After the disappointing Hungarian Grand Prix, on August 12th 1997, on the track of Monza, in front of an audience of more than 8.000 paying spectators, Schumacher returns to the track to continue developing the F310B, but he cannot complete the simulated Grand Prix because, when there are five laps to go, the Step 2 engine breaks down for the umpteenth time. At Spa Ferrari can get back the new 178 body, damaged before the Hungarian race, but in the race they cannot use the more advanced engine. Schumacher does not hide his disappointment at the end of the tests:
"I am a bit worried, without this engine we have less chance to win. I think that at Spa it is possible to fight for victory with the old engine, but at Monza it will definitely be more difficult. There was a problem with the engine. Just when we thought we had everything under control. Now we have to understand. Having it available would have helped us, but if it can't handle the distance of a Grand Prix there's no way around it. We will continue to use it in qualifying, but in Monza we might just have to aim for a race to score points, not a win".
And the confirmation is in front of everyone's eyes, given that on the track at Monza the Williams also runs, with Frentzen, who sets a very fast time, 1'25"050, while Schumacher does not go beyond 1'25"599. So the engine went back to Maranello again for a meticulous check, while Schumacher at the same time flew in a helicopter to test the seat to be inserted in the new chassis that will replace the one damaged in Hungary.
On the other hand, there was an open quarrel between Eddie Jordan and Flavio Briatore over the signing of Fisichella. The Italian manager declared that he had lent him to the British team and assured that he had a right of pre-emption for 1998, but Eddie maintained that he already had an agreement with Fisichella. Two days later, on August 14, Ferrari regains optimism: Schumi completes seventy-eight laps with the Step 2 engine and a Ferrari equipped with the old bodywork. However, the tests only partially satisfy the German driver, who laconically comments:
"The set-up is good, but performance and aerodynamic efficiency are less so".
However, the tests leave Jean Todt, who arrived at Monza late in the morning, satisfied:
"I think we made a good step forward, at least I hope so. We managed to find out where the problems with the step two engine came from. We will use the new engine in qualifying in Belgium, where we will also fit the new wing we tried today, and we hope to have everything in place for Monza".
Jacques Villeneuve, at the same time, completed thirty-six laps, stopping the chronometer on 1'23"956, only seven hundredths from the unofficial record set by Ralf Schumacher with the Jordan. No simulation was planned for the Canadian, but only a work coordinated by Renault technicians for the best mapping of the French V10 in view of Spa and Monza. After the test session on the Monza circuit, held immediately after the race in Hungary, Schumacher returned to talk about the disappointing performance on the Budapest circuit:
"In Budapest it was, with good reason, a mistake to use soft tyres. But we did it, all in agreement with the team engineers, as well as McLaren, Benetton and Sauber. Perhaps the cooler temperatures of the previous days were a deception".
But then, talking about the subsequent tests, he declares:
"It is useless to talk more about the challenge for the title, better to think about the facts. Ferrari is working hard to prepare for the season finale. Considering everything, I'd be happy to win in Belgium and score points at Monza. I consider the Spa track much more suited to my driving style and the car's characteristics. There we can also race with the old version of the engines, but at Monza we would really need the step two engines. We'll see, it's pointless making long-term plans".
The fortunate victory that they have found in their hands cannot certainly make Williams relax, still behind in the World Championship chasing Ferrari. On the Lombardy track, Villeneuve tested new electronic adjustments of the engine that should lead to better traction, a novelty based on the new regulations launched by the Federation. The Canadian spurs himself and the team in view of the next Grand Prix, to be held at Spa-Francorchamps:
"We are trying to get the most out of the car, the fight in the next races will be very close, but I remain optimistic, especially for the Spa race; at Monza, on the other hand, it will be difficult for everyone".
Jacques is optimistic but cannot ignore the fact that the historic Belgian track is one of those where his rival can bring out his best qualities. Three victories, four if we also consider the one in 1994, of which he was then deprived because of irregularities found on the bottom of his Benetton. Here in Belgium, Schumacher also made his debut in 1991 at the wheel of the Jordan, surprising everyone with an amazing qualifying, but then being forced to retire on Sunday after only a few corners. So, having arrived in the Ardennes, Villeneuve didn't let himself be enchanted by Schumacher's usual downbeat games:
"Schumacher is not telling me the right story, I don't believe him. This year he has a car that is going well, the team is great and he is a great driver. He always talks like that to get ahead, but in his heart he thinks, rightly, that he will win".
Another factor not to be neglected for Villeneuve in his pursuit of the title is undoubtedly the rain, which, as already seen in the past, can make the German even stronger if not unbeatable. The weather forecasts speak of clear skies and a low probability of rain in view of the free practice. Many will have wondered what exactly the forecasters saw, given that throughout Friday the rain takes centre stage, making it impossible for the drivers to run on dry tyres in both the first and second free practice sessions. Still, it was the perfect opportunity to try out the four types of tyres Goodyear offers in wet conditions: heavy rain, medium rain and intermediate; soft and hard, arrow, diagonal and polka dot:
"It's a big mess, the rain has changed at least three times and with all those types of wet tyres you don't even try one before you have to change the type and start all over again. What can I say? If it rains a little bit, I'm sure we'll be fine. But if it rains a lot it will be critical for us too. All the teams used different types of tyres and this explains the differences in performance and the unusual gaps today. But overall I am optimistic because we have done the planned programme".
Schumacher comments, even if the work of researching the set-ups during practice is carried out by Irvine, trying all the available types of tyres, leaving the German driver's equipment intact. That's how it is, but unfortunately for Ferrari, it is Williams who benefits the most: after two dry races, Villeneuve is back in pole position with a time of 1'49"450, obtained at his eighth attempt:
"I have the feeling that we are back in front of the Ferrari. Here I can win, the car goes really well, and with the success in the race the overtaking in the ranking is inevitable. It would be important on a psychological level to overtake Schumacher. Last year I tried to disturb Hill, but whoever is behind, in the end, gives up, he can't do it. I don't like being a hunter. I prefer to be the hare".
For the Canadian, that's the seventh start from the first position this season. Frank Williams admits that his cars are competitive again, and points out:
"If the track is dry, our tyres are fine whatever the temperature. It's others who have to worry. If Frentzen hadn't crashed, he would have been on the front row. I am not superstitious and I prefer to start upfront. On this circuit you can attack, take off. I have given eight tenths to Schumacher, but I will try to get rid of the problem right away, pulling away from him from the first lap. The important thing is that it doesn't rain".
On such a fast circuit as Spa, Benetton makes a comeback, above all with Jean Alesi, second at three tenths from Villeneuve, while Berger, after breaking a suspension on his car, runs for the rest of the session with the mule without finding the right feeling, and he is only fifteenth, at three seconds from his teammate:
"I've never experienced a Saturday like this year, it's a shame it's only just arrived. I'm happy, the car is perfect. Benetton is asking me for a victory and I want to get it. To defend my third place in the world championship".
There is an abyss between the two performances also in Ferrari. Schumacher with great difficulty conquered the third place on the starting grid, behind Villeneuve and Alesi. But what is worse is that the new chassis number 179, that is the lightened one, is broken: for the qualifying Schumacher uses the old car.
During the free practice, in fact, after nine laps on the track, the mechanics at the pits noticed a crack on the spacer between the engine and the gearbox. As a precaution, Ross Brawn preferred to put the new chassis aside pending further checks because, with only an hour and a half to go before the start of qualifying, there was no time to do any major work. So Schumacher faced official practice with the old chassis.
"We realised we were slow on the straights, so we tried to improve performance by working on the rear wing and we got something, but it's a temporary compromise. Now I'm hoping for the warm-up: that's where we'll have to find the best solutions, but of course the time gap is very big. If it gets any warmer we will definitely have big problems with the tyres. It's hard to be confident, but you should never lose heart. We chose hard tyres for practice and the race, I think this is the best solution. I would like to use the new car, I hope they can get it right for the race, but it all looks complicated. I was amazed by Benetton: Alesi can finish among the first ones and get important points".
Anyway, Ferrari decides to use the step 2 engine in the race since the last bench tests have achieved the necessary reliability. But if Schumacher got over the situation as well as he could and was third, Irvine was inexplicably seventeenth, a qualification that also corresponded to his worst ever since he drove for Ferrari.
Eddie Jordan also smiled again, thanks to the fourth place of Giancarlo Fisichella, who preceded Mika Hakkinen, victim of a frightening accident in the morning caused by the loss of the left rear tyre at a speed of 300 km/h. For Mika it was just a big scare, which did not prevent him from an interesting third row for the race. The third row will be investigated by the FIA for irregular petrol, relegating McLaren to last position and fining them $ 20.000, before partially retracing its steps and letting the Finn run sub judice.
Less brilliant but however in the high zones of the classification there is the Arrows, that this time could also count on its second driver, the Brazilian Pedro Diniz, even able to beat Hill by qualifying eighth, just before the champion in charge, who during the week remained at the centre of attention because of the drivers' market. In fact, Hill refused the two million dollars per season offered by McLaren, also because at Arrows he earned six million dollars, and as a consequence Ron Dennis confirmed both Hakkinen and Coulthard for the 1998 season. The future of the British driver is still to be defined. Minardi, on the other hand, celebrates, reaching at Spa the goal of two hundred Grand Prix disputed.
In view of the race it is expected the classic uncertain weather that characterizes the races on the circuit of Spa, made of intermittent rain, clearing, floods and clearing again, all maybe in half an hour. If such a scenario were to materialise, then the cards on the table could be upset, otherwise, and therefore with a dry track for the whole race, even Schumacher is aware that it will be impossible to compete with Villeneuve.
On Sunday, the warm-up takes place on a dry track, but half an hour before the start of the race a violent storm hits the track. The rain was so heavy that numerous rivulets and dangerous puddles began to form, so that race director Charlie Whiting decided to start the race under the Safety-Car regime, an absolute novelty in the history of Formula 1.
Schumacher ran several laps in his first car before the cars were lined up on the grid. He and the team then decided to use his reserve car, which had been set up with more downforce and the standard chassis. In addition, both he and Fisichella mounted intermediate tyres instead of full-wets, as did the two Williams and Alesi. An intuition that would prove to be a winner.
A small mishap during the formation lap for Ralf Schumacher: the German lost control of his Jordan at the Stavelot bend going to crash, therefore he had to go as fast as possible to the pits to get on the forklift and take part in the start from the pit-lane. The drivers then run the first three laps of the forty-four planned behind the safety car, during which the Ferrari mechanics prepare for an unscheduled pit stop, and then return to sit in the pits, perhaps in case Schumacher wanted to fit the car with extreme wet weather tyres. At the stroke of the fourth lap, the real race finally began. Schumacher was chasing Alesi closely and after just one pass across the line he overtook him at Source corner.
Michael wasted no time, and at the end of the long Kemmel straight he was already ready to get rid of Villeneuve as well, which in fact happened at the Rivage corner, with the Williams driver not putting up a strenuous resistance, aware of the clear superiority of his rival who at this moment had the most suitable tyre compound, i.e. intermediates.
It was no coincidence that Fisichella also didn't take too long to overtake Alesi, even on the outside at Les Combes. The pressure of the Roman also loomed over Villeneuve, who, however, went to the pits on the sixth lap to change to intermediate tyres; at the same time, Schumacher gained a beauty of ten seconds on his direct pursuers.
Villeneuve's choice, however, doesn't bring any advantage, because the rain has stopped and the track is drying quickly; this is demonstrated by Alesi's pit-stop that even dares to use dry tyres, imitated on the next lap by his team-mate Berger. As soon as he came out of the pits the French driver did not run with exceptional times, although they were very close to those of the drivers who had decided to continue with wet tyres.
The crucial moment comes a few laps later, when gradually everyone returns to the pits to mount dry tyres. In all, Schumacher was able to build up a surreal lead of thirty-five seconds over Fisichella. Villeneuve had to make another stop as a result, and his decision to come in during the very early stages of the race to go for intermediate tyres now looks like a big mistake. With one more stop than the others, the Canadian found himself in mid-table, far from the points zone.
When all the drivers had abandoned the wet tyres for the dry ones, the situation was as follows: Schumacher was completely alone after fourteen laps, strong with his forty second lead over Alesi, second before Fisichella, Hakkinen, Herbert and Coulthard, who closed the points zone but had to watch out for possible attacks from Frentzen who was chasing him closely.
With a dry track, the values expressed up to Saturday were repeated in the race. In the meantime, Villeneuve made his way to the middle of the group passing the two Arrows and Jos Verstappen, not without a harmless off-track probably due to the frustration of being so far from his rival when an easy victory in the Ardennes was expected.
While Coulthard retired after a spin, his teammate Hakkinen was engaged by Herbert and Frentzen, giving rise to a heated fight for fourth place. There was a good fight especially between Frentzen and Herbert, with the Sauber driver very determined in closing the trajectory to the German, even if he had to give up and leave him the fifth position.
Ralf Schumacher also retires, at his third off-track in the space of an hour. The last one sees him with his nose against the barriers after losing the rear of the car. Another weekend where the young Ralf loses the confrontation with Fisichella, who stands out among the very first positions while he is too closely connected with the barriers of Spa.
Around lap 25 the second carousel of pit stops starts, opened by Alesi and ended by Villeneuve at the 30th lap. The situation remains almost unchanged, but the Canadian is now in seventh position not far from Herbert. It was Alesi who allowed him to enter the points zone, but shortly afterwards he made a further pit stop because of a broken spacer; the French driver returned to the track just in front of Villeneuve, who did not hesitate in trying to overtake at Les Combes.
He overtakes successfully, and it is also the last emotion of the race, without big changes until the checkered flag. Alesi goes back to the pits again and loses more positions, Frentzen tries a reckless pressure on Hakkinen for the last place available on the podium, Schumacher and Fisichella enjoy the last few laps of the race in complete solitude, the same can be said for Herbert who after the remarkable podium obtained in Hungary allows himself once again the luxury of racing against the best even though he is at the wheel of the small Sauber.
At the end of the 44th lap, Michael Schumacher crosses the finish line and wins his fourth race of the season, a result that Ferrari has not achieved since 1990 with Alain Prost. Four are also the German's official victories on the Spa track; remaining within the sphere of statistics, the Ferrari driver is now one win away in the all-time rankings from Jackie Stewart's 27, less than five from Nigel Mansell, and to conclude, this is his seventh win with Ferrari, ahead of Gilles Villeneuve and Ickx who are at six.
An amazing performance that clashes with Eddie Irvine's race, who was eighth until the last lap before being rammed by Pedro Diniz, finishing in tenth place. Said Schumacher in the press conference:
"I was on the podium and my mind was blank. I was only thinking about celebrating this victory. The way free practice and qualifying had gone, I was not very optimistic about the race. Under normal circumstances, with a dry track from the start, I think we would have struggled. Instead, thanks to the weather conditions and the good choice of tyres, everything went perfectly. The sky suddenly darkened while I was still in the pits ready to go out onto the track. The downpour came and we changed the race strategy completely. Instead of going to the start with chassis 179, I started with the 175, the old car I had used on Saturday in qualifying, because in the rain I would have had to make an extra stop anyway and it would have been no use starting with all the petrol that had been put into chassis 179. As it would have taken time to drain it, I took the 175 chassis, which was ready with less fuel. My technicians wanted me to start on wet tyres but I decided to start on intermediate tyres. It was risky, of course, because the track was flooded, some puddles looked like lakes, but I felt like driving like that and I made that choice. Also because at that moment I saw a glimpse of sunlight on the horizon through the trees, through the clouds, and I said to myself: it won't last long Michael, go like this. And I did the right thing. The start behind the Safety Car is a bit unusual, but I think they did well. Turning behind the Safety Car we swept a lot of water off the asphalt, otherwise I don't know what would have happened. I think it was a wise and right decision to start us like that. At the beginning the track was very tricky, so I think starting under Safety Car was the wisest decision. There were real pools of water on the track but after a few laps they disappeared. The right choice of tyres and set-up was crucial for me to build that important gap during the first stint, then there is no doubt that I can bring out the best in this type of conditions. There is always a risk in the wet but it was calculated. I could have touched Alesi but I know him well, I know how he drives and he moved to avoid a collision. He couldn't do anything else. He was correct. Villeneuve was also correct, he moved without zigzagging".
Finally, Michael insists that the championship is still wide open:
"I don't want to create exaggerated expectations. Monza will be a difficult race for me even though we are continuing to improve. But there is not only Villeneuve: at Monza both Fisichella and Hakkinen could be very strong. Of course I can imagine the atmosphere there will be. Very nice, but I would like to say to everyone: let's keep our feet on the ground. If it hadn't rained here, and the race had been sunny and dry, well, it would have been much more difficult for us, let's not forget that. In January Montezemolo hoped for four wins, and four they are, but that's not my goal, that's not enough for me. It's all open, now I have twelve points ahead of Villeneuve but there are five difficult races left, the situation is not defined at all".
During the weekend Eddie Jordan had insisted on the fact that Fisichella would have driven his car also in the next season, despite Benetton and Briatore's declarations that had been saying for some weeks that the deal was on the finishing line. The team manager will lose his battle, but at least he can enjoy the Roman's performance until the end of the championship. Giancarlo, after the third place in Canada, conquers his second podium in his career, on a track where he had never raced until now:
"It's my second podium, but I still can't believe it. Michael was too fast at the beginning for me, but I have to say that the team did a great job. Now I have to try to win, even if it will be hard".
After these words, there is a little joke with Schumacher, who tells him to take it easy with a few pats on the shoulder. Then Giancarlo makes a special dedication:
"I dedicate this second place to my grandson, he recently had heart surgery. He is now at home and doing well, but I want to say goodbye to him".
Although the sixth final place turned into a fifth one after the disqualification of Hakkinen, who came third but was ousted a week later from the classification because the petrol on board his McLaren was judged to be irregular (with Frentzen therefore not celebrating on the podium but only taking third place afterwards), Jacques Villeneuve is logically the one who leaves Belgium with a mixture of anger and disappointment, not without some criticism of the race direction:
"There have been races in which the rain was even heavier than this time, and nobody then felt the need to use the Safety-car. When they showed us the sign indicating five minutes until the start, we could no longer change tyres. Then they let us know that there would not be a regular start but that we would have to follow the Safety car, and this happened not for one but for three long laps. We hadn't made a mistake by fitting rain tyres at that time, it wasn't a bad choice. If Schumacher had had to start immediately on intermediate tyres he would have had big problems. Plus we started without knowing how many laps we would run with the Safety-car. With a regular start, Schumacher would have had big problems on the straights. And the race could have changed. And then: if those who had intermediate tyres had no difficulties from the start, was it really necessary to resort to the Safety-car? The gap in the standings has become large, but I know I have a very fast car. The Williams was perfect in the dry and probably one of the few cars that wouldn't have put the tyres to the test. When the track dried out, Frentzen and I were the fastest on the track. I want to be optimistic for the future, there won't always be uncertain weather conditions. Even if I fear that at Monza, besides Ferrari, there will be other opponents with whom to fight: Jordan, McLaren and Benetton".
Frank Williams, unhappy with the choice of Charlie Whiting, also expressed his disappointment to British journalists:
"The FIA delegate had talked about two laps with the Safety-car and instead they did three".
But the British accusations are not over: there is the case of Hakkinen, who during the laps with the Safety-car first left the track and then, to regain the right starting position, overtook Diniz and Frentzen:
Says the Williams driver. And Briatore, Benetton's spokesman, is also furious:
"First the petrol, then the double overtaking when he couldn't. Lucky Hakkinen, nothing ever happens to him. And the story of the Safety Car is absurd: in Japan, in 1994, there was only one lap left on the track. If I knew there was going to be twelve minutes, I would put on the intermediates".
Sixty-six points for Schumacher and fifty-five for Villeneuve. The German driver makes another important gap in the ranking, hoping that this will not be made vain by complications as the withdrawal at Silverstone or the tyre crisis suffered in Hungary were before. After a performance of absolute level, the praise for the German rains from all sides, and obviously cannot miss those of Luca Cordero di Montezemolo:
"Great. I often think back to the controversy when we took him on, because we had to invest so much. Well, we were right. He has taken the best of the champions of the past, and in addition, compared to others can hold the maximum pace from the first to the last minute. He never gives up and makes very few mistakes".
Then a look at the standings:
"We are happy, but there is still a long way to go, we have an 11-point lead, which is a lot, but the biggest mistake would be to give up now, thinking we have already made it. We have won a battle, not the war. The world championship is tough, every race is more and more insidious, and nothing is enough to compromise the title race".
Another battle won in a war that for the moment sees them as winners. Montezemolo is right, there is still a long way to go and Williams remains the car to beat in normal conditions; the next battle, however, the Prancing Horse will be fought at home, within the friendly walls of the historic Monza circuit.
Davide Scotto di Vetta