Before the Canadian Grand Prix, Jacques Villeneuve finds himself at the centre of a heated controversy with the World Federation after describing the changes proposed for 1998 as ridiculous:
"I think that the drivers' qualities will be highlighted less. Formula One will turn into a circus show".
The unpleasant comments concerning the new regulations for the '98 season do not please the International Federation, which forces Villeneuve to appear at the FIA Council in Paris on Wednesday 11th June 1997, when the Canadian should be in Canada to take part in the race weekend in the afternoon of the following day. Villeneuve has to justify his attitude, considered inappropriate by the FIA, which does not exclude a disqualification for the Williams driver; a disqualification that can vary from one to a maximum of three races. The driver's manager, Craig Pollock, is threatening his client with a return to the American Formula Cart if relations with the world of Formula 1 become too complicated. Such dynamics bring to mind the disagreements of the early 1990s between Senna and Balestre, who just could not get along, or Mosley himself with Prost, with the four-time world champion who, for the same impudence committed by Villeneuve, almost risked not taking part in the World Championship that he went on to win. In the end Villeneuve gets away with a simple reprimand, and the next day, when he lands in Canada, he does not lose his provocative vein and jokes about the affair:
"Nothing too important, the incident is over. The truth of this whole story is that there are words you have to use at home and others you can use with the international press. Anyway, I had a nice tour in Paris, a beautiful city, I didn't know it. They scolded me for the way I said certain things. You're free to say what you think, but there are different ways. If I do it again I risk being suspended, but I won't do it again. However, it was a useful meeting to clarify our ideas, and there should be more frequent meetings. The issue of safety is important for everyone and it affects the drivers, me in particular, so I have to have my say on a problem like this. And I say: safety is fine, but remember to keep alive the spirit of racing, which has always been to go fast, to finish first, not to perform circus acts, that is to say, just show. That doesn't mean I want to kill myself, I'm not suicidal. I just want to be able to go to the limit of my possibilities, to discover every day that that limit can be moved. That's the essence of racing and that's the spirit that drives all the drivers of all time. Let them make the new Formula 1 rules, but I think racing will lose out, and we'll see...".
Then his attention turns to the weekend:
"This is the most special race of the year for me. For the championship, it's the same as all the others, but on a personal level, it's very important because it's the only one in North America. And I was born about 20 kilometres from the circuit, so a success would have a unique flavour".
On the other hand, Schumacher starts the race weekend convinced that his car will not be able to fight on equal terms with its British rivals:
"The Williams are still the best cars and therefore favourites. As far as Ferrari is concerned, if we do well we could be on the podium. For now, the ambitions of victory are one thing, reality is another".
And concerning Jacques Villeneuve's thoughts on the rules that will come into force in 1998, the German driver admits that he agrees:
"If we continue on this road, soon F1 cars will be slower than Formula 3000 cars. However, on all these things I think they will have to listen to the opinion of us drivers".
Once the controversy is over, it is time to get on track. But not for Gerhard Berger, who was struggling with acute sinusitis that forced him to have an operation, but above all with the untimely death of his father, involved in a plane crash. The Austrian, who had been in New York the previous day, hurriedly returned to Austria where he underwent surgery to eliminate all the problems that his sinusitis had been causing him for some time:
"I can't let him race like this, I'd never forgive myself for doing him any harm, he'd better take good care of himself".
Admits Flavio Briatore, team principal of Benetton. In place of the Austrian driver, his compatriot Alexander Wurz takes the track, making his Formula 1 debut. The results of free practice show extremely close times, a phenomenon also favoured by the short length of the circuit, although as usual there are the two Williams at the front, with Frentzen ahead of Villeneuve. Unlike at the Spanish Grand Prix, a veiled optimism can be glimpsed inside Ferrari’s garage: in Montreal something new begins to be seen on the F310B at last.
That is, for example, the new air scope, the air intake to the engine. During wind tunnel tests, it was discovered that the air was entering the intake duct in a disjointed way, creating vortexes that were amplified inside the internal tunnel that conveys air to the engine. As a result, it was decided to create a groove just below the air scope, from which the air is sucked in cleanly, without swirls, with a linear and efficient flow, allowing better engine performance. In addition to this, alongside the rear wheels, Ferrari removes the two vertical bulkheads, as it turns out that on a fast track those appendages would be useless, whereas on a slow, twisty track like Buenos Aires they would be useful. Jean Todt says:
"Here in Montreal we should perform better than in Barcelona. We might get on the podium, but we also might not. Let's be realistic, this is a decent car, but not a winning car. Here we have brought a few small changes, you've seen them already, the new air scope, then we took off those rear bulkheads, nothing special".
And when asked about the similarity between Sauber's air scope and Ferrari's new one, Todt replies:
"The new air scope was not copied exactly from Sauber. Copying means doing something without knowing why. Our collaboration with Sauber has indeed led us to analyse data that has helped us to understand certain phenomena. We manage Sauber's engines and can make comparisons between their data and ours. After all, that was one of the aims of our collaboration, not just a commercial operation to sell engines and make money from them. In the next three Grands Prix, namely France, Great Britain and Germany, we will complete the innovations to be applied to the cars. They will form a good package, but don't ask me how much faster we will go: I can't answer that. Wind tunnel results are one thing, the reality of the track is another. And then I'd have to know how much the others will gain. If only we could have started the championship with a better car...".
Inevitably, even in Montreal the press continues to follow Eddie Irvine's performance closely. The French manager was asked if the Northern Irish driver would have his contract renewed. Jean Todt responds by saying:
"His contract expires at the end of 1998 but there is an option in that contract in favour of Ferrari that we have to exercise by the end of July this year. Only then I can tell you what will happen to Irvine. Schumacher says Irvine is a big motivator for him. On the other hand, let's face it, we have two good cars that are not winning at the moment. Our aim now is to give the drivers two winning cars, and when we have them we'll tackle the drivers' problem. But now I'll ask you a question: which driver would you like next to Schumacher?"
The next day, in a qualifying session full of surprises, Michael Schumacher manages to break Williams' streak of ten consecutive pole starts thanks to a time of 1'18"095, beating Villeneuve by a matter of thousandths, thirteen to be precise. Schumacher says at the end of the qualifying:
"I did a wonderful lap. Everything went well and I have to say a big thank you to the people at Ferrari for the work they did to give me a faster car. All the changes are working well, including the brakes, which worked hard today too. Now I am very confident about the race because in those conditions we already knew we had made up a lot of ground and that we could be competitive with the Williams. We are not worried about tyre wear and so we should be fine for the race. In any case, for the race we will use the ‘slash one’ engine as was already planned".
For the first time, Williams is also proving to have major difficulties with the tyres, in addition to the already known difficulties with the brakes. The other surprise of the day was Rubens Barrichello, back in the spotlight after his unforgettable podium in Monte Carlo. The Brazilian scored a remarkable third place and thanked his ultra-performance Bridgestone tyres, whose combination with the Stewart car allowed to fit a tiny rear wing on the SF01 to aid speed on the straights by reducing drag. In fourth place is Frentzen, who is ahead of Coulthard and the two Jordans of Fisichella and Ralf Schumacher, ready to make a comeback after the poor weekend in Catalonia.
The colourless performance of Eddie Irvine is no longer surprising: the Irishman is twelfth at almost one second and a half from his teammate and also beaten by Benetton rookie Wurz, in his turn victim of an accident at the last bend at five minutes from the end of qualifying, which caused the temporary interruption of the session. When everybody threw themselves onto the track for the last attempts, it was Schumacher who got the better of all the others, silencing the numerous Villeneuve fans who were already looking forward to the umpteenth pole of their favourite.
A very hot front row, which has not been seen since the Brazilian Grand Prix, not by chance also the scenario of the last close encounter between the two contenders for the title. On that occasion, the gap between the two cars was close that Schumacher had no chance, despite an excellent start that allowed him to take the lead for just one lap before Villeneuve reacted and overtook him. In Canada the values on the field are more balanced than ever, and this time Jacques has to work hard to win. The desire to overdo and the pressure of racing in front of his fans, however, plays a nasty trick on him.
A cloudless sky, with the sun shining down on the artificial island of Notre Dame, welcomes the drivers on Sunday. Once the preparations is completed, it is time to start the engines: the race begins and, like many starts at the beginning of the season, the Canadian one also claims several victims. Schumacher starts well and runs away smoothly followed by Villeneuve. On the contrary, Barrichello's start is to be forgotten: he loses several positions and ends up seventh. In the centre of the group, Olivier Panis hits Hakkinen in the middle, losing his front wing and making the rear wing of the Finnish McLaren fly off. The stray pieces also involve the unlucky Irvine and Magnussen, who spin in an attempt to avoid them and can no longer restart.
Panis is able to go back to the pits and replace the damaged nose; on the contrary there is little to do for Hakkinen, who after having scored points in all the first four opening races, now finds himself having to count three zeroes in a row. Schumacher, therefore, keeps the lead followed by Villeneuve, an excellent Fisichella, Alesi and Coulthard. Jacques immediately starts to get closer to the leader, but on the second lap he makes a mistake at the chicane before the pit straight and crashes violently into the wall. The Canadian fans are incredulous, Villeneuve even more so: once out of the cockpit he hits himself on the helmet, frustrated for a rookie mistake: a small but lethal hesitation.
The season of Williams’s star driver is increasingly becoming a rollercoaster, and up to this point he has known no half measures: either he won or retired. This fourth retirement undoubtedly has an even more bitter taste, given that he had said how much he wanted to make a good impression in front of his fans, and also because it leaves the way practically clear for Schumacher to win and regain the top of the championship. In the closed park, the son of art is laconic:
"Nothing in particular, the track was slippery, I got the braking wrong at the last corner and consequently the entry, but I didn't expect to lose control so badly and end up in the wall. I am very sorry, the car was fast enough to allow me to win, but unfortunately I made a mistake".
In the meantime, apparently without rivals, Schumacher manages without problems the advantage on Fisichella, busy in a battle for the podium with Alesi and Coulthard. The trio is three seconds behind the German, while Frentzen relives the same nightmare he had two weeks earlier in Spain as he is unable to get into a good pace, to the point of having to watch out for any attacks from an ardent Ralf Schumacher. On lap six Ukyo Katayama crashes on the short straight leading to the hairpin, while at the same time Ralf Schumacher overtakes Frentzen, immediately pressed by Wurz. The Austrian, however, has to give up any attempt of overtake because the damaged Minardi of the Japanese driver makes the entry of the Safety Car necessary, which remains on track for four laps, during which the only Williams left in the race takes advantage of it to make its first pit-stop, thus allowing Wurz to get into the points zone.
Among set-up problems that seem unsolvable, and an unbearable blistering, this race also risks becoming another ordeal for Frentzen. Schumacher immediately manages to restore a reassuring gap over Fisichella's Jordan, which on lap 14 becomes the only one left in the race. Ralf Schumacher suffers a sudden sagging of the right front tyre (the young Ralf later even speaks of an exploded tyre), which makes him lose control of the car under braking for the first corner. The younger brother of the two Schumachers crashes violently into the barriers, fortunately escaping a spectacular accident unharmed. In this case there is no need for a new Safety Car intervention, and the race continues as normal.
After twenty-five laps the number of drivers in the pits increases for their respective stops. Fisichella and Alesi are among the first to enter the pit lane, with the Frenchman who benefits from the excellent work of his mechanics to snatch the position from the Roman. A couple of laps later it is also Schumacher's turn, who finds a new and serious contender for the victory in David Coulthard. The Scotsman is the first to dip below the 1'19" mark, setting the fastest lap in the race, and extended his first stint to reveal his cards. Schumacher, like Alesi and Fisichella, is on two stops. Coulthard, on the other hand, aims to make just one. Back on track, Michael is second eight seconds behind the leader, but he cannot reduce the gap, also because the tyres mounted on the McLaren from the beginning of the race do not seem to show any sign of degradation.
Same for Johnny Herbert, also on one stop and just behind the duo formed by Alesi and Fisichella. The Sauber driver, however, ran into a little carelessness during his stop, going over the speed limit imposed in the pit lane, and is therefore assigned a stop-&-go penalty of 10 seconds. On lap 40, with a ten-second lead over Schumacher, Coulthard pits for his only scheduled stop, and considering that the Ferrari driver will have to stop again, he automatically becomes, somewhat surprisingly, the favourite to win. Three laps later, Schumacher pits for his second stop and again leaves the lead to Coulthard, who is able to take off towards his second win of the season, after the one he had obtained at the opening round of the championship in Melbourne.
During the third stint Michael struggles to get into a good pace, so much so that Panis, who had climbed up to seventh position, manages to overtake the German with ease, with the latter offering no resistance. The cause of so much fatigue are the rear tyres, subject to abnormal wear that forces Schumacher to return to the pits again to change only the tyres, without topping up with petrol. A forced move that paradoxically turns out to be beneficial for him. At this point, McLaren calls Coulthard back into the pits for a precautionary pit-stop, as he too is beginning to suffer blistering on the rear tyres. The tyres are replaced, but when it is time to restart there is a twist. The Mercedes V10 shuts down when Coulthard is about to restart. The mechanics try to restart the engine without success, but the seconds tick by and Schumacher can retake the lead. But then the focus shifts elsewhere.
Between turns 5 and 6, Olivier Panis loses control of his Prost car and crashes into the barriers, destroying them along with the car. Panis shakes his head frantically, looking nervous and in pain. The driver is unable to get out of the car, his legs are stuck between the remains of the car. The safety car comes in. In the meantime, Coulthard has restarted but is desolately last. Panis is carefully extracted from the damaged car and carried by weight to the side of the track, where he is given the necessary assistance. At this juncture, the race has not reached seventy-five percent of its entire distance, so it would be possible to have a new start with the drivers lined up following the order in which they were on the track.
However, as it is taking a long time to rescue Panis and it is feared that other incidents might occur, it is decided to run the two remaining laps to cover the seventy-five percent of the race and only then do the race officials show the red flag. The Frenchman's condition causes concern. He had to be transported to the hospital and it would have taken too long to remove the car and reset the barriers. The drivers park their cars on the main straight; the race is over on the fifty-fourth of the sixty-nine laps planned. After a brief conversation, Ferrari’s pit wall warns Schumacher that the race is over on the radio. The German driver is the winner ahead of Alesi.
Giancarlo Fisichella, third, goes to enjoy the first podium of his career (the first Italian one after Gianni Morbidelli at the 1995 Australian Grand Prix), but nobody really wants to celebrate, as logically everyone is worried about their colleague's condition.
"None of us feel, despite the result, in brilliant condition".
Admits Jean Alesi, echoed by Fisichella, who should be over the moon about this result, and instead finds few meaningful words:
"The podium was a goal I was chasing since the beginning of the year, but right now I'm only thinking about Olivier. Excuse me".
However, Jean Alesi adds a comment, when the real condition of Panis is still unknown, addressed to some colleagues, such as Villeneuve, who had recently contested the FIA:
"This is the proof that today's cars are safe and if they are, it is thanks to the FIA. I don't understand how some of us drivers can criticise an organisation that is trying to guarantee maximum safety for everyone".
Panis suffers a compound fracture of both legs and will have to stay off the track for at least three months. But given the dynamics of the accident and the initial scare, the Frenchman can also consider himself lucky. The French driver undergoes surgery the same day at Montreal's Notre Dame Hospital for over two hours, during which the fractures in his legs are reduced and the doctors apply some nails. His accident causes some criticism towards the Canadian track, especially for the absence of escape routes in the offending section:
"It actually went well, but we will have to study the incident carefully and see if there are any indications to draw from it to ensure safety. We, the drivers, have the duty as well as the right to assess these things, to have our say and to tell the federation what we think. Then, of course, it's up to them to decide, but we can't keep quiet, even though there are ways and means of talking. We the drivers, for example, will be sending our report on these incidents to the FIA in two days".
Schumacher later declared. Possible changes seem to be a must, also because the renewal of the event's presence on the calendar for the next ten years is at stake. Not yet aware of Panis's real situation, Schumacher, rather calmly, gives an account of his performance during the press conference and the difficulties he encountered with the tyres:
"We only won because the race was stopped. The real story of this race is all in the tyres, four sets of tyres to stay as I was, if they hadn't shown the red flag I would still be there in trouble. I feel sorry for Coulthard because he would have been the winner today. It's always nice to gain ten points, but honestly under the circumstances I don't feel like celebrating that much. I'm happy with this win in Canada, but not completely. In the meantime, the duel with Villeneuve was missing, which was long-awaited here because the points for the world championship were at stake. I saw it on television when he went out and I was a bit surprised because I didn't expect it. It's difficult for a top driver to go out like that because of a mistake. At that moment it seemed like a mistake to me, and then maybe something happened that I don't know about. I mean, you know, when you miss your direct opponent, you look immediately to the next one. And the next one was Fisichella, who was very strong and did very well. However, if Villeneuve failed, it became clear that the man to beat today was Coulthard. It was a pity that his engine died during the pit stop. These things happen. In any case, today I am back in the lead. But for now I prefer not to talk about the championship".
Then he adds:
"It's hard to say whether I could have caught Coulthard because I was having big problems with the tyres at the time, although I think he was too, so I think it would have been a question of who would have managed the tyres better at the end. I had started with a two-stop strategy but then we had to change tack and do three. He started out with one change and actually had to do two. The tyres were a big problem for everyone today. The first set of tyres went well, partly because the Safety Car came on after a few laps and we were able to go slowly and the tyres stabilised. The problems came later. With the second set of tyres I found the rear tyres full of bubbles almost immediately. I tried to drive carefully to make them last as long as they had to, but it wasn't possible because we changed plans on the way and I went back in again. And here we are talking about these things again. The fact is that this year there is competition between different brands of tyres but I think Goodyear is doing a good job, even if with these tyres we are always a little bit on the limit. Now we will see if we can continue like this or if we will have to resort to another type of tyre, maybe an alternative is needed to go forward with more confidence. The reality is that up until Saturday we thought we could make just one pit stop and it went badly. With all the acceleration and braking that you need on this circuit, you end up with too much traction on the tyres, which wear out more, in an irregular way and often in an unpredictable way. As for the championship, well, I'm in the lead, with a bigger margin than I would have expected coming into Canada. But the road is still long, it will be important to continue to improve and see what our rivals do".
Jean Todt does not want to hear about luck, and never misses an opportunity to praise his champion:
"Michael deserved to win, he didn't make the slightest mistake and drove as usual, exploiting the potential of his car to the fullest. You could see the real values at the start when Michael was pulling away from everyone. In any case, the race would have been decided by the tyres: our second set was a disaster, unfortunately. Maybe the asphalt temperature was too high".
Then, talking about the championship and the improvements made to the car, the French manager says:
"In terms of points, we're ahead of the others again in both the Constructors' and Drivers' Championships. That's what we're racing for, isn't it? So, we're happy. The car went well, which means the improvements were there, and now this win is a big morale booster for a team like ours, which is busy making new changes for the next Grands Prix. We won this race but it's really a race that continues and we'll see how things go. We had a lot of difficulties with the tyres, like everyone else. I had said on Saturday that we would try to start to make one pit stop. This year there is competition between two tyre manufacturers and it is clear that everyone is trying to do better than the other, better performing tyres, faster tyres. However, the situation is still uncertain, the tyres change, they behave differently depending on the circuits on which they race, so you never know how things will end up. This is not only true for us but also for the others who have had a lot of problems, Frentzen, Coulthard, but I would say all of them. Now we have to evaluate the situation, which is not at a standstill but moving. We'll see what we can do, but I have to say one thing: Goodyear has won all the races so far, they indeed have the best teams, but they have won everything. Tomorrow we are already in France to test and, fortunately, we can go to some circuits before the race because then we can see how the tyres are performing and choose the right set-up. In Canada you couldn't come early to try and we made some bitter discoveries during the race. After a month of work in the wind tunnel we have chosen some changes to make to the car, we are preparing a package of mechanical and aerodynamic changes that will not all be ready for France but some for Great Britain and Germany. Everything will be done by July".
Finally, Ferrari's Sporting Director can't help but defend his driver, Eddie Irvine, who has once again fallen victim to press controversy:
"His fault? I really hope you won't write something like that. The only mistake Irvine made was, if anything, qualifying twelfth on the grid. As for the accident, what was his fault? He went wide at that corner just to avoid being in the mix, but then Hakkinen's wing was hit and he spun off the track. These things can and do happen more easily when you start from the back".
Staying with the team manager, Ron Dennis bears all the responsibility for what happened to Coulthard, who finished seventh in the final standings but was effectively deprived of a win:
"It's not a question of why the car didn't restart, but whether the decision to bring David back in was the right one. After Schumacher came back into the pits, considering the big gap we chose to make a precautionary stop. We had noticed that there was a small problem with the clutch, but we thought, mistakenly, that it was nothing serious. It's hard to be satisfied with the fact that David was fast as we didn't pick up anything. I take responsibility for the call, it was risky but we could have continued. I remember when we won the world championship in a similar situation at Adelaide, with Mansell having tyre problems. If you are in a position like we were in today, coming back in for safety is the right thing to do. We are sorry, but we had to do what we thought was right and so we did".
McLaren can take some positive information from the last two races considering the clear improvements, but the double podium in Australia had raised hopes for something quite different this season. Apart from the victory at Melbourne, Coulthard has scored just one point and still has only 11 points, while Hakkinen remains with 10. And the distance from the head of the championship certainly does not help morale: Schumacher with this success jumps up to 37 points, +7 on the great disappointment of the day, Villeneuve, who will have to understand that in Formula 1 there are also other possible results besides victories and retirements if he wants to win this World Championship.
After the race, there was a little thrill for Schumacher, who saw his second win in the championship at risk for a moment, as he was accused of having used thirty-one tyres instead of the twenty-eight allowed. On the marshals' sheets there are three more tyres, but after a long and accurate check, tyre by tyre, line by line, it turns out that the marshals' lists were wrong and so Schumacher's victory becomes definitive when it is late at night in Italy. Immediately afterwards, the German driver takes his plane to Cologne, where he stops just long enough to pick up his daughter Gina Maria, who was staying with her grandparents. He is flying to France, destination: Magny-Cours.
Davide Scotto di Vetta