The 1997 F1 season was expected to be a Williams walkover. But the predictions were confounded at the first race of what turned out to be a surprisingly competitive championship.
However the widely-anticipated leap in car performance did materialise. The arrival of Bridgestone as a rival to tyre supplier Goodyear heralded the beginning of a new tyre war. At the first race of the year the pole position time fell by a full three seconds compared to 1996.
The new season also brought two new teams into F1. But one of them failed to reappear after this first event.
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Melbourne was hosting the Australian Grand Prix for the second time. Race promoter Ron Walker was doing everything he could to make a success of the event which had controversially taken over from Adelaide 12 months earlier.
One week before the season-opener, anti-grand prix protesters from the Save Albert Park group attempted to sabotage proceedings by pouring diesel on the track. Walker soon found a way to focus the media’s attention elsewhere
Seizing on a fairly innocuous remark by Ferrari star Michael Schumacher that the Albert Park track was “nothing special”, Walker whipped up a media storm. He lashed out at the twice-champion, labelling him a “prima donna” who was “scared” of world championship favourite Jacques Villeneuve.
Meanwhile Villeneuve was making the point that he wasn’t scared of anything. Coming just three years after the double fatality of 1994, the sudden decrease in lap times due to the tyre war prompted calls from some quarters to slow the cars down on safety grounds, a goal Villeneuve strongly opposed.
“If making it safer is destroying the sport then that’s not a good thing.” he argued. Asked if the sport was becoming too safe, Villeneuve was unequivocal. “Yeah it is because most of the track have been changed to boring stuff, chicanes everywhere,” he answered. “The cars are being made into going much slower, mostly from next year on.” His comments set the tone for a year of intense debate over the sport’s direction.
Williams crush the competition in qualifying
Having finished as championship runner-up on his debut the year before, Villeneuve began his bid for the 1997 title by taking pole position in emphatic style. No other team got within two seconds of his best time. Williams might have been facing the loss of both ace designer Adrian Newey and leading engine manufacturer Renault, but in the meantime this was still the most potent force in F1.
The team’s second driver, however, was not making as good use of it. Heinz-Harald Frentzen lagged 1.7 seconds off his team mate’s pace, though such was the performance advantage of the FW19s that they still locked out the front row of the grid.
Schumacher, entering his second year with Ferrari and still using their 1996-specification engines, took ‘best of the rest’ honours in third. Alongside him was David Coulthard, whose McLaren had been transformed during the off-season.
For the first time since 1973 neither McLaren was sporting the distinctive white and red of Marlboro. The tobacco brand had shifted its allegiance to Ferrari, which duly painted its cars a less intense shade of red. In its place McLaren secured backing from West, allowing its cars to turn a silver colour which complemented its engine partner Mercedes perfectly. The cars had run in their heritage orange colour scheme during testing before the new look was revealed at a lavish ceremony featuring the Spice Girls and Jamiroquai.
Schumacher and Coulthard’s respective team mates Eddie Irvine and Mika Hakkinen lined up directly behind them. Next came Johnny Herbert, whose Sauber had little pre-season running due to the late completion of an deal with Ferrari which would see the team use its year-old engines.
The unhappy Benetton drivers placed eighth and tenth, Jean Alesi ahead of Gerhard Berger. The team were using the same Renaults as Williams yet despite a strong showing in testing lapped over three seconds slower when the serious action began.
In between them was a driver who had already taken one surprise race victory in his career and would soon be tipped for more. Olivier Panis put his Prost – formerly Ligier – ninth on the grid. Unlike every other driver in the top ten he was on Bridgestone tyres, and their durability soon proved a major advantage.
1997 Australian Grand Prix grid
Both Stewarts easily made it within the 107% cut-off time to qualify for their first race. Rubens Barrichello even snuck his into the top half of the field.
But Lola’s hopes were dashed. The T97/30s, based on a two-year=old design and using Ford V8 engines similar to those raced by Benetton in 1994, were miles off the pace. Vincenzo Sospiri and Ricardo Rosset spent two days peering at their mirrors, diving out of the way of cars which were more than ten seconds faster.
Team boss Eric Broadley soon came to regret his remarks at the car’s launch about their chances of beating the 107% qualifying time. “If we can’t do that, then we really shouldn’t be in it.” They couldn’t beat it and, as soon became apparent, they weren’t around for much longer either.
|Row 1||1. Jacques Villeneuve 1’29.369
|2. Heinz-Harald Frentzen 1’31.123
|Row 2||3. Michael Schumacher 1’31.472
|4. David Coulthard 1’31.531
|Row 3||5. Eddie Irvine 1’31.881
|6. Mika Hakkinen 1’31.971
|Row 4||7. Johnny Herbert 1’32.287
|8. Jean Alesi 1’32.593
|Row 5||9. Olivier Panis 1’32.842
|10. Gerhard Berger 1’32.870
|Row 6||11. Rubens Barrichello 1’33.075
|12. Ralf Schumacher 1’33.130
|Row 7||13. Nicola Larini 1’33.327
|14. Giancarlo Fisichella 1’33.552
|Row 8||15. Ukyo Katayama 1’33.798
|16. Shinji Nakano 1’33.989
|Row 9||17. Jarno Trulli 1’34.120
|18. Mika Salo 1’34.229
|Row 10||19. Jan Magnussen 1’34.623
|20. Damon Hill 1’34.806
|Row 11||21. Jos Verstappen 1’34.943
|22. Pedro Diniz 1’35.972
Did not qualify
Vincenzo Sospiri, Lola-Ford – 1’40.972 (+12.983)
Ricardo Rosset, Lola-Ford – 1’42.086 (+14.230)
The world champion fails to start
“Today is the first round of the 1997 FIA Formula One world championship,” boomed the announcer ahead of the start of the race, “and it is our pleasure to welcome to Melbourne all the drivers of the 1997 season.” The crowd’s attention was diverted to the start/finish straight, where enormous effigies of the drivers’ crash helmets had appeared on the starting grid.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the current world champion, from England, Damon Hill!” The helmet collapsed to reveal a lady who clearly wasn’t the driver in question, holding a board which bore his name. This odd spectacle continued as the announcer recited the top ten finishers in the previous year’s world championship.
Hill had won the championship in a Williams but his coveted number one appeared on a very different car. His Arrows-Yamaha A18 may have been blue and white but that was about all it had in common with the Williams-Renaults.
Tom Walkinshaw’s team had put together a promising car and Yamaha’s engine boasted 40bhp more than the previous season. But the package was under-developed and unproven. That much was clear in qualifying, where the car looked evil in braking zones and only scraped onto the grid with Hill’s last effort. His 1’34.806 lap was over two seconds slower than he’d been in his Williams two months earlier.
And that wasn’t even the worst of it. Shortly after pulling away from the grid on the formation lap a throttle sensor failed. The world champion was out of the first race before it had even started, and it was already clear that defending his title would be out of the question.
Hill’s disappointment left just 21 starters from an entry of 24 for the first race of the year. His team mate Pedro Diniz brought up the rear of the field, having failed to beat the 107% time but been allowed to start anyway.
1997 Australian Grand Prix
The three drivers who didn’t take the start were soon joined by three more who didn’t make it past the first corner. Among them was the pole sitter Villeneuve, whose poor start left him vulnerable to an over-optimistic lunge by Irvine.
The Ferrari driver came steaming down the inside, collecting Villeneuve and Herbert. Irvine’s team mate Schumacher counted his blessings: “Luckily I took off badly or Eddie would have taken off myself as well.”
Herbert, who had bitter memories of a previous first-corner encounter with Irvine, was less phlegmatic. “The idiot screwed it up again,” he remarked.
Villeneuve also knew better than to bother speaking to the Ferrari driver. “It was totally his fault”, he said, adding that he had lost respect for Irvine, “not that there was much before”.
“It was my corner,” Irvine insisted after parking his damaged car. “I don’t feel guilty about it.” No action was taken by the stewards.
While the world championship favourite was ruing a point-less start to the year, his team mate was leading the race. Frentzen was drawing clear of Coulthard who had Schumacher on his tail. Behind them Mika Hakkinen, lacking confidence in his McLaren, was starting to slip back.
But Frentzen, running the softer Goodyear compound, was planning to make two pit stops. His pursuers were only planning to stop once, meaning he had to keep up the pace. After his first pit stop he slipped temporarily into third position.
Coulthard now led and began to increase his pace as his pit stop approached. The pair were briefly frustrated trying to lap Diniz, Schumacher gesturing at the pit wall. Schumacher came in on lap 31 but Coukthard was able to run two laps longer on low fuel, adding to his advantage. But when he finally came in Frentzen returned to the lead.
Not for long, however. Frentzen had just seven laps to gain enough of a gap on Coulthard to keep his lead. It might have been enough had it not been for a slow right-rear tyre change, which added around eight seconds to his pit stop. He rejoined the track back in third position again.
The mid-race pit stops had gone less successfully for others. Alesi was too busy chasing Hakkinen down to notice his malfunctioning radio or the increasingly frantic signals from the pits to come in for more fuel. His mechanics, some of which had slept just four hours the previous night as Benetton laboured to solve their set-up problems, shook their fists at him as drove past them no fewer than seven times.
The inevitable finally happened on lap 35. The B197 rolled to a halt, its tank empty. “I was not watching the board because I was just waiting the time to be called from them,” a chastened Alesi admitted. Team principal Flavio Briatore later gave him a furious dressing-down.
The champions of 1995 had endured a win-less 1996 and the new season had begun badly. An 11th-hour change to the car brought some improvements but post-race testing revealed the ride height had been set too low.
Soon Frentzen was bearing down on Schumacher. But the hotly anticipated fight between the former Mercedes sports car team mates never materialised. To his dismay, Schumacher received a message from his team telling him to pit. “Are you talking to me?” he asked in surprise. They were – too little fuel had gone in at his first stop, and he had to return for a top-up.
Frentzen now had a clear run at race leader Coulthard but he was making conspicuously little impression. His brakes were taking a pounding from the higher-than-expected speeds, and carbon smoke was beginning to pour from them. With three laps to go the right-front disc exploded, pitching him into the gravel at turn one.
With that Coulthard’s victory was assured. Frenzten’s demise also promoted Schumacher back to second and Hakkinen made it a one-three for McLaren. After three years and 49 races without a win it seemed McLaren were finally back. But Coulthard was realistic about how the win had come about. “I guess I’ve got Eddie to thank,” he said.
1997 Australian Grand Prix result
|Position||No.||Driver||Team||Time / gap / reason|
|1||10||David Coulthard||McLaren-Mercedes||1hr 30’28.718|
|7||15||Shinji Nakano||Prost-Mugen-Honda||2 laps|
|9||21||Jarno Trulli||Minardi-Hart||3 laps|
|10||2||Pedro Diniz||Arrows-Yamaha||4 laps|
|7||Jean Alesi||Benetton-Renault||Out of fuel|
|1||Damon Hill||Arrows-Yamaha||Did not start|
Berger salvaged some pride for Benetton with fourth place while Panis was the highest Bridgestone-shod finisher at the flag. Herbert’s team mate Nicola Larini, making his F1 return after a two-year absence, took the final point for sixth.
Frentzen was classified outside the points behind the second Prost. Jarno Trulli, making his debut for Minardi, and Diniz were the only other finishers.
Technical problems forced both Stewarts out on their debut. Neither Tyrrell saw the chequered flag either: Mika Salo parked up while Jos Verstappen took a wild ride over the gravel at turn 12. Jordan’s young pairing of rookie Ralf Schumacher and Giancarlo Fisichella also didn’t make it to the finish.
Over to you
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