Start, Silverstone, 1997

Villeneuve lucks out then lucks in for second Silverstone win

1997 British Grand Prix flashbackPosted on | Author Keith Collantine

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
Williams-Renault
2. Heinz-Harald Frentzen 1’21.732
Williams-Renault
Row 2 3. Mika Hakkinen 1’21.797
McLaren-Mercedes
4. Michael Schumacher 1’21.977
Ferrari
Row 3 5. Ralf Schumacher 1’22.277
Jordan-Peugeot
6. David Coulthard 1’22.279
McLaren-Mercedes
Row 4 7. Eddie Irvine 1’22.342
Ferrari
8. Alexander Wurz 1’22.344
Benetton-Renault
Row 5 9. Johnny Herbert 1’22.368
Sauber-Petronas
10. Giancarlo Fisichella 1’22.371
Jordan-Peugeot
Row 6 11. Jean Alesi 1’22.392
Benetton-Renault
12. Damon Hill 1’23.271
Arrows-Yamaha
Row 7 13. Jarno Trulli 1’23.366
Prost-Mugen-Honda
14. Shinji Nakano 1’23.887
Prost-Mugen-Honda
Row 8 15. Jan Magnussen 1’24.067
Stewart-Ford
16. Pedro Diniz 1’24.239
Arrows-Yamaha
Row 9 17. Mika Salo 1’24.478
Tyrrell-Ford
18. Ukyo Katayama 1’24.553
Minardi-Hart
Row 10 19. Jos Verstappen 1’25.010
Tyrrell-Ford
20. Tarso Marques 1’25.154
Minardi-Hart
Row 11 21. Rubens Barrichello 1’25.525
Stewart-Ford
22. Norberto Fontana No time
Sauber-Petronas

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.”

Start, Silverstone, Williams, 1997
Katayama didn’t get this far
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.

Jacques Villeneuve, Silverstone, Williams, 1997
Villeneuve gave Williams their 100th win
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
1 3 Jacques Villeneuve Williams-Renault 59 1:28’01.665
2 7 Jean Alesi Benetton-Renault 59 10.205
3 8 Alexander Wurz Benetton-Renault 59 11.296
4 10 David Coulthard McLaren-Mercedes 59 31.229
5 11 Ralf Schumacher Jordan-Peugeot 59 31.880
6 1 Damon Hill Arrows-Yamaha 59 1’13.552
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
11 15 Shinji Nakano Prost-Mugen-Honda 57 Engine
9 Mika Hakkinen McLaren-Mercedes 52 Engine
23 Jan Magnussen Stewart-Ford 50 Engine
18 Jos Verstappen Tyrrell-Ford 45 Engine
6 Eddie Irvine Ferrari 44 Driveshaft
19 Mika Salo Tyrrell-Ford 44 Engine
16 Johnny Herbert Sauber-Petronas 42 Electrical
5 Michael Schumacher Ferrari 38 Wheel bearing
22 Rubens Barrichello Stewart-Ford 37 Engine
2 Pedro Diniz Arrows-Yamaha 29 Engine
20 Ukyo Katayama Minardi-Hart 0 Accident
4 Heinz-Harald Frentzen Williams-Renault 0 Accident

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.

Jean Alesi, Jacques Villeneuve, Alexander Wurz, Silverstone, Williams, 1997
Villeneuve believed he’d have passed Hakkinen
“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

9 comments on “Villeneuve lucks out then lucks in for second Silverstone win”

  1. I was pretty gutted for Hakkinen, his Mercedes going pop ruined a tense finish and what could have been his first victory.
    On another note Wurz came third in his third GP, just as Ralf Schumacher had earlier in the season in Argentina.

    1. Ironically it was JV who ‘helped’ MH get his first victory at Jerez by not fighting him or DC for the win as he didn’t need the win to win the WDC, and he didn’t want to risk fighting for the win in a damaged car and going off or dnf’ing. Sure would have been interesting to see what Mosley and BE would have done with MS had he succeeded in ending JV’s day. But lol I shouldn’t be jumping ahead to the end of the season.

      1. @Robbie Spoiler alert!

  2. I remember this as a year when (to my mind) Hakkinen lost about 3 wins and the Stewarts about 10 points due to engine failures

  3. “For five intense laps the pair circulated together, Hakkinen edging ever closer to his first grand prix win.”

    Compare that to 20 years later when it would probably read:
    “After catching Hakkinen quickly, Villeneuve breezed past him in the Hanger Straight DRS zone.” :/

    1. I beg to differ. Even when DRS was overdone in some of the tracks in its earlier days, top cars from different teams almost never found it easy to overtake one another.

  4. Roth Man (@rdotquestionmark)
    13th July 2017, 18:11

    The first race I ever attended. This has brought back many happy memories thanks Keith, really enjoyed this over the season. Always remember the first car to come past on the start finish straight on Friday practice was Damon in his Arrows, the howl of that Yamaha V10 as the car disappeared into Copse at incomprehensible speeds, my father and I just looked at each other afterwards with our jaws on the floor.

  5. I remember this race rather well, or at least Häkkinen’s retirement. “Just a few more laps, you can do it! Is that smoke? It is! Noooo!” And then the shot of him throwing the gloves to the crowd…

    As for the track, wasn’t Stove also modified and made faster? Or did they change it already in 1996?

  6. There were so many engine failures in 1997. Häkkinen suffered a lot of them in the second half of the season and around the British Grand Prix the Ford engines (both V8s and V10s) were blowing up multiple times per weekend. It was great to see them trying so hard to be competitive. Also the poor reliability made the races much less predictable.

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