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Bad judgement calls leave Formula 1 in disarray in a year of rising young stars

"I won't play it dirty, I want the championship decided on the race track, not across a table in a court in Paris or in a collision." (Michael Schumacher Qualifying for the European Grand Prix at Jerez)


The fat lady didn’t just sing she screamed blue murder. The grand finale to the season was not a collective bow to the crowd, was not a standing ovation for the players, but a boo and a hiss to the villain of the piece. Drama and tension were plentiful. There was luck, there was misfortune and there was derring do but in the end, F1 laid itself bare to the clinical gaze of both the uninitiated public and fans alike, revealing a darker underbelly of mismanagement, ugliness and greed.

But didn’t it all start out so well? The optimism put out by the various teams was only equalled by the drivers. Some who had changed teams, some who swore that this year was going to be the one in which they came of age.

A case in point was Damon Hill, hoodwinked by the smooth operation of the newly acquired TWR/Arrows team, "We won’t make any claims for 1997, but I believe we will make rapid progress." Said Hill. " From what I have seen of the Tom Walkinshaw operation, there is a germ of a great team for the future." Maybe so but not in Damon’s year with the team and it all turned sour on the eve of the British Grand Prix with boss Walkinshaw telling his experienced protégée to ‘shape up or ship out’. Hill did both.

Having witnessed his racing career slip from the top to the bottom of the heap in three short months, he spoke candidly about his contentment with the team in May. "I read a lot of reports from the races for my own amusement and they seem to give the impression that I am despondent, I'm unhappy, I'm dejected and I'm cross. But it couldn't be further from the truth." Two months later at the start of the British Grand Prix weekend, the honeymoon seemed to be at and end. Having not finished the first three races of the season, Hill was faring low to dreadful and Walkinshaw was not a happy man. "We’re at the time when we are seriously considering our drivers for next season and his performances speak for themselves." He said. "It’s quite obvious to any one who has been watching the team closely that we aren’t satisfied. We’re not satisfied with his performance and nor should he. He has had too many accidents, particularly in the early laps and he hasn’t been qualifying as he should.".

Hill’s performance rating has indeed been poor this year but with a few exceptions it has been entirely down to the team. Whether one qualifies first or last, if the engine expires, one does not finish the race. The list of incidents makes for unhappy reading.

In Melbourne, a throttle failure during the warm up lap saved Hill from an inevitably embarrassing finishing position. In Brazil, with a not discreditable 11th place secure, Hill’s oil cooler caught fire. Diniz spun out a lap later. Argentina saw his retirement with overheating and air pressure problems. Team mate Pedro Diniz also retired with a blown Yamaha. Imola, saw Hill forced to start from the pit lane due to a mechanical fault in the Arrows A18 in the shape of a starter motor shaft oil seal failure. Frustrated at being blocked by the Prost of Nakano, he later collided with the Japanese novice for which he received a one race suspended ban. Diniz also received the same for causing a near miss with Jacques Villeneuve. Rain caused a great many retirements in Monaco, Hill collided with Eddie Irvine’s Ferrari, braking heavily to avoid a collision. Hill was running in a strong 6th slot in Barcelona when the Yamaha engine let go, maintaining his unbroken record of non finishes for the TWR team. In a race of attrition and cut short by Olivier Panis’ accident, Montreal gave Hill his first finish of the season albeit 9th and last. Finally, on the first lap at Magny Cours, squeezed from the back of the pack funnelling in to the first right hander, he damaged his front wing forcing lengthy repairs and a finishing position of last.

In a sweeping statement, Walkinshaw said "any professional is only as good as his last race. You should be trying 110% to show others they should want you." Hill qualified in 12th position sharing the grid with 11th placed Benetton driver Jean Alesi and gave his TWR Arrows team their first point of the season by finishing a hard fought sixth. In the Hungarian Grand Prix, with aerodynamicist John Barnard added to the team, he was inexplicably on a certain win, when a rubber washer in the hydraulic system put him in trouble on the last lap. He lost his 35 second lead to Villeneuve and was lucky to cross the line in second place mere moments ahead of Johnny Herbert.

Hill had tasted success again after the drought of ten races and there was no way he could stay at TWR. Knowing full well that they would be forced to use the practically impotent Yamaha for another season having been rejected by Mugen-Honda in favour of Jordan who, in turn, were losing their Peugeot engine to the Prost team, it was more by luck than his own rather wayward judgement that he ended up with a team that he should have joined last year. In phrasing disquietingly similar to that which he made from TWR’s Leafield base last year, Hill said, "I am absolutely delighted to be driving for the Benson and Hedges Jordan Mugen Honda team, starting next year. I believe that my choice of team will provide me with the perfect environment to win races and ultimately challenge for my second Formula One World Championship." High hopes indeed but the chances of achieving it with Jordan look a lot rosier than they ever did with TWR.

Jordan of course, launched their ’97 car with a massive financial investment in technology and staff, buoyed up by an increased pay-packet from sponsors Benson & Hedges and despite finishing in the same position as last year were considerably up on both drivers and constructors points. The brilliant Giancarlo Fisichella showed far and away the greatest potential of any rookie driver( and there were a few,) on the track and it was only through the ‘bully boy’ tactics and immaturity of his team mate Ralf Schumacher that he didn’t get more podium positions. Fireworks were promised by Eddie Jordan at the beginning of the season and pyrotechnics there certainly were. A hard talking-to by their boss seemed to put things in perspective yet the young Schumacher’s thoughtlessness at the Luxembourg Grand Prix in gunning for his Italian rival, culminated in a first corner accident that forced his older brother off the track and into an early retirement at a crucial point in the championship. Belligerent, as he was regarded by many in the pit lane, he said, "It was a normal start incident. I made my best start of my career so far and had moved up to fifth place. We all braked a bit late at the first corner and there was just not enough room." He went on, "My car jumped up in the air, I hit Michael and we were all off. It was potentially quite dangerous, so I suppose we should be quite happy no one was hurt. The consequences were bad for our team and for my brother Michael."

Both lived to fight again, Fisichella fighting along with Jordan to hold on to a solid offer of a seat for ’98. Benetton boss Flavio Briatore decided to exercise his option on his wonderboy and take him for Benetton. The courts decided in favour of the mercurial Italian playboy and Fisichella, not always fluent with his broken English was more eloquent than most when he said after the German Grand Prix, "I finish my dream ... my target was the podium and now ... nothing." Benetton will surely give him his first Victory, although their form will have to improve dramatically. Having not had a victory since their golden egg-laying goose, Schumacher, left to sort the flagging Ferrari out, Briatore’s boys Gerhard Berger and Jean Alesi, would be out looking for jobs at the end of the season. Alesi’s relationship with one time close pal Flavio, had rapidly deteriorated to the extent that Briatore was accusing him of knowing the names of the crew of his boat rather than the mechanics in the pits. Alesi moved on and down, pushed out of a top four team for the first time since upgrading from Tyrrell in a blaze of speculative glory, to the honest, but under-achieving Swiss Sauber team.

An ongoing sinus problem for Berger caused him to miss out on the Canadian, French and British Grands Prix and when his father died in a plane crash one could have forgiven him for giving up the ghost, but his comeback performance at the German Grand Prix was one of the highlights of the year.

The outside chance of a non German to take the honours, was a pretty slim one at the beginning of the weekend, with the brothers Schumacher in fine form and a highly charged but poorly performing Heinz Harald Frentzen, desperate to soothe the ever shortening tempers of his Williams bosses. But a rejuvenated Gerhard Berger, returning to Benetton after his three race absence with a decision to look for fresh fields next season, shared the front row of the grid with Giancarlo Fisichella, the young driver who will replace him and then showed him a clean pair of heels for the entirety of the race. In a weekend, where all the talk was of ‘young blood’ drivers, hungry for the spoils of their elders and at a fraction of the cost, the dinosaurs roared back with a show of strength that proved experience can, on occasion, be worth more than motivation.

Finishing 17 seconds ahead of Michael Schumacher after having driven a precise and intelligent race, an emotional Berger said, "I really felt I had some special power here this weekend. I knew when I came back that all the Media sharks were waiting to get some negative headlines and I wanted to show them that it’s different and I did it." The Austrian National Anthem played for the first time in two years, ironically at the same circuit where Berger had his last victory and he no doubt he shed a private tear, thinking that his father would have been overjoyed by the occasion had he been there to witness it.

McLaren brought Rock ‘n Roll to F1 with the Spice Girls pushing their car out in front of the public gaze. With new sponsors, German cigarette company West, the car was indeed drop dead gorgeous and knocked spots of any momentary beauty that the five gyrating songsters could muster. The smile on Boss Ron Dennis’ face was justified. Having started and finished the season with a win (their first since 1993) and taking another at Monza and two second places, the resurgence of this once dominant force on the grid, had begun. Mercedes power, however has not been faultless as Mika Hakkinen would agree. A potential birthday present for the ‘Flying Finn’ and a double whammy for McLaren at the Luxembourg Grand Prix, turned into a debacle for Mercedes when it suffered two engine blowouts within a lap of each other.

First, Hakkinen’s team mate, David Coulthard’s engine exploded in a big way on lap 42 in front of the Grandstand and no doubt all Mercedes’ invited finery. Philosophical as ever he said, "If you are going faster than the rest and we have shown that we were the quickest package this weekend, you must be closer to the edge and unfortunately we were too close today." He didn’t realise how close he was, for a lap later and in an uncannily similar fashion to the two Prosts of Nakano and Trulli in Austria a fortnight earlier, Hakinnen’s engine too let go, a few hundred yards further along the straight at the exit to the pit lane. Magnificent in yet another devastating defeat, Hakinnen echoed the words of his team mate. "I was all the time following the pit boards and saving the tyres and the engine. McLaren Mercedes want to be the best so you always expect some failures, just as I want to be the best and I make some mistakes too." As a disappointed McLaren team manager Ron Dennis said, "To finish first, first you’ve got to finish."

In 1997, Williams brought with them their 1996 reputation of absolute dominance and for the first part of the season proved invincible. Jacques Villeneuve in his second year with the team and easily staving off the overblown reputation of new signing Heinz Harald Frentzen, could have won everything in sight, but as it was, the first half of the season was marred by 4 retirements. A first corner confrontation with Eddie Irvine’s Ferrari in Australia, a gearbox problem at Imola, badly misjudged weather conditions at Monaco and a concrete wall in Canada, all added to the brilliant confusion that seemed to divide the Williams team despite winning five Grands Prix up to and including the race at Silverstone.

With Schumacher rapidly overtaking the Canadian in the points race, it seemed that Villeneuve was on a suicidal mission to scupper any chance that he had of clinching an early championship title. In an interview published in the German Publication ‘Der Spiegel’ he claimed that the new rules designed to curb the ever increasing speed of Formula one cars, were ‘shit’. "I think it's going to take a lot away from the driver," he protested. "Instead of still being the ultimate sport that it is, it's going to become more of a show and a circus." Villeneuve had always advocated the ‘fun’ aspect of driving and ‘taking things to the edge’ and firmly believed that the FIA was going in the wrong direction with its rules regarding grooved tyres and a narrower car width. "We need bigger tires and 70% smaller wings," he said, "There's no longer any difference between Monaco and a 160 km/h bend at Barcelona -- no faster heart beat, no adrenaline, nothing but disappointment."

This didn’t sit well with the FIA who called him before a board of enquiry during the lead up to the Canadian Grand Prix. Villeneuve said afterwards, "I haven’t been asked to change my views, Just my language." An uneasy truce was declared following a reprimand and, sporting a new bottle blonde head of hair, he pulled his finger out to take the races in Hungary (from an unlucky Hill), Austria and Luxembourg, putting him back on the track for a thrilling climax to the Championship.

Frentzen was having a bad season and was obviously causing frustration in the Williams camp. However a win at Imola, stopped the back stabbing from the media and, with Schumacher out of the Frame at the end of the season, two second places and four thirds, ensured a one two for Williams and outgoing engine supplier Renault. His win at the San Marino Grand Prix was obviously a relief to him. "It’s very much like....oil on my soul." He said later.

Fully aware of the increased pressure that was now put on him to continue his success rather than to achieve it for the first time, Frentzen stated that he ‘become the prey instead of being the hunter’.

Yet despite his undeniably dazzling win, a shadow of doubt still existed as to Frentzen’s consistent race winning capabilities. With the real yard stick having retired and his fellow countryman (Schumacher) driving a car (Ferrari) lacking the outright speed of the Williams, yet finishing less than a second and a half behind, the German had still to be the hunter and win regularly, against his team mate and the only man capable of going faster.

Then there was Michael Schumacher, by far and away the greatest talent of the season, producing a clutch of absolute classic drives to prove beyond all doubt that as a driver in the wet or dry, he has yet to find his equal. As a man however, all is not right with the rich threads of heroism and sportsmanship, that form the legends which turn into folklore over the passing years.

At Monaco, an enlightened reading of the weather left main rival Williams totally out of contention and Schumacher took the flag after the two hour time limit had expired, with ten cars out of the twenty two remaining and a massive 53 seconds ahead of a delighted Rubens Barichello, giving the first podium finish to Jackie Stewarts fledgling team. After giving Ferrari team boss Jean Todt a joyous chair lift the two Ferrari drivers abandoned Barichello on the podium to give their pit crew a liberal dowsing of Moet. The good times for Ferrari it seemed, were back.

Having been accused of ‘sandbagging’ during preseason testing, it was not surprising to see him take the French Grand Prix in similar circumstances by the scruff of the neck, shake it and deposit the remains in front of a bewildered Williams pit who were by now becoming uncomfortably familiar with getting it wrong. Celebrating his third victory in 4 races, he put paid to pre race doubts as to his competitiveness by saying "Why does our car work suddenly? My predictions for this race were wrong and this was a convincing win. to take pole position and win the race, is the best you can do". The press still unconvinced that there was still something left up Ferrari’s scarlet sleeve were proved right again at a wet wet Spa-Francorchamps circuit.

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 with cars looking pretty for their brief posing time on the grid, the not totally unexpected happened. A downpour of severe proportions 15 minutes before the start, turned the track into an inky black slick and parts into a shallow swimming pool. Schumacher proved yet again his mastery in the wet, by dominating the race from the first lap. The Williams’ so dominant in qualifying, disappeared from view relatively quickly leaving only the Mercurial Jean Alesi and star new boy, Giancarlo Fisichella to contest the race. "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."

The tyre factor was supposed to play a greater part than it actually did for the 1997 season with the arrival Bridgestone taking the mid and back field under its wing. Its rain tyres were supposedly worth over a second a lap on the tried and tested Goodyears, but then the top four or five Goodyear-shod drivers in the top four or five teams were worth that also and then some more. Bridgestone stayed where it was in the lower rankings, but still generating positive comment and no doubt made some of its lesser teams look a lot better than they actually were. The decision by Goodyear to pull out of F1, has without doubt been influenced by Bridgestone who are quite prepared to take on the American Company’s burden of supplying the whole grid in 1999.

In a surprise move that left the Motor Racing fraternity stunned, Goodyear Racing decided to pull out of Formula 1 after the 1998 season. In a statement, a spokesman for Goodyear said, "Rule changes imposed for 1998 are a major factor in our decision." He also stated that the 'rising costs of Formula One' influenced their withdrawal.

McLaren with only a year left to run on its contract were the first of the front runners to make the switch to Japanese rubber for the coming season and it looks as though there might be a few more to follow, having reservations about the continued commitment by Goodyear, to continual research and development throughout 1997.

It was a season of young guns, hungry for the prizes, who’s exuberance far out weighed their driving abilities, yet by mid season there was a definite pecking order, head and shoulders above which, was young Giancarlo Fisichella. Having driven with intelligence and style, eclipsing his quick but impetuous team mate Ralf Schumacher, his performance tailed off towards the end of the season. This could be due to the end of the modification programme on the Jordan 197 or the stress of being bandied about and fought over by Eddie Jordan and Benetton boss Flavio Briatore, who claimed that they had the right to use his services for the coming season. Eddie Jordan lost as expected and it will be Benetton Mecachrome who will have the advantage of his talent for ‘98.

With the arrival of Dave Richards to take over the reins of a team that had become complacent and directionless under the hands of the disenchanted Italian playboy Briatore, a new era for the Italian team is about to commence. With the proven ability of Fisichella now that his apprenticeship in F1 has been served and new signing and surprise of mid season racing, Alexander Wurz as replacement for the ailing Berger, Benetton should emerge as a hungry young team with everything to go for and podium finishes expected rather then hoped for.

Jarno Trulli surprised many with his intelligent driving for the Prost team whilst deputising for Olivier Panis who suffered two broken legs in an accident at the Canadian Grand Prix. He will be a permanent fixture for the new team in their second season in F1 for 1998.

The debacle that was Jerez ended the Formula 1 year amid cries from the press of ‘whitewash’ and 'mismanagement'. The popular opinion was that Schumacher deserved to take the crown for his out and out driving performances in making the not altogether roadworthy Ferrari look like a winner even if it wasn’t. Reliability problems at Silverstone and his unfortunate ‘off’ in Luxembourg were not of his making and had he collected further points for these two races, he would probably have been champion before Jerez, so possibly preventing his disgraceful actions that only made the press switch allegiance immediately to ‘bad boy’ Villeneuve and hail him as the ‘peoples’ champion. Schumacher had instantly become a dirty word.

On lap 48, Villeneuve saw the Ferrari go wide at the Curva Dry Sack, leaving an opportunity for him to slip through on the inside under braking. As the Williams drew level, Schumacher realising that he had made a fatal error in giving his rival the space in which to overtake, seemed to deliberately and sharply alter course, making contact with the side radiator of Villeneuve’s car and launching himself into the gravel, his wheels spinning ineffectually. It was a tragic piece of driving seemingly proving that winning the race by fighting to the flag, was never on his agenda and it has marred irrevocably a season in which Schumacher has shown a new found maturity dominated by masterful driving and sportsmanship.

The Steward of the Race deemed it a ‘racing accident’ and that ‘No further action needed to be taken’ but the baying of the press especially and ironically the German press, forced the FIA to re-examine the incident.

An 'act of aggression' had not been unexpected and Williams technical director Patrick Head ominously referred to previous incidents involving the German. "The man who gets ahead is in a position where, as we’ve seen before, he can be very aggressive with the person behind." He said cautiously after the previous days qualifying. "I think that’s what happened to Damon in Adelaide in ’94, a deliberate removal of a competitor. The man with less points has to be very careful if he’s challenging for the lead." Prophetic words indeed and, so it came to pass...

Bernie Ecclestone, 67 year old F1 ringmaster, had also issued a stern pre- race warning to both Championship contenders and threatened severe repercussions if it came to dirty driving on the track. "The guilty party can expect to be a spectator in the first few rounds in 1998. We will also hit them where it really hurts, in their wallets, if they step out of line," he said. "Accidents do occur in the heat of the moment, especially when there is so much at stake, but we don't want them to do anything silly. Past championships have been decided by one driver taking another off and it must not happen again." These as it turned out were hollow threats.

In the heat of the moment, these fine words had been ignored. Yet to their eternal shame the FIA when it came down to sanctions, repercussions and punishment, let the perpetrator off the hook with what amounted to a mere smack on the wrist in a show of toothless neglection of their roll as governing body of a sport that needs to be ruled with a rod of carbon fibre. To sanction Schumacher by banning him as Ecclestone threatened to do, from the first few races of ’98, would have been the natural thing to do, but it would only highlight the current lawlessness of Formula 1, and fuel controversy as it has done over the closed season. This would please nobody and the sport found itself saddled with a ‘Jerezgate’ that, like Adelaide in 1994 refused to go away. Had Schumacher got away with it and put the Canadian out or, if they had both gone out, he would have won the Championship and the penalty would have been severe. As it was he only hurt himself and it was the ultimately his heaviest cross to bear.

However his name being excluded from the 1997 championship tables, was hardly any punishment at all. To Schumacher coming second or twenty second is of no consequence. He didn’t win and that was an end to it. The fact that he was allowed to keep all his race wins and points made a mockery of the scoring system and with five race wins to his name and 78 points still in his personal CV it will seem like a ghost had been driving to future historians of Formula 1. His name still appears in championship listings in second place under Villeneuve along with his race wins. The only difference is that there is no positional number beside it.

To add insult to injury the accusations of collusion between Williams and McLaren in which the McLarens of David Coulthard and Mika Hakkinen were allowed to pass to take a one - two for the Woking team, were sanctioned by the FIA, the furore being further muddied by the unscrupulous interjection purportedly by Ferrari, in an attempt to take the heat of Schumacher’s impending hearing, of transcripts of pit to car recordings allegedly corroborating the facts.

Whether or not it was disproved by the parties involved, the incidents did happen and can only be judged from a moral point of view. From the trackside observer, it seemed that Villeneuve in his damaged car, was quite capable of holding off Hakinnen’s advances for the final lap to secure the race for Renault, but then who knows how the McLarens would have changed the shape of the race had they actually raced the Williams as is the bounden duty of any racing driver.

It was also a rebuff to Renault who has provided Williams with the ripest fruit from the tree of superiority for the last 9 years, giving them 63 race wins. As Renault Sport President Patrick Faure said, "I think Renault will be remembered for its loyalty." Which is more than can be said of boss Frank Williams. "Formula 1 is no world of angels," Faure continued. " is possible to respect such values as loyalty and fair play even in such a demanding environment."

The season rounded off with ‘sleaze’ accusations of Ecclestone making a $1 million contribution to the New Labour party in an ‘innocent’ and ill-timed attempt to exclude the impending total tobacco sponsorship ban of all sporting events from Formula 1. The payment was made by Ecclestone in January after a colleague had asked him to make a donation. "I have never sought any favour from New Labour or any members of the government, nor has any been given." Said Ecclestone.

The timing was extremely unfortunate for the government who’s were at the time, known to be over £4 million in the red. Ecclestone’s visit with FIA President Max Mosley to Downing Street in July to lobby the Prime Minister Tony Blair against the ban was thought to have been successful.

It also came to light that David Mills, husband of the Minister for public health Tessa Jowell who orchestrated the exemption, had acted in the past as a solicitor for Benetton. In an article in the Daily Telegraph she had stated, "David and I have both acted with absolute integrity throughout, to avoid any public conflict of interest. David is a respected lawyer who has been an innocent target of a vile and politically motivated slur."

Ecclestone also threatened to pull F1 out of Europe if the ban went through, offering the dates on the calendar to Asian venues who are clamouring to hold their first international motor racing events. Both Cuba and Russia want in and it looks like China and Malaysia will be hosting events in 1999 now that the future of both the Belgian and French Grands prix are in doubt.

The only sweet smelling flower in the vase of drooping petals was the news that all the accused in the trial over the death of Ayrton Senna had been acquitted. Senna died when he lost control of his Williams car and hit a wall at the Tamburillo curve in the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994. A fractured steering column was allegedly the cause of the accident and six people all of whom had some direct input into the incident, were put on trial at a makeshift courtroom at Imola. Frank Williams(director), Patrick Head and Adrian Newey (the two technicians of the Williams team who had designed and carried out the modifications to the steering column), Roland Bruynseraede (the FIA inspector who had approved the Imola track for racing), Federico Bendinelli and Giorgio Poggi (members of the management of the Imola circuit)all walked away without blame.

After 10 months of debate, it took just two minutes for judge Antonio Costanza to read the nine lines absolving all defendants of blame. The judge referred to article 530 of the code of penal procedure (acquittal), which states that if someone did not commit ‘the fact’ then he can’t be found guilty of it.

Formula 1 does not rest despite the FIA’s attempts to force them into idleness for a month or so after the last grand Prix. Drivers change teams, designers change teams, new sponsors are announced and preparations for testing and the new season start in earnest. This year unfortunately the sport has taken a back seat to the political and internal machinations and it is to it’s detriment that the world now has a far shabbier view of Formula 1.

New rules for 1998 should make the cars harder to drive and if Villeneuve’s outspoken comments are to be heeded, less safe. The narrower width of the cars and grooves in the tyre tread, will make the cars considerably slower and less controllable. Motor sports governing body the FIA regard these safety measures as imperative to reduce the risk of fatal accidents and to make racing more exciting. Villeneuve has often been outspoken in his comment regarding the new rules and how there is now ‘no fun’ in driving a Formula 1 car.

So it all comes round full circle. The new cars will be launched in the first month or so of the new year, to trumpets and flashing lights and huge amounts of optimism. The drivers and team bosses will all express their hopes for the season in the most positive way and the press will go and write their reports that all end with hopes for a truly exciting season, indeed ‘the most exciting season for years’. Cynicism aside, so it could well be, as the yardstick has yet to be calibrated. With all pointers set at zero it will be down to the teams and drivers with the fastest learning curves to get their new designs to work on the track. This will obviously be the teams with the biggest budget and again we can be assured that Williams will set the pace along with McLaren and Ferrari.

Damon Hill freshly ‘Jordanised’ has every chance of bettering his 1997 performance although the Mugen-Honda which will power the Silverstone team, has only ever taken a single victory and that one by Olivier Panis at Monaco driving a Prost (nee Ligier) in the rain in 1996 was because all the top contenders fell by the wayside in the atrociously wet conditions. With the tight French connection between Alain Prost and Peugeot, victory could be but a few races away although a season or so is a more realistic evaluation.

One team fell by the wayside this year almost before it started and one team announced it’s arrival for the ‘99 season. What the failed Lola team didn’t have, the big and burgeoning Reynard Racing team has. Huge cigarette sponsorship to enable them to engulf a small team - in this case Tyrrell - and the ability to induce faith into their backers. To enter F1 you have to be standing on a pile of notes that looks exactly like £50 million. This should guarantee you a year’s stress free racing, but Lola's pile just wasn't high enough and sparked off new FIA rules forcing new teams to deposit vast amounts of cash up front to show intent. This would be returned in a trickle by the FIA over the course of their first two participatory years. Who gets the interest remains to be seen. It also makes the FOCA look like a solvent bunch of professionals and the impending ‘floatation’ of Ecclestone’s private property that is F1, on the stock market, could re-burnish the sport’s tarnished edges. Having suffered it’s ‘annus miserabilis’ Formula 1 has now to look forward to a new honesty and a simplicity that keeps itself on track. The public will only stand so much and the fat cats and governing bodies could find themselves with the most expensive toy in the world with no one to watch them play.

It will be a different brand of Champagne being poured with such vulgar gusto at the end of each race next season as Moet have now withdrawn their sponsorship on the grounds that it ‘cheapens’ the value of their product. Formula 1 will no doubt hold it’s collective breath and close it’s eyes tight as the race motor homes are erected in Melbourne on March 8th. How Schumacher enters the fray, will be scrutinised by the world, his mood will be noted and his driving will be criticised no matter how he performs.

Formula 1 has taken a severe knocking this year and the ‘good times’ have to return to the paddock. For the world to keep watching to entice sponsors to stay in the sport, their has to be a strong governing body to back up the rules that it makes. This is the backbone of motor sport. The fracas of 1997 must never happen again. The circus has been given a clean bill of health with the exorcisation of the ghost of Senna and it should concentrate now on making the events on the track as healthy as their sponsor’s budgets.


Chris Richardson F1 editor

(A complete index of all preview, qualifying and full race reports can be found on the Speed Motorsport News Championship pages)

Pictures courtesy of the following: Chris Richardson, Goodyear Formula 1, David Coveney. For copyright information please contact Speed Publications Limited.

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