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Race Day : August 24th 1997


Ferrari rains on William’s parade as Schumacher makes waves in World Championship stakes. Bridgestone fail to give wet weather advantage and Diniz beats Hill to the line.

"What can I say about the young boy? He’s fantastic!" Eddie Jordan team boss.

"I called the wrong shot and I’ve only got myself to blame." Arrows driver, Damon Hill

Torrential rain turned the start at the Spa Francorchamps circuit into chaos as a fifteen minute shower of monsoon proportions turned the tables on the leading drivers, forcing teams to drastically revise pit stop strategies and set-up configurations.

Ferrari driver Michael Schumacher proved yet again his mastery in the wet, by dominating the Belgian Grand Prix from the first lap, aided by the fortunate turn in the weather at a crucial time. The Williams’ so dominant in qualifying, disappeared from view relatively quickly leaving only the Mercurial Jean Alesi and star new boy, Giancarlo Fisichella to make any attempt to catch him. With on track race excitement limited to a few overtaking manoeuvres and some mildly entertaining driver errors, choice of tyres was the key to the podium and it was Schumacher’s decision to start the race in the spare car on a wet set-up and intermediate compounds, that gave him the advantage from the start. "I knew I could win." He said. "I had gambled that it was only a shower and it paid off perfectly." The Williams team, no doubt harking back to their Monaco debacle, once again got it wrong proving that they are less adaptable to changing conditions than most.

It was awe inspiring to see the greatest technological sport in the world brought to it’s knees by mother nature and whereas all the plans were made, all strategies set and the cars looking pretty for their brief posing time on the grid, the not totally unexpected happened. A blue sky and a temperature of over 100 degrees changed within seconds, to a downpour of severe proportions, turning the track into an inky black slick and parts into a shallow swimming pool. The cars sent up bow waves as they gingerly left the pits on the out lap to their grid positions. Before the race started under the new safety car rules, the Jordan Peugeot of Ralf Schumacher had taken a turn for the worse aqua-planing into the barriers. A long and energetic Jog back to the pits enabled him to take over in the spare car in time for the race. "The rain was a lot stronger than I expected." He said. "I came round the corner into a lot of water and I spun. I made it back to the pits to take the T-car, but unfortunately I did not manage to get out again before the pit lane closed. Starting from the back of the grid is always difficult."

As the minutes ticked away and the bedraggled pit crew and board girls took to their positions on the grid, the rain eased and then stopped altogether giving way to a bright sun that caused the track, having dropped a full 18 degrees in as many minutes, to start steaming like a hammer horror movie as the water began to evaporate in it’s warmth.

Great standing pools of water were still evident especially at the Bus stop chicane and the safety car led the field round gingerly for the first three laps to allow for the majority of the excess water to be thrown clear by the treaded tyres. Within seconds of the start of the race proper on lap 4 Jean Alesi was nosing his Benetton up to Jacques Villeneuve but not enough to make any headway and with the Canadian holding a tenuous 1.5 second lead over an extremely closely packed Alesi, Schumacher and Fisichella, it was clear that the Williams was out of it’s depth in the prevailing conditions. At the end of the lap Schumacher was ready to make his move and this he did on Alesi at La Source forcing an inside line as the Frenchman was pushed wide into the run down to Eau Rouge. By Malmemedy, the Ferrari had closed on the Williams. Villeneuve did not hold him up not that he was able to and the red car shot by into the spray never to be seen again.

By lap 6, Giancarlo Fisichella not far behind and running on V-cut wet tyres, had also made short work of Alesi who like Villeneuve, realised that he was on the wrong tyres and proceeded to make his move on the Canadian. Villeneuve pitted immediately for an intermediate set of tyres whilst Alesi went in for slicks. This was regarded as a very brave move but one that would put him at an advantage as the track slowly dried. The cars straggled closely behind down to tenth position and by laps 9 and 10 the scramble was on for further tyre modification in the form of either intermediate wets or slicks. A fastest lap by Schumacher still on his first set of intermediates of 2m.06s, was the first of a dozen by the German who proceeded to march away from the field and by the time Fisichella changed to slicks on the following lap he had a 35 second lead over the Jordan.

Pedro Diniz, TWR’s number two driver was having a great weekend. Out-qualifying Damon Hill, he was now leading him and at one point briefly made it to third slot in the pit change melee. Hill had meanwhile called in for a set of intermediates to be prepared despite the rapidly drying track and the universal change to slick rubber by the rest of the teams. Consequently his performance suffered badly and he was forced to pit yet again 4 laps later for the right tyres. Had he waited another lap, his decision would have been vindicated for it started to rain out on the back part of the circuit at Les Combes. "I called to come in for intermediates and it was the wrong choice." Admitted Hill candidly. "I was being held up in traffic and I thought the only way to make the time up was to be on the right tyre. I could see some rain coming and it did actually start to rain after I had gone to slicks. Even so I called the wrong shot and I should have stayed out longer before going in for slicks. I’ve only got myself to blame."

It was a decision that cost him dear and despite a spirited performance he was uncompetitive throughout the race at one point running some 45 seconds behind Giani Morbidelli’s Sauber in 13th position and he retired on the last lap in 14th. "I had something loose with the wheel and I came in because something felt like it was going astray." He commented. "The race was a bad one for me."

It wasn’t very good for Villeneuve either who was pitting again, this time for slicks rejoining the race in 10th position. The leader board was changing by the minute and even showed the Stewart of Jan Magnussen in 2nd for a short moment and the Tyrrell of Mika Salo putting in an uncharacteristic fastest lap of 2m.04.08s. This was immediately upstaged by Alesi who had now inherited second place from Fisichella and looked to be in a strong position setting two fastest laps in a row.

Schumacher finally pitted, having taken advantage of every last millimetre of his intermediate tyres and with a massive 60 second lead was in no danger of relinquishing his advantage. But it was Alesi again who set the yardstick for speed as he took 20 seconds out of Schumacher’s lead on the drying track and yet another fastest lap of 1.57.34s.

The rains came, a bit late for Damon Hill, but as it seemed to be content to douse the far side of the circuit there was no mad dash for yet more tyres. It did however allow the ‘rainmeister’ Schumacher to steam majestically on to open out a 40 second lead over Alesi. Heinz Harald Frentzen struggling in both wet and dry conditions was finding it hard to pass 5th placed Johnny Herbert’s Sauber-Petronas and it was only after five laps of continual trying that he managed to do so. Hardly the stuff that Williams’ are made of.

Half distance saw the removal of both David Coulthard who continues to disappoint in the McLaren-Mercedes at Blanchimont and Ralf Schumacher who spun on the downhill approach to Les Combes and put the rear of the car into the Armco, giving him a second long walk back to the pits in a day.

Alesi was to pit again for fresh rubber and fuel dropping down to fourth behind Mika Hakinnen who was doing exceptionally well having started from the back of the grid, his 5th place in qualifying being disallowed when his fuel sample did not match the one submitted to the scrutineers at the start of the weekend. His third place also is under appeal for the same reason and to add to his troubles he was brought before the stewards for overtaking whilst the pace car was on the circuit. "The final result was satisfactory," said a guarded Hakinnen. "I had a technical problem, I was losing time every lap and I was concerned about fending off Heinz (Frentzen) to the end. It was a matter of just finishing the race. It was extremely difficult, but we managed to get through." He came away smiling looking forward to a cold shower in Monaco where he lives, presumably only a mere hop by private jet.

Lap 28 saw Schumacher pit for the second and last time and with the final placings more or less sewn up built up a 43 second lead over Fisichella by the time he had stopped for his second set of slicks. Another stop by Villeneuve put him down to 8th place behind a mechanically suspect Alesi and a superb out-braking manoeuvre at Les Combes, saw the Canadian into the points.

By the time the flag fell Schumacher had slowed to a cruise but still maintained a 33 second advantage over Fisichella. Hakinnen took the third slot with Frentzen, Herbert and Villeneuve a devastating 6th, making up the rest of the points share out.

True to say, that this weekend Ferrari were fortunate that the weather played into their hands, for it is certain that their form would not have been so strong had the sun continued to raise the surface temperature of the track. "I wasn’t too optimistic for the race." Said Schumacher afterwards. "Under straight forward circumstances in the dry I think we would have struggled, but in the wet and making the right choice of tyre everything went perfectly."

Not so for poor Jacques. Scoring a paltry 1 point to his rival’s 10 now gives him a deficit of 12 points and an uphill struggle to the champion’s crown. It was down to William's inability to get it right when it mattered and again a pole position has been squandered by suspect decision making when it should really be second nature. "I knew from the beginning that we had the wrong choice of tyres and I didn’t want to stay out for nothing like Monaco, so we came in and put on intermediates but the track dried much quicker than we believed." Villeneuve said. "It was just a question of pushing and trying to catch up the people in front. " Confirming Schumacher’s observations he continued, "We had an amazing car in the dry and Michael was in pretty bad shape with his blistering tyres, but 15 minutes of rain and the wrong tyre choice changed the whole result. Twelve points behind with five races to go is not a problem. The trouble is, that most of the next few races could also be in cold and wet weather and that is not going to be good for us."

Happiest man by far, was Fisichella. 4th at Imola, 3rd in Canada and now, after the disappointment of missing out an almost certain 2nd at Hockenheim due to a puncture, 2nd at Spa. In his endearing broken English he struggled to express his joy. "I don’t believe it! I’m very happy! 2nd position! It’s incredible!" he beamed and, pulling himself together, managed to get an explanatory sentence out before the standard effusive praise for his team. "It is another dream I have realised and now I am aiming for victory. The car was not very, very quick, but it was steady and reliable. Now we can look forward to Monza where I believe we have the chance to win." One can see how team boss Eddie Jordan will fight Benetton tooth and nail to keep the boy in his contract for next season. "What can I say about the young boy?" said Jordan. "He’s fantastic! The pit stop was the crucial part. We pulled away from McLaren and really once we broke that gap we were away."

A last lap coming together with Pedro Diniz, forced Eddie Irvine’s Ferrari off the track and down to 15th place. "Diniz hit me at the chicane as he tried to pass me." Said an unusually understanding Irishman. "Unfortunately this is the sort of thing that can happen when you are fighting for a place. I would like to forget the last three days which have been very difficult.."

While probably not wet enough for the Bridgestone tyres to make use of their superior handling properties, the intermediate Goodyears held together well and provided the exact balance- at least for Schumacher- between wet and dry conditions.

In a disjointed and fairly dull race, where the pit action was far more entertaining than the foregone conclusion on the circuit, Spa could mark the turning point for the World Championship title and Williams who dominated qualifying should be worried that due to some seriously flawed judgements, there is every possibility that Ferrari will walk away with both trophies.


Chris Richardson Aug 23rd 1997



Final results of the Belgian Grand Prix

Spa-Francorchamps Aug 23rd 1997


1. Schumacher (Ferrari) G 1h 33m 46.717s

2. Fisichella (Jordan-Peugeot) G + 26.753s

3. Hakkinen (McLaren-Mercedes) G + 30.852s (subject to appeal)

4. Frentzen (Williams-Renault) G + 32.147s

5. Herbert (Sauber-Petronas) G + 39.025s

6 Villeneuve (Williams-Renault) G + 42.103s

7. Berger (Benetton-Renault) G + 1m 03.741s

8 Diniz (Arrows-Yamaha) B + 1m 25.931s

9. Morbidelli (Sauber-Petronas) G + 1m 42.008s

10. Salo (Tyrrell-Ford) G + 1m 42.582s

11. Alesi (Benetton-Renault) G 1Lap

12. Magnussen (Stewart-Ford) B 1Lap

13. Hill (Arrows-Yamaha) B 1Lap

14. Katayama (Minardi-Hart) B 1Lap

15. Irvine (Ferrari) G 1Lap

16. Trulli (Prost-Mugen) B 2 laps


Fastest lap: Jacques Villeneuve: 1m 52.692s


1997 Championship Contents

Formula 1 Contents