Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Williams, Imola, 1997

Villeneuve picks a fight, Frentzen wins one

1997 San Marino Grand Prix flashbackPosted on | Author Keith Collantine

Two consecutive wins had put Jacques Villeneuve in control of the 1997 F1 championship. But as the series headed to Europe for the fourth race of the season, the points leader had more on his mind than just the title fight.

Villeneuve takes on the FIA

Following the huge leap in performance seen in the opening races of the season, due in part to the resumption of a ‘tyre war’ between Goodyear and new arrivals Bridgestone, the FIA had imposed a controversial rules change for the following season. From 1998 cars would have to use grooved tyres designed to reduce cornering speeds.

Villeneuve tested Goodyear’s development grooved tyres and didn’t like what he found. In an event at the Zandvoort circuit ahead of the Imola race he strongly criticised the FIA’s plans, claiming they were dumbing down the sport.

“When you do a sport like this, when you want to become a race car driver it’s because you see the other race car drivers in a way as superheroes,” said Villeneuve. “They just keep pushing their limit and you’re impressed. You get that in so many other sports.”

“Formula One is getting to a point where you reach the limit of the car, the material, before you even reach your human side so it becomes more of a show than a sport. So you need stakes, the stakes need to be high. And you need a small sense of danger. You don’t need a big sense of danger, nobody’s looking to kill themselves, that would be pure stupidity. But you need a small sense of danger and that sense of danger has on most tracks disappeared.”

“It scares me because it’s not going to be Formula One anymore. I’m afraid that this level of racing will be destroyed, it won’t exist. I managed to get one set of those grooved tyres, ’98 design, to test so I would know what I’m talking about. And it’s a joke. It’s not pure anymore. They might as well tell us to buy Formula Threes and let’s call it Formula One. It’s levelling everything downwards and anyone will be able to drive in F1 because the mechanical limit is so much lower than the human limit.”

“At least this year with the softer tyres it’s pushed the barrier a little bit higher so you have to push yourself you have to find strength inside of yourself to really do those good laps, and that’s interesting. But from ’98 onwards, if the regulations don’t change, that side is going to disappear.”

“It might be good for TV because all the lap times will be closer. But the mediocre driver will be very close to the very good driver and you won’t be able to tell a big difference because of that. So it’s going to hide a lot of what should be the best in car racing. You won’t need the best drivers there, you’ll need the best drivers in IndyCar where it’s still going to be the same type of racing.”

1997 San Marino GP grid

Row 1 1. Jacques Villeneuve 1’23.303
Williams-Renault
2. Heinz-Harald Frentzen 1’23.646
Williams-Renault
Row 2 3. Michael Schumacher 1’23.955
Ferrari
4. Olivier Panis 1’24.075
Prost-Mugen-Honda
Row 3 5. Ralf Schumacher 1’24.081
Jordan-Peugeot
6. Giancarlo Fisichella 1’24.596
Jordan-Peugeot
Row 4 7. Johnny Herbert 1’24.723
Sauber-Petronas
8. Mika Hakkinen 1’24.812
McLaren-Mercedes
Row 5 9. Eddie Irvine 1’24.861
Ferrari
10. David Coulthard 1’25.077
McLaren-Mercedes
Row 6 11. Gerhard Berger 1’25.371
Benetton-Renault
12. Nicola Larini 1’25.544
Sauber-Petronas
Row 7 13. Rubens Barrichello 1’25.579
Stewart-Ford
14. Jean Alesi 1’25.729
Benetton-Renault
Row 8 15. Damon Hill 1’25.743
Arrows-Yamaha
16. Jan Magnussen 1’26.192
Stewart-Ford
Row 9 17. Pedro Diniz 1’26.253
Arrows-Yamaha
18. Shinji Nakano 1’26.712
Prost-Mugen-Honda
Row 10 19. Mika Salo 1’26.852
Tyrrell-Ford
20. Jarno Trulli 1’26.960
Minardi-Hart
Row 11 21. Jos Verstappen 1’27.428
Tyrrell-Ford
22. Ukyo Katayama 1’28.727
Minardi-Hart

Villeneuve was still only in his second year of Formula One. Unlike most of his rivals on the grid, he arrived after the trauma of the double fatality at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.

Three years on the impact of that weekend was still being felt. The Imola circuit unveiled a new statue of Ayrton Senna, who along with Roland Raztberger had perished that weekend. A short distance away in Bologna the court case surrounding Senna’s death, which had begun two months earlier, continued.

The Imola circuit had been drastically overhauled in the immediate aftermath of the crashes. But this was also something Villeneuve took a dim view of. “It’s one of the worst circuits,” he complained.

“They just put chicanes everywhere. They had to react because it was the political good thing to do. So they’ve been seen to react, but now it’s a disgusting track. It’s not fun to drive and it’s not good for racing either.”

Michael Schumacher, enjoying one of Ferrari’s two races on home ground, was more positive. “They have done in my view a good job,” he said. “With the chicanes it actually produces some overtaking possibility.”

1997 San Marino Grand Prix qualifying

In the car Villeneuve faced the biggest challenge yet from his new team mate. Frentzen put up a fight in qualifying, hanging on to the Williams as he rounded the Acque Minerali sweep flat-out, but had to settle for second while Villeneuve took his fifth pole in a row.

Frentzen’s first three races for Williams had been point-less, but he was beginning to get the car to his liking. “Before it was more in Damon Hill’s direction,” he explained. “He liked a car that understeered a bit. I don’t like an understeering car. I like the car a bit more loose on the rear, and so that I can steer a bit more with the throttle.”

Both Williams drivers collected $5000 fines and suspended one-race bans after failing to slow for yellow flags – an infraction which would come back to haunt the team later in the year.

Ferrari used its new 046/2 engine for the first time in qualifying and Schumacher used it to take third. Olivier Panis again impressed on Bridgestone tyres and took fourth for Prost.

The Jordan pair shared row three but relations between the pair had deteriorated following their collision in Argentina. “For me the friendship is finished,” said Giancarlo Fisichella. “I am always correct with my team mate, we work together. But when we are out, nothing.”

In a Sauber with a year-old Ferrari engine Johnny Herbert out-qualified one of the factory cars, as well as both McLarens. Australian Grand Prix winner David Coulthard had been rattled by a heavy shunt on Saturday morning which sent him to the medical centre.

Both Benettons failed to reach the top ten, their drivers struggling to generate heat in their tyres over a single flying lap. “We are nowhere, absolutely nowhere” a dejected Gerhard Berger told his team after qualifying 11th. “You go out, the car just slides everywhere.”

His 200th grand prix weekend was proving a miserable one. Bernie Ecclestone’s pre-race gift to him raised a smile: the sport’s commercial chief presented Berger with a silver statue of himself holding “what you’re dreaming about, the world championship, and this is a contract for next year, 35 million dollars”. But endless media questions about the anniversary and ongoing sinus problems took their toll.

Later in the season Berger took a break from driving to recover. The team’s engineering head Pat Symonds later admitted Berger should have done so before the Imola race.

1997 San Marino Grand Prix

Wet conditions greeted the drivers for the Sunday morning pre-race warm-up. “I don’t think any Goodyear driver wants rain,” rued the pole sitter, wary of the potential Bridgestone wet weather rubber had shown during testing. To his relief, conditions cleared up for the race.

He had other concerns, however, chiefly Frentzen’s race-ending brake failure in Melbourne. “When you look at the computer graphics it is like having to put 150 kilos on the pedal every time you brake,” said Villeneuve. “That’s OK for qualifying, but for 62 laps of racing it’s going to be a battle.”

Jacques Villeneuve, Williams, Imola,1997
Villeneuve led but couldn’t break away
Villeneuve kept his lead at the start but Schumacher inserted his Ferrari between the two Williams drivers. This was Villeneuve’s cue to sprint off towards another victory, but it didn’t work out that way. After 20 laps Schumacher was still just three-and-a-half seconds behind, with Frentzen breathing down his neck.

Behind them the field was thinning out. Berger’s awful weekend ended on the fifth lap. The Benetton snapped away from him as he plunged into Acque Minerali.

Further back Damon Hill had started from the pits due to a faulty starter motor on his Arrows. He got as far as Shinji Nakano, then clumsily bundled the Prost into a gravel trap, putting both out.

A transmission problem put Ralf Schumacher’s Jordan out from fourth place on lap 17. Johnny Herbert inherited the position, only for his Sauber to develop terminal electrical problems on the very next lap.

Panis was next in line to inherited the cursed fourth place. But he also lost pace on lap 18, allowing Irvine and Fisichella by.

Was Villeneuve in trouble too? On the 22nd lap the leader’s Williams slowed and Schumacher closed to within 1.6 seconds. Sensing an opportunity, Ferrari brought him in two laps later, Schumacher gesturing angrily at Pedro Diniz as he tried to lap the Arrows.

Now second, Frentzen set a new fastest lap as he closed on his team mate. “I thought I was scheduled to come into the pits before Jacques,” he explained afterwards. “But then I saw Michael going into the pits and Jacques going before me, too. That was my moment to push”

Villeneuve came in on the 26th lap and fell behind Schumacher. But Frentzen was flying and despite being stationary for a second longer than his team mate in the pits he still jumped both his rivals into the lead.

Frentzen pressed on and began edging clear of Schumacher. Villeneuve tracked the Ferrari to begin with but was having trouble with his gearbox which was shifting of its own accord. It finally drove him back into the pits where a new steering wheel was fitted to fix the problem. It didn’t and his race was over.

Frentzen and Schumacher still had to pit again but some of their pursuers now made their sole stops. Both McLarens came in on lap 35, Mika Hakkinen after going off at Rivazza while trying to lap Jos Verstappen. Coulthard’s car sprayed a haze of oil over Irvine and Fisichella when he rejoined the track. Fisichella pounced on the opportunity to pass Irvine as the McLaren came to a stop, the Jordan driver moving up into fifth.

Approaching his final pit stop Frentzen lapped Hakkinen and Alesi with little difficulty. Schumacher had a lap in the lead to unleash the Ferrari’s low-fuel pace, but he caught the Sauber of Nicola Larini and locked up at Acqua Minerali.

The time lost behind the Ferrari-engined car weighed on Schumacher’s mind after the race. “I could have done a little bit better if we wouldn’t have had this traffic issue with Larini, who was probably looking in his mirror and driving suddenly very slow,” mused the Ferrari driver. “I locked up my front-right tyre, flat-spotted it, had to come in, so I couldn’t follow my plan.”

Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Williams, Imola, 1997
Frentzen’s first win: “like oil on my soul”
Frentzen therefore regained the lead after his final pit stop, but was still wary of late problems. “I was concerned about the brakes,” he admitted later.

“I didn’t want the same thing to happen again that happened in Melbourne. So I asked how I could save brakes. The pit crew told me that Michael was pushing quite hard, so I had to push as well and I could not save the brakes as much as I could have done.”

The rivalry between Schumacher and Frentzen had been talked up pre-season. The pair had driven for Mercedes’ sports car team together and Frentzen finally had an F1 car under him with the potential to take wins and fight his two-times champion rival. Schumacher pressed Frentzen hard over the final laps, closing in as they lapped Salo’s Tyrrell, but Frentzen held his nerve and grabbed his first F1 win.

Irvine nursed his Ferrari to the podium after damaging his gearbox during a pit stop. “I just had to be very careful to get to the finish,” he said.

But after starting his Williams career with three point-less races, Frentzen’s relief at his breakthrough victory was plain to see. “It is like oil on my soul,” he said afterwards.

“It was a very sweet moment for me after having a hard time in the first three races. It was a great relief from pressure.”

Frentzen’s win, the third in a row for Williams, raised the prospect of both the team’s drivers playing a role in the championship fight. But another team was making its preparations to return to championship glory.

McLaren finally announced Adrian Newey, the star designer behind the car which had won the last three races, had been hired to produce their car for F1’s radically different 1998 regulations.

1997 San Marino Grand Prix result

Pos. No. Driver Team Laps Time/gap.reason
1 4 Heinz-Harald Frentzen Williams-Renault 62 1:31’00.673
2 5 Michael Schumacher Ferrari 62 1.237
3 6 Eddie Irvine Ferrari 62 1’18.343
4 12 Giancarlo Fisichella Jordan-Peugeot 62 1’23.388
5 7 Jean Alesi Benetton-Renault 61 1 Lap
6 9 Mika Hakkinen McLaren-Mercedes 61 1 Lap
7 17 Nicola Larini Sauber-Petronas 61 1 Lap
8 14 Olivier Panis Prost-Mugen-Honda 61 1 Lap
9 19 Mika Salo Tyrrell-Ford 60 2 Laps
10 18 Jos Verstappen Tyrrell-Ford 60 2 Laps
11 20 Ukyo Katayama Minardi-Hart 59 3 Laps
2 Pedro Diniz Arrows-Yamaha 53 Gearbox
3 Jacques Villeneuve Williams-Renault 40 Gearbox
10 David Coulthard McLaren-Mercedes 38 Engine
22 Rubens Barrichello Stewart-Ford 32 Engine
16 Johnny Herbert Sauber-Petronas 18 Electrics
11 Ralf Schumacher Jordan-Peugeot 17 Transmission
15 Shinji Nakano Prost-Mugen-Honda 11 Accident
1 Damon Hill Arrows-Yamaha 11 Accident
8 Gerhard Berger Benetton-Renault 4 Accident
23 Jan Magnussen Stewart-Ford 2 Accident
21 Jarno Trulli Minardi-Hart 0 Did not start

1997 San Marino Grand Prix championship standings

15 comments on “Villeneuve picks a fight, Frentzen wins one”

  1. I remember JV’s commentary on grooved tires very well. When he speaks of them holding the drivers back from being superheroes basically, being limited by the tires from pushing any human limits, I can’t help but think of the last handful of seasons prior to this one, and the gadget tires, and how F1 thought they were the way to go, when 20 years ago they could have heeded JV’s words and remained with big wide slicks on wide cars ala 2017 and pre-98.

    1. Indeed @robbie he can spout some garbage from time to time but his comments were spot on and the past 20 years (from time to time) has proved it. I bet even Jacques didn’t think it would be a show for this long when he said that.

  2. Named my dog Heinz Harold after Frentzen won this race!

  3. This race sounds quite eventful here, but I remember it as a bit of a dull affair – probably had something to do with me being a bitter Damon Hill fan seeing his replacement win!

    Interesting to note the suspended one race ban for ignoring yellows….

    1. Lol being a massive JV fan I was on the edge of my seat at all times in 96/97. Butterflies in the stomach…pacing around the room…I miss that.

    2. The Imola circuit had been drastically overhauled in the immediate aftermath of the crashes. But this was also something Villeneuve took a dim view of. “It’s one of the worst circuits,” he complained.

      “They just put chicanes everywhere. They had to react because it was the political good thing to do. So they’ve been seen to react, but now it’s a disgusting track. It’s not fun to drive and it’s not good for racing either.”

      I wouldn’t say it’s a disgusting track & it’s one of the one’s I enjoy driving round the most in the sims…. However he’s right in his opinion that it wasn’t/isn’t as good a track as it was Pre-95 & that those changes also weren’t that good for racing.

      On the old layout you had slips-treaming through Tamburello/Villeneuve into a heavy braking zone at Tosa which is where most of the overtaking used to happen. With the loss of the long run & heavy braking zone overtaking became a lot less possible, Yes we still saw some but nowhere near as much as on the old layout.

      1. @stefmeister But now we would presumably see more, as the last chicane is no longer used.

        1. more passing, I meant

        2. @montreal95 You would think so but based on races i’ve seen in other categories since the changes (Including GP2 Asia in 2011) that hasn’t really been the case.

          The problem with The Tamburello chicane is that it’s still a fairly quick corner (3rd/4th gear) with a short & not really that heavy braking zone & it’s also fairly narrow on the entry (Not sure the little kink before it helps much either) so it’s just never going to be that great a passing spot…. Certainly not as good as the old run to Tosa was.

          I think it’s a bit like the Ascari chicane at Monza, It’s a spot where you may see overtaking every now & again but not that often & not as much as you do at the other 2 chicanes. The difference with Imola is that you don’t have anywhere else where overtaking is really any easier (Last F1 race there in 2006 only featured 1 overtake on track).

          1. @stefmeister That’s surprising to hear, considering that the straight is over a km long. Also you’d presume that considering the straight is longer than the one before Ascari and the Ascari is a quicker corner then there will be more overtaking at Tamburello. Maybe the overall downforce levels being higher plays a part.

  4. Great recap. That is one thing that to my mind no one can take away from Villeneuve: for all his bad choices and surliness in later years, in the face of the increasing influence of various technologies he was always a steadfast advocate of leaving the racing more in the hands of the drivers.

  5. What grabbed my attention was the final results table and the different DNF reasons. Odd, but I miss those days when even the top teams could have issues and mix the field and results.

  6. Not sure if everybody knows, but Heinz-Harald and Corinna Betsch (later Schumacher) were a couple in the 1980s. Since 1991 she’s with Michael and married him in 1995.

  7. Neil (@neilosjames)
    27th April 2017, 23:54

    Doesn’t seem like 20 years ago… can even remember bits of it, like the worries about Frentzen’s brakes.

    1. Darran Donald
      28th April 2017, 16:42

      I remember most if F1 Grand Prix on the N64, this was one of the challenges win the race as HHF with failing breaks.

      Biggest lesson from this season that we have yet to follow is “Bring back the tyre war”

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