"I will drive last year's car in Australia!"
by Andrew Frankl
TACH European Bureau Chief
Although we've still got a few weeks before the lights turn green in Melbourne to signal the start of the first race of 1997 testing is in full swing at various circuits all over Europe.
The shock news of the day-Wednesday, 22nd March-is an announcement from double world champion Michael Schumacher:"I will drive the 1996 car in Australia!" This really is increadible, bearing in mind the recent launch of the new, all singing-dancing 1997 car and all the optimistic statements by everyone from Group Chairman Agnelli downwards. What a terrible, terrible shame, what a hugely embarrassing statement by a man whose 21 year old rookie kid brother was faster than him in a Jordan-Peugeot, hardly the car legends are made of... Maybe Michael was just trying to put a rocket under the engineers, maybe the situation is that bad. We will know soon enough.
The other teams seem to be performing according to expectations. Williams, with Villeneuve and Frentzen are running well as are the Benetton boys, Berger and Alesi. The new McLaren is surprisingly quick, the MP4/12 is a totally new car and it features several interesting design innovations such as a rear impact zone, collapsible steering column and a reduced winglet area. The revised Mercedes-Benz engine which is developed by British based Ilmor Engineering seems to be very much on song allowing Mika Hakkinen to be second quickest at the Jerez test-track, only 0.9 seconds behind Berger.
The big question mark concerns the excellence or otherwise of the new Bridgestone tyres. These enabled Frenchman Panis' Ligier to lap 6 seconds quicker than the Benetton cars in the rain. The Goodyear-shod teams are all scratching their heads and are hoping that the new tyres from Akron will be a match for the newcomer otherwise we really will be in for a lot of major surprises.
1966 champion Damon Hill has yet to have a lap of any circuit without something breaking, either the gearbox or the engine or some other component. He will need the patience of a saint for a while I fear..
The new Stewart car seems to be progressing quite well which is good news for the wee Scot who still has a lot of space of the car that he would like to sell.
The Prost-Ligier situation is a little bit fluid at present, according to my sources not a million miles from Paris the problem seems to be that the diminuative Frenchman is not very keen to come up with any of the money required for the deal even though he is a millionaire several times over.