Memory Zone: Luxembourg 1997 as Last Williams-Renault Victory

Jacques Villeneuve in the podium

Family get together diminishes Schumacher’s chances of a third title as Mclaren’s demise gives Villeneuve a third lucky win.

“I was very surprised to see David next to me before I was in second gear!” Jacques Villeneuve on Coulthard’s speedy start.

“It’s so brick slow down the straights it’s unreal.” Eddie Irvine on his Ferrari.

As a disappointed McLaren team manager Ron Dennis said, “To finish first, first you’ve got to finish,” and as statistics go, Pole sitter and birthday boy Mika Hakinnen hadn’t got a chance. From the off, the Finn flew, taking the race all the way to lap 43 before parking at the pit lane exit with a blown engine. “To be competitive you have got to pay a price.” Said a despondent Hakinnen. “It’s not easy to take. You get nothing for free. But you still have to keep going and smiling.”

The signs were ominous too, for Schumacher from the word go and a set of circumstances manifesting themselves in a synchronised course of events, effectively put him out of the running for a third driver’s championship title.

Leaving his pit garage to join the grid for the start of the race, he clipped a jack which rebounded into a Tyrrell mechanic, breaking his shoulder bone. After ascertaining the health of said person, his car was briefly checked for damage and he proceeded to take his place on the grid. Immediately in front, Giancarlo Fisichella’s Jordan Peugeot was having trouble with his clutch. To his right sat David Coulthard in the silver McLaren and behind, not too far, was his young brother Ralf, Fisichella’s team mate, in the second Jordan. It was Schumacher’s 100th Grand Prix. It was also Mika Hakinnen’s birthday.

As the red lights went out the predestined events began to unfold like the long black trails of rubber on the track. Hakinnen shot away with alarming speed followed by Jacques Villenueve in the Williams who, despite his much publicised practice starts at Silverstone last week, still couldn’t get it right. Coulthard’s silver dart left an unsettled Schumacher’s side and finding all the gaps, both left and right of Fisichella and Frentzen, took off after the Canadian rounding the first right hander ahead, on the inside. He wasn’t stopping to see if the way was clear and Frentzen, now gaining speed towards the end of the straight and drawing alongside Villeneuve, who was being pushed a little by Coulthard, touched his team mate briefly, but maintained station. In the confusion six cars trailed past him leaving the dazed driver in 9th with a lot of serious motoring ahead. “Jacques and I banged wheels together at the start as it was pretty tight. I think I made a better start, but I didn’t want to take any chances going into the first corner and take anybody off – especially Jacques!” Said Frentzen. “Unfortunately I knocked the ignition off and although I quickly realised what had happened, by then there were many cars in front of me. I was pretty disappointed at that stage but step by step we made it back up.” Fate continued to play it’s hand and the very thoughts that went through Frentzen’s mind were far from the mental capabilities of Ralf Schumacher who was about to find himself embroiled in a similar set of events.

Fisichella, sluggish of the 2nd row with his faulty clutch, was caught at the same spot by the quicker Jordan of his team mate starting 2 rows further back and having already passed brother Michael, was coming up fast on the outside. The Ferrari caught the Jordan again, on the outside of the bend and the three cars met with inevitable consequences. Fisichella had nowhere to go on the inside, Schumacher junior had nowhere to go in the middle and they touched but unlike Frentzen, he rebounded off the Italian’s car and into his brother, launching his rear wheel over the top of the Germans head. He hit the gravel before his brother who, keeping it together drove back onto the track. With damaged steering and suspension, he was forced later, over rumble strips at the Veedol Chicane and effectively out of the race 2 laps later. Ralf Schumacher id also to face a steward’s enquiry over a ‘track crossing incident’ without being under the marshalls’ direction, zero points.

Never one to fully take the blame as he has illustrated several times in the past and reminiscent of his brother in times gone by, he said, “It was a normal start incident. I made my best start of my career so far and had moved up to fifth place. We all braked a bit late at the first corner and there was just not enough room.” He went on, “I was hit by Giancarlo, not on purpose and my car jumped up in the air, I hit Michael and we were all off. It was potentially quite dangerous, so I suppose we should be quite happy no one was hurt. The consequences were bad for our team and for my brother Michael.”

Amazingly and despite some door slamming anger as the German saw his championship chances evaporate, Schumacher met the press later, calmly, giving the benefit of the doubt to his brother. “He was going for his own way on this.” He said. “There was Fisichella trying to overtake Ralf as well, and he just went too tight. I do not like to accuse anyone, but I did everything to get out of the incident and could not. It was an accident. These things can happen and that is motor racing.”

Hakinnen meanwhile, must have been smiling, as he gradually pulled out a lead over team mate Coulthard and 3rd placed Villeneuve. Stewart driver Rubens Barichello managing to avoid the first corner carnage, was being shadowed by Jean Alesi another lucky escapee some ten seconds behind. The not so lucky Gerhard Berger starting 2 places behind, was forced to take to the gravel to avoid the incident, dropping down the order to 8th. “I think I was a little unlucky.” Said Berger. “I managed to get around the first accident(Frentzen & Villeneuve), but then the two Jordan cars collided and with Michael’s Ferrari in the middle, I had to go left to avoid a big crash and ended in the grass. It was very difficult to get back on the track and in the mean time I lost a lot of positions. Slowly, I started to gain more, but lap times were very close and I could not do better than I did.”

After Alesi, a long queue formed behind the Stewart of Jan Magnussen, driving the race of his short career and managing to keep the pack at bay without braking any rules. “It was hard to keep Hill behind me.” Magnussen said. “But it’s a lot more fun to run at the sharp end and for two weeks in a row we have shown we are capable of it.” The Stewart team have demonstrated a steady growth in stature over recent races and despite airing their engine development failures in public, they have produced some superb moments. Sadly a broken drive shaft was to cause the early retirement of the young Dane on lap 39.

Hakinnen continued to fly off into the misty distance setting 7 unchallenged fastest laps and by the time of the first pit stops for the Benettons on laps 18 and 21, he had a 12 second advantage over Coulthard who was just keeping abreast of 3rd placed Villeneuve by a shade over a second.

Pit stops for both Villeneuve and Hakinnen (who’s team cleverly spotted that Williams were getting ready to pull their driver in), on lap 28, gave The Scot a temporary lead before he pitted 4 laps later. With 4th placed Barichello some 34 seconds down, the Finn rejoined the race behind Coulthard and in front of Villeneuve to eventually regain the lead.

World Champion Damon Hill was in the points, when he pitted and stalled his engine, almost certainly costing him as it turned out, a podium finish. “I stalled the car in the pits which was just pathetic.” Said the ever honest Mr Hill. “I’m pretty upset about that as I would have scored some points.” Tom Walkinshaw was probably pretty upset too especially as Pedro Diniz managed a fine drive to take two championship points. Another three or four from Hill would have made it a worthwhile weekend. Despite a late charge up to the 7th placed Sauber-Petronas of Johnny Herbert, by the end of the race, he finished a second away from a points score.

Fighting a sluggish Ferrari down in 11th place, Eddie Irvine’s engine cut out on lap 22at the Dunlop Kurve. Extremely angry and heedless of the repercussions it might have, his emotions got the better of him as he exploded with frustration. “With Williams coming on strong, Bridgestone coming on strong and the McLarens flying, it’s knocking us on the head. It’s going to take a miracle now and on recent form you have to say that we’re not even in the same race!” His eyes were covered by reflective sunglasses but one sensed the spark of anger that they obscured. “The car was atrocious, the worse I’ve ever had in a race. It oversteered and understeered. It’s so brick slow down the straights it’s unreal.” The bosses at Ferrari won’t be in any mood to take comments like that especially after the unfortunate incident at the start and now with their championship chances hanging by such a fine thread, but, like Alain Prost in 1990, who got fired from the team for his negative comments, he felt they had to be said.

This time Coulthard’s luck ran out when his engine exploded in a big way on lap 42 in front of the Grandstand and no doubt all Mercedes’ invited finery. Philosophical as ever he said, “If you are going faster than the rest and we have shown that we were the quickest package this weekend, you must be closer to the edge and unfortunately we were too close today.” He didn’t realise how close he was, for a lap later and in an uncannily similar fashion to the two Prosts of Nakano and Trulli in Austria, Hakinnen’s engine too let go, a few hundred yards further along the straight at the exit to the pit lane. Magnificent in yet another devastating defeat, Hakinnen echoed the words of his team mate. “I was all the time following the pit boards and saving the tyres and the engine. McLaren Mercedes want to be the best so you always expect some failures, just as I want to be the best and I make some mistakes too.”

Rubens Barichello retired also on lap 43 from a fine 3rd position with a loss of hydraulic pressure, allowing the bewildered Alesi to bounce into 2nd position after his team mate Gerhard Berger, made his 2nd pit stop. “I saw on my pit board ‘P2’ and I didn’t believe it, because before the stop I was 8th! I had all the Bridgestone cars in front and it was impossible to pass.” In like manner Heinz Harald Frentzen popped up into 3rd having languished in the lower points region until the latter half of the race, when he started to push and scored a fastest race lap of 1:18.805s.

At a stroke Williams had both cars on the podium and with only 6 points needed, have all but clinched the Constructors Championship. A smiling team boss Frank Williams however, doesn’t agree. “I’m sorry for Ron Dennis and McLaren Mercedes.” He Said. “Personally I’m here for the constructor’s championship and we haven’t won that by a long way.” With 20 points on offer, Schumacher has to finish 2nd or higher in front of Villeneuve to have any reasonable chance at the drivers title and as it looks as though Ferrari’s form has definitely taken a dive over the passed two races, the two times champion has an almost impossible task on his hands. It must have been a bitter pill for the German to take seeing an opportunity wasted. The misfortunes of the McLarens could so easily have worked to his advantage as well.

The fact that Ferrari’s development programme was so successful leading up to the Belgium Grand Prix, more or less forced Schumacher into thinking that he had more than a chance at the crown. It was always Schumacher’s belief that 1998 would be the year to challenge for the championship. If he were to win it this year and it now looks doubtful it would be Schumacher alone and not Ferrari that would deserve the accolade.

With a win in Japan in a fortnight’s time Villeneuve would take the crown. He has massive experience from his F3000 days there and it should be an easier race than most for him to win. Last year he was forced out with a loose wheel nut, enabling Hill to go on to win the race and the Championship. Mindful of this, Williams will not be so careless this time around and whilst mistakes have abounded this year, it is still Williams championship to lose rather than Ferrari’s to win.

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