Jeremy Clarkson

Jeremy Clarkson

Clarkson on: F1

Every year, I predict who will win the Formula One world championship. And every year I am completely and utterly wrong.

This year, I said it would Jacques Villeneuve... but don't worry, I'm not losing my touch. Martin Brundle's job is safe, because I was wrong again.

I may have been right with the outcome but, as with examinations, you must be able to show how you worked it out. And on that front, I was all over the place. You see, I said Jacques would win every single race, have it wrapped up by Silverstone, and that we were in for the dullest year of racing since the drivers' strike.

And I wasn't alone. Everyone who knows which way up a helmet goes agreed with me. So what went wrong?

Well I'm not big on conspiracy theories. I don't, for instance, believe that Princess Diana was murdered by one of the Queen's corgis. My hair was not cut this morning by Elvis Presley. And I think Neil Armstrong did make his giant leap on the moon, not on a soundstage in Nevada.

But at the end of qualifying for the European GP last month, one of my eyebrows was raised just a little higher than normal. And at the end of the race, the other one had joined it.

With hindsight, you can see things starting to go awry in Austria. Schumacher was romping away with the title when he was hit with a ten-second penalty after passing Heinz-Harald Hopeless under a yellow flag. Result: Villeneuve closed the gap.

Then there was Japan, when Jacques could have sewn it all up. But no. He didn't slow down for a waved flag while qualifying, he was under a one-race suspended ban and that was it. He was out. Result: Schumacher closed the gap.

And just in case Jacques thought about appealing, he was warned that Eddie Irvine had done this before and had seen his ban extended from one to three races. Result: A bunch of promoters with Blair-style grins.

"Bernie Ecclestone has done a magnificent job with Formula One and he needs these last-minute showdowns"

These penalties had been imposed for clear misdemeanours, but I find it odd that the only two drivers to have fallen foul of the law this year were the two fighting for the title, and that both did so in the championship's dying hours.

Anyway, when the circus arrived in Spain for the big showdown, Villeneuve and Schumacher were one point apart, and I had buttocks you couldn't have prised apart with a blow torch.

However, during qualifying we were asked to believe that Michael and Jacques on this, the greatest day in motor racing, had driven round the circuit at exactly the same speed - something that had never, ever happened before. Far-fetched? Not if you think Star Wars is a true story.

Then came the race. Over the year, I've come to respect Schumacher, who seemed to be genuinely pleased when he won. He undoubtedly had an inferior car - one of my beloved Ferraris. He had proved himself a truly great driver and after his praise for Eddie Irvine in Japan, a gentleman.

But in Spain he proved that, when all is said and done, he is still a German.

So he was out and Villeneuve was on his way to victory, not only in the race but in the championship too. Hip Hip Hooray and so on.

But wait. What's this? Team managers dash about in the pits, and look what's happening. Hakkinen has overtaken Coulthard. On the straight. Fisichella has been blue-flagged, and Villeneuve's car seems to be suffering some damage after all.

Now, obviously it would be improper for me to suggest even for one moment that there had been some behind-the-scenes jiggery-pokery going on, but did you see Coulthard on the podium? He looked like a man whose dog had just died. Even Hakkinen, who I expected to burst with pride when he finally won a race, looked like he'd just failed all his A-Levels.

There's talk that Sylvester Stallone is working on a Hollywood blockbuster about F1, but if someone presented him with a script based on the 1997 championship, he'd dismiss it as completely implausible.

Bernie Ecclestone has done a magnificent job with Formula One and he needs these last-minute showdowns. But we, the keen viewers, need to be assured that it is still motorsport with young men going wheel-to-wheel in a life or death struggle for glory. And not panto.


Jeremy Clarkson, Column

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