The Totally Biased F1 Season Preview

Pete Fenelon and Richard Clegg

This is what happens when two men with too much time on their hands start thinking of Formula 1. 


The car is "lovely but slow". Says it all. Yamaha engines have a propensity for self-destruction, Arrows ran for far too many years without ever winning a race... Walkinshaw has rebuilt the team in his own image, but really, it doesn't look good. He's talking about 2-3 race wins for Hill but in my opinion that's moonshine. Wet qualifying and a wet race MIGHT JUST let him do it, but...  DAMON HILL has taken the most inexplicable move by a World Champion since Phil Hill (no relation) left Ferrari to go to ATS in '62. The logical move would've been Jordan or Stewart, but Walkinshaw lured Hill to his new outfit. Given that Hill really only has a few years left in F1 (have heard he'll quit at 40) I think we may never see him on top of the podium again, but I'm prepared to be surprised. Will probably get points semi-regularly.  PEDRO DINIZ is a former bete noire of mine. As '96 progressed he started demonstrating genuine speed, but basically he's paying Hill's wages (and a lot of other people's). Would be amusing if he outqualified or outraced Hill and I'd lost a bet or two if he did. Gentleman playboy, probably better suited to racing in GTs or something if we're being honest.  

WILLIAMS FW19-Renault Goodyear

Last season with works Renaults before two years paying for them. This will clearly annoy the *careful* Frank, who will no doubt be after freebie engines for 2000 onwards. The car has tested well, but we are still not sure how well as there's a body of rumour that says the drivers have been told to take it easy.  JACQUES VILLENEUVE is world championship favourite, largely on the strength of still being around and wearing baggy overalls and unlaced boots. He is very, very quick and seems unbothered by anyone and anything, and presumably this year's Williams is designed with his fairly idiosyncratic requitements on chassis setup in mind.  HEINZ-HARALD FRENTZEN can charitably be regarded as something of an enigma. Williams has had his eye on him since his Sauber debut, and the consummation of this epic romance will be observed with much interest by the entire F1 scene. Frentzen's season blew hot and cold last year but he presumably knew he had a safe seat at Williams... Should win a race or two. 

FERRARI F310B Goodyear

Not been doing well in testing, to be charitable. As usual, next year is the championship season, this is the rebuilding year (like every year since 1989). Reliability and handling problems abound, and the cars have changed colour which hardly pleases the eye. Spending more than some teams' entire budget on their No. 1 driver.   MICHAEL SCHUMACHER may well be with Ferrari for the money or the romance, or to prove that despite his car he's still the greatest driver alive, but in the current climate I don't see him sustaining a championship challenge with the equipment available to him. I expect fireworks and hugely dominant race wins, but I also expect to see him parked by the side of the road in a broken car a lot, particularly in the early season.  EDDIE IRVINE took on a doubly-thankless job (No. 2 at Ferrari and No. 2 to Schumacher -- both historically not good jobs) and came out of it reasonably well. This year he's been promised more testing, and he's not been psychologically effected by Schumacher. I expect to see him close behind the leaders most of the time, if his car holds up. May surprise with a race win or two. 

BENETTON B197-Renault Goodyear

The car that's arguably been the best in winter testing, but that proves little. Benetton are recovering from a winless 1996, and the loss of their designers. Nick Wirth (ex-Simtek) has refined the ideas behind the 1996 car and the team are quietly confident, although are presumably worried about their 1998 engine situation (Honda?). Benetton have to win this season, or they'll slip into a McLaren like slump which is difficult to crawl out of.  JEAN ALESI had another hot and cold season in '96, occasionally driving like a hooligan but he is also capable of stunning displays of talent. Perhaps now he's in a car which owes something to his style rather than being an evolution of a car designed for a Schumacher he'll be somewhat more consistent.... deserves more than his solitary GP win.   GERHARD BERGER is the elder statesman of F1. He seems to believe he's in with a shout at the Championship this year and to be honest it couldn't happen to a nicer driver, but whether Gerhard can keep the motivation together for a sustained challenge is a little debatable. He's still fast and is more consistent than his team-mate, but I wonder whether politics in the Benetton team will force one of the two to play second fiddle. 


It's silver and the Spice Girls played at its launch. It also seems to be the best McLaren since 1993, and might actually be a car worthy of the illustrious name and snazzy colours. Definitely no power worries (the Merc is alleged to be the most powerful engine in F1), and the chassis seems encouragingly good. About time McLaren returned to the top of the podium and I have a good feeling about this season.  MIKA HAKKINEN is long overdue his first F1 win; he's got great car control, reasonably good racecraft and undoubted courage. If the McLaren is anything better than middling I would expect to see him putting the team back where it belongs, though I could do without him scratching his testicles on the podium.  DAVID COULTHARD may have flattered to deceive. He is fussy on chassis setup, and seems less at ease than his teammate. On the right day he can look brilliant (Monaco '96 springs to mind) but I don't think he's anywhere near as good as Hakkinen, who I don't rate as an all-time great. 


After a "character-building" (i.e bitterly disappointing) 1996 Jordan have restructured and expanded. This year the winning HAS to start, and the car does look capable of it. Why, then, has the team settled on rookie drivers? Although every season since their debut has been described as "make or break" for Jordan this really is the big one -- if they blow it this year they'll lose one of the best engines in F1, they'll lose their big sponsor and they'll lose their credibility. Need podium positions, and could do with race wins. Oh, love the snake graphics.  RALF SCHUMACHER, baby brother of Nietzschean Ubermensch Michael, is no mean driver himself -- he was excellent in F3 and in Formula Nippon (far more competitive than European F3000). But he is a strange choice to lead a team that desperately needs experience. I'd like to see Ralf doing better than occasionally creeping into the points, but with my hand on my heart I can't see it.  GIANCARLO FISICHELLA is touted as the next Italian World Champion by a lot of people who know young drivers well, and it's been a long time since there've been any serious candidates for that accolade. He is quick, tidy and a good tester, but realistically Jordan have probably got him a couple of years too soon to form the backbone of a serious attack on the title. 


Formerly Ligier, now headed by multiple-champion Prost and very well-financed. Really an interim season with Honda power and a Ligier chassis before a Peugeot-powered 1998 (possibly with Michelin tyres and John Barnard designing). The team should be on the way up, if they can sustain the momentum from last year.  OLIVIER PANIS has been setting excellent testing times and in the right circumstances could score another race win -- he is probably Bridgestone's most realistic hope of winning a race. He is quietly confident, but needs to sort out his qualifying performances, he is a skilful racer, but a lousy qualifier. Get him onto front 3 or 4 rows of the grid regularly and podium positions should be a certainty.   SHINJI NAKANO is Japanese and has money. He has not embarrassed himself in other formulae; neither has he set the world alight. Hard to see Prost lavishing much attention on a rent-a-driver, especially as a more secure financial future beckons. Probably his one and only season in F1. 

SAUBER-PETRONAS (Ferrari) C16 Goodyear

Sauber's two years with works Ford power have gone, to be replaced by re-badged 1996 Ferrari engines -- ex Honda and Ferrari engineer Osamu Goto will be setting up his own engine shop to look after and develop these. Recent Sauber chassis haven't been too brilliant, and the team really needs to get its act together if it's not to be threatened by the Bridgestone runners. Should have no power problems and has a pretty good driver lineup. I can just about see Sauber winning a freak race or two but not on a regular basis.  JOHNNY HERBERT was a fairly reluctant choice by Sauber in '96 but worked hard and kept pace with the highly-touted Frentzen. He is dedicated, talented, often unlucky and never quite receives the credit he deserves -- Sauber is probably his last chance to shine in a good team and I hope he keeps a level head and piles up the points.  NICOLA LARINI is better known for his touring car exploits, but has a lot of F1 testing and some F1 racing experience. He knows Ferrari well and is a committed and hard racer. This is really his big break, a full season with a sound mid-ranking team, and I'd expect to see him somewhere round the bottom of the top 10 in the championship.  

TYRRELL-FORD 025 Goodyear

Ken Tyrrell and Harvey Postlethwaite are talking about podium positions. With a customer Ford engine. A development of last year's chassis (which wasn't that bad). And Goodyears while the rest of the midfield will be on the probably rather quicker Bridgestones. Do I sense delusion and/or desperation beginning to creep in? Lots of new money from Japan, probably to run Toranosuke Takagi next year. If Tyrrell play the reliability card I can see them scoring points, but really, if they get more than 10 or 15 all season I'd be surprised. F1 without Tyrrell would be a poorer place but really the cars have been making up the numbers for the last 20 years, with only a couple of good seasons since the six-wheeler experiment.  JOS VERSTAPPEN... well, if the frenzied support of his Internet admirers was a measure of his talent, "Jos the Boss" would've been world champion every year. In the real world, partial seasons with Benetton and Simtek and a desultory year with an transitional Arrows team haven't really given us the chance to see his true level... which I feel is probably midfield, if he can stay on the track.  MIKA SALO is probably Tyrrell's most saleable asset and may be one of the most under-rated drivers in F1. Salo in a good car is a potential race winner, I think, but this year's Tyrrell isn't it. I see him moving onwards and upwards unless the car is VERY special. 

MINARDI-HART M197 Bridgestone

Flavio Briatore (put that BLOODY hat on the right way round, you gormless goit!) now owns most of Minardi and has got it on a sounder commercial basis than before, so we should probably think of it as the Benetton reserve team. Still the most Italian of teams, and very popular in the paddock. This year's chassis looks notably pretty and has interesting aerodynamics, and the Hart V8 is excellent as such devices go, but it doesn't look like a winning proposition.  UKYO KATAYAMA has had his good years, and he's had ones where he spends most of his time spinning. Katayama in 1994 form and a good car would be a good points contender, Katayama in '95/6 form in a mediocre car we may as well forget about. An annoyingly inconsistent driver, which is a pity because he IS good.  JARNO TRULLI, an Italian youngster fresh from F3, is presumably at Minardi as a means of showing him the ropes and keeping him sweet for an eventual Benetton drive (Benetton have been backing his career for a while). As such it'll give him a chance to make an unobtrusive debut; if he impresses, so much the better. File under "Not to be opened until 1999 or thereabouts". 


Along with Jordan and Sauber, one of the few serious attempts to enter F1 at the sharp end in the 90s. The team has the money, it has the technical backing, it has the organisation, it has the drivers, it has the very cute and quite promising car... and still JYS merely talks about getting a couple of points towards the end of the season. I'd expect to see a little more. Podiums by midseason, certainly, if Ford have made the V10 work (last year it sounded like a Fiesta back-firing down a side street).   RUBENS BARRICHELLO's career might well parallel that of his compatriot Mauricio Gugelmin -- initial promise which never quite realised itself because of too long at the wrong team. However, the switch from the formerly rather chaotic Jordan to the methodical Stewart outfit might revive his fortunes. I'd expect a solid season with some flashes of brilliance, and maybe a top-10 position in the championship.  JAN MAGNUSSEN has only one Grand Prix start to his name but Stewart rated him the best F3 driver he'd seen since Senna. Jackie is not a man to shower praise indiscriminately and those who remember Magnussen's blitz on the British F3 title are inclined to agree -- here is a true racer and a man to whom races surrender. I don't expect a lot from 1997, but watch him in future. 


Lola's entry to F1 is their first "works" effort, even though they've built cars for other teams on many occasions in the past. The car was developed in less than four months, and is fairly straightforward (though Eric Broadley says there are some interesting aerodynamic bits on it). The engine is a placeholder, customer Fords will be relpaced by a V10 of Lola's own manufacture, possibly later this season or maybe next year. There is serious money for this campaign and Broadley is thinking in terms of a five year buildup before challenging the top teams. Hmmm. I see Lola being the only team battling with the 107% rule at the start of the season as their car is basically untested.  RICCARDO ROSSET singularly failed to impress me in the Arrows last year, but it was an unsettling and difficult season for that team with a mediocre car. I don't see 1997 in a Lola being much better, I'm afraid, and I think Riccardo may have missed the boat if he wants to progress much further in F1.  VINCENZO SOSPIRI has been knocking around F3000 for years before finally tasting success and getting an F1 chance, but in time-honoured fashion he's at the back of the grid in what's initially going to be a struggling team. Unless he's very special indeed I don't see him making a big splash -- in fact, I don't even expect to see him qualify for many early-season races. 
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