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"We'll have to go away and do a lot more testing."
Damon Hill after his car failed to finish the formation lap.




























The Sicilian's ornery streak was coming to the fore.
On Jean Alesi's inability to pit.












"'s satisfying to get the job done."
Ron Dennis, jubilant after his team's first win in four years.


Race Day : March 9th 1997

Silver Arrows hit the Bull’s eye

The majority of the grid seemed to be suffering in this race of attrition and over-excitement on the part of some drivers. Chris Richardson reports.

I wonder if Damon Hill, World Champion of 1996 had ever envisaged sitting behind not one, but two Minardi Fords at the start of a Grand Prix. Has he ever practiced a start from such a lowly position and will his reactions to the red lights prove to be a bit too quick for the Tyrell of Mika Salo in front? The ignominy of his position, proclaimed by the colourful gaggle of cars stretching before him, does not seem to have dulled his enthusiasm for wanting to put, what has been likened in the nicest possible way, as a ‘dog’ , through its paces. It was testament to his driving skills and the mark of a true Champion that he managed to qualify his car at all. Now, safe with the knowledge that ‘Number 1’ cannot be taken away from him, his often repeated assurances of loyalty to the team in the face of such appalling technical weakness, have not diminished in sincerity. His constant desire to prove himself as ‘a great driver in a car other than a Williams’ will provide him with the motivation for attempting to skip this particular millstone across what will become a lake of increasing turbulence as the season progresses.

It was therefore, perhaps significant, then that the Arrows never made it past the starting lights. A throttle failure during the warm up lap saved Hill from an inevitably embarrassing finishing position in what could only be described as a fitting and final scenario to the end of a miserable weekend for Tom Walkinshaw’s Arrows team. Hill’s final understatement of the weekend and there have been many, was: "We’ll have to go away and do a lot more testing". He did not sound unhappy, just resigned.

Frentzen discusses his options

As the lights went out Jacques Villeneuve’s getaway was uncharacteristically poor leaving the way for Heinz Harald Frentzen to hit the clear air first. The Canadian need not have worried unduly, for a fast moving Irvine edged his Ferrari up the inside to the right hand Turn one as Herbert, lively off the mark, started to pass the Williams on the left. This gave Villeneuve nowhere to go but into Herbert’s Sauber forcing both into the gravel and out of the race. Irvine never made it to the end of the first lap, retiring with damaged suspension. In quick succession, as the German led David Coulthard and Michael Schumacher through the first couple of laps, younger brother Ralf Schumacher threw his Jordan away whilst Dutchman Jos Verstappen sent his Tyrell airborne over a kerb and hit the gravel. Nakano in the Prost Mugen Honda was next off, sliding on a grass verge and putting his nose firmly in the dirt. Six cars out by lap three and Frentzen with a light fuel load for a two stop strategy, was walking away with the race, the remaining Ferrari failing to make any inroads on Coulthard’s flying McLaren.

Lap 7 saw the first record broken at 1.32.56 by Frentzen who had taken out a commanding 14.4 second lead. The other McLaren of Mika Hakkinen having dropped off the pace slightly was being worried by the two Benettons who in turn were being pursued hotly by Olivier Panis in the highest of the Bridgestone runners. The new boys weren’t having a very good time of it today and Fisichella in the other Jordan Peugeot took his car off trying to late brake Rubens Barichello’s Stewart to gain 9th position. The deal with Peugeot for next season now just got a little further away.

By Lap 18 Frentzen was in amongst the back markers and was called in for fresh rubber handing the lead to Coulthard and rejoining in third behind Schumacher. It was surprising at this point that the expected gain the Williams should have made on the Ferrari was not apparent, the gap stabilising at around 8 seconds. With Coulthard making a new lap record of 1.31.41 on lap 29, things didn’t look so rosy in the Williams camp.

Lap 30 saw Schumacher into the pits for what was to be a misjudged stop giving Frentzen second spot, but with Coulthard ahead with a very useful 12.5 second advantage. The boards were out for Jean Alesi as Coulthard pitted on lap 32 and, on the Benetton’s third pass, it was plain that the team were getting angry and the Sicilian’s ornery streak was coming to the fore. By ignoring his instructions to pit, it was obvious that he was in a world of his own. Frentzen now the leader once again, but still to make a second stop, was again unable to capitalise on the clear track and pull out a few more seconds.

The inevitable happened of course and the luckless Alesi cruised to a halt with no fuel left on board. This unforgivable act of disobedience surely must seal his fate with team boss Flavio Briatore and it is now debatable whether he will see out the season with the team.

The final drama was to unfold has Frentzen took his second stop. The overheated brake discs caused a rear wheel nut to lock taking him 16 seconds to clear the pit, conceding first place to Coulthard and coming out third behind Schumacher. Yet again the gap between The Ferrari and the Williams failed to close significantly and as Schumacher made a second unscheduled stop for a ‘splash and dash’ and new tyres it looked like the Williams would at least make the second step of the podium. This was not to be. On lap 55 with three to go, braking at the end of the pit straight for Turn One, Frentzen's left front disk let go in a cloud of black dust causing a rapid spin into the dirt and disbelief for the Williams team. The explanation for his lack of pace was now obvious.

A jubilant McLaren crew leapt upon Coulthard as he parked his car in the victor’s parc ferme alongside 3rd man home and team mate, Mika Hakkinen. This was the 50th anniversary for a winless McLaren. The last victory being taken by Ayrton Senna at Adelaide in 1993. An emotional Ron Dennis spattered with Champagne said in a faltering voice, "When you’re in the position we’ve been in for the past two years and you can’t get anything right and you get plenty of criticism and sometimes motivation is a little harder to find, it’s satisfying to get the job done."

So, a rather inauspicious start to the season for Williams and one that none of the experts would have predicted. Both Coulthard and Schumacher had Irvine to thank for throwing the race into chaos and providing a points table that initially at least, will not show a runaway and uncontested lead to a Williams championship. They will be back, that is without doubt and, as Hill may reflect on the plane home tonight, Boss Frank Williams may not get it all his own way this season. Unfortunately for Hill though, it will not be him showing him the way. The Arrows that won were silver not blue and white.

Chris Richardson


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