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Race Day : August 24th 1997

 

Easy action for Villeneuve as Alesi moves in on Schumacher’s territory.

Hill out-qualified by Diniz in qualifying for the 44th Belgium Grand Prix

 

The action on the track at Spa-Francorchamps took a poor second place in the eyes of the press to the news of Ron Dennis’ decision to retain his two McLaren drivers for next year. In a statement issued at Spa yesterday (22nd), Dennis said "Both drivers have contributed to the building and re-shaping of our team and I believe that they should and will benefit from the fruits of these efforts next year." Dennis’ offer of a salary of 1.3 million for current World Champion Damon Hill to drive for him plus a bonus of 650,000 a win, did not settle easily on Hill’s shoulders. Hill probably quite rightly, thinks that he is worth more than that. In a statement issued after Dennis’ announcement Hill said that the offer, "did not accord with what I had been led to believe from our prior negotiations and I did not consider that it demonstrated a serious commitment to me as a driver." Be that as it may, the choices for Hill are now, as last year, rapidly running out. With his rejection of a $20 million deal with Sauber, over two years, signifying his desire for action with a more competitive team, it is therefore strange that he should turn down, admittedly a paltry offer with McLaren, but more importantly, the chance of winning races in a team that looks highly likely to be amongst the top three next season. "The reason those deals have been put to me is because of my ability and achievements in the sport and what I can do for a racing team." He said. "Nobody would be offering me money if I was no good. It’s not about risks we take, it’s because of our huge commercial value. Sponsors want to be associated with Michael Schumacher and Damon Hill. It’s not right for me to roll over with my legs in the air and forego the things I have worked for all my career."

This leaves Hill with few options and whilst he does not believe that it is a buyer’s market, his only hope now of a competitive drive is with Jordan Peugeot. But then both Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger are on the market with few places in the top half of the grid remaining. Hill told the London Evening Standard on Friday, that he already knows where he is headed for 1998 and that he couldn’t say anything for a few weeks. If so, why was he so forthcoming regarding his rejection by McLaren? The even money is now, that he will stay put and try to develop the TWR Arrows team. True, the car has improved in leaps and bounds over the past few months and with ex-Ferrari John Barnard on board and with the new ‘narrow’ specs coming in for next year, the goalposts have been widened for all the teams but unless there’s a Mecachrome Renault lurking under the covers, no matter how good the car is, the Yamaha will not cut it this side of the millennium. But in all probability, unless he goes with Jordan or the extraordinary happens and Williams take him back, his career will not take an upturn at the end of 1997 or 1998 for that matter. His fees will be a great deal less than this year and the sport will see the talents of one of the more experienced and reliable drivers on the grand Prix circuit, squandered.

Qualifying by comparison was a mere aside. Jacques Villeneuve popped out of the pits after about 15 minutes to take provisional pole by half a second from Michael Schumacher eschewing his lightweight chassis for the heavier spare car. The first few minutes of the session saw six changes of pole position, starting with an early benchmark set by Johnny Herbert’s Sauber followed by Jean Alesi who was extremely quick in the wet the previous day, Heinz Harald Frentzen, Giancarlo Fisichella and Schumacher.

Despite an extremely serious accident in the morning warm-up, when Mika Hakinnen’s McLaren broke a carbon fibre toe-link control, he was back in qualifying ending up an excellent 5th. David Coulthard on the other hand, struggled all session suffering from severe understeer, doing well to get 10th slot.

Damon Hill, again driving with all of his trademark smoothness, was at one time 4th but subsequent fast laps by Ralf Schumacher, Fisichella, Alesi and his own team mate Pedro Diniz, pushed him down to 9th position, a reflection on the speed of the track rather than his driving. It must however, have been irksome to him to be out-qualified by his number two driver Diniz and it is clear that the drivers’-seat war has put his mind, if only temporarily, elsewhere.

The Jordan Peugeot’s flew and again Fisichella showed what a superb young driver he is. On pole, however briefly, he drove brilliantly and with maturity, ending his day 4th, to share the grid with the man he so nearly overtook in Hungary, Michael Schumacher.

A late charge from Alesi in the final 90 seconds, failed to reclaim his pole position and he had to settle for second best in what could turn out to be a fruitful weekend for him. Team mate Gerhard Berger had an ‘off’ at the Bus stop chicane earlier in the session and driving the spare, set up for Alesi, couldn’t get passed 15th place.

Irishman Eddie Irvine was unable to go higher than 17th position, his Ferrari suffering from balance and understeering problems.

If it rains tomorrow, the Bridgestone runners will be following the leaders a great deal more closely, but it looks as though Williams have finally got their act together and produced a car that today was by far the nimblest and seemingly Villeneuve had more in reserve, as he looked like a man that was barely trying. "This was a good one." He smiled. "It’s always good to be quick at this track. We hardly changed the set-up all day." Ho hum. With confidence like that it is hard to believe that the promoters haven’t already threaded the maple leaf flag above the podium. Whilst the Ferrari’s may not have the legs for the course, especially in the heavier configuration, it could be the fabulous Jordan’s that will do the running and Fisichella in particular who could be the snake in the grass.

 

Chris Richardson

 

 

Qualifying results Spa-Francorchamps

Aug 23rd 1997

 

1 J.Villeneuve Williams 1m 49.45s

2 J.Alesi Benetton 1m 49.75s

3 M.Schumacher Ferrari 1m 50.29s

4 G.Fisichella Jordan 1m 50.47s

5 M.Hakkinen McLaren 1m 50.50s

6 R.Schumacher Jordan 1m 50.52s

7 H.Frentzen Williams 1m 50.65s

8 P.Diniz Arrows 1m 50.85s

9 D.Hill Arrows 1m 50.97s

10 D.Coulthard McLaren 1m 51.41s

11 J.Herbert Sauber 1m 51.72s

12 R.Barrichello Stewart 1m 51.91s

13 G.Morbidelli Sauber 1m 52.09s

14 J.Trulli Prost 1m 52.27s

15 G.Berger Benetton 1m 52.39s

16 S.Nakano Prost 1m 52.74s

17 E.Irvine Ferrari 1m 52.79s

18 J.Magnussen Stewart 1m 52.88s

19 M.Salo Tyrrell 1m 52.89s

20 U.Katayama Minardi 1m 53.54s

21 J.Verstappen Tyrrell 1m 53.72s

22 T.Marques Minardi 1m 54.50s

1997 Championship Contents

Formula 1 Contents