre-race warm-up. “I don’t think any Goodyear driver wants rain,” rued the pole sitter, wary of the potential Bridgestone wet weather rubber had shown during testing. To his relief, conditions cleared up for the race.
He had other concerns, however, chiefly Frentzen’s race-ending brake failure in Melbourne. “When you look at the computer graphics it is like having to put 150 kilos on the pedal every time you brake,” said Villeneuve. “That’s OK for qualifying, but for 62 laps of racing it’s going to be a battle.”
Villeneuve kept his lead at the start but Schumacher inserted his Ferrari between the two Williams drivers. This was Villeneuve’s cue to sprint off towards another victory, but it didn’t work out that way. After 20 laps Schumacher was still just three-and-a-half seconds behind, with Frentzen breathing down his neck.
Behind them the field was thinning out. Berger’s awful weekend ended on the fifth lap. The Benetton snapped away from him as he plunged into Acque Minerali.
Further back Damon Hill had started from the pits due to a faulty starter motor on his Arrows. He got as far as Shinji Nakano, then clumsily bundled the Prost into a gravel trap, putting both out.
A transmission problem put Ralf Schumacher’s Jordan out from fourth place on lap 17. Johnny Herbert inherited the position, only for his Sauber to develop terminal electrical problems on the very next lap.
Panis was next in line to inherited the cursed fourth place. But he also lost pace on lap 18, allowing Irvine and Fisichella by.
Was Villeneuve in trouble too? On the 22nd lap the leader’s Williams slowed and Schumacher closed to within 1.6 seconds. Sensing an opportunity, Ferrari brought him in two laps later, Schumacher gesturing angrily at Pedro Diniz as he tried to lap the Arrows.
Now second, Frentzen set a new fastest lap as he closed on his team mate. “I thought I was scheduled to come into the pits before Jacques,” he explained afterwards. “But then I saw Michael going into the pits and Jacques going before me, too. That was my moment to push”
Villeneuve came in on the 26th lap and fell behind Schumacher. But Frentzen was flying and despite being stationary for a second longer than his team mate in the pits he still jumped both his rivals into the lead.
Frentzen pressed on and began edging clear of Schumacher. Villeneuve tracked the Ferrari to begin with but was having trouble with his gearbox which was shifting of its own accord. It finally drove him back into the pits where a new steering wheel was fitted to fix the problem. It didn’t and his race was over.
Frentzen and Schumacher still had to pit again but some of their pursuers now made their sole stops. Both McLarens came in on lap 35, Mika Hakkinen after going off at Rivazza while trying to lap Jos Verstappen. Coulthard’s car sprayed a haze of oil over Irvine and Fisichella when he rejoined the track. Fisichella pounced on the opportunity to pass Irvine as the McLaren came to a stop, the Jordan driver moving up into fifth.
Approaching his final pit stop Frentzen lapped Hakkinen and Alesi with little difficulty. Schumacher had a lap in the lead to unleash the Ferrari’s low-fuel pace, but he caught the Sauber of Nicola Larini and locked up at Acqua Minerali.
The time lost behind the Ferrari-engined car weighed on Schumacher’s mind after the race. “I could have done a little bit better if we wouldn’t have had this traffic issue with Larini, who was probably looking in his mirror and driving suddenly very slow,” mused the Ferrari driver. “I locked up my front-right tyre, flat-spotted it, had to come in, so I couldn’t follow my plan.”
Frentzen therefore regained the lead after his final pit stop, but was still wary of late problems. “I was concerned about the brakes,” he admitted later.
“I didn’t want the same thing to happen again that happened in Melbourne. So I asked how I could save brakes. The pit crew told me that Michael was pushing quite hard, so I had to push as well and I could not save the brakes as much as I could have done.”
The rivalry between Schumacher and Frentzen had been talked up pre-season. The pair had driven for Mercedes’ sports car team together and Frentzen finally had an F1 car under him with the potential to take wins and fight his two-times champion rival. Schumacher pressed Frentzen hard over the final laps, closing in as they lapped Salo’s Tyrrell, but Frentzen held his nerve and grabbed his first F1 win.
Irvine nursed his Ferrari to the podium after damaging his gearbox during a pit stop. “I just had to be very careful to get to the finish,” he said.
But after starting his Williams career with three point-less races, Frentzen’s relief at his breakthrough victory was plain to see. “It is like oil on my soul,” he said afterwards.
“It was a very sweet moment for me after having a hard time in the first three races. It was a great relief from pressure.”
Frentzen’s win, the third in a row for Williams, raised the prospect of both the team’s drivers playing a role in the championship fight. But another team was making its preparations to return to championship glory.
McLaren finally announced Adrian Newey, the star designer behind the car which had won the last three races, had been hired to produce their car for F1’s radically different 1998 regulations.
1997 San Marino Grand Prix result
|Did not start
1997 San Marino Grand Prix championship standings
Grand Prix flashback
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- Strategic superiority clinches Schumacher’s first Ferrari title
- Disaster for Hakkinen brings title within Schumacher’s grasp
- Schumacher turns the tide against McLaren on tragic day at Monza
- Hakkinen stuns Schumacher with three-wide pass for fourth win
- F1’s largest entry, announced 35 years ago today, had twice as many drivers as now
- F1’s 10 longest-running teams – and why most of them have been lost
- What have 10 years of F1’s V6 hybrid turbo era shown us? The naysayers were wrong
- Pictures: The highs and lows of Haas’ eight years under Guenther Steiner
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