After an excellent start of the season, on March 13th, Michael Schumacher is immediately on track at Fiorano with his F310B and the same engine mounted in Melbourne, to conduct private tests. The German set a new record of 59.54 seconds, snatching the previous record set by Eddie Irvine during winter testing with a time of 59.77 seconds. The Northern Irishman had used the 1996 F310 for the occasion. At the end of the seventy-one laps completed, Schumacher was satisfied with the work done:
"I am very happy with these tests because we are going in the right direction".
Schumacher carries out comparison tests between the two new types of Goodyear tyres that Ferrari has like the other teams, to explore the performance and wear parameters of the two types. One week later on March 19th, 1997, Ferrari moved to Monza for further private tests but during the tests Schumi had an accident. At the Variante della Roggia where the German also experiments with the new type of kerbs introduced, he tries to control the car only to lose himself in a spin and a consequent exit from the track. In the crash, the transmission breaks completely and subsequent repairs in the pits will take a long time. The Grand Prix simulation that Schumacher should have done with the new engine is therefore postponed until the next day. The kerbs tested at Monza are higher than those usually used on circuits and have been installed to prevent drivers from cutting through the chicane too quickly but it turns out through the German's misadventure that they can produce considerable damage to the car. For this reason, as these kerbs are not yet part of the circuit standard at Ferrari's request they are removed for later practice. In the meantime, Eddie Irvine tested different types of tyres at length completing a total of 47 laps on the spec. 1 engine used in Australia. His best time however, was 1'25"17, a rather high time. In the days leading up to the next Grand Prix to be held at the Sao Paolo circuit in Brazil, Jean Todt admits that Ferrari is carrying out development work on the aerodynamic components of the F310B as well as on the new engine which has not yet reached a good level of power and reliability:
"We are doing a lot of aerodynamic refinements on the car. As soon as we get back from Brazil, we're going to Mugello for three days with Morbidelli and Schumacher to test these improvements which we'll then take to Argentina. Then there is the delicate question of the engine which we are working on but until it gives us clear advantages we will not use it. There is not much difference between the four best engines in this championship. The real problem is next year's engines which will all be very new. And we are working now on the '98 engine. We have to reduce consumption make it lighter balance the weights better make it work at higher temperatures. But giving up all the tests we are doing with the engine now would mean compromising the '98 engine".
In the meantime, for the Brazilian Grand Prix, Ferrari will not bring any concrete development to the car so much so that Ferrari's own Sports Director admits that a positive result like the one obtained in Melbourne would be considered a success:
"If we could do a second place on Sunday as we did in Melbourne, I would sign my name to it right now".
For his part, Michael Schumacher responded to some of the criticism directed at him relating to the fact that the German driver had expressed his opinion on the difficulties to be faced in Sao Paolo due to the numerous bumps of the asphalt:
"There has already been too much talk about this circuit and the fact that the asphalt is not good that there are a lot of depressions, that you jump too much... But I know they have done some work, I haven't seen it yet and I'm not able to say anything. Let me do a few laps and then we'll see".
Having thus closed the most pressing topic, Schumacher prefers to talk about the World Championship and explains better a theory he had already put forward in Australia:
"This year it seems to me that there is no longer a single definitely winning car that can go away on its own for the whole championship. Instead, more teams can win I would say at least four. That means everyone has a chance to win three or four races. So how do you win the World Title? By adding points to the stage wins, so to speak. That's why it's important, especially for me to be among the first ones to be on the podium and to score points. Then we'll win too of course, that's what we're racing for but you have to put everything you can together. Between Villeneuve and Frentzen until now there has been no real confrontation so we have to wait. But I think that from Imola onwards Ferrari will be very close to Williams and then there could be an interesting fight. For this reason, I repeat it is important for us to score points now, immediately".
On the opposite side, Jacques Villeneuve seems to be hyper-motivated on the eve of the second weekend of the season, as the 26-year-old Canadian is aiming straight at success to make up as soon as possible for the unfortunate Australian Sunday for him and Williams:
"Our car is not only the best, but it is also quite easy to set up on all kinds of circuits. Sao Paulo has a very bumpy tarmac and this could create problems, however I think our rivals will have more than us so I am reasonably optimistic. The result of the first race will have at least one merit: that of having charged us to the maximum to recover".
On the short track of the Autodromo José Carlos Pace, the two blue and white cars of the reigning champion team confirm the values on the field seen in Australia which sees them much faster than the competition since free practice. As if that wasn't enough those who were chasing in Melbourne found themselves having to deal with a few too many difficulties as Villeneuve had predicted. Ferrari scored the seventh best time with Schumacher and even the third last with Irvine also the victim of an off-track excursion that ended sadly in the gravel that compromised an entire session. Worse it goes to McLaren which navigates with both drivers in the middle of the classification. Right behind the Williams, we find the two Benettons and the surprising Sauber of Johnny Herbert also like Villeneuve eager to leave the Australian race behind. Despite this, Schumacher does not dramatise, on the contrary:
"Frankly, I'm happy. I expected worse. I was really worried about how the car would behave on a track like this, full of bumps and dips, but I have to say that it's not as bad as I thought it would be before the race. For the race I would be very happy to get on the podium. I think it will be difficult to win because on this circuit you have to maintain a fast pace for three hundred kilometres. But getting on the podium and scoring some good points is important for me at the moment".
Schumacher seems to be able to solve the difficulties encountered by his F310B, since on Saturday at the end of the qualifying session, the ranking puts him in second position only six tenths away from Villeneuve. Considering the almost two seconds taken in Australia, this gap can still be judged as a considerable step forward. Excluding the unreachable time of the Canadian, we are witnessing a rather tight qualifying since in one second there are thirteen drivers! Gerhard Berger confirmed that the Benetton was well suited to the characteristics of the Sao Paolo circuit, qualifying third at 50 thousandths of a second from the Ferrari. On the contrary, Heinz- Harald Frentzen is disappointed admitting that he found it difficult to find a decent qualifying set-up and he was only eighth. While Schumacher printed a respectable time to grant himself the first row, Eddie Irvine didn't manage to get in tune with his car to find him on the grid we had to go down to the fourteenth place. Among those who, at the end of the day could hardly smile, there was also Damon Hill who after a weekend to forget was able to place ninth gaining one second from his teammate Pedro Paolo Diniz. For the reigning champion, there is still the doubt of the poor reliability of his Arrows which unfortunately for him will betray him again although at least not starting from the reconnaissance lap as happened in Australia.
"It went better than expected, we were helped a little by the track that gradually warmed up and did not allow anyone to improve. The race is still in Villeneuve's hands. For us, the behaviour of the tyres will be important".
Schumacher's cautious optimism is confirmed by the mood of Jacques himself who jokes at the journalists' microphones and throws a dig at Irvine remembering the crazy braking at the first bend in Melbourne:
"For the start, I'm calm, because this time Irvine is far away".
Even if it is not at the levels reached when Ayrton Senna was there to stir up the crowd and the Brazilian torcida on Sunday the stands are packed. Thousands and thousands of fans flock to the event which promises to be an exciting one with the two potential title contenders on the front row. Irvine won't be there to give him worries but also this time Villeneuve's start is to be forgotten: to tell the truth the Canadian has a discreet sprint but not excellent as it is on the contrary Schumacher's one, who flanks him at the S do Senna. Villeneuve doesn't want to give up his position and tries to resist on the outside, but he loses control of his car and is forced to drive straight going on the grass and losing many positions. In the meantime chaos is created in the middle of the group: Ralf Schumacher is rammed and spins while other cars find the road blocked and prefer to throw themselves into the grass cutting the first chicane. Others instead are unable to avoid contact with other cars: and among the unlucky ones there are above all Frentzen, Hill, Fisichella and Irvine. All this while Barrichello was left stranded at the start without covering a single metre.
An immediate red flag is necessary so Schumacher's great start is nullified. Villeneuve will have another chance to keep the first position and who could not go on because his car was too damaged can restart with the forklift. All to do again then but fortunately one does not have to wait too long for the second start whose dynamics in the battle for the leadership remains almost identical. Once again the sprint seems to favour the Williams but in the metres that separate them from the first braking, Schumacher is again in front and Villeneuve having learned the previous lesson decides not to resist the attack. And in doing so he queues up momentarily. It was enough to arrive on the main straight to start the second lap: the Indycar champion took advantage of all the Ferrari's slipstream and at the first braking he returned the favour against Schumacher who could do nothing against the power of the Renault V10. In the back positions, Berger overtook Hakkinen taking back the third position he had lost at the start and Damon Hill also stood out who climbed to seventh place ahead of Coulthard. The first phase of the race is characterized just by the two Benettons: not at all satisfied by the overtaking on the McLaren, the good old Gerhard launches himself also in pursuit of Schumacher unable to maintain the impressive race pace imposed by Villeneuve. Also Jean Alesi in duty to make up for the Melbourne incident where he was left without petrol because of his fault tries to put pressure on Hakkinen for the fourth place.
On the seventh lap the Austrian tried at the first bend but Schumacher lengthened the braking and managed to counteract the Benetton's attempt. But four laps later, Berger tried again in the same way, successfully overtaking the German. The race was quite eventful at least in the early stages because even in the middle of the group there were interesting battles such as the one between Hill, Coulthard and the two Jordans of Ralf Schumacher and Fisichella with Arrows slowing down all three pursuers. On lap 22, Berger starts the series of pit stops revealing the cards of those on a two-stop strategy. Shortly afterwards Alesi, Villeneuve and Schumacher also change tyres and top up the petrol. The only one who opts for a one-stop strategy is Olivier Panis who has taken on more fuel for the first part of the race and makes the most of the Bridgestone tyres which unlike the Goodyears guarantee longer stints. The Prost Frenchman found himself second and was able to keep Berger at a distance. In the waltz of the stops the loser is Schumacher,who loses his position to the advantage of Hakkinen. In addition to Panis, Damon Hill also tried the gamble of the single stop: by doing so, the reigning world champion climbed up to fourth position for a few laps. But being visibly slower, the British driver slows down both Schumacher and Alesi. Both pursuers after a few laps lost trying to find a gap, finally overtake the Arrows at the S of Senna. Around the 35th lap, Panis and Hill stopped: the first returned to the third position while the British driver went out of the points and was in the field up to three laps from the end when he had to go back to the pits for a fire started suddenly from the rear axle of his Arrows.
From this moment, the race doesn't offer many emotions. Every lap was spent counting the petrol loads and the stops made all that while Villeneuve was running in complete loneliness and managing quietly his ten-second lead over Berger. Some minimal worries are offered by the back-markers, like David Coulthard winner in Australia but anonymous in Brazil who shortly before the start had declared that to score points it would have been enough to stay on the track. The Scotsman was only tenth at the finish line and was only noticed when he didn't let Villeneuve lap him for more than a few laps and consequently lost over two seconds on Berger. With the second wave of pit-stops nothing changes, and Berger's unrealistic attempts to catch up with Villeneuve in cruise mode, as well as the trio formed by Hakkinen, Schumacher and Alesi for a possible fight for the fourth place, are useless to spice up a rather flat final of the race. Jacques Villeneuve dominates and wins the Brazilian Grand Prix. On the podium to celebrate with him there are Berger and an excellent Panis who gives the first podium as a constructor to Alain Prost. The start of the race was promising but only illusory for Ferrari: Schumacher was only fifth and far from the podium but limited the damage compared to those who had been protagonists in Melbourne. Frentzen, for example, had been off since qualifying and having to race with a forklift truck penalised him further. We have already said about Coulthard while Irvine sank into mediocrity. The Northern Irishman reached the finishing line sixteenth and two laps behind the winner. For Schumacher's teammate, this was a start to the season that was nothing short of forgettable. At the press conference, the three drivers who finished on the podium were all logically satisfied. The first to speak, as usual, is the winner:
"Watching the start it looked as if the incident in Australia might happen again, but luckily it didn't. I don't know why the flag was raised. I don't know why there was a red flag but it certainly helped. After that the car was great: even though I didn't have a lot of downforce in the slow corners, it was balanced out by the great speed on the straights. In the second stint the tyres didn't work so well but I still managed to stay in the lead. At the first corner I didn't want to give up the position to Michael, I stayed on the outside but entered the corner too fast and lost control. As for the second start, we knew from this morning's warm-up data that even if I had been overtaken at the start, I would have been able to easily regain my position by using the slipstream in the early laps".
Besides expressing his joy for the podium, Berger also mentions his attempts to get closer to Villeneuve:
"At a certain point I believed I could catch him but I was aware that it would have been very difficult to overtake him given the Williams' great speed on the straight. I had some difficulties with lapping especially with Hill but I think Jacques had the same problem".
Olivier Panis who surprisingly came third at the finish, declared:
"I am very happy. We took a big risk with the strategy but the Bridgestones were working great. It was honestly easy, I never had any traffic or particular difficulties in maintaining the gap with those who were behind me".
Villeneuve reacted well after his retirement in Melbourne and with his first win of the season, he joins Coulthard on ten points at the top of the World Championship.
Davide Scotto di Vetta