1997 Australian Grand Prix start

McLaren end win drought after first lap crash

1997 Australian Grand Prix flashbackPosted on | Author Keith Collantine

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.

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

Jacques Villeneuve, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Williams, Melbourne, 1997
Williams were heavy pre-season favourites
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
Williams-Renault
2. Heinz-Harald Frentzen 1’31.123
Williams-Renault
Row 2 3. Michael Schumacher 1’31.472
Ferrari
4. David Coulthard 1’31.531
McLaren-Mercedes
Row 3 5. Eddie Irvine 1’31.881
Ferrari
6. Mika Hakkinen 1’31.971
McLaren-Mercedes
Row 4 7. Johnny Herbert 1’32.287
Sauber-Petronas
8. Jean Alesi 1’32.593
Benetton-Renault
Row 5 9. Olivier Panis 1’32.842
Prost-Mugen-Honda
10. Gerhard Berger 1’32.870
Benetton-Renault
Row 6 11. Rubens Barrichello 1’33.075
Stewart-Ford
12. Ralf Schumacher 1’33.130
Jordan-Peugeot
Row 7 13. Nicola Larini 1’33.327
Sauber-Petronas
14. Giancarlo Fisichella 1’33.552
Jordan-Peugeot
Row 8 15. Ukyo Katayama 1’33.798
Minardi-Hart
16. Shinji Nakano 1’33.989
Prost-Mugen-Honda
Row 9 17. Jarno Trulli 1’34.120
Minardi-Hart
18. Mika Salo 1’34.229
Tyrrell-Ford
Row 10 19. Jan Magnussen 1’34.623
Stewart-Ford
20. Damon Hill 1’34.806
Arrows-Yamaha
Row 11 21. Jos Verstappen 1’34.943
Tyrrell-Ford
22. Pedro Diniz 1’35.972
Arrows-Yamaha

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

Damon Hill, Arrows A18, Melbourne, 1997
Reigning champion Hill had a tough start to life at Arrows
“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
2 5 Michael Schumacher Ferrari 20.046
3 9 Mika Hakkinen McLaren-Mercedes 22.177
4 8 Gerhard Berger Benetton-Renault 22.841
5 14 Olivier Panis Prost-Mugen-Honda 1’00.308
6 17 Nicola Larini Sauber-Petronas 1’36.040
7 15 Shinji Nakano Prost-Mugen-Honda 2 laps
8 4 Heinz-Harald Frentzen Williams-Renault Brakes
9 21 Jarno Trulli Minardi-Hart 3 laps
10 2 Pedro Diniz Arrows-Yamaha 4 laps
22 Rubens Barrichello Stewart-Ford Engine
19 Mika Salo Tyrrell-Ford Engine
23 Jan Magnussen Stewart-Ford Suspension
7 Jean Alesi Benetton-Renault Out of fuel
20 Ukyo Katayama Minardi-Hart Electrics
12 Giancarlo Fisichella Jordan-Peugeot Accident
18 Jos Verstappen Tyrrell-Ford Accident
11 Ralf Schumacher Jordan-Peugeot Gearbox
3 Jacques Villeneuve Williams-Renault Accident
6 Eddie Irvine Ferrari Accident
16 Johnny Herbert Sauber-Petronas Accident
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

Did you attend this race? Did you watch it in 1997?

Share your memories of this grand prix in the comments.

19 comments on “McLaren end win drought after first lap crash”

  1. Wishful thinking

    1. Wistful thinking would have worked too

  2. Have to say I approve of your choice of picture in the section about Damon Hill. :)

    1. You’ve been waiting for this moment for years, @geemac! Poor old Damon though, how the mighty fell. 1st in the last race of ’95 and then this. Sad face.

      1. Why did Williams drop Hill at the end of 96?

        1. Largely because of his poor season in 95. Manyin the team felt he didn’t fulfil the car’s potential, so they went looking for another driver. They signed Frentzen around halfway through 1996, so for a good chunk of the season Hill knew he was going to be shown the door.

          1. I’ll be following Frentzen’s progress through these articles to see if I’ve done him a disservice all these years purely because I was a young Hill fan back in the day. I remember him being pretty underwhelming in ’97 but let’s see. 1.7 seconds off Villeneuve in quali isn’t a great start!

          2. @unicron2002 From what I remember, big things were expected of Frentzen after his performances with Sauber (and his performances alongside Schumacher in the Mercedes sportscar squad) but he really flopped at Williams in the early part of 1997. In the latter half he scored a few good results that guarantees the constructors title for Williams.

            I’ll always remember him as a sort of Coulthard?Barrichello-ey driver: Quick, but not quite quick enough to be a contender.

  3. Great article Keith, thanks!

  4. Great stuff. Definitely some similarities between then and now leading up to the start of the season!

    Amazing to see just how many retirements there used to be. It used to be a real battle of attrition. To me, it made it seem as though (and afterall, perception is reality) the cars were all absolutely running on the limit the whole race.

    Hopefully we’ll see shades of that again, to a certain degree.

  5. ’97 is the first season I (fuzzily) remember watching, I would have been seven when this race happened. Hoping this series dredges up some memories :).

    1. @george You and me both!

      Keith shouldn’t be allowed to do a retrospective on 1997. That was a year I remember too well…

    2. @george Same! I loved that season, it was so competitive with so many interesting stories.

      I also remember editing all the driver names and team names in Monaco GP Racing Simulator 2, the game, which didn’t have official licenses so they had all weird names.

  6. Just look at those beautiful cars, simple bodywork, basic front wing, no winglets, no sharkfins etc. Mistakes like Alesi forgetting about fuel and Ferrari not topping enough for Schumacher, only 10 cars finishing the race, makes it look so amateurish from today point of view. Also, qualifying lap time difference between the Wiliams drivers of 1.7s is astonishing. Imagine that kind of difference between Hamilton and Bottas at this year…

  7. No wonder JV has been critical in recent years of F1’s dumbed down tracks and slow cars. He consistently was saying the same fully 20 years ago of the chicanes put in to slow cars, and the pending narrower cars on grooved tires for the ’98 season onward.

  8. Ahhh back when helmets easily identified the driver… I loved the 97 season on of my favourites of all that I watched.

  9. Wider cars, McLaren finally winning a race… 1997 is so close and yet so far away. Great season, though. By the way, is this article going to be the first in a series of flashbacks?

    If I remember correctly, Williams blamed Frentzen for the brake failure because he kept touching the brake pedal while pressing the accelerator during the race.

  10. Back then the races were earlier in Melbourne so we had the unique opportunity in the US to watch live from a lively bar. I was in Chicago and luckily they had a big screen on – and I quite enjoyed seeing the West liveried McLaren win over a few English pints.

    With the races now at 2am my time, it’s not quite the same. I can hardly stay awake. And you can’t PVR the first race of the year- that would be sacrilege!

    Oh well, good memories!

  11. this is the first season I remember watching, I would have been ten when this race happened.

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