In Barcelona, on April 17th and 18th, 1997, collective tests are held with the participation of Williams, Benetton, Ferrari, McLaren and Prost. At the end of the three test days, Jacques Villeneuve gets the best time but it must be underlined that the Canadian driver, together with Gerhard Berger, is the only one to use a new type of Goodyear tyres. Williams, on this occasion, also tests the car modified according to the 1998 regulations, both with Boullier and Villeneuve. The Ferrari with Michael Schumacher, on the other hand, runs a long test, seventy laps equal to 332 kilometres with the step 1 engine, and ninety-four laps equal to 440 kilometres with the step 2 engine, before a small pipe in the hydraulic system, late in the day, prevented him from testing the new Goodyear tyres. These tests helped Schumacher decide to use the step 2 engine during qualifying for the Imola Grand Prix:
"I am very satisfied with the performance and driveability, I would like to have it at least on Saturday for qualifying".
But regarding a possible real gain in performance, Irvine is extremely sceptical, to the point that he declares:
"Don't expect much from this engine, here at Imola it will give us a small tenth of an advantage, not much but better than nothing".
And even Jean Todt confirms the words of the Northern Irish driver, admitting:
"At Monte Carlo, step two might not give us anything, but when the fast circuits come, like Hockenheim, then it can give us a lot and we want to arrive at those races with a well-tested engine".
The choice of tyres remains an unknown factor, but it seems obvious from the start that Ferrari will use the softer Goodyear tyres at Imola, as they did in Argentina. In the meantime, Maranello's team is concluding negotiations to sell its British facilities to British designer John Barnard. The company will be called B3 Technologies Ltd. and will work autonomously from Ferrari. Arriving at Imola, Jacques Villeneuve, who since his arrival in Formula One has proved to be one of those drivers always out of the box and who doesn't mince his words, has something to say about the new regulations for the 1998 season, which provide for narrower cars and sculpted tyres:
"I tried a Williams with this configuration and it is ridiculous, like driving an F3 with the power and ground effect of a Formula 1".
However, if in the past the FIA reacted hardly against those who dared to criticise the Federation (as in 1993 when Alain Prost's participation in the championship was at risk, as he was deemed guilty of having criticised the new regulations during the winter), in this case diplomacy was the way:
"If there is something to change in the tyres, we will do it".
The stands at the autodrome are packed from Friday onwards, to support a Ferrari that absolutely needs important points for the championship, although it is only the fourth round of the seventeen scheduled. Schumacher and Irvine showed to be very fast, with the reinvigorated Eddie who in the free practice snatched the best time putting him seven thousandths behind his team leader. Williams seemed to hide, in qualifying his supremacy didn't seem in danger. As a matter of fact, punctual as a Swiss watch, Villeneuve gets the fourth pole in a row, three tenths ahead of Frentzen, closer to the Canadian in comparison with the previous qualifications.
Also for the German ex-Sauber the Imola Grand Prix is already an important crossroads: with zero points in the classification after two retirements and a ninth place, the doubts in the driver's head and in the Williams team about his real skills are constantly increasing. Heinz needs a performance similar to that of Irvine in Argentina. The Northern Irishman did not continue his excellent free practice and on Saturday he was only ninth. To keep the fans' hopes alive there was Schumacher, third and ready to squeeze in between the two Williams in the race.
"From Schumacher I expected what he did, which is what we could realistically expect".
Confessed Jean Todt, who then said a few words for Irvine:
"Well, yes, I expected something more, a sixth place for example. But he had a lot of problems and we couldn't solve them all".
While talking about the new Step 2 engine, finally used on track without any striking results, the French manager warns the press:
"I've always said that you shouldn't expect miracles, I've always said that at most we could gain a tenth of a second, maybe on some circuits we'll gain more and on others less. The fact is that the riders feel better with this engine, they prefer it, but that doesn't mean that step two will perform miracles. It's not with this engine that we will be able to catch up with the competition. The most important thing is that we are still there. There are five teams capable of fighting each other, they are not always the same, I would say that here at Imola of these five there are two new ones at this level. We are there and for now we hope to score points. This means that I hope for a podium finish and another one in the points zone. Hopefully we can overtake one of the two Williams. That's not bad but we need to do more. Right away, though, it's not possible".
And talking about the F310B and what needs to be changed, Ferrari's Sports Director admits:
"We have to change the aerodynamics, change the weight distribution, change the shock absorbers and suspension. Some we have already studied, others we will study now. If all goes well, I hope you'll see the changes in Spain at the end of May".
But not all that glitters for Frank's two cars on Saturday, as both drivers failed to heed the yellow flags' order to slow down during qualifying and overtook other cars on the track. Both drivers promptly received their first reprimands of the season. Reprimands that we will hear about again later this season. On top of that, Williams has shown in the first three rounds that it has problems with its brakes. Precisely at Imola the brakes are once again the protagonists because the circuit, which is very fast in some sections, subjects all the mechanics of a single-seater to brutal strain both under acceleration and braking. Another factor that worried the Williams men, and not a little. There were also some slight skirmishes to be reckoned with for Schumacher, accused at the end of qualifying by Prost of having slowed down Olivier Panis in the very last minutes to keep the third place on the grid safe. The Frenchman stopped in fourth position, followed by the two surprising Jordans of Schumacher and Fisichella, who confessed to the press:
"I made a good time and I'm happy to keep improving my qualifying position race after race. Unfortunately, I encountered a lot of traffic that slowed me down while I was doing a good lap on the second set of tyres. The car is going well and I have a lot of confidence for the race. Of course here in Italy I'd like to finish on the podium, but my main goal is still to score points".
McLaren and Benetton, on the other hand, are scattered in the middle of the standings, and a decent race pace may not be enough to climb back up the ladder. Accompanied by the Imola event, Montezemolo first exalted his team and then let himself go with a little dig at Goodyear, which seems to be struggling in the comparison between tyre suppliers against the debutant Bridgestone:
"With the other Bridgestone tyres, from what we can tell, we could be a second faster. We're staying with Goodyear because we respect our contracts, but we're hoping for progress, also because of our stresses. In Australia we had taken two seconds from Williams, here only six tenths of a second. We got two second places in three races and what is comforting is that in the race the gap between us and Williams is decreasing. So we are confident for the San Marino Grand Prix which will be a difficult race, hard but not only for the brakes. Since I've been at Ferrari there has never been such a compact, united team. We are among the best and I think this is a positive thing even if I can't deny that at the beginning of the year I was hoping for something more, but I am sure that satisfaction will come soon".
The story of Jarno Trulli is also curious: after the race at Imola, he will have to go back to the barracks, to the First Special Athletes Department near the Cecchignola in Rome, since the young Italian driver divides his time between Minardi, the team from Romagna with which he races in the Formula One world championship, and his military service:
"I still have a month left of barracks. It was hard at first, but then I got used to it. I have to thank my commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Pietro De Canio, and also Captain Dario Pontillo. They're the ones who sign my licences to go racing. After all, they see me on television, so they have proof that I don't cheat. In the barracks there are well-equipped gyms where I can train. I work mainly on my neck, and my girth has increased by almost four centimetres. The secret? With a special tool I can lift up to 23 kilos, just by moving my neck".
And talking about the competition and his future:
"We're behind, but I don't despair about the race, we've already finished ninth twice in past Grands Prix, a sign that the car is reliable. The fact is that we have little power here. In a straight line we are twenty kilometres slower than the competition. I like the circuit, I have never done the Tamburello in full before the modification, but there are at least two very nice and challenging corners, at Acque and Rivazza. The future? I'm under contract with Benetton, with Minardi I have an option for 1998, it's a team where I feel good".
The following morning it was raining on the circuit, and during the warm-up the drivers drove on a wet track. Rain remains an important unknown factor, even in view of the race, due to the grey clouds that loom over the circuit a few minutes before the start. In addition, the track presents a dry trajectory, but is equally insidious. From here the teams launch different strategies, Hill, for example, with a decision taken at the last minute decides to change aiming at a wet set-up, also in combination with an oil leak found on his car; ergo, the world champion will start from the pit lane, using dry tyres like everyone else, but with a wet track set-up, hoping therefore for the arrival of the rain. The two Prost drivers are also hoping for rain, so they choose the set-up that will ultimately prove to be wrong, as the track will remain dry for the duration of the race.
A race, the one in Imola, followed by a good 90.000 spectators, which over the three days will reach a total of 190.000, a record compared to 187.000 in 1983. Precisely for this reason, and to avoid possible invasions at the end of the race, which in past years had led to fines and warnings from the FIA, the Imola fencing was reinforced by adding barbed wire. The race was followed mainly by two guests of honour, Prime Minister Romano Prodi and Cesare Romiti. First the president of Fiat, then Romano Prodi, visit the Ferrari pits, which are always crowded and heavily guarded. The Prime Minister then climbs into the VIP grandstand to watch the start of the race live, while the Fiat President meets Jean Todt in the Prancing Horse van before the start. Prodi, accompanied by his escort, also meets the President of FOCA, Bernie Ecclestone, and in a short time an exchange of words takes place in front of the cameras of half the world on the future of Imola:
"Monza and Imola fit perfectly in the calendar. This is an important race for Italy, the Grand Prix must stay".
In reply, the FOCA president replied that he had never had any problems, and he had no problems this year either.
"And you won't have any next year".
The Italian Prime Minister concluded, before the customary greetings. With one part of the main straight drier than the other, the cars on the side with more grip will inevitably have a better sprint.
As a result, the poleman Villeneuve had no problem holding the lead when the lights went out, while Frentzen was immediately overtaken by Schumacher, just as Panis was overtaken by Ralf Schumacher. Frentzen immediately tried a counter-attack at Tosa, but Schumacher closed him down without too much trouble. After three starts characterised by incidents, there was finally the first clean start of the season.
In the first phase of the race a compact leading quartet formed by the two Williams and the two Schumacher brothers, with Michael closed between Villeneuve and Frentzen. A quartet that, however, gets thinner as the laps go by. Villeneuve increased his race pace and Schumacher couldn't keep up with him, moreover there was Frentzen behind him who didn't stop tailing him, arriving on one occasion almost to crash into him at the Rivazza, where he was obliged to widen the trajectory to avoid a disaster; also the Jordan driven by Ralf wasn't fast enough to keep in touch with the first ones, and on the contrary he had to watch out for the return of the Sauber driven by Johnny Herbert.
Then suddenly a series of retirements excluded first Berger, who went off-track at Acque Minerali, remaining covered with sand and celebrating in the worst way his 200th Grand Prix in Formula 1; then Damon Hill, who was desperately trying to recover after starting from pit-lane, attacked Nakano at Variante Bassa, but both of them ended up in the gravel with cars irreparably damaged. This is Damon's fourth retirement in as many races.
Afterwards, in little more than a lap, both Ralf Schumacher and Herbert are forced to retire due to technical problems, the transmission for the former, electronic for the latter. At the same time, close to the twentieth lap, Irvine and Fisichella got rid of Panis, clearly in crisis because of the wrong set-up with which he had to drive, and who before the retirements of Schumacher and Herbert occupied the sixth position. With a good overtaking at Piratella and taking advantage of the others' retirements, Eddie was all of a sudden fourth.
When there were only a few laps to go before the first stop, Villeneuve had an advantage of more than four seconds over his two pursuers, but due to a driving error that escaped the international television direction, the gap was practically reduced to zero. Frentzen tried again to attack Schumacher in vain, taking advantage of the presence of a lapped driver who was a bit reluctant to be overtaken, Pedro Diniz, to whom the Ferrari driver reserved some gestures of frustration on the main straight.
The time to make the pit stops came, and the first to stop was Schumacher on lap 24. After that comes Irvine (both of them curiously record the same time of 9.4 seconds when stopping), Villeneuve and finally Frentzen, who sets the fastest lap of 1'25"772 during his attempt to overcut Schumacher.
An overcut that succeeded even better than expected, since the German driver, once he came out of the pits after a problematic 11.1-second stop due to a front left tyre that was struggling to be fixed, was even in the lead of the race, ahead of Schumacher and with Villeneuve only third. The situation is therefore reversed for the two Williams, while it is almost identical for Schumacher, who sees one Williams running away and the other attached to his rear end. Between the thirty-eighth and fortieth lap there was another important turning point in the race, coinciding with other retirements, this time of more relevant names in the championship.
Having climbed to fourth position just ahead of Irvine thanks to a one-stop strategy, things were looking more than good for David Coulthard, but the sudden bursting of the Mercedes engine took him out of the race, just as the Northern Irishman was trying to regain his lost position. The intense white smoke momentarily disrupted Eddie, who was surprised by an attentive Fisichella, up to that moment an interested spectator of the battle. But it wasn't over yet.
With Schumacher strangely already nine seconds behind, it seems clear that there is something abnormal on Villeneuve's car, which returns to the pits on lap 40. A frustrating agony began for the Canadian, who was forced to return to the pit lane having been left with the fifth gear engaged; the mechanics fitted him with a new steering wheel and began to work frantically inside the cockpit. Villeneuve is very agitated, he shakes his head continuously, beats his fists on the steering wheel and tries to restart but the engine stops; the mechanics try to restart it, the minutes pass until it is understood that there is nothing to do. Twenty laps from the end the world leader had to get out of the car and retire.
The unpleasant experience in Australia and the problems encountered by his team-mate cannot reassure him, but the fact remains that the first victory in his career, lap after lap, is getting closer for Heinz-Harald Frentzen. To increase the tension, Schumacher decided to fight until the last metre, the lapping of Hakkinen and Alesi, fighting each other and unwilling to look in the mirrors, as well as a light rain that started to fall in the last laps. Once the second pit-stop had been made, the gap between the two leading drivers remained constant at around three seconds, but on the last lap Frentzen was far too cautious and the gap dropped below a second. Even if with apprehension, the German driver wins his first race in Formula 1 after having run fifty-six.
The two Ferraris completed the podium, thanks to the excellent work of the mechanics who, thanks to a quick pit-stop, allowed Irvine to recover his position on Giancarlo Fisichella, who could also celebrate his first placing in the points. It is curious that on the podium at Imola, after the controversy that exploded following the Argentinean Grand Prix, the FIA imposed that the flag of the United Kingdom is raised to accompany Eddie Irvine's third place. At the microphones of the foreign broadcasters, albeit in a rather awkward English, the young Roman driver clearly expressed his state of mind:
"I am very happy. Thanks to Jordan, the car was great, even the podium was possible but the pit stop was not so good. With Ralf we solved it, in Monte Carlo we hope to repeat".
During the press conference, Frentzen talks about the difficulties encountered in the final part of the race:
"Tomorrow maybe I will be able to tell you my emotions, now I still have too many things on my mind. Winning is a great feeling, but it wasn't easy. When I saw Michael and Jacques come into the pits I knew it was time to push hard and set fast laps before I made my stop. The lapping was a concern, but when I got back into the lead and on soft tyres I was honestly surprised. This track puts the brakes to the test. After the bad experience in Melbourne, I tried to save them at the end, checking Schumacher from a distance every time he approached. Towards the end of the race I was worried about the brakes, I didn't want a repeat of Melbourne. The pits told me that Michael was pushing, so I couldn't manage them too much. There was also a chance of rain towards the end of the race, I saw a few drops falling and thought: this is it. But here I am, I'm speechless. Looking ahead to Monaco I am optimistic, I feel comfortable with the car after some changes made by the team".
With six points gained in combination with Villeneuve's surprise zero, Schumacher also looks visibly satisfied:
"The set-up was great, a mixture of dry and wet, I must say that the car behaved great. Even though I was hoping to get in between the Williams, third place was the most realistic place for us today, so coming in second is more than satisfactory. Of course, the crucial moment was that first pit stop. Frentzen narrowly got out in front of me. Also in the second pit-stop it could have been better. Unfortunately, I was forced to slow down because of the lapped cars, I had Larini in front of me who saw me in the mirrors and reduced the pace but I had to brake so hard that I ended up flattening the front right tyre and had to come into the pits earlier than expected. Unfortunately there are always problems with lapped drivers. The question remains: without this, would the rest of the race have been different? Who knows. The result shows that we are competitive in the race. We are the only team keeping up with the Williams and this fills me with optimism because we have a lot of new things in the pipeline that will help us move forward. I hope that we can fight consistently".
Two podiums in a row, one of them in front of the Italian fans. For Irvine the season seems to be finally taking the right turn:
"I got a good start, my Ferrari was well balanced and there were no problems. Unfortunately, I had a lot of fuel in the tank at the start of the race and I had a hard time overtaking Panis. He was a bit faster than me but I wanted to save the tyres and attack him later. When I saw that he was starting to skid a bit because his tyres were starting to wear out, I took off. I also had a battle with Fisichella but I had more fuel than him and I let him go because I knew I would overtake him at the pits during the stop. At the end I had a little trouble shifting gears, but everything was under control. I also had a good battle with Coulthard until he stayed in the race. I must admit that I had a lot of fun".
Jean Todt is also happy:
"We are second in the Constructors' Championship and second and third in the Drivers' Championship. It's the first time Ferrari has been like this after several years. So the result is good and shows that our work is beginning to bear fruit. And then, let me tell you, as a Frenchman, here at Imola it's a different story. Now we can face our future with serenity. I am convinced that we will achieve what we all want to achieve. We will now spend the week at Fiorano to prepare for the race in Monte Carlo where I believe we can do well. We have confirmation of the great reliability of our cars, we now need to increase the performance a little and we are on the right track to achieve it".
Finally, the French manager also says a few words about Frentzen, one of his favourites, so much so that he wanted to bring him to Ferrari two years earlier, but did not dare to propose for fear of possible friction with Schumacher:
"Frentzen was already almost forgotten after the first three races and instead you have seen what a great driver he is, someone who knows how to do his job well, which is a difficult job that can give joy but also very bad moments".
Jacques Villeneuve's mood was completely different. His race was already over at the fortieth lap, after the mechanics who were checking his gearbox moved him to give space to Frentzen who was arriving for the tyre change, but in doing so they invaded the Ferrari pits waiting for Irvine. Rumours inside the pits said that Villeneuve, away from prying eyes, kicked the equipment around him to vent his anger. But the Canadian driver denies these allegations:
"Angry? No, I am disappointed. After the first pit stop, the gearbox didn't work as well as before, so I stopped again thinking it could be fixed, but it couldn't be. On the straight stretch, when accelerating, the gearbox shifted on its own, I couldn't control it anymore, it would have been impossible to continue. It's a shame, the car was fine all weekend except for the race. Anyway, the championship is still long, even if we have wasted all the advantage we had so far".
And finally he adds:
"The nervous gestures were because of the traffic on the track".
However, the disappointed Jacques, having said this to the press, took refuge in his motorhome before leaving the circuit. Despite his two retirements this season, the two victories obtained in the other races allowed Villeneuve to remain at the top of the general classification with 20 points, but with his 14 points Schumacher kept in close contact with the Canadian and was officially a candidate to be the one who would try to put a spoke in his wheels for the rest of the season.
Attention, however, not to exclude definitively those who have so far been sporadic protagonists of this World Championship, in order Frentzen, Coulthard, Hakkinen, Irvine and Berger, all paired at 10 points and without doubt still to be taken into consideration. On the other hand, the two Arrows drivers, Hill and Diniz, received a one-race suspension from the FIA, with a suspended sentence. The world champion was found guilty of crashing into Nakano, while the Brazilian was guilty of not observing the blue flags, a circumstance that brought him close to colliding with Villeneuve's car. Therefore, if in the next race they incur in similar infractions, the two Arrows drivers will be disqualified for one Grand Prix. Williams dominates for now, but the 1997 World Championship is more open than ever.
Davide Scotto di Vetta