One of Formula One’s most frequently-repeated fallacies is the idea that bad luck balances itself out over the course of a season.
Count up the technical failures, incidents and so on and no driver is significantly disadvantaged come the end of the year. It’s complete bunk, of course.
But in the British Grand Prix 20 years ago today, Jacques Villeneuve found his bad luck at the beginning of the race did balance out, as his other top rivals all hit trouble before the chequered flag fell.
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Hill under pressure
Approaching the halfway point in the 1997 the reigning champion was yet to score a point in a desperate campaign. Damon Hill’s Arrows had proved both unreliable and slow but his team boss felt his driver’s commitment was lacking too, and sparked a public spat by saying so.
Arrows team principal Tom Walkinshaw gave an interview to Ted Macauley in which he said Hill was not performing as champion should for money he was being paid and making car look worse than it was. He even suggested he would replace his driver, who was earning £4.5 million for his season with the struggling team.
Walkinshaw later tried to distance himself from the comments. Macauley claimed he was “manhandled out of Arrows hospitality unit” at one point. But Hill took the criticism on board.
“He’s very entitled to put a rocket under the bum of his drivers,” said Hill. “Every team manager does it. I’ve had much worse criticism from other team managers than from what Tom might have implied by what he said yesterday.”
It didn’t help Hill’s cause that he manage to crash his Arrows in the pits during a wet pre-race test session, much to the amusement of his former world championship rival Michael Schumacher. The team experienced another blow when it learned they had failed to land a coveted Mugen-Honda engine contract for 1998. They went instead to Jordan, who also picked up sponsorship from former Lola backers Mastercard.
1997 British Grand Prix qualifying
The Silverstone layout had been tightened and slowed in 1991 and 1994, the latter changes in response to the safety crisis which followed the deaths of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger. But for 1997 further revisions were made to improve the flow of the track and, in places, increase the speeds.
The new Copse corner could now be tackled at much higher speeds. And the final series of corners – Priory, Brooklands and Luffield – were reconfigured as well, the latter becoming one long corner instead of two separate ones.
“There’s a much better rhythm now, better flow to the corners,” Villeneuve reported. “And turn one [Copse] has become very impressive. It’s very fast in sixth gear, you get a lot of Gs, the corner’s blind when you turn in – you have to turn in not seeing where the corner is – and it feels great.”
On the revised circuit, the hour-long qualifying session was a thriller. McLaren hadn’t had a pole position since the end of 1993, but Mika Hakkinen looked on course to end that drought as driver after driver failed to beat his initial benchmark of 1’21.797.
One by one the big names came and went: Schumacher, Villeneuve and Heinz-Harald Frentzen each took turns to tackle it but came up short.
Finally, with mere minutes left in the session, Frentzen caught a tow from Jean Alesi’s Benetton on the Hangar straight and was a third of a second up after the first sector. The time slipped away over the rest of the lap, but at the line he was still ahead by 0.065s.
Hakkinen took to the track for a final shot. But he ran wide in Becketts and, when he reached Stowe, lost time behind another car. His chance of taking pole position was gone, and behind him two more drivers threatened to knock his McLaren off the front row.
Villeneuve was the next driver through and found more than a tenth of a second as he took pole position off his team mate. But Schumacher failed to beat Hakkinen after locking a wheel at Brooklands and had to settle for fourth on the grid.
“I’m a bit upset because it was very close to pole position today,” Hakkinen admitted, though he’d equalled McLaren’s best starting position of the season so far.
Coulthard put the other McLaren sixth on the grid behind Ralf Schumacher’s Jordan. Eddie Irvine, who’d been forced to pit after hitting a hare on one lap, lined up seventh.
He shared row eight with Alexander Wurz, whose stint as Gerhard Berger’s substitute at Benetton continued to go well. In addition to his sinus problem, Berger’s troubles had been compounded by the untimely death of his father Johann in a light aircraft accident.
Johnny Herbert, ninth, was the third British driver inside the top ten but none of them had the number one on his car. Nonetheless Hill distinguished himself by being the highest Bridgestone-shod runner on the grid by taking 12th.
The back row of the grid was occupied by Rubens Barrichello, who suffered three engine failures in one day in his Stewart and his team mate’s chassis, and Sauber’s inexperienced Norberto Fontana, who was still standing in for the injured Gianni Morbidelli on a race-by-race basis. Sauber had offered the car to ex-Jordan driver Martin Brundle, now on commentary duties with ITV.
Fontana’s inexperienced showed when he drove past the red light at the weigh bridge and had all his times from qualifying deleted as a result.
1997 British Grand Prix grid
|Row 1||1. Jacques Villeneuve 1’21.598
|2. Heinz-Harald Frentzen 1’21.732
|Row 2||3. Mika Hakkinen 1’21.797
|4. Michael Schumacher 1’21.977
|Row 3||5. Ralf Schumacher 1’22.277
|6. David Coulthard 1’22.279
|Row 4||7. Eddie Irvine 1’22.342
|8. Alexander Wurz 1’22.344
|Row 5||9. Johnny Herbert 1’22.368
|10. Giancarlo Fisichella 1’22.371
|Row 6||11. Jean Alesi 1’22.392
|12. Damon Hill 1’23.271
|Row 7||13. Jarno Trulli 1’23.366
|14. Shinji Nakano 1’23.887
|Row 8||15. Jan Magnussen 1’24.067
|16. Pedro Diniz 1’24.239
|Row 9||17. Mika Salo 1’24.478
|18. Ukyo Katayama 1’24.553
|Row 10||19. Jos Verstappen 1’25.010
|20. Tarso Marques 1’25.154
|Row 11||21. Rubens Barrichello 1’25.525
|22. Norberto Fontana No time
1997 British Grand Prix
Rain fell on the morning warm-up and Hill caused a sensation by setting the fastest time. “It felt fantastic,” he admitted. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been at the top of the sheets.”
Williams lost the advantage of their front row lock-out before the race had even begun. Frentzen stalled his car ahead of the original start and was sent to the back of the grid. “What happened was basically my mistake,” he later admitted. “I used two switches at the same time.”
One lap was deducted from the race distance and the field lined up again. But Frentzen’s race proved brief: He tangled with Jos Verstappen’s Tyrrell and Becketts and retired. He at least made it further than Ukyo Katayama, who lost control of his Minardi on some dirt and spun into the pit wall within metres of the start.
While all the drama was going on at the back, Villeneuve easily led the field into turn one. Schumacher slotted in behind him and had to stay there as the Safety Car could be deployed while Katayama’s car was collected.
Once the race resumed Villeneuve and Schumacher quickly pulled away from Coulthard, who was struggling with his brakes. His team mate sat behind him but McLaren were unwilling to impose any team orders.
A mistake cost Schumacher a second to Villeneuve but the Ferrari driver responded with a string of quick laps to stay in touch with the race leader. Villeneuve had found his front-left wheel was slightly loose and causing handling problems, forcing him to apply more steering lock. It proved a much bigger problem when he came in for his first pit stop.
Schumacher arrived in the pits first, Ferrari reacting to Villeneuve closing in on Verstappen to lap him. Schumacher was turned around quickly but Villeneuve hit troubled when he came in. His wheel problem had been caused by loose screws in the brake disc assembly and when the wheel nut was removed it sheared, costing time as it had to be replaced. He was stationary for over half a minute, dropping him back into the pack.
Schumacher was now in a dream situation. He effortlessly drew ahead while Coulthard, whose brake problems were becoming ever more serious, lost around two seconds per laps and held up a train including his team mate Hakkinen plus the Benetton pair Alesi and Wurz, Giancarlo Fisichella’s Jordan and the badly delayed Villeneuve.
Jordan decided to get their driver into clean air by pitting Fisichella on lap 27. On the next lap Coulthard finally outbraked himself at Vale which allowed Hakkinen to slip by. Now free of his team mate, Hakkinen immediately set the fastest lap of the race.
A few laps later there was drama at the front. A cloud of smoke poured from Schumacher’s left-rear wheel, yet he continued apparently without losing pace. Ferrari brought him into the pits moments later for an early second pit stop to check the problem. He was sent out again, only to slow and return to the pits with wheel bearing failure. Ferrari’s woes were compound when Irvine’s driveshaft failed as he accelerated away from the pits following his second stop.
Schumacher’s misfortune briefly put Wurz in the lead of his third grand prix, though he never officially led a lap as he immediately made his pit stop. Once the one-stopping McLarens and Benettons had pitted so Villeneuve found himself back in the lead. But he still needed to make a final stop which would drop him behind Hakkinen. This was completed by the 44th lap, leaving the pair in a 15-lap sprint to the finish.
Villeneuve made short work of Hakkinen’s lead. The McLaren driver’s 5.5 seconds advantage was halved in two laps. By lap 49 there was less than a second between them. But overtaking around the rapid Silverstone track promised to be difficult, even though the leader appeared to be struggling with his tyres.
For five intense laps the pair circulated together, Hakkinen edging ever closer to his first grand prix win. But just as it seemed he had enough to hold the Williams back, his Mercedes motor cried enough. It was a tough end to a fine performance all weekend. Hakkinen threw his gloves to the crowd.
That left a relieved Villeneuve to take the chequered flag first for the second year running at Silverstone. He was followed by the Benetton pair, Wurz wisely following Alesi home to a remarkable podium finish as the team finally began to turn its awful season around.
Coulthard took fourth ahead of Ralf Schumacher, the Jordan driver having almost hit his mechanics during one of his pit stops. Fisichella threw his chance of a points finish away by ploughing through the gravel at Copse.
The final points-paying position was decided on the last lap. A string of retirements ahead had helped Shinji Nakano’s Prost rise to sixth place. But his Mugen-Honda died on his final tour, promoting a jubilant Hill. He waved to the crowd around the final lap and they roared in appreciation as he crossed the line.
1997 British Grand Prix result
|Pos.||No.||Driver||Team||Laps||Time / gap / reason|
|7||12||Giancarlo Fisichella||Jordan-Peugeot||58||1 lap|
|8||14||Jarno Trulli||Prost-Mugen-Honda||58||1 lap|
|9||17||Norberto Fontana||Sauber-Petronas||58||1 lap|
|10||21||Tarso Marques||Minardi-Hart||58||1 lap|
|5||Michael Schumacher||Ferrari||38||Wheel bearing|
The dramatic conclusion to the race raised an inevitable question: Could Villeneuve have won even if Hakkinen had kept going? Villeneuve was unequivocal that he would have passed the McLaren.
“He blistered his rear tyres and I could see that,” he said. “I was just waiting for the last few laps to make my move.”
Hakkinen, unsurprisingly, was sceptical. “He was quite close to me at the moment when my engine went, but at the same time it wasn’t too difficult to hold him behind me either.”
“I still had a couple of cards in my pocket anyway and I could have pushed much harder for a couple of laps if I had wanted to. But you never know. Maybe he would have been able to overtake me…”
Villeneuve survived a post-race scare when he was investigated for failing to maintain the correct distance behind Safety Car. He was cleared and Williams kept their 100th F1 victory, but the driver received a one-race suspended ban.
There was relief for Arrows too as Hill delivered the team’s first point of the year. After the race, Walkinshaw bumped into Macauley again. Wryly, Walkinshaw told the journalist: “Well, that worked OK…”
1997 British Grand Prix championship standings
Grand Prix flashback
- Schumacher’s yellow flag penalty helps Villeneuve slash his points lead
- Coulthard charges to win as title contenders struggle
- Schumacher capitalises as Williams get it wrong in the rain again
- Last-lap heartbreak for Hill and Arrows
- Berger takes final win in ‘a race I shouldn’t have done’