Modern times

Publishing schedules mean you’ve got the better of me again. As I write this, the Formula One teams are turning their transporters towards the high-speed sweeps of Silverstone. As you read it the British Grand Prix is history, and we're all on our way to the scenic but emasculated hillside track that was once the awesome Österreichring. But it's a fair bet that, whatever happened at Silverstone, the continuing progress of Ferrari will still be a major topic of conversation.

Ferrari one-twos used to be fairly unexceptional. In the early days of the World Championship there were six on the trot. In 1979, the last time a Ferrari driver won the title, Jody Scheckter and Gilles Villeneuve did it three times. But, until this year's French Grand Prix, it hadn't happened since the championship was being fought out between those old enemies, Senna and Prost. In 1990 Ayrton and McLaren beat Alain and Ferrari to the championship; but Alain won five races, and in Mexico and Spain team-mate Nigel Mansell followed him home to put two sets of red overalls on the podium.

That was to be Ferrari's last season as a winning team for quite a while. It became a truism to decry the fall of the once dominant Prancing Horse, to wonder whether it would ever recover its past glory. In 1993 the experienced French team manager Jean Todt, a former rally navigator tall enough to look Bernie Ecclestone in the eye, was brought in on a five-year contract. The richest and most famous team in Formula One didn't seem to be able to win races any more, and Todt's brief was to put it back on top. He set about his task at once, and firings, hirings and reorganisations followed rapidly. But, apart from singleton victories for Berger and Alesi in '94 and '95, there was no more winning until the blessed St Michael came on the scene in 1976. The German super-star was seen by Todt as an essential part of the package needed to make Ferrari winners again, and it wasn't long before his very substantial investment of Fiat lire and Philip Morris Swiss francs began to pay off. Schumacher won his seventh Ferrari race, helped by his genius in the torrential conditions of a Barcelona cloudburst, and three months later, amid scenes of hysterical rejoicing, he carried off the Italian Grand Prix at Monza. The following year he was able to fight Jacques Villeneuve for the championship, and almost beat him: but still you felt it was Schumacher's towering talent at work overcoming a car that was not truly worthy of him.

It has been much the same in this McLaren-dominated season. His wins in Argentina and Canada seemed to owe more to his consummate talent and McLaren misfortunes than to a true Ferrari rebirth. Until Magny-Cours. There, for the first time for eight years, Ferrari really looked like champions.

There was Schumacher firmly on pole and Irvine on row two, split by the two McLarens. At the start Häkkinen led away from Schumacher, Coulthard and Irvine McLaren, Ferrari, McLaren, Ferrari and the stage was set for a great Woking vs Maranello battle: but this was to remain one of F1's might-have-beens. Jos Verstappen had stalled his Stewart on the grid and the race was red-flagged. In the second start Häkkinen Faltered, Coulthard was fractionally delayed, and suddenly the Ferraris were 1-2 where they stayed. Irvine was fast enough to be able to drive defensively and slow the McLarens down, allowing Schumacher to build his lead at more than a second a lap. Häkkinen’s only serious lunge at getting by the Irishman into the ludicrously tight final corner ended in a spin: poor Coulthard's race was ruined by a refuelling problem which meant his second routine stop needed three visits to the pits. It was a Ferrari clean sweep.

Ask Michael, Jean Todt, or technical director Ross Brawn, what suddenly changed and they will talk of ceaseless detail development finally bringing its rewards, of various ingredients in a constantly revised package starting to come together at last. But ask Perry Bell, operations manager of Goodyear's F1 effort, and he will tell you about the new construction of rear tyre that was introduced at Magny-Cours. This, it seems, was the missing bit of the puzzle which finally completed Ferrari's picture. The importance of Bridgestone tyres in McLaren's recent success cannot be over-rated: now, in what still seems to be their last year in Formula One, Goodyear are meeting them head-on.

It is, of course, not as simple as that. There was more to Ferrari's speed in France than a new Goodyear rear construction, just as there is much, much more to McLaren's 1998 form than a good Bridgestone: also crucial to that victorious package are the developmental genius of Adrian Newey, Mika Häkkinen at the peak of his powers, and probably the most powerful engine on the grid.

But Jacques Villeneuve, chatting to a group of us British scratchers in the Magny-Cours paddock, put it into perspective. All front-running F1 chassis may look superficially similar, but at the sharp edge of a quick lap, when you are dealing with hundredths and thousandths of a second, they end up behaving pretty differently. And each may require subtly different rubber compounds and constructions to work at their best. As Jacques pointed out, both Goodyear and Bridgestone want to win: and not surprisingly they design their tyres to suit best the car that's most likely to win races for them. Bridgestones work pretty well for Benetton and Prost, but they are designed to be perfect for McLaren. The latest Goodyear helped Williams and Jordan to be well up the grid at Magny-Cours, but it has been primarily developed to suit Ferrari's requirements as closely as possible. It is at its best on a car which has good traction: the Ferrari does, the Williams doesn't.

Jacques is philosophical about this. List year, when Williams were top dog, the Goodyears were pretty much to Williams' ideal spec to give Wolverhampton the best chance of beating off the Japanese threat. You can't blame them for that. Bridgestone's top team in 1997 was Prost, and both Panis and Trulli were very impressive from time to time. This year Prost comes further down the Bridgestone pecking order and, for various reasons, it's having an arid season.

An unusual World Champion, Mr Villeneuve. In terms of results, he's having the worst season of any reigning champ for many moons if you forget Damon's disasters with Arrows last year. Yet you search in vain for any despondency in the man. That broad, mischievous grin, like a man laughing inwardly at some private joke, still surfaces a lot. And the love for his work, for the pure business of driving a racing car as fast as it is able to go, remains undimmed.

Every driver loves to win, but in reply to the direct question how does he feel to be fighting for two or three points each fortnight, instead of for the top step of the podium Villeneuve confesses without hesitation that he's having more fun this year than last. The pressure to pile up consistent points and take the title has been replaced by the pressure to drive flat out everywhere. This year's Williams is short of grip, so he has to run more wing; that makes him slower in a straight line, so every opportunity has to be snatched, every corner has to be taken on the edgy limit, on every lap, to stand any chance of featuring anywhere. When you see No1 arguing over seventh place with a Sauber, and wonder whether Villeneuve, dogged with a less competitive car this year, has lost motivation, forget it. He's driving as hard as he's ever driven in his life. And he's having a ball.

Villeneuve has never been the most politically correct of drivers. He speaks his mind, which has sometimes got him into trouble with the establishment. So I wanted to know what he really felt about the pitiful lack of overtaking in modern F1. This, to the man who had flown off his home track with a wild move on Fisichella into Turn One in Montreal which didn't come off...

Jacques has little sympathy with other drivers' constant complaint that overtaking is impossible with modem can on modem tracks. He believes it's the driver's well-paid job to move up the field, however difficult the task. And he believes the overtaking opportunities are there: they just involve more risk. In his view there is too much pressure on drivers not to take risks, and for this he blames the teams, the sponsors and the governing body, for producing a racing environment which punishes rather than applauds a driver who takes a risk, and fails. Your team, or your sponsor, would rather see you get the points and the kudos for second than risk it all with a brave move for the lead which has a better than even chance of ending up in the barriers. And the rule-makers take a dim view of moves that fail like fining Fisichella for trying to pass Irvine in Spain and "causing an avoidable accident". Villeneuve finds that hard to understand. "Remember I come from Indycar. Risks are more accepted there, drivers crash more often. If you go for it and it doesn't come off, you don't get so much blame."

So, what about Schumacher's controversial move on Frentzen coming out of the pits in Canada, which put Frentzen off the road? Villeneuve's reply is curt: 'Taking risks for yourself is okay. Putting someone else at risk is different. If you can sleep with that at night, fine. But I always reckon, don't do something you wouldn't want someone else to do to you."

Whether or not Jacques felt he had fun in the French Grand Prix, he drove his heart out almost unnoticed to take fifth place and two points. McLaren salvaged a frustrated third for Häkkinen and an angry sixth for Coulthard – DC set fastest lap of the race, once they'd got the fuel into the car. While Ron Dennis pondered over a disappointing weekend, Schumacher and Irvine sprayed their champagne. Eddie told the journalists that the championship was over already and Schumacher had it won. More quietly, Jean Todt let it be known that he'd extended his contract with Ferrari for another three years. The Horse is Prancing once more.