F1 1997: the same old story?

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For the second time in four seasons, a final race accident decided the world title. Nigel Roebuck looks back through Grand Prix history and asks, where have all the morals gone?

It ended, alas, in controversy, as we have come to expect of World Championship deciders in the contemporary era. Towards the end of the European Grand Prix at Jerez, Jacques Villeneuve aimed his Williams-Renault inside Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari as they braked for a tight right-hander. And Schumacher, for once taken completely unawares, simply and cack-handedly drove into Villeneuve. Happily, it was the Ferrari which came off worst.

As Schumacher slid helplessly into the gravel trap, Villeneuve his Williams damaged but still operational continued to the finish, and thus to the World Championship, a result which, in the circumstances, gave me particular delight. If Villeneuve’s stock rose consummately that day, so Schumacher’s appropriately fell. Everyone remembered Adelaide, the race which settled the World Championship in 1994, when the German, under pressure from Hill’s Williams, hit a wall, came back on the track in a now hobbled Benetton, and contrived to collide with Damon at the next corner. Those who then gave Michael the benefit of the doubt have revised their opinions since Jerez; those who did not shrugged that his attempt to remove Villeneuve was merely more of the same.

As Jackie Stewart put it, “I don’t believe that what Michael did in Spain was acceptable, nor that it should be tolerated. Even in the late ’90s, there is room in motor racing for morals, for a sense of ethics. If we don’t have that, I don’t believe we have a sport any more.” It was no surprise that JYS responded in this fashion, for he took a similar stand against Ayrton Senna seven years ago, when the McLaren driver brutally and quite deliberately turfed Alain Prost’s Ferrari off at the first corner of the Japanese Grand Prix.

At the time Stewart’s comments helped some of us believe we were sane, after all, for some luminaries were disposed, fatuously, to go along with Senna’s contention that Prost had ‘left a gap.’ Mario Andretti, dry and succinct as ever, was very sound on that point. “If there’d been no run-off there,” he observed, “there’d have been no gap…” Had Senna not felt he could blithely take himself and another off the road at 150mph with relative impunity, in other words, he would have never tried it. A year on, the Brazilian was no longer talking about gaps left by Prost, instead with complete self-justification, of course admitting that, yes, he had acted with malice aforethought. Whether Schumacher will ever come similarly clean about Jerez ’97 or, for that matter, Adelaide ’94 remains to be seen.

The pity of it is that, until eight minutes past three on October 26, until the 48th lap of the final race of the year, Schumacher had driven as flawless a season as any man may reasonably expect. In what was not the best car, he had won five Grands Prix, two of which Monte Carlo and Spa stand comparison with any of history’s great wet weather drives; more than that, though, he had consistently impressed with his commitment, never less than absolute, and also with the way he had conducted himself out of the car.

Then, in a split-second, he tainted everything. Few would dispute that, on raw skill, Schumacher belongs in the pantheon, but his willingness, at the last, to hit well south of the belt keeps him from the company of Fangio, Moss or Clark. After the 1981 Caesars Palace Grand Prix, one youthful never-was of a driver asked Carlos Reutemann why he had not made sure of the World Championship simply by putting Nelson Piquet in the wall. “After all, no one would have known,” he ventured. “I’d have known,” said Carlos. Perhaps, in a perfect world, the champion in any given season would be the best driver of his time, but in the circumstances of Jerez it pleased me that Villeneuve, rather than Schumacher, took the title this time there is also, after all, surely a case to be made for the World Champion ideally to be the man with the most race wins. In my mind, it has always been slightly farcical that Mike Hawthom, with one victory, took the world title in 1958, from Stirling Moss, who had four.

In 1997 Villeneuve was victorious in seven Grands Prix, and by his own admission it could, and should, have been several more than that. Undoubtedly there were occasions when he failed to get the most from the Williams-Renault, and times, too, when he made mistakes. We should remember, though, that this was only Jacques’ second season in F1, and throughout it he dominated his team mate, the over-hyped Heinz-Harald Frentzen. Fought fair, too.

A curiosity of the season was that Villeneuve and Schumacher, the two championship protagonists, almost never battled directly on the track until the moment that settled the issue in Spain. There were indeed some remarkably dull races this year, but the title fight did crackle into life towards the end, swinging first this way, then the other.

It was a pleasure, at this late stage, to note team work coming into play, in a manner rarely seen in the modern era. At Suzuka, for the first time in their two seasons as team-mates, Eddie Irvine was on the pace of Schumacher, and able to be of assistance to him. In the peculiar circumstances of Japan Villeneuve was racing under appeal against disqualification, well knowing he would forfeit any points scored here the two Ferrari drivers anticipated Jacques’ options, and concocted a plan to get the better of him.

The strategy worked to perfection, Irvine hurrying at the right moment, then later dawdling, holding up the Williams while Schumacher made his escape in the lead. Ferrari drivers have done this before: many were reminded of Casablanca, the final race of 1958, when Phil Hill selflessly surrendered second place to Hawthorn, allowing him the points he needed for the title. And six years later, on the final lap in Mexico, Lorenzo Bandini did exactly the same for John Surtees.

Villeneuve was always on a loser at Suzuka, for he was fighting a lone battle against the Ferraris, Frentzen simply not able to support him, but at Jerez, Heinz played a more central role, delaying compatriot Schumacher at a crucial moment, allowing Villeneuve to close in. This time it was two Williams against a single Ferrari, for Irvine was off the required pace, his only contribution to Schumacher’s quest a childish attempt to shake Villeneuve’s equilibrium by persistently getting in his way during practice.

Both Villeneuve and Schumacher have remarkably individual tastes in set-up, to the point that a car ideal for their tastes is next to undriveable for anyone else. Michael likes `everything on the front end’, a car nervous and pointy, one which tends towards oversteer as soon as the steering-wheel is turned, but team-mates of more human skills find this unnerving, as each will attest.

Villeneuve, meantime, cannot tolerate any roll in a race car, and to Patrick Head’s despair insists on an extraordinarily stiff set-up, which unquestionably makes the car much more difficult to drive. “If you look at the in-car footage,” Head says, “you can see that Jacques is having to work much harder than the others. We feel that a softer set-up is the optimum for the Williams, but that’s the way he likes it…”

Williams, with eight victories, and Ferrari, with five, between them dominated the season, despite the fact that their cars’ actual designers were not on hand to help with development through the year, Adrian Newey having left Williams for McLaren, and john Barnard quitting Ferrari for Arrows.

McLaren whose last victory prior to this season was scored by Ayrton Senna on his last drive for the team, at Adelaide back in 1993 won three races, and perhaps there should have been more, Mercedes engine failures robbing Mika Hakkinen of probable victory at Silverstone and the Al-Ring, and of certain triumph at the Nurburgring. It was an irony that Hakkinen’s long-awaited first win should have been handed to him by Villeneuve on the final lap at Jerez, but none could deny that some good fortune was his due.

David Coulthard, winner at Melbourne and Monza, was superb when the mood was on him, but also had days when his presence in a race went virtually unnoticed. In that respect, DC’s form mirrored that of his team, sometimes hugely competitive, sometimes rather less so.

For the paddock in general, the most pleasurable victory of 1997 was that scored by Gerhard Berger at Hockenheim, the first and only triumph for Benetton-Renault since Schumacher’s departure two years ago. It was not simply that Berger had long been far and away the best-liked driver in the business, but that this win, as conclusive as any the season produced, came after a nightmarish time for Gerhard, during which he missed three races due to health problems, and also had to cope with the loss of his father in a aircraft accident.

As team principal Havio Briatore left Benetton, and Formula One, at the end of the season, so also Berger decided to retire, after 13 seasons at the top. For many, he was about the last free spirit in Grand Prix racing, and his longtime team-mate and friend Jean Alesi must now take up the mantle.

Once again Jordan went through a Formula One season without winning, but at least the Peugeot-powered cars were usually competitive in 1997, and had the team enjoyed the services of an experienced driver, that breakthrough victory might well have come. As it was, Giancarlo Fisichella while not the Second Messiah some have suggested gave a generally fine account of himself, and looks like the best young Italian for a generation. While sometimes no quicker than Ralf Schumacher, he clearly had the edge on grey cells and, when it came to charm, was comfortably ahead, too.

In all truth, close fight for the World Championship notwithstanding, one could not describe this as a vintage year for Formula 1, for although it contained elements of greatness, and one or two of genius, rather too many races were processional, and a handful downright soporific. Perhaps the major rule changes for 1998, while serving undoubtedly to disfigure the appearance of the Grand Prix car, will yet encourage racing, to the point that pit stops cease to be the only realistic way of making places.

In the meantime, though, let us celebrate the fact that Villeneuve beat Schumacher and, more to the point, that he did it by passing him on the track. Cleanly.

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