At the dawn of the 1997 championship, on January 7th, in Maranello, the new Ferrari F310B was presented. According to Ferrari's plans, the car should allow Schumacher to get closer to his direct competitors in the fight for the title. Before the presentation, Northern Irish driver Eddie Irvine confesses that, as well as making up for the difficulties that arose in 1996, he hopes the new F310B to be competitive and says :
"I'd like to see Ferrari′s winning all the time, Schumacher ahead and me behind, but by a few centimetres. Yes, I would like a competitive car".
The presentation of the new F310B has a curious detail: this is the first racing car presented via internet, not without some inconvenience.
At 9:30 am, when the live broadcast of the presentation had not yet started, the official Ferrari website was already slowed down by the traffic of users asking to see the event. When the ceremony began at 10:30 am, it was no longer possible to access www.ferrari.it. In those sixty minutes about a million requests for access had arrived. The whole previous year there were only 550.000. This is the data released by Ferrari, based on information from Saritel, the Telecom group company that manages the site. We must anyway be careful with these data: an estimate of one million accesses does not coincide with one million real people, but with the requests to access the contents of Ferrari.it. Once the veil has been removed from the new car, with its revised aerodynamics, Ferrari president Luca Cordero di Montezemolo exclaims enthusiastically:
"For us, this is truly an important day. In this car there are new but also old things. We didn't want to take any risks in designing this car, but we hope it goes well. We are at the end of a five-year cycle and we expect to win the world championship between '97 and '98. Right now, I'd be happy with winning one more race than last year. But what I hope most of all is that we don't have to go through another summer period like the one we went through in '96" .
Then Cesare Romiti, managing director of FIAT, takes the microphone and sympathetically corrects the Ferrari president's shot, declaring:
"Perhaps Montezemolo is right to be a little superstitious, but Ferrari's objective must be higher because everyone expects Ferrari to win. We, as Fiat and as the majority shareholder, will provide Ferrari with all the support we can and we must spur Ferrari on. But, as the factory is concerned, let it be clear that we leave Ferrari maximum freedom. On my way here I passed Enzo Ferrari's office and I remembered when we used to meet, to talk about cars, racing, the economy and the world. He was a man who always had sharp jokes".
Jean Todt then made an incisive speech, reminding the audience and the press that:
"We expect good results from this car, and in any case a team needs many things to achieve good results: a good car, good drivers and a good organisation. I think we have managed to put all these things together".
Michael Schumacher, who wants to get out on track first, and only then expresses his judgement, is quite blunt:
"The only important thing is that this car doesn't break down".
When asked to explain the aerodynamic characteristics of the F310B more precisely, Schumacher allows himself a joke:
"To improve the aerodynamics, I cut my hair, as you can see".
John Barnard, the British designer who is about to leave Ferrari due to his will to stay in UK, is brief and inexpressive. At the presentation, the project director admits:
"We were inspired by last year's car and kept all the good things that were there. For the rest, today's technologies mean that when you design a new car, you no longer start from a blank sheet of paper, but you must take into account what's out there. That's perhaps why all cars are becoming increasingly similar. The real difference can come from the engine".
No more improvisation, although it was the case for too many years. But if Barnard has designed this Ferrari as the management wanted it to be, others will take care of the evolution. The first will be Ross Brawn, the new technical director from Benetton, who has just finished directing the project of the car that will be presented two weeks later. Meanwhile, Paolo Martinelli continues to think about the project and the evolution of the engine. After his experience with the ten-cylinder engine in 1996, he has many modifications in store. After the work for the sumptuous presentation of the new Ferrari, Schumacher stays until 3 am in the workshop to try to find a solution for his driver's seat, which is rather unusual compared to the one he is used to. Afterwards, Schumi goes to sleep in the presidential flat in the chalet inside the circuit, made available by President Montezemolo. It is a beautiful flat that was once the favourite residence of Enzo Ferrari, who used to entertain his guests at breakfast in those rooms.
Schumacher wakes up at six o'clock and almost immediately goes to the futuristic gym that Ferrari has equipped for him. It features a beautiful hall with mirrored walls, full of equipment for body care, including a machine on which the German driver can simulate jogging uphill, on bends or uneven slopes. A dashboard would inform him about how much oxygen he is consuming, how many pulses he has, what the weather is like and even what his horoscope says. Downstairs he then has breakfast and then, already in his overalls, arrives at the workshop. Unfortunately, there wasn't much that could be done about his seat. So it wasn't until 10:00 that the car appeared on the track. The longest job was to check the twenty-seven sensors installed on the car and the telemetry systems. Then, at 11:30 am, on a beautiful sunny day, the long-awaited first lap starts, while along the track nets a nice crowd has already gathered.
First in the sunshine and then in the fog, Michael completes thirty-one laps at the wheel of the new F310B. The adventure of the new car starts regularly, without ever stopping for a breakdown. However, it must be said that the first day was not dedicated to the chronometer, but only to the necessary telemetry and electronic checks of the new chassis-engine complex. It was an important day of testing, at the end of which the best time was 1'09"48, a long way from the one-minute barrier that stands as the record for the private Fiorano track, set by test driver Nicola Larini. The time can't however be significant because Schumacher runs all day on rain tyres and not slicks. Michael Schumacher declares:
"It's a promising car. I'm not able to say much more but it's promising for sure, it has good stability, it doesn't have negative reactions and I think it's born well. I still have this problem with the seat but we'll solve it soon".
Jean Todt also says he feels more optimistic than last year:
"Not only this car is going well and looks promising from day one but this first day is a month earlier than the first day a year ago, which was in mid-February. What matters now is to do a lot of kilometres with the F310B before we leave for Australia. A second car will be ready at the end of the month, so both drivers will be able to test it. In this way we hope to cover at least five thousand kilometres by the beginning of March. That would already be a good result because it would allow us to carry out a lot of work".
Once the preliminary tests were over then on Thursday, January 16th, 1997, Ferrari moved to Spain; to the Jerez track. In the meantime on January 9th, 1997, in Birmingham, the new Arrows Yamaha A18 was presented. This season the car had the number one on its nose, brought by the reigning World Champion Damon Hill, who was enthusiastic at the sight of the new car:
"It's sexy and slim, if it's as strong as it is beautiful we will do great things".
In the meantime, the Ferrari management negotiated the purchase of another engineer from Benetton, Rory Byrne, and Giancarlo Fisichella reached an agreement with Jordan as the second driver, alongside Ralf Schumacher, Michael's brother. There were only a few hours to go before the start of the tests in Jerez when Schumacher who is from Madonna di Campiglio immediately tried to extinguish the enthusiasm considering the great expectations around the performance of the new Ferrari:
"Ferrari will survive anyway, even if it doesn't win the world championship this year. What's important is to become competitive in the early season, and then find continuity of results. Only in this way will we be ready to reap the benefits in '98 and then also in '99. For this year, we have to keep an eye on Williams and McLaren, but especially on the former, because it has two fast drivers like Villeneuve and Frentzen".
On January 16th, 1997, Ferrari made its debut on the track at Jerez after its presentation at Maranello. The results are not so promising since Ralf Schumacher with his Jordan is faster than his brother. The day begins with sunshine and a nice dry track. Schumi makes a reconnaissance lap returns to the pits for some adjustments, restarts and immediately records his best time as 1'24"16. He then did about fifteen more laps, until the engine forced him to stop.
"I saw the temperature rise on the dashboard, so I immediately slowed down to get back to the pits, but I couldn't get there because the engine died".
At the end of the day Schumacher completed thirty-five laps. But the German driver doesn't seem at all unhappy:
"Overall, after this first day in which I did thirty-five laps, I'm satisfied. Remember that last year it took us ten days to do ten laps".
The concern rises when, after three days of testing, the third consecutive engine on the German's Ferrari is disassembled due to a dripping oil pump. The tests went slowly and so Schumacher remained on the track even in the following days while Eddie Irvine had to postpone his debut with the F310B. However, all these failures did not cause alarm among the many Ferrari engineers who came to Jerez to follow the new car. Jean Todt preaches calmness:
"There is nothing dramatic, but of course all these things are wasting our time. However, we've already seen where we need to go to fine-tune the car and that's no small thing considering we still have over a month to work on it. Schumacher is staying until Wednesday. I've just warned Irvine not to take the plane. He's not happy, but he was expecting it. He knew that in case of delays we would continue with Schumacher. Irvine will be happy when his car is ready and Schumacher has completed the first phase of development from which Irvine will also benefit. With two cars we will be able to work harder and make comparisons".
Yet, days pass and Ferrari loses more opportunities to complete regularly a long run, also because of the rain that fell on the circuit. Schumacher barely managed to complete only seventeen laps on the damp asphalt while McLaren and Stewart completed just six. On the other hand, Ferrari takes advantage of the bad weather to work intensively in the garage. The F310B is completely disassembled and reassembled to check all the parts and discover any defects.
At the end of the first few days of testing, despite Michael Schumacher has not been able to complete a Grand Prix simulation both the driver and the Ferrari technicians are happy with the good mileage so far, 1200 km in total, despite the prevailing bad weather. Or so it seems, since on January 30th, 1997, his younger brother Ralf, making his debut in the Jordan, said that Michael had confided in him that he was disappointed with the new Ferrari F310B. While Ferrari was trying to find a solution, on January 31st, Williams showed the new FW19 to the press. The new car has wide suspension arms and profiled- like wings. Incorporated in the latter there are the two lateral flow diverters, large and unique in shape with a single deflector on each side instead of two like the other cars.
The most striking innovation however, is the engine air intake above the driver's helmet which is set further back and has an unusual teardrop shape. But perhaps the most consistent innovation from an aerodynamic point of view is the entire rear part of the car which has a very tapered bottle-like shape leaving big space between the wheels and the chassis. The real secret should also be here because the sides are tapered down inwards an idea that had been seen in embryo but which Head seems to have developed here with his genius.
Williams, also for the 1997 season, will be equipped with the new Renault engines in the year that will sanction the French company's withdrawal from racing. Frank Williams, who always had the engines free of charge up to now, states:
"I'm paying for them, we got on well with them, it would have been a shame to throw away this nice collaboration. It's a shame I don't have exclusive rights, it would have cost too much".
In short, a completely new machine, according to technical director Patrick Head:
"We've been working hard to refine the aerodynamics and hopefully we've succeeded".
Asked about the thought that almost all the other teams, including Ferrari, have tried to copy the previous FW18, Williams' TD replies:
"Well, I mean, copying. Even I have sometimes copied some solutions adopted by others, but the problem is that copying is not enough. You can put together other people's ideas, but what matters is that these ideas, once put together, work well and that's what doesn't always happen. For example, it's not enough to copy a nose if it doesn't go well with the other shapes on the car. And the same goes for the rear end and all the others. We had already studied and tested some of the solutions for this car on the old one. The results look promising, now we'll see why so far the FW19 hasn't been on the track, we'll do that in Barcelona at the beginning of February. I don't think we'll win 12 races as we did in 1996, but we're certainly fighting for it. The next World Championship seems to me to be very open, there are a lot of good cars, certain ideas have come through, we'll see".
But if Head is not convinced of being able to repeat the exact feat of 1996, Jacques Villeneuve instead shows the confident air of someone who already feels like a World Champion:
"I am happy to be able to race in a car like this. I would like our sport to be more exciting again, we have gone too far with the precautions".
On February 6th, 1997, at the Portuguese circuit of Estoril, Schumacher and Irvine work intensively to fine-tune the new Ferrari F310B. The problems with the front suspension forced Schumacher to stop a few days earlier. Now they were solved, so testing can go on. Irvine had to stop in the middle of the day because of an engine failure which however, did not worry the technicians because the failure occurred when the 10-cylinder engine in the '97 version had already exceeded its mileage limit. Schumacher's best time at the end of forty- six laps was 1'20"23 while Irvine completed thirty-four laps stopping the watch at 1'21"27.
On the third day of testing at the Estoril circuit, Ferrari's situation is certainly not exciting neither bad. Schumacher did a Grand Prix simulation during which everything worked well except for the fact that at a certain moment the German driver felt something strange on the engine and, in order not to break it, he preferred to stop. Having ascertained that there was nothing serious, Michael resumed driving and completed a 72-lap race simulation. It was a successful simulation, but with two strange details: the first is that to complete a Grand Prix Ferrari uses the '96 engine and secondly the times recorded were not so fast. Michael stopped the best time at 1'20"04, a time lower than those of the McLaren with the new Mercedes engine given that Coulthard lapped in 1'19". On this subject, Jean Todt admits:
"We weren't planning to set exceptional times, we just needed to run around and verify the whole car complex over distance. And from this point of view, the results are good, the car is already going quite well, but we need to improve and that's what we'll do in the twenty days left before we leave for Melbourne. Between the old and the new there is not a big difference, we will see at the end of the month which one to use because in the meantime we have many new things to try".
In the meantime, on February 10th, 1997, at noon, Ferrari announced in a lconic statement the end of its collaboration with John Barnard, who bought Ferrari's English structure, the famous Fdd, to continue working on his own supplying whoever he wanted. During testing at Jerez, Ferrari's DS had already told the press that there was a change in the team and internal structures at Maranello. And talking about the fact that Barnard had left the track tests prematurely, Todt revealed:
"Barnard is no longer with us, he's gone. He's back in England, he took the plane a little while ago. I think in a few days, a few weeks at the most, we will make a decision. We've been talking with Barnard for months, we're still discussing, and in a brief time we'll have all the elements to decide. Barnard has done a lot for Ferrari and Ferrari has allowed Barnard to work in peace. After five years we have arrived at a crossroads that was known: we have to think about the future of Ferrari and this is what we are talking about. So with Barnard we don't just talk about Barnard, but about many other things that concern the future of Ferrari. For example, we have to decide whether or not to keep the Fdd, that structure we set up in England years ago. If we decide yes, we'll keep it with Barnard. But if we decide to bring everything to Maranello, Barnard might not come. The fact is that today, unlike five years ago, we have an organisation in Maranello with which we can better look to the future. The former wind tunnel was in England and the Fdd structure, about forty people, also had a specific commitment and purpose, but now that the new wind tunnel at Maranello is coming on stream, that's where a lot of people will have to work. There are many aspects, we are also discussing them with Barnard, and shortly we will have all the elements to make a decision. There are no disagreements with Barnard, both he and us take things very calmly and go forward working and talking normally. Even in these days here in Spain he has been very involved with the work and the problems we have had. Barnard is certainly a talented designer, and his past speaks for him. But it is also true that situations change, the market also changes in the world of designers not only in the world of drivers. And Barnard is part of that market. We need a chief designer, now we'll see".
At Ferrari, Rory Byrne takes his place, thus reassembling at Maranello the famous and successful triad of the two years 1994-1995 of Benetton, together with Schumacher and Brawn. With this move the reorganisation of Ferrari is complete. All that is missing for it to be able to function at full pace is the new wind tunnel in Maranello which will be operational in June. Once the tests in Portugal were over, Ferrari decided to continue the race simulations on the Mugello circuit in Tuscany. On the afternoon of February 18th, Schumacher managed to set the fastest time on the Ferrari F310B on the 51st lap, the penultimate of the tests. He did a time of 1'26"42, bettering both his previous best time of 1'27"12 and the best time on the track set by Frentzen (in a Sauber) in August 1996 at 1'26"80. On that occasion, Ferrari carried out some aerodynamic tests using a special white paint that visualised the air flows on the car.
Two days later Schumacher is no longer at Mugello, as at 6:30 am his first daughter Gina Maria is born at the Wipperfuerth clinic near Cologne. Schumacher's sudden departure from the hotel caught Ferrari's men off guard, a little surprised not to find the driver at the test. So it was Eddie Irvine's turn, who set a new track record of 1'25"43. The winter tests have now come to an end. The first Grand Prix in Australia takes place on March 9th, 1997, but Schumacher leaves for Melbourne on March 1st. Arriving in Melbourne, the German Ferrari driver speaks at a press conference about the Scuderia's chances of obtaining good results, stating openly:
"Frankly I don't know, that's what I want to find out. From what we've seen in winter testing, a lot of teams are close, chronometrically speaking. Maybe never have so many been so close, so competitive. But nobody knows exactly where they are. Maybe only Williams knows they're ahead, but how far ahead? Who can bother them? We don't know, but I hope we'll be the ones to bother them. Here, right away, I don't think we can win. Last year I retired, this year I hope to get to the bottom and get some points. For now, the important thing is to get points. Then, later in the season, I hope to fight for the title. I want to fight for the World Championship, I'm not interested in intermediate wins. And for the World Championship you have to score points, immediately and always".
Then, talking about the Ferrari F310B and the team, Schumacher confessed:
"The engine is going very well, we are all satisfied with it. We run with the old one here, but it is the same because it is reliable and because it is very suitable for this track. I was a bit worried about the car, its handling, it’s balance. But only in the first few outings on the track, because we have made big steps forward. The team is more complete, more close-knit, calmer. It doesn't loose its bearings, keeps a direction, discovers a road and follows it to the end. Much of this is also due to the arrival of Ross Brawn. A man who always knows what has to be done. An excellent acquisition. It wasn't his former role and there wasn't a man to fill it. We knew that the Renault engines had lower temperatures and higher efficiency and allowed another aerodynamics. But we are working in that direction too, only the results don't come overnight. This year, for example, the tyres have changed. They are softer, you go faster, they wear out faster and you need more pit stops during a race. That's one way to change the strategy of racing, so what's the point of talking about cars that are ideal for overtaking more and going faster?"
Michael Schumacher's words are joined by those of Irvine who confirms what his teammate said:
"A few days ago I looked in the mirror and discovered a few grey hairs. But I don't think it's because of the '96 season. Last year things started one way and developed accordingly. There was only one car to focus on and it wasn't necessarily mine. This year we are in better shape and despite the grey hair I think I can do good things".
And finally, when asked how the two drivers feel inside Ferrari, whether friends or enemies, Schumacher turns to Irvine and looks at him with rapt eyes:
"Eddie, I love you".
In response, Eddie turns to Michael, his gaze even more dreamy:
"Me too, baby, I love you".
Joking aside, after so much work everything is ready for the first appointment of the season, in Melbourne, Australia. Or almost since a few days before the start of the championship, the controversy between Schumacher and the spokesman of the Australian Grand Prix Corporation, Ron Walker, rebounded in Melbourne. The German driver had complained about the circuit ; there were few overtaking points and poor safety measures. Walker retorted by pointing out at least six points where it was possible to overtake and then went on to accuse the German of being an overpaid crybaby. In short, the tests are over and everyone is indulging in predictions and the first inevitable controversies.
Formula 1 is back.
Davide Scotto di Vetta