The F310Bs that had taken part in the German Grand Prix returned to Maranello on July 28th, 1997, but remained in the workshop for the necessary checks on the gearbox, which gave Schumacher some concern, and on the petrol tank, which refused ten kilos of fuel, i.e. the equivalent of three laps to run on the Hockenheim circuit. Both Schumacher and Irvine went to the workshop to make impressions of their respective seats to be fitted to a new experimental car, which Ferrari would take to Mugello from July 30th to August 1st, 1997. A car that some even call the F310C, although in fact it is a new chassis, number 178.
Although nothing is noticeable from the outside, the new car changes the position of the drivers in the cockpit and increases the capacity of the fuel tank by at least twenty litres. And as well as the bodywork, the size of the radiators is reduced, which allows the centre section to be reshaped, giving the car more speed.
The reason why this costly undertaking was undertaken was to be found in the original fault of Barnard's car, which was still very unbalanced in terms of weight. Lacking the time to redesign a completely new car, Ferrari's engineers preferred to carpet the F310B with sensors and quantify the imbalances and then do a bunch of calculations from which the 178 chassis was born. The structure, the composition of the materials, the procedures and the manufacturing logic have all changed to obtain a lighter, but above all more balanced, body.
Lately, Ferrari has suffered a lot from poor weight distribution. Suffice it to say that on a fast circuit like Germany's, ten kilos more or less of petrol meant a difference of almost a second per lap. And in a race, the weight of the petrol alone can significantly unbalance the car when cornering and braking. A defect that all the wind tunnel experiments carried out over the last three months have never managed to erase. But on the Mugello circuit there is more talk of Eddie Irvine's future than of changes to the F310B's bodywork, given that the Irish driver's contract is due to expire. Irvine, questioned on the subject, tries to gloss over it:
"For the moment I have nothing to say. I'm calm, I'm waiting for news from Ferrari".
On July 30th, Eddie completed 35 laps on the track in the morning with a slightly modified car, before the breakage of the Step 2 engine forced the technicians and the Irish driver to make a long stop. Then, in the afternoon, Irvine - who took to the track wearing a helmet fitted with a curious wing, another aerodynamic invention by Byrne - completed another forty laps to assess the suspension, aerodynamics and electro-hydraulic differential, which could already give Ferrari an advantage in Budapest. The next day, at Mugello, Minardi also took to the track, testing aerodynamic solutions to be adopted from the next Hungarian Grand Prix, while Irvine tested the new chassis, number 178.
"I'm happy with the results of these tests. I think the car has responded well. It's too early to say if it can be used in Hungary, but it's possible".
Judging by the test results, the work done at Ferrari is more than satisfactory. So much so that the spokesman for the racing team, Claudio Berro, while not confirming, makes it clear that the possibility of the new Ferrari taking to the track in Hungary is more than just a hypothesis:
"We are happy with the results of the long run, the car is going well and the chassis has given comforting responses. In addition, the car has already been homologated, so it could be on track for a World Championship Grand Prix right now".
The doubts about the renewal of the contract were finally removed on the evening of 31 August: Eddie Irvine was confirmed at the wheel of Ferrari. Just a few hours before the expiry of the option, the Maranello team itself announced in a short statement:
"Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro announces that it has exercised its option with driver Eddie Irvine, who will continue the collaboration for the 1998 racing season".
Jean Todt comments on the choice:
"The team is doing well and there is no reason to change during a championship in which we are very busy. Irvine gets on well with Schumacher and even if he has had a few negative experiences, better times will come for him".
While, for his part, Eddie Irvine declares:
"I'm happy, I can concentrate better on the races between now and the end of the season. I will continue to help the team win the Constructors' Championship. I think we can have a good race in Hungary. I get on very well with Michael, and above all I am happy to stay because next year we will be the strongest team in the world. We're improving race after race, and I'm sure we'll do even better next season".
His salary, which amounted to three million dollars this year, looks like it could be increased by two million dollars for 1998. But the Irishman won't give any further details:
"The economic agreement is a secret between me and Ferrari, but... I am old and I need money".
In the meantime, Ferrari's experiments with the latest technical innovations ended at Mugello, including an aerodynamic solution with the introduction of a sort of dome on the nose of the new car. The results were not announced but the faces of the mechanics and engineers in the pits were too smiling to think of a negative outcome. With this package of men and technical means, Ferrari prepared for the Grand Prix in Budapest, where only one car with the new 178 chassis was brought. This, of course, is entrusted to Schumacher, who will only give his opinion on the project's merits at the end of Friday's practice:
"I haven't tried it yet. Anyway, it's not a revolution, but simply an evolution of the previous chassis. There are now five teams here that can win. The world championship has entered a new phase, now the details count. Whoever knows how to work best on this terrain will win in the end. This Grand Prix is a blank page, no reference points are coming from other tracks, everything here is a bit special, there are no reference tests, there is always dirt on the track, the speeds are not high, but there are no straights to breathe on. It's a big effort for a driver. I can only hope that it goes better than the two previous times when I was not very lucky. The important thing is to bring home points. You don't win a World Championship with sporadic successes. The point of reference for us will be Villeneuve; whether a McLaren or a Benetton wins, it doesn't matter. I'm here with confidence, a confidence that comes from what we have done in the other races".
This time last year, Damon Hill was firmly in the lead of the world championship with 21 points ahead of Jacques Villeneuve and with seven wins out of eleven races, arriving in Hungary on his way to his first world title. Now, Damon Hill comes to Budapest with only one point gained during the last stages of the home race at Silverstone, forced to the role of spectator in the fight for the title, which until last season, when he was still driving for Williams, was a matter that had seen him practically always directly involved since his arrival in Formula One as a regular driver.
The Arrows aren't going. It has improved - in the sense that it can now at least complete all the laps of a race - but it is still a long way from the positions that count. Behind the scenes, however, John Barnard is working assiduously to remedy a disastrous situation that certainly does not suit the reigning world champion. Therefore, on the winding Hungaroring circuit, the Yamaha-powered A18 also has some new features, including new air intakes to improve engine performance, and completely redesigned suspension geometry.
Now the car needs the best Bridgestone tyres on a circuit where high temperatures will cause a high degradation, and obviously the talent of its leading driver who has a rather discreet score in Budapest if we exclude the eleventh place with Brabham in 1992: two wins and two second places in the last four editions, to make it clear that Damon likes this track very much. After a sloppy performance in Germany, Jacques Villeneuve sounds the charge:
"They talk about disagreements between me and Williams, but there is nothing true. If you want to win you have to row all together. Here we will start our redemption, and we will show that there is no crisis".
In the meantime, however, on Friday's free practice sessions, it was his direct rival for the title who sounded the charge. Ferrari saves tyres; Schumacher completes only four laps during the morning practice, and sixteen in the second hour of practice, always setting better times. Schumacher's calls for caution count for little. He and the Ferrari were ahead, while Villeneuve was more than a second behind.
"The weekend started well, but I don't know if the others showed all their cards. I know we've been running low on fuel every time, what have the others done? We'll figure it out tomorrow".
And talking about the new car, Michael admits:
"It's still the same monocoque as far as the shape is concerned. You can't even say it's lighter, because in Formula 1 there's a minimum weight limit, six hundred and five kilos, and you can't go any lower. But this monocoque allows us to distribute the weight differently. You can't read the result by looking at the stopwatch; you can't even say it will have any effect on this race, but what has been done is a big step forward for our future".
During free practice, at the Hungaroring Schumacher runs with the step 1 engine, the one used in the last race, while Irvine respects the programmes by mounting the step 2, with which the two drivers will try to take pole, as Todt confirms:
"We have saved the tyres, we are confident that we can do well in qualifying".
Schumacher gets the best time in the total count of the two sessions, preceding Coulthard and an excellent Trulli. The F310B seems perfectly balanced, but Villeneuve is not worried, despite the disappointing eleventh place:
"The distance from the Ferrari is not excessive, we have to adjust the car better, which up to now has not performed at its best".
In qualifying, Michael did not disappoint and took first place without ever losing it from the first to the last minute. The time of 1'14"672 was fast enough to allow him to abort the last attempt, having already the certainty of keeping the first position. The track record has crumbled. Villeneuve tries everything, even finishing off the track, but he is second at 187 thousandths. Behind the two contenders for the title, there is the man you do not expect: Damon Hill, who surprises everyone and stops at three tenths from the pole man. His teammate Diniz was nineteenth, two seconds slower than him.
A sensational result, if we think about the values on the track seen in Germany, the performance of Benetton and Jordan: Berger and Alesi are respectively seventh and ninth, Fisichella and Ralf Schumacher even thirteenth and fourteenth. These performances demonstrate the marked preference of certain cars for circuits with long straights and much less winding. After qualifying, Schumacher can no longer bluff:
"Honestly, second place would be a bit tight for me, there's no point in hiding. The car is going well, it's balanced, doesn't wear out the tyres too much and hasn't had the slightest problem. We will have to get a good start, stay on the right trajectory so as not to go on the dirty part of the track, avoid mistakes or accidents, but above all it will be crucial to get the strategy right".
However, Frank Williams is optimistic, even though the weather forecasters are predicting rain for the next day:
"I would prefer warm weather, with water Schumacher knows how to be unbeatable, but the circuit is in any case favourable to our cars. I have a lot of confidence: we will have to fight, but we can do it".
Even Frentzen managed to take the blow from his predecessor, Damon Hill, who was ahead of him in a much less powerful car:
"I don't give a damn that he is in front. Now I am Williams, the past doesn't matter. If anything, the problem is another: he goes slower in the race and could slow me down. I'll start on hard tyres, I'll make one less pit stop, but if I'm too far back, this choice may not give me any advantage".
The second place in practice has erased the nervousness also in Villeneuve. Now the Canadian driver is calm and in line with the progress of the car:
"I can win, I had already realized it in the morning, the times of the afternoon confirmed it. The car has improved a lot, it is back to the levels of the Ferrari. I foresee a very hard race, with a circuit that will destroy the tyres. The front row will allow me to attack, although you have to be careful at the start because this track is dirty and can become very dangerous. It is impossible to overtake here: if you are not in front, you don't have a chance. When I went off the track I was going really fast. Unfortunately, I had problems with understeer and went straight into the corner. If I had finished ahead of Schumacher, I wouldn't have been surprised. In the morning I was faster than him. After Germany I was devastated, I thought the Ferrari was unreachable. Not now, the battle is possible. It's a decisive race, we're playing for everything".
The choice of tyres will therefore be fundamental, as well as the challenge between Goodyear and Bridgestone; almost everyone opts for the softer compound except Frentzen, the two Jordans and Jan Magnussen, who opt instead for harder tyres. After a flawless Friday and Saturday, Sunday doesn't start in the best way for Schumacher: at 10:00, after having set the best time also in race trim, during the last minutes of the morning warm-up, because of the dirty track the German driver climbs over a kerb, ruining the lower part of an air intake of his Ferrari race car. The damage done is quite extensive, and the mechanics work tirelessly to provide the world leader with a car that is fully repaired.
Michael runs a couple of laps before lining up on the grid, eventually deciding to run with the forklift and use the other car, practically rebuilt from scratch by his mechanics, as a reserve car. At the start, everything went more than smoothly for the German, who took the lead in Turn 1 while behind him Villeneuve was overtaken on the sprint by Hill, Irvine and Hakkinen, who relegated him to fifth position.
With the Williams driver lagging behind, it is quite logical to foresee a race all downhill for Schumacher. However, after just a few laps it was clear that something was wrong with both Ferraris: Hill made the fastest lap of the race and dropped under a second's gap from Schumacher; Irvine was tailed by Hakkinen and Villeneuve, and after a couple of unsuccessful attempts the Finn overtook at the first bend, immediately imitated by Villeneuve at the next bend. The crisis of the two Reds was sanctioned by Irvine's pit stop that arrived already on lap seven, decidedly ahead of schedule.
With Schumacher slowed down by the anomalous consumption of his Goodyear tyres, a compact leading quintet formed by the German, Hill, Hakkinen, Villeneuve and Frentzen, with Coulthard slightly behind but gradually getting closer.
After ten laps Hill broke the delay. The numerous Ferrari fans who crowded the stands witnessed an Arrows that overtook the leading car of the championship at the first braking without too many problems. Something unimaginable only a few hours before.
Schumacher's tyre problems were evident, Hill managed to gain two and a half seconds per lap, thus making a serious attempt to escape, also favoured by the little verve with which Hakkinen tried to overtake the Ferrari. The scarce reliability of the McLaren hit the Finn again, who after the parenthesis in Germany where everything went in the right way, had to retire again because of a hydraulic problem. For him, it was five retirements in the season.
With Hakkinen's retirement, behind Schumacher Jacques Villeneuve shows up threateningly. Unlike the Finnish driver, he doesn't lose precious time and overtakes Schumacher, more and more in difficulty. In the meantime, Damon Hill has already gained nine seconds on his direct pursuers.
After fifteen laps Ferrari called Schumacher back to the pits for his first stop. The first stint of the race relegates him for the moment largely out of the points zone, in twelfth position in the middle of the tussle in the middle of the group, where Alesi, his brother Ralf and Nakano are fighting right in front of him. The Benetton of the French driver is in evident difficulty and is passed in a few bends by all three of his pursuers, so the Ferrari driver moves up one position and rises to eleventh.
In the meantime Villeneuve and Frentzen show their exceptional race pace, gaining several seconds on Hill, getting back to about three seconds of distance. On the 24th passage on the finishing line, Jacques Villeneuve stopped at the pits for a slightly complicated stop, and that lasted eleven seconds, four more than the one made at the same time by David Coulthard, who returned to the track not far from the Canadian.
On the next lap, it was Hill's turn to make a pit-stop, leaving the lead in Frentzen's hands. The German from Moenchengladbach was using hard tyres, therefore unlike Hill and Villeneuve, who had to stop at least once more, he could only make one stop, and with the excellent race pace shown up to now, he became a serious contender for victory.
However, Frentzen's great work was rendered vain on lap 28, when some flames started coming out intermittently from the Williams rear axle. Heinz went to the pits, the mechanics replaced his tyres, but then they had to ascertain that there was nothing they could do for him, his race ended here, due to a problem with the nozzle from which he had to fill up with petrol. For a change, Williams fails to finish the race with both drivers, a negative trend that in the long run could cost them dearly in the constructors' championship. After thirty laps, Damon Hill continues to manage his twelve-second lead over Villeneuve, who, at this stage, is not only unable to keep up with the British driver's times, but also has to defend himself from Coulthard, who has been chasing him for several laps.
Schumacher remained slightly distant, before returning to the pits for the second of the three scheduled stops; on his return to the track, he was fifth, behind a very solid Johnny Herbert. Michael's third stint, however, took the same form as the first, during which he had struggled to keep the car on the trajectory. Behind him, Fisichella approached threateningly, and he, like Berger's Benetton, was also struggling.
The Roman driver, despite that, is faster than Schumacher and therefore tries a manoeuvre at the first bend, but when the German driver closes the ideal trajectory in a way perhaps a little too sudden, the Roman driver makes a mistake and goes out of the track, making the engine switch off; after the race, the Jordan driver will avoid polemics about the Ferrari driver's manoeuvre, but his body language will let transpire other sensations.
Schumacher's race to defend himself was not yet over, because after Fisichella even Shinji Nakano's Prost approached, trying to overtake him without success on the outside of turn 2 before returning to the pits and leaving the task to Ralf Schumacher, who engaged in a duel with his older brother until the end of the race. Around lap 50, the last pit-stop window opened.
The first to come back in is David Coulthard, who try an undercut on Villeneuve, anticipating his stop concerning the Canadian; then it was Hill's turn and the Williams driver's turn, who at the exit from the pit lane found himself paired with the Scottish driver, managing to keep the second position by the skin of his teeth, also thanks to the fact that Coulthard is perhaps not aggressive enough in braking. On the same lap, the two Schumachers also stop, respectively for the third stop for the Ferrari driver and the second for the Jordan driver.
Hill keep a quiet gap of twenty-five seconds on Villeneuve, who in this final phase of the race had other things to think about, as Coulthard had no intention of leaving any stone unturned, at least until his McLaren also stopped due to electrical problems. It is the second double retirement for the Woking team (the first one was in Monte Carlo even if not for reliability problems), the tenth in total if we consider both drivers; Adrian Newey had a lot to do on this fast but too fragile single-seater.
Coulthard's retirement allows Johnny Herbert to get on the podium at twelve laps to go, far from the tussle that develops behind him with a quartet composed by the two Schumacher, Nakano and Irvine. Schumacher can hint at a half-smile as Coulthard's retirement allows him to gain a position and thus lose fewer points than Villeneuve, but it will still be difficult for him to keep his brother and Nakano behind him, while Irvine logically should not be an enemy, but an ally...
The first move of the Northern Irishman is to overtake Nakano with a great manoeuvre, thus moving into the points zone. While all the attention was on the only fight on the track, Damon Hill is strolling in complete solitude in the lead of the race, with a margin of thirty-five seconds on Villeneuve.
For Damon, who won his first race in Formula 1 here in Hungary in 1993, the Budapest track is about to give him another indelible memory. Then, three laps from the end, Damon communicates via radio that there is something wrong with the car, specifically with the gearbox.
Hill slows down, loses almost all speed, and in just one lap loses eight seconds. Villeneuve is informed of his former teammate's problems and, seeing the possibility of bringing home an unexpected victory, pushes on the accelerator. Hill starts the last lap at a reduce speed, being easily overtaken by the lapped drivers: on the short straight that leads to turn 4, Villeneuve has arrive behind him.
Damon desperately try to close the trajectory, but Villeneuve do not let himself be intimidated and put two wheels on the grass to overtake. Then there is the checkered flag, which crown Jacques Villeneuve as the winner of the Hungarian Grand Prix, while Hill at least manage to keep the second position ahead of Herbert, too far away to capitalize on the problems that afflicted the Arrows.
Schumacher come fourth ahead of his brother and Nakano. There was no Irvine, who was left in the sand on the last lap because of a ramming of the Japanese driver. A dynamic defined by Eddie himself as a racing accident, in fact exonerating the Prost driver. On the podium, the hero of the day and moral winner of the race showed a satisfied smile: on the other hand, for a minor team like Arrows that celebrated the eighth podium in its history, this was an exceptional result, one of those that remain well impressed in the memory. But having been up to a few moments from the end ready to celebrate a historic victory, there can't but be some bitterness in the mouth, as Hill himself confirms:
"It's easy to say satisfied. I would have signed up for second place immediately before the race, since I have only scored points once this year, with sixth place at Silverstone. Only a few days ago, if you had told me about the podium, I would have thought it was a joke. But three laps from the end I was in the lead, the car was perfect, nobody could keep up with me. How can I smile? With three laps to go, I came out of a chicane and the throttle wouldn't respond. I thought I had put my foot on the pedal wrong, but after two or three corners the gearbox locked up, first in second and then in third. I had problems with the gearbox hydraulics and the oil pressure went down. If I had stayed in fifth, it would have been different, I could have won. Not like that. The car wasn't picking up any more speed, I felt like I was on a trip. I struggled like hell to get it to the finish line, and three times I almost stopped. The mechanics in the pits were telling me to hang on, to hold on, but I was afraid that everyone was coming, that they could take away second and even third place. At one point I could already see myself parked at the side of the track and watching the others pass me by. The result is exciting though, how can you despise six points when in ten races you've only picked up one? But it's sad. Because this was a victory. I felt sensations that hadn't belonged to me for a while. But I hadn't forgotten them, I still knew how to overtake and when I passed Schumacher at the start I showed that. It was fantastic to find myself in front, to realise that nobody could keep up with my pace. We adjusted the car very well and the tyres helped. The team is working hard. I'm convinced that before the end of the championship we'll show up in the top positions again".
Hill was again the protagonist and now it will be difficult to keep him in Arrows, also because of his exorbitant requests, seven million dollars for one year, with McLaren, Prost and Jordan that tempted him tremendously. And even on the engine there's no certainty: Arrows postpones the communication of the name to the end of the month, and we know they dream of a Renault, but Benetton should give it up:
"Unfortunately, the engine is not yet competitive and in these conditions it makes no sense to talk about my future".
Even Frank Williams feels the need to apologise, and after seeing Walkinshaw, the general manager of the Arrows, he spreads his arms and confesses:
"This victory was yours, we stole it from you. We need it for the world championship, you needed it for your morale".
Shortly afterwards, Walkinshaw commented disconsolately:
"You were hoping for a false alarm, but it happened. But this should not bring us down. We have been working great for a long time, next year we too will have a real engine and we will be able to enjoy ourselves".
Villeneuve admits that without the problems had by his teammate and Hill, he would surely not have been able to win:
"As the race had turned out, the favourites for victory were Damon and Frentzen. Heinz would probably have been unbeatable because he had chosen hard tyres, the right ones. I spent the first part of the race following the others, but I wasn't too worried because the situation allowed me to save my tyres. With the first set of tyres everything worked well, while someone else started to have problems. I tried to keep in contact with Hill but he was going like the wind. After the second pit stop, I noticed that there were bubbles on my rear tyres and I slowed down. Maybe that was the crucial move that allowed me to be consistent in the final part of the race. I had already realised in the warm-up that the Ferrari would be in trouble, but I expected to fight with Schumacher, instead I fought for a long time with others, especially with Coulthard who was following me like a shadow. Hill was going very fast, without his problems I would never have been able to catch him. When they warned me on the radio that he was slowing down, I pushed hard. He tried to get in my way and I went onto the grass to pass him, but I understood, it was a desperate action. Luckily nothing was broken during my slight excursion. That's the way races are, at other times I've also been the target of bad luck. Now the scales are even".
The big disappointment of the day, Michael Schumacher, begins by talking about his accident in the warm-up:
"There was probably sand there and I couldn't avoid the accident. The car jumped over a kerb, hit the bottom and the chassis, the light one, was damaged. The mechanics had to build a new car in three hours. It was used as a forklift and I raced in the spare. However, I'm convinced that if I had the car I drove yesterday it wouldn't have changed much".
Then, talking about the race, he admits:
"Everything was conditioned by the tyres. They wore out quickly and the problem was to try to run as little as possible. There were different efficiencies. The first set went immediately, the second held up better than the last. In the end they were completely gone, I thought I was running on rims. I realised immediately after the start how things were going; unfortunately, there was nothing I could do. Everyone who chose the soft tyres had problems, maybe we had a bit more. But the setup doesn't count. During the warm-up the tyres were fine. Now between me and Villeneuve everything is open again. I am still leading the championship. I hoped Hill would win, it would have helped me to keep a bigger lead. I went to congratulate him, he was very good, he would have deserved the success".
The fifth success of the season allows Villeneuve to rise to 53 points, only three lengths away from Schumacher. Also in the constructors' championship everything remains open, with Ferrari that also here continues to lead with 73 points, at +2 on Williams.
After a more difficult race than expected, Ferrari team manager Jean Todt assures that the team will continue to work hard to improve further and react already at the next occasion, in Belgium at Spa-Francorchamps:
"From tomorrow we will be on track for two days at Monza with Schumacher. Irvine and Larini will drive at Fiorano. For Belgium we will try to prepare two lighter bodies for both our drivers. I must admit that if we had chosen hard tyres it would have gone differently. I don't think the incident this morning had a decisive influence; the set-up of the car we sent out on track was identical to that of the damaged car. The only positive aspect of the day is that we are still ahead in the championship and we will try to stay there".
Davide Scotto di Vetta