A quick start on a wet track put Michael Schumacher on course for his fourth victory of the 1997 season and boosted his championship lead.
But pole sitter Jacques Villeneuve failed to figure in the contest for victory after he and Williams got their wet weather tyre tactics wrong again.
1997 Belgian Grand Prix qualifying
Having begun the season enjoying a considerable performance advantage in his Williams, by the 12th round of 17 Villeneuve believed he and Schumacher were much more evenly matched.
“It’s three points, six races to go, so it’s a straight fight,” he said ahead of the Spa round. “We’ve got similar weapons now, his car is very good, he seems to be making it work also. Their engines are powerful so I think we’re fighting with the same weapons and it’s going to be a good battle.”
Schumacher hadn’t been able to deliver on the potential of his new, lighter car at the Hungaroring due to tyre problems. He continued to use the new chassis throughout the rain-affected practice at Spa. But as the track dried out and the temperatures climbed ahead of qualifying he made the sudden decision to revert to his previous, heavier chassis.
“We found a problem in the car, and there was not enough time to change it, so we had
to use the T car. Assuming the problem is fixed, we are going to use the original chassis in
the race tomorrow.”
It proved not quite a match for the Williams FW19 – at least in Villeneuve’s hands. He took his second consecutive Spa pole position and was pleased to find Jean Alesi’s Benetton separating him from Schumacher at the sharp end of the grid.
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A gulf separated the top three drivers from their team mates. Heinz-Harald Frentzen still hadn’t mastered the set-up problems on his Williams and ended up a second off his team mate in seventh. But even that was considerably better than Gerhard Berger (15th after crashing at the bus stop chicane) or Eddie Irvine (17th, two-and-a-half seconds off Schumacher) managed.
The Jordan pair qualified strongly, the Peugeot engine helping both reach the top six. Ralf Schumacher was temporarily promoted to fifth behind team mate Giancarlo Fisichella when the stewards took fuel from Mika Hakkinen’s McLaren and found it did not match the reference sample. He was sent to the back of the grid but McLaren chose to appeal the decision and he was reinstated to fifth.
Damon Hill had nearly scored a shock win at the previous round in Hungary and might have been pleased with ninth on the grid in his Arrows had he not been pipped by journeyman team mate Pedro Diniz. This was the second time Diniz had out-qualified Hill, who blamed traffic on his final run.
“He’s done a good job to get ahead of me,” Hill admitted, “but we’ve been extending ourselves here to try and get the guys ahead of us, do something special.”
It was Arrows’ best qualifying performance of the year so far. “To get two cars in the top ten really is a good result for the team and it shows we’ve made a lot of progress,” said Hill.
Qualifying was held in sweltering conditions which, if they persisted for the race, promised to favour the Bridgestone-shod Arrows drivers over the Goodyear drivers ahead of them. Prost had regularly been the leading Bridgestone team but the loss of Olivier Panis due to injury had blunted their competitiveness since the Canadian Grand Prix.
Replacement Jarno Trulli could only manage 14th on the grid despite benefiting from an up-rated C-spec Mugen-Honda engine. Panis, however, was recovering quickly from his injuries and Prost had signed him to a new two-year deal. Trulli was running out of time to impress.
Jan Magnussen qualified 18th, six places behind team mate Rubens Barrichello. The Stewart driver was also facing questions over his future following a troubled start to his first full F1 season.
“It seemed that every time I sat in the car something broke,” he told the media. “I lost a lot of time at the beginning of the season, but things are changing on the team now and they seem to know where to look to find the problems.”
“But the team hasn’t told me that I have to raise my game if I wish to stay: they can see that I am getting closer and closer now that I am not having so many problems out there.”
1997 Belgian Grand Prix grid
|Row 1||1. Jacques Villeneuve 1’49.450|
|2. Jean Alesi 1’49.759|
|Row 2||3. Michael Schumacher 1’50.293|
|4. Giancarlo Fisichella 1’50.470|
|Row 3||5. Mika Hakkinen* 1’50.503|
|6. Ralf Schumacher 1’50.520|
|Row 4||7. Heinz-Harald Frentzen 1’50.656|
|8. Pedro Diniz 1’50.853|
|Row 5||9. Damon Hill 1’50.970|
|10. David Coulthard 1’51.410|
|Row 6||11. Johnny Herbert 1’51.725|
|12. Rubens Barrichello 1’51.916|
|Row 7||13. Gianni Morbidelli 1’52.094|
|14. Jarno Trulli 1’52.274|
|Row 8||15. Gerhard Berger 1’52.391|
|16. Shinji Nakano 1’52.749|
|Row 9||17. Eddie Irvine 1’52.793|
|18. Jan Magnussen 1’52.886|
|Row 10||19. Mika Salo 1’52.897|
|20. Ukyo Katayama 1’53.544|
|Row 11||21. Jos Verstappen 1’53.725|
|22. Tarso Marques 1’54.505|
*Hakkinen was initially excluded from qualifying. The stewards noted: “Analysis of the fuel used by car number nine (driver Mika Hakkinen) during qualifying practice showed it was not in conformity with the regulations. The stewards decided to impose a $25,000 fine and to cancel all the qualifying times of car number nine, but allowed it to start from the back of the grid.”
1997 Belgian Grand Prix
Sunday was very warm. The Goodyear runners fretted about their compounds. Before the weekend had even begun Schumacher had warned their soft compound was too aggressive for Spa.
But the complexion of the race changed when an downpour struck the track less than an hour before the start. Much of it fell in the area around the pits – the high-speed corners further away were not as heavily soaked. This presented a conundrum for the drivers as they gingerly drove to the grid and considered which tyres to start on.
Ralf Schumacher was caught out on slick tyres during his reconnaissance lap. He smashed his Jordan against a barrier and had to run a huge distance to get back into his spare car. He didn’t make it quite in time and had to start from the pits. He was joined by Trulli whose Mugen-Honda refused to fire up on the grid.
The late change in weather conditions handed the other Schumacher an advantage. While most teams rotated the use of the spare car between their drivers, at Ferrari it was Schumacher’s to use as he pleased. In Monaco, where the race had also begun in wet conditions, he’d had his race and spare cars set up for different weather conditions, allowing him to make a last-minute change.
At Spa his race car, the light weight chassis, was set for dry conditions. The ordinary chassis had a compromise wet/dry set-up on, and this was the one he and technical director Ross Brawn opted for.
“At a wet race the ten minutes before the pit lane close are hell,” explained Nigel Stepney, one of the senior mechanics at Ferrari during 1997. “Ross tries to make his decision as late as possible, and we only know that at the last minute.”
Schumacher also opted for intermediate tyres, as did fellow second-row occupant Fisichella. Crucially, both of the drivers in front of them picked full wets. Others further back also concluded the track was going to dry out quickly and picked intermediates.
“The full wet tyres looked like the best choice at that moment,” explained Schumacher afterwards, “but as it had stopped raining by then, I decided to gamble that it was just a shower, the rain would stop and I could take a chance.”
The intermediate-shod drivers received a massive boost when the decision was taken to start the race behind the Safety Car using a rolling start. This had never been done before, though some drivers had lobbied for it during the wet race in Brazil 12 months previously.
It was a decision which caught some by surprise. Sauber were unable to tell their drivers about the Safety Car start as their radios weren’t working properly. Williams, keen to avoid a repeat of their Monaco error, had put both their cars on wet tyres, but now realised the Safety Car start would neutralise that advantage.
“It wasn’t until five minutes before the start that we were told and we saw that there would be a Safety Car,” explained Villeneuve. “At that point I wanted to go to intermediates, but by then we were not allowed to make any more changes of tyre.”
The field followed Formula 3000 driver Oliver Gavin in the Safety Car for three laps before they were released. As the rain had stopped before they left the grid, and with the sun beating down, the track was drying out quickly. After just one lap at racing speed, Schumacher’s intermediate tyres had come in and he picked off Alesi and Villeneuve in quick succession.
His move on the Benetton at La Source was a close call. “With Jean it was fairly tight,” said Schumacher, “but I had decided myself that was the point to pass him and I had decided to take the line. If he hadn’t moved over then I would have touched him.”
“On the other hand, it was still very slippery and it probably wouldn’t have damaged anything if I had just leaned against him. But he saw the situation and then he moved over because there was no other choice for him.”
Schumacher went past his title rival with considerably less drama. “Jacques was quite fair. He stayed on his line without zig-zagging or trying to resist. He must have known that with his full-wet tyres he didn’t have a chance, so he just stayed where he was – and it was fairly easy.”
With clear track ahead of him and the right tyres underneath him, Schumacher shot off at around seven seconds per lap. Then Villeneuve, struggling on his deteriorating wet tyres, compounded one mistake with two more.
Approaching the bus stop chicane Villeneuve slithered wide, then opted to pit. Calling the decision to fit wet weather tyres “a big mistake” the team hastily fitted intermediates. But with the track drying out quickly this rapidly proved another error: on the next lap Alesi came in for slicks.
For Williams the race was already lost. Technical director Patrick Head was reminded of the Monaco debacle. “We have to work hard to be more flexible in the choice of tactics we adopt in uncertain weather conditions,” he said.
“On both occasions, Schumacher changed the set-up on the grid after taking a last-minute look at the situation. But Jacques needs a kind of ritual before getting into the car. He likes to arrive on the grid and stay sitting in the cockpit in complete silence. It’s even happened that we’ve asked him things and he hasn’t replied.”
Villeneuve was back in for slicks within five laps. In seven laps of running he’d fallen from pole position to 15th place, over a minute and a half behind Schumacher. The Ferrari driver’s huge lead meant he was able to postpone his switch to slicks until lap 14, after which he still had a 40 second lead over the second placed driver.
That was Alesi, whose brave early switch to slicks had minimised the damage of starting on the wrong tyres. Fisichella’s intermediate tyre gamble had helped him up to third ahead of Hakkinen. But the McLaren driver, already racing under appeal, had got himself in further trouble.
Hakkinen had gone off during the Safety Car period and been overtaken by several of his rivals. He regained his place in the queue by overtaking them during the Safety Car period, which later prompted a protest from Williams.
For several laps Frentzen held up a queue of Coulthard, Diniz, Hill (trying hard to pass his team mate), Herbert, Barrichello and Magnussen. The struggling Frentzen was soon passed by most of the drivers, Herbert also slipping by Hill in the scramble. Barrichello clipped Frentzen’s car, forcing the Stewart out. As the cars ahead darted in and out of the pits, Diniz briefly ran as high as third.
Though the racing line had dried quickly, the track remained treacherous off-line. Coulthard discovered this at the corner after Stavelot, spinning his McLaren to a halt from which he failed to get going again. His car was left by the high-speed acceleration zone for the rest of the race. The younger Schumacher also had his second crash of the day, spinning his Jordan into the barrier at the exit of Les Combes. Jos Verstappen’s race also ended in a gravel trap.
For Alesi, a potentially strong finish was ruined when his ride height plank broke, causing rear handling instability which spooked the driver and led to a series of pit stops. Fisichella was promoted to second in his place ahead of Hakkinen.
The latter was being caught by Frentzen in the closing stages but the Williams driver ran out of time to catch his rival. Not that it mattered, as things turned out.
By the second half of the race the track had dried out and Villeneuve was flying. He set the fastest lap in the Williams has he recovered to finish sixth on the road, taking the final point behind Johnny Herbert’s Sauber – another driver who’d benefitted from starting on intermediates.
But none had reaped as great a reward for Schumacher, who spent most of the race so far ahead he never needed to push. His best lap time was only the 12th-quickest of the race.
1997 Belgian Grand Prix result
|Pos.||No.||Driver||Team||Laps||Time / gap / reason|
|1||5||Michael Schumacher||Ferrari||44||1hr 33’46.717|
|11||19||Mika Salo||Tyrrell-Ford||43||1 Lap|
|12||23||Jan Magnussen||Stewart-Ford||43||1 Lap|
|15||14||Jarno Trulli||Prost-Mugen-Honda||42||2 Laps|
The FIA’s International Court of Appeal met 11 days after the race to consider McLaren’s appeal against Hakkinen’s qualifying penalty. They upheld the stewards decision, noting that “an analysis carried by an independent laboratory of the company SGS confirmed the results of the analysis carried out by the FIA technicians at the Belgian Grand Prix.” Hakkinen was disqualified from the results of the race. This had a bearing on the championship, as it promoted Villeneuve to fifth place, giving him an extra points.
The court, which included Jan van Rosmalen, Gerard Nurscher, Edgar Julien and Vassilis Koussis, also increased McLaren’s fine from $25,000 to $50,000. However they did not uphold a claim by the FIA that the appeal had been “frivolous” and accepted that “McLaren… together with their fuel supplier had acted in good faith and that the non conformity of the fuel was due to a mistake and was unintentional.”