The Cooper Files: Jarno, Fisi, Ralf and the F1 Class of ’97

Today in London the new Lotus team will be announced, and Jarno Trulli will be one of the focal points. A few months ago many folk probably thought that the Italian would not be able to find a job after Toyota. The fact that he has done so is good news, because he remains a thoroughly decent man who is also a bloody quick racing driver.

Of those on the 2010 grid, only Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello started their F1 careers earlier than Jarno. He has now outlasted many of his contemporaries, and that got me thinking. So I’ve dug out a story I wrote at the start of 1998, when I compared the fortunes of the previous season’s bumper rookie crop. In retrospect there were some good names in that group, several of whom were around for a long time. However none came near to winning a World Championship, or finding a place among the all-time greats.

I can’t remember writing this article (or even where it was published!), but looking at it now, much of it still stands up, and my assessments weren’t too wide of the mark. Especially the bit about Ralf Schumacher’s personality…

The Rookie Class of 1997 (First published January 1998)

This season brought forth a bumper crop of young F1 drivers, and if you ignore poor Vincenzo Sospiri, left in the lurch after the first race, we saw eight fresh faces vying for attention. The fact that three of these guys got on the podium and another led a race gives some idea of the impact made by the new boys.

There’s every reason to suspect that several members of the Class of ’97 will be around for a long time, and it could be said that this is the most exciting generation to come along in 20 years. Back in 1977-’78 future stars such as Riccardo Patrese, Gilles Villeneuve, Patrick Tambay, Bruno Giacomelli, Didier Pironi, Rene Arnoux, Nelson Piquet and Keke Rosberg all made their debuts. Their influence was felt well into the nineties. This year’s group is arguably as strong as any seen since, with the possible exception of 1984, which produced Ayrton Senna, Stefan Bellof, Martin Brundle and Gerhard Berger.

But let’s take a look back at ’97. Who really got the job done, and who was flattered by circumstances, by getting themselves into a good car? Five of the eight were genuine F1 rookies (Ralf Schumacher, Jarno Trulli, Shinji Nakano, Norberto Fontana and Alex Wurz). Jan Magnussen had done a single race for McLaren in 1995, while both Tarso Marques (two starts) and Giancarlo Fisichella (eight) had appeared for Minardi in ’96, but still had very few miles under their belts.

If you accept that anyone with less than half a season under their belt is eligible, then the unofficial Rookie of the Year honours went to Fisichella. The Italian racked up 20 World Championship points, beating Jordan team mate Schumacher, who scored 13. They had an enviable opportunity to display their talents; the car clearly had the potential to win races. Both faced a steep learning curve, and nowhere was it more apparent than Argentina, where they managed to collide.

After that they generally stayed out of each other’s way on and off the track – except at the Nurburgring, where they tangled at the first corner and took Ralf’s brother with them…

Giancarlo seemed to fall asleep in some early races, but over the course of the season he had the upper hand, proved more technically adept, and matured considerably. He had a brilliant drive to second at Spa, and was third in Canada. But he really made his mark at Hockenheim, running second and leading briefly.

Ralf was the more erratic of the two. You could almost guarantee that he would spend some part of Friday in the gravel, and he often had moments in the races. It became fashionable to slag him off, but that was inevitable. He’d had an easy run to F1, and his personality rubbed a lot of people up the wrong way. He won few friends in the paddock, and that still counts for a lot in F1. He was set up for a big fall, and would have had to perform miracles to avoid criticism…

All this worked in Giancarlo’s favour, and both inside and out of the team he won the popularity vote. Ralf still has a lot to learn, but on occasion the raw speed was plainly evident. But he really has to deliver this year against Damon Hill.

It will be a fascinating contest, as will Fisichella’s battle at Benetton with the other rookie to get a podium finish, namely Alexander Wurz. The lanky Austrian’s progress from no-hoper to man-in-demand was quite stunning, and a textbook example of how to make an instant impression on the insular F1 world (author: M Schumacher). In F3 and the ITC he had been unspectacular.

Wurz proved once again that a list of FF1600, Opel/Lotus, F3 and F3000 titles does not a GP driver make; if you have friends in high places and you get in the right F1 car at the right time, and make a big splash, then you’re set no matter what…

A1 sponsorship got him the Benetton testing deal, and like many before him, he could have sunk without trace. But everything fell into place. He quickly won over the team’s technical staff, and showed a confidence which belied his youth and the relative lack of hard results on his CV. When Berger became indisposed, he stepped in. He’d done a lot of miles, he knew the car, and had the team fully behind him. In three attempts, he twice beat Jean Alesi in qualifying, and finished third at Silverstone.

It seemed to matter not that the gaps were small, or that Alex had a heavy crash in qualifying in Montreal, and slid off in the rain in the race at Magny-Cours. He’d made himself into the man of the moment, and the world took note. After that he just had to sit on the sidelines, and wait for confirmation of his fulltime drive for 1998. He joins that elite group of drivers who get straight into a top team without the pain of a difficult apprenticeship. Does he deserve it? Only Fisichella can settle the debate.

Jarno Trulli didn’t make the podium, but he showed considerable flair when he led in Austria. Stepping straight from F3 with just a handful of testing miles behind him, Jarno had a tough job. It ain’t easy to get noticed in a Minardi, and all he could really do was outpace team mate Ukyo Katayama. When the Prost drive became vacant, he was the most mobile of the drivers with current experience.

But now the pressure was on; Olivier Panis had demonstrated that the Prost had race-winning potential, and it was a case of show us what you can do, kid. At first, he struggled. Perhaps the team lost its way, or perhaps, as some suggested, team mate Shinji Nakano was being given a leg-up by Prost’s Japanese suppliers. At Hockenheim Jarno was a strong fourth, but without that fine race in Austria he might not have held onto his drive.

Articulate, smart and an extremely pleasant young man, Trulli has a lot of great deal of potential. He could yet prove to be the best of the bunch.

Nakano was the other rookie point scorer. Arriving in F1 with very little fanfare – even in Japan he had a low profile – he proved to be more competent than expected. But the Prost was a pretty good car, and in a Minardi or Tyrrell he would have sunk below the waves. Without a big sponsor behind him, he now seems to be stranded.

Three years ago Jan Magnussen had a mega reputation, and his debut for McLaren at Aida in 1995 was impressive. Sustaining that ‘next Senna’ momentum was never going to be easy, and in the ITC and his brief interlude in CART, his career stalled out slightly. But no one expected him to struggle at Stewart like he did in the first two thirds of this season. Jan’s main problem was lack of mileage. The engines broke often, and more worryingly, so did the suspension; the Dane suffered several failures which did his confidence no good.

Meanwhile Barrichello was driving out of his skin, which made Jan’s performances look all the more average. He was under far less pressure than he would have faced at a Benetton or Williams, and perhaps needed a kick up the backside, as JYS eventually realised. He got his act together by season’s end, but of this little group he arguably has the most to prove in 1998.

Our final pair had nightmare seasons, as far removed as possible from Wurz’s blissful experience. Norberto Fontana was a man on the up, doing pretty well in Japan, until he stepped into the Sauber. Despite his nominal title of test driver he’d done no running in the new car, and he floundered. When the team boss gave him a public bollocking it was clear his F1 career was all but finished before it started. An amiable bloke who might have thrived in a different environment, he has missed the boat.

Tarso Marques is in danger of doing the same. Called into Minardi to replace Trulli, he had little chance of doing anything except make up the numbers. He appeared to get shoddy treatment from an uncompetitive team with limited funds, and the thing broke nearly every time he got in it. But the talent is there, and if steered into a decent test drive, he could yet make it.

The next group of supersubs is now waiting in the wings, and it includes the likes of Ricardo Zonta, Juan Pablo Montoya, Pedro de la Rosa and Nick Heidfield. Who’ll be the first to get a big break?

If you have any thoughts or would like to see more stories with a historical focus, do let me know via comments!


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6 responses to “The Cooper Files: Jarno, Fisi, Ralf and the F1 Class of ’97

  1. ‘if you have friends in high places and you get in the right F1 car at the right time, and make a big splash, then you’re set no matter what…’

    Equally true of a certain Kamui Kobayashi in 2009. Not impossible that their careers will go the same way.

  2. Ahmed Youssef

    I’ve just discovered this blog. Excellent article. The historical focus is fascinating and gives greater context to current news articles. Keep up the good work both here and at autosport 🙂

  3. 1997 was such an great season … even before we got to Jerez. Perhaps it was the ITV coverage that gave it a new kick, from an armchair spectator point of view at least.

    This is such a great blog Adam, nice to have to retro touch. In terms of historical stories, something that always puzzled me was the breakdown between Frentzen and Jordan. There seemed to be such a love-in at the Jordan team between those two until … whatever happened. Let us know if you have anything on that hard-drive!

  4. Ned Flanders

    Hey Adam, this is a great idea for keeping the blog going on quiet days. Whenever you can’t be bothered to write an article, just pick something out of your archives for us to read instead. That was very interesting!

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