NOW THAT WAS A CAR
The Ferrari F310B, the car that so nearly propelled Schumacher to his first Ferrari title
Was this a great Formula 1 car? That would be stretching it. But for all its clear inferiority to the rival Williams-renault FW18, F310B was almost good enough to carry Michael Schumacher to his first world championship in red. Almost. Instead, the 1997 Ferrari now represents what we remember as the best and worst characteristics of a colossal talent who continues to split opinion about the definition of ‘greatness’. As its name suggests, F310B also represents an interim season for the Scuderia, as it transitioned from one era of ohso-familiar unfulfilled promise to one of unmatched, recordbreaking dominance. Conceived by a brilliant but singlemindedly difficult Englishman, it delivered five grand prix victories – albeit under the guardianship of another equally driven Brit and the understated genius of a South African designer, who together were about to write an unforgettable chapter of F1 history.
From the mid-1990s, John Barnard knew his ambitions of masterminding a Ferrari golden era from his base in Guildford, Surrey were on thin foundations as new boss Jean Todt began to grasp the enormity of the task at hand. Todt wanted Barnard in Italy, but the deeply rooted design perfectionist – already well versed in Ferrari politics in this, his second spell at the team – was never going to have that. Divorce was inevitable.
Todt had already scooped the only game-changing driver on the grid by signing Schumacher from Benetton at the end of his inspired second title season in 1995. But the new champ was handed a car Barnard himself has described as an uncharacteristic “wobble”. Still, Schumacher won three races in the F310, and the first – in dreadful conditions in Spain – will forever be recalled as one of his stand-out drives.
Schumacher and Todt both knew only fundamental change would rouse Ferrari from their long slumber of underachievement. Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne, the architects behind his Benetton glory, were the answer.
Brawn came first, and Ross then lured Byrne from his planned retirement in Thailand. “One thing I remember well was the quality of the people who worked in Maranello,” says Brawn of his first impressions of Ferrari. “It’s a mistake to think it was at a low level, quite the contrary.
“If Ferrari hadn’t won the title for such a long time it wasn’t because of a lack of good engineering staff. What was missing was a different way of working and that was my number one priority when I arrived. We had to stop working in separate groups and instead think about the car as a whole, not just as the result of assembling different components. “The groundwork for the amazing cycle that was about to start had already been established.”
Time was short before the 1997 season, as they inherited Barnard’s parting-shot F310B, a car that had morphed into one more in line with the era’s high-nosed creatures from Williams, Benetton and Mclaren (the designer’s perseverance with low noses finally ended at the French GP in ’96). Powered by Paolo Martinelli’s 75-degree, 40-valve V10, Ferrari carried new hope that it would spoil Williams and Renault’s swansong season as F1’s dominant force.
“I REMEMBER ONE AREA WE WORKED ON IN PARTICULAR WAS THE FUEL CELL” ROSS BRAWN
“Clearly the basic framework of the car had been designed by John Barnard and there wasn’t much room for manoeuvre,” recalls Brawn.
“The project had a solid base, given that Ferrari were fighting for the title right down to the last race, something that had not happened since
1990. I remember one area in particular that we worked on was the fuel cell, which we developed to optimise the positioning of the fuel, based on experience gained over the years at Benetton.”
Eddie Irvine’s season tally of five podiums was perhaps the true indicator of F310B’S performance. But as he had in
’96, 28-year-old Schumacher made the difference to take the title battle to the wire with Jacques Villeneuve in Adrian Newey’s final Williams masterpiece. That says much about Michael’s tenacity – and perhaps something too about Jacques’ shortcomings. Villeneuve claimed eight poles and seven wins, but made heavy weather of a title he was expected to win.
Schumacher’s five victories and three poles were mostly hard-won. At Monaco, Williams made a strategy blunder, and Schumacher blitzed the field as Villeneuve and new teammate Heinz-harald Frentzen both crashed. Montréal fell into Schumacher’s hands after David Coulthard’s Mclaren suffered a clutch glitch. But Schumacher dominated at Magny-cours and put in another of his special drives at Spa, embarrassing his peers once again with his otherworldly pace in changeable conditions.
The fifth win, in Japan, was clouded by controversy after Villeneuve was distracted by a penalty for lapping too quickly under yellow flags on consecutive qualifying laps. Dropped to the back of the grid, Villeneuve raced from pole under appeal, but faded to fifth by the flag. Williams dropped their case, toasted their constructors’ crown and focused on the season finale, at Jerez. Schumacher led Villeneuve by one point.
How their riveting duel was resolved can never be forgotten. The title was in Schumacher’s sight – until Villeneuve surprised him with an audacious dive. Michael drove into the Williams, just as he had to Damon Hill’s in Adelaide ’94 – but this time his professional foul backfired.
As Villeneuve snatched a title he’d almost let slip, Schumacher was once again vilified. But his punishment was puzzling: disqualified from the championship, yes, but those five wins he’d keep. What did that mean?
Brawn is understandably careful in his evaluation of Schumacher’s actions 21 years ago.
“The emotional aspect should not be underestimated and, especially in Michael’s case, the role played by instinct,” he says. “He always had an amazing ability to read a race with extraordinary clarity from the cockpit, but that does not alter the fact that, on some occasions, his instincts took over. That meant that sometimes he could pull off something amazing, but it also meant here were times when it pushed him into making mistakes – and Jerez in 1997 was one of those times.”
NOW THAT WAS A CAR No. 73
THE FERRARI F310B
RACE RECORD Starts 34 Wins 5 Poles 2 Fastest laps 3 Other podiums 8 Points 102