San Marino GP 1997

San Marino GP, 1997

Jacques be nimble, Heinz be quicker

HEINZ-HARALD FRENTZEN confounded his critics at Imola, beating not only Michael Schumacher but also Jacques Villeneuve fairly and squarely in a tense tactical battle for the San Marino Grand Prix. It was the first time in the history of the World Championship that Germany has scored a 1-2 finish. Going back to Imola brings mixed emotions these days - which is sad in a way because there was a time when visits to the Autodromo Enzo & Dino Ferrari were simply a question of fun. The track was good, the racing was usually exciting and the enthusiasm of the local Ferrari fans was completely infectious. No-one ever complained about having to go to Imola: it was a pleasure. The hills were beautiful, the people were friendly, the food was excellent and the Sangiovese wine is so pure that it went down without doing too much damage the following morning.

Imola is still a nice place to be, but now there is a vague sense of sadness that this was the place where F1 lost Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger. It was where the dream that F1 was now safe ended violently. The accidents of 1994 did away with Imola's happy-go-lucky atmosphere and with it went the better parts of the track. Chicanes were added in the Tamburello and Villeneuve Corners (named after Gilles, another F1 fatality), and the track became less challenging and less interesting.

In 1995 the drivers complained about the new point-and-squirt nature of the circuit due to the speed restrictions introduced since the fatal events of 1994. It was not the same Imola as before. This year, however, after qualifying, they found that the F1 tires have made it a much better track.

"The tires performed very well," said poleman Jacques Villeneuve. "It's amazing the grip we get. The track has become a lot of fun."

Jacques was clearly enjoying himself - which is to be expected when you score your fifth consecutive F1 pole position (four races this year and Japan at the end of last season). It was the closest qualifying we have had this year, with the first five drivers all within a second of pole position. It was much the same story as last year, when there were four drivers within a second, except that the pole time was 3.5secs faster.

On this occasion, however, Villeneuve had to work for pole because fellow Williams driver Heinz-Harald Frentzen looked a great deal stronger than he has done in the early races this year, showing his critics that there is plenty of mental strength yet to be exploited. HH is fighting back.

Jacques Villeneuve had similar problems last year - and the paddock hawks squawked that he would soon be off back to Indycar racing. Now Jacques feels totally comfortable with the team.

"The car did not feel as good as it has done in the other races," he explained after qualifying, "but we proved the chemistry I have going with the team - and with my engineer Jock Clear - is pretty good."

Jacques had not had it easy on Friday. He lost time in the morning session when there was a problem with a throttle coupling. This meant that the team was struggling to find a good balance in the afternoon, with Jacques switching back and forward between double and triple plane rear wings. In the evening he complained of a sore back because of the force needed to put full pressure on the brakes. On Saturday morning there was a radiator leak...

But in the afternoon Jacques won the shootout for pole with Frentzen. The Goodyear soft tires were lasting for three laps so that drivers were able to set a time on both their second and third flying laps. Villeneuve set the ball rolling early on in the session but within minutes Frentzen had sliced 0.3s off Jacques's best. On his next lap HH lopped off another 0.2s to be nearly half a second ahead. Ten minutes later Jacques returned to the fray beating Frentzen's time by 0.2secs but had to give up his second flying lap when he stumbled upon the Arrows of Pedro Diniz. Frentzen's response was slightly slower. They both came out at the end and Villeneuve managed to get a couple more tenths off pole, although both he and Heinz-Harald ran into trouble with the stewards for failing to slow down when they encountered a waved yellow flag. Both were given a one-race suspension, suspended for two races.

"Pole position here is very important," explained Jacques, "but I am actually happier with the race set-up than the qualifying set-up - so I am pretty confident for tomorrow."

Frentzen reckoned that he might have gone one or two tenths faster, which would have put him to within a few hundredths of Villeneuve. "I wish I had another run at the end," said Frentzen, "on my last one there was a Prost at Acque Minerali and a marshal pushing the car away so I had to slow down. But I am quite happy. The most important thing is that we are going in the right direction on set-up. I changed the philosophy and I am getting much more out of the car. Goodyear has done a great development job and tire-wise it looks pretty good."

Three-tenths behind Frentzen - and 0.652s adrift of Villeneuve - was Michael Schumacher's Ferrari, on this occasion the German being unable to pull off any unlikely miracles (as happened last year). This was achieved using the latest 046/2 engine, although Schumacher reckoned that the nature of the circuit rather than the engine had closed the gap to pole.

"I have the feeling that Williams has picked up more speed than we have since last year," he said.

If this is the case - and Schumacher is a pretty good judge of such things - then we are looking ahead to a summer of more Williams domination. There will be occasions when the conditions conspire to give others a chance of victory, but the basic pattern seems unchanged: Williams is dominating, the rest are trying to keep up.

The Ferraris had been 1-2 on Friday with Eddie Irvine faster than Schumacher but this was little more than a PR stunt to bring in the crowds. On Saturday Irvine was not in the ball park. He would line up ninth on the grid, having recorded a best lap which was 0.9secs slower than his team leader.

"I am very disappointed," he admitted. "My car was really good this morning but on my first run I had a lot of understeer. Twice we made small modifications which had no effect. For my last run we stiffened the rear end and made changes to the front wing which cured some of the understeer - but upset the brake balance."

Olivier Panis continues to impress with the Prost-Mugen Honda and fourth on the grid - one place behind his position in Argentina - was somehow construed in the paddock as being a disappointment. With no-one daring to switch from Goodyear to Bridgestone tires there is still no direct comparison between the two tire companies. No-one knows whether the Prost is good because it is a good car with a good engine or because of the Bridgestone rubber. The truth is that the performance is probably the result of improvement in all areas and a more confident driver.

"There is no doubt that strategy will again play a big role in the race," said Olivier, "but, so far this season, we have been amongst the strongest at this game."

It would be nice to report that Shinji Nakano was doing as well in the second Prost - but one cannot. The Japanese youngster looked out of his depth again and qualified 18th, 2.7secs behind his team leader. It is hard to imagine that Prost Grand Prix will be happy to continue much longer with Shinji, who was signed, before Alain Prost took over, as a way of reducing the team's Mugen engine bills.

The third row of the grid was filled by the Jordan team, which proved once again that it has a car which is capable of great things once the drivers learn a little bit more about F1. There is no doubt that both are quick but they continue to make the mistakes of novices and compromise their overall efforts. It does not help that Ralf Schumacher and Giancarlo Fisichella have declared - after their incident in Buenos Aires, when Fisichella failed to make way for Schumacher - that there is no relationship between them. In fact there was no relationship before the accident so it has made very little difference, except to make each driver intent on outdoing the other.

This rivalry rather dominated Friday when the pair of them both managed to spin off at Rivazza within moments of one another. One can only assume that Giancarlo pushed too hard and dropped the ball (he has shown a slight tendency to do this) while Ralf was so amused to see his rival in the sandtrap that he fell off as well, probably giggling into his helmet.

On Saturday Ralf was half a second quicker than Giancarlo, both reckoned they could have gone faster, Fisichella complaining of traffic and Schumacher having made a mistake.

While their progress has been pretty impressive one has to say that Jordan would probably be a lot better off this year if they had managed to sign Damon Hill last autumn. With an experienced driver the Jordan looks like it might be a winning car.

The Sauber team has plenty of experience in the form of Johnny (100th GP) Herbert and Nicola (47 GPs) Larini. The package is always strong in races and since Argentina the team has worked on improving the qualifying trim which means that one should not overlook either driver for a big result in the months ahead. Herbert was an impressive seventh on the grid while Nicola was only 0.8secs behind him. The midfield is so tightly bunched, however, that this was the difference between seventh and 12th on the grid.

McLaren once again failed to optimize the potential of the MP4-12. This is so common an occurrence these days that it is hardly worth mentioning. There are always excuses but the bottom line is that McLaren is a team which should - and must - do better. On this occasion the team complained that the cars lacked front end grip. Mika Hakkinen battled away to qualify eighth while David Coulthard went off in a fairly big way on Saturday morning and banged his head in the ensuing accident. He then had to qualify in the T-car with a headache, which meant that his 10th place was actually quite an achievement.

"Character-building," was all team boss Ron Dennis would say about the team's current situation. One would have thought that, after years of the same, Dennis would be a larger-than-life character by now.

Benetton's performance was pathetic as well with Gerhard Berger qualifying for his 200th Grand Prix in 11th position and Jean Alesi botching his way to 14th after spinning off in his race car and having to take to the spare. With qualifying being so important these days starting down with the small fry is not the way to win races. One wonders whether Mecachrome is actually interested in supplying the team with engines next year. Without Michael Schumacher Benetton is a second-rate team. Hopefully criticism will spur the team on to success - it would make a pleasant change...

The new Stewart team, on the other hand, looks quite good given that they are using a Ford V10 engine which is heavy and not very powerful. The heavy-hitters from Detroit may have to wait for really good results when a new V10 is designed and built next year. In the circumstances Rubens Barrichello's 13th and Jan Magnussen's 16th on the grid were not bad.

It was a similar story with Arrows. World Champion Damon Hill was 15th and Pedro Diniz 17th. The team had a complicated tale to tell about how this had happened which involved a Yamaha engine "problem", both drivers using the spare car, Damon spinning off and so on and so forth. To add insult to injury the team was squeezed into a small garage which Tom Walkinshaw described as "a complete disgrace".

Down at the back the Tyrrell boys were in trouble. Mika Salo used the slightly uprated Ford ED4.5 and qualified 19th while Jos Verstappen used a boring old ED4 and could do no better than 21st. The team needs more horsepower.

Minardi was also in trouble for its home race with Ukyo Katayama stuffed into Jarno Trulli's spare car when his own had a gearbox failure. Jarno was 20th on the grid 1.7secs ahead of Ukyo (22nd). Still, at least Ukyo managed to get under the 107% rule which at one point did not look very likely. In order to compete in the race, drivers must set a time within 107% of the fastest time.

SUNDAY morning gave a spark of hope that we might finally find out about the relative performance of Goodyear and Bridgestone on wet tires. All winter people have talked of a six second advantage for Bridgestone but in recent weeks the Goodyear boys have been getting cocky and saying they are looking forward to rain. On Sunday morning we had it.

The 30-minute session did not really tell us any answers. When it was very wet some of the Bridgestone runners were going surprisingly quickly (Katayama was 10th at one point) but as Olivier Panis was not really going for it at the time it is hard to say what the advantage - if there is one - might actually be. We would find out in the race, or so we thought, but late in the morning the clouds blew away a little and so it was overcast but not really looking like rain as the field lined up for the start.

For the first time this year the field made it through the first corner without anyone smacking into a barrier or a rival. Jacques made a good start and was in the lead while Heinz-Harald was slightly slower away and was given a sharp chop by Michael Schumacher as they braked for the Tamburello chicane. Consequently the order at Tosa was Villeneuve, Schumacher and Frentzen. Then came Schumacher (the Sequel), who had made a good start, followed by Johnny Herbert, a slow-starting Olivier Panis and Eddie Irvine.

And that was how it stayed for the first 15 laps - Imola is like that.

We lost Jarno Trulli before the race even started, the little Italian pitting at the end of the formation lap because he could not get any gears. Damon Hill was in trouble before the start as well, having to start from the pitlane after an oil seal on the starter motor meant he had to switch to the spare car after the pitlane had been closed.

In those early laps the top three looked to be pretty well-matched although it was pretty clear that Frentzen was stuck behind Schumacher's Ferrari.

"He was a touch quicker," admitted Michael later, "but I was able to keep him behind."

Villeneuve edged away, for 10 laps he was only able to grab a tenth here and a tenth there. Behind him Schumacher (M) came under increasing pressure from Frentzen and on lap 10 made an uncharacteristic mistake.

"I had a bit of understeer and ran wide at the Variante Alta onto the wet grass," admitted Michael later. "I did not want to accelerate too hard and risk spinning and that gave Heinz-Harald the chance to get close to me. It is very difficult to overtake going down the hill and I braked as late as possible. While I was turning in I saw Heinz-Harald very close to me in my mirrors."

Heinz-Harald had to go a little wide to avoid hitting the Ferrari. "It was quite close," he said later. "I was lucky I didn't break my front wing. It was close but we did not touch."

The kerfuffling Germans gave Villeneuve the chance to make a break but he then stumbled over traffic a couple of times and so never really got away.

Schumacher was the first to pit - on lap 24 - and Frentzen put the hammer down. On lap 25 he was two full seconds faster than he had been on the previous lap. Next time around Villeneuve dived into the pits.

"I thought Jacques was going to stop after me," explained Heinz-Harald, "but then I got a message that it was the time to push hard to gain some time. I was a bit concerned about traffic but it was all right."

At the end of lap 27 Heinz-Harald pitted. It was a good stop but no quicker than Villeneuve - both men were in the pitlane for 25.2secs - and a lot slower than Schumacher (23.56s).

He emerged JUST ahead of the Ferrari.

"As I came out I saw Michael coming along and it was pretty tight." said Heinz-Harald. "I gave him a hard time. Just as he had done to me at Rivazza when I had tried to pass him. I was a bit surprised when I found I was in the lead. Surprised but happy."

Once ahead Heinz-Harald was able to use the advantage he had in terms of speed and he pulled away. "I could pull away from Michael at that stage," HH reported. "I wasn't thinking about winning the race, I was concentrating on getting rid of Michael as quickly as possible. Once I was comfortable I slowed down but I was confident that I could gain five or six seconds."

At the second pit stops the gap came down slightly but Heinz-Harald was still ahead and there he would stay. In the closing laps Michael closed up but there was never really a threat.

"I was concerned about the brakes," reported Frentzen. "I wasn't really sure if I would finish the race with the brakes and so I was not braking that hard and coming off the power a bit earlier. I was not really pushing. I saw Michael coming and I had to push as well. It was quite a challenge. Then it was raining slightly and I was not sure if it was going to get worse. I was really pushing hard to keep the concentration at the end."

Schumacher was not disappointed with second place as it was more than he had expected to achieve. "In race conditions we seem to be not far off and are obviously the only team which can almost do the speed of the Williams. That makes me happy because there should be some changes coming to improve my car. We had a great race. The two laps at the first pit stop made a difference. That gave him the advantage but then he used that advantage."

Villeneuve looked quite strong after the first pit stops, challenging Schumacher through the middle part of the race, but on lap 34 things began to go wrong. The Williams began selecting its own gears and Jacques was never quite sure what was going to happen next.

"It is impossible to drive like that," Jacques commented later. He went on until his second pit stop when he knew he would stall the car trying to get away again. The team tried various things to get him back onto the track but it was not possible. His race was over.

Jacques's retirement put Giancarlo Fisichella into third place but his race-long battle with Eddie Irvine would be settled at the second pit stops when Irvine managed to get ahead.

Early on Eddie had been ahead of the Jordan driver and he looked very strong in the middle part of the race, forcing his way past Irvine on lap 38. "I assumed that he had a light fuel load," said Irvine. "I was able to go on longer than him and get ahead." And so Eddie came home third - on the podium again, which can only be good for his confidence and his future.

Fisichella was not disappointed, which is more than can be said for his team mate and enemy Ralf Schumacher. He spent the early part of the race fighting with Herbert for fourth place but retired on lap 18 with a driveshaft problem - the same problem which put him out of the race in Melbourne and one which should really have been solved by now.

Herbert's 100th GP did not last a great deal longer because on lap 19 his Sauber Petronas (otherwise known as Ferrari) engine cut out and Johnny had to spend the rest of the afternoon watching as others fought over the third place which might have been his. His team mate Nicola Larini was stuck behind Barrichello's Stewart in the early laps - he overtook the Brazilian on lap 12 - but kept plugging away on a two-stop strategy. In fact, according to the computers, he made a total of four stops, because he twice missed his braking point at the final corner and found himself going into the pits and having to motor through without stopping. At one point Ferrari's Jean Todt felt that Larini was in Schumacher's way and went to Sauber to ask the team to tell him to get out of the way. Sauber paid no attention and, despite the Ferrari amateur dramatics, Nicola looked quite capable of running at the same pace as Schumacher until both men pitted. Nicola would finish seventh.

Ahead of him - but a lap down on the leaders - were the fifth and sixth placed Jean Alesi and Mika Hakkinen. The result was rather flattering for the Benetton and McLaren teams.

Alesi made a good start and jumped from 14th on the grid to 11th. From there he simply drifted up the order as those ahead retired or ran into trouble. He gained places when R Schumacher and Herbert both retired. He gained another when Panis had to pit unexpectedly due to the fact that his car was eating its tires because of a broken rear anti-rollbar. He gained another two spots when Coulthard and Villeneuve stopped and was able to pass Hakkinen when the Finn had a mid-race moment and negated McLaren's tactics.

It was better than Berger's race. Gerhard tried to start the event in neutral when the car decided that this was the best option available. He thus dropped from 11th on the grid to 19th at the end of the first lap. Five laps into the race he lost control and spun off. A day to forget.

Given the speed of the car McLaren did quite a good job, gaining places from reliability and using a one-race strategy which got Coulthard ahead of Irvine; and there he would have stayed if the Mercedes-Benz V10 had not blown up.

David said that he had a car with which he could have won the race if he had qualified better. About half the field could have argued the same thing if only fate had been kind to them. If McLaren built a car that was quicker they could win all the races.

Mika Hakkinen followed Coulthard around for the first half of the race and then dropped the ball while passing a backmarker and ended up in the sand at Rivazza. He rejoined, came straight into the pits and found that the team was not ready for him as Coulthard was only just leaving. In the circumstances the McLaren boys did a good job and Mika lost only a second in the pits.

Panis finished eighth in the Prost, which was no big deal, and everyone said that the Bridgestone tires had been disappointing. It was hard to tell. For a start Olivier made a poor beginning and dropped from fourth to sixth. He was able to keep Irvine, Fisichella and company behind him until lap 18 when his roll-bar problem began. He had to abandon his one-stop strategy because he needed new tires and then he came out stuck behind Barrichello and lost any chance of making up the lost ground.

It was better than Nakano's race, which ended on lap 12 when Damon Hill tried a silly overtaking maneuver on Shinji - one might ask what on earth the World Champion was doing back there - and both retired.

"I saw him in my mirrors," the Japanese driver reported, "but as I turned in he hit the left rear of my car and that was the end of my race."

Damon must have been rather frustrated about the fact that he had to start from the pitlane because the starter motor on his car had an oil seal problem and he had to switch to the spare Arrows after the pitlane was closed. Pedro Diniz trolled around in the midfield until his gearbox broke on lap 54.

Ninth and 10th at the finish were the two Tyrrells - recording Ford's first result of the year - with Salo ahead of Verstappen, a result which showed that reliability is all very well but horsepower is better.

Stewart failed to get either car to the finish: Magnussen going off at high speed on lap three and disturbing a lot of nicely-raked gravel at Acque Minerale; and Barrichello pottering around on a one-stop strategy until his engine blew.

Trulli ended up doing one stop with Minardi. The only problem was that the stop occurred before the race began, Jarno coming into the pits at the end of the parade lap with a steering wheel electronics failure. Ukyo Katayama decided to go for wet settings - a curious decision - and so spent the afternoon looking hopeless. He finished three laps behind.

Heinz-Harald Frentzen Williams-Renault  62 1h31m00.673  1m23.646 
Michael Schumacher Ferrari  62 1.237  1m23.995 
Eddie Irvine Ferrari  62 1m18.343  1m24.861 
12 Giancarlo Fisichella Jordan-Peugeot  62 1m23.388  1m24.596 
Jean Alesi Benetton-Renault  61 1 Lap  1m25.729 14 
Mika Hakkinen McLaren-Mercedes  61 1 Lap  1m24.812 
17 Nicola Larini Sauber-Petronas  61 1 Lap  1m25.544 12 
14 Olivier Panis Prost-Mugen Honda  61 1 Lap  1m24.075 
19 Mika Salo Tyrrell-Ford  60 2 Laps  1m26.852 19 
10 18 Jos Verstappen Tyrrell-Ford  60 2 Laps  1m27.428 21 
11 20 Ukyo Katayama Minardi-Hart  59 3 Laps  1m28.727 22 
Pedro Diniz Arrows-Yamaha  53 Gearbox 1m26.253 17 
Jacques Villeneuve Williams-Renault  40 Gearbox 1m23.302 
10 David Coulthard McLaren-Mercedes  38 Engine 1m25.077 10 
22 Rubens Barrichello Stewart-Ford  32 Engine 1m25.579 13 
16 Johnny Herbert Sauber-Petronas  18 Electrics 1m24.723 
11 Ralf Schumacher Jordan-Peugeot  17 Driveshaft 1m24.081 
15 Shinji Nakano Prost-Mugen Honda  11 Accident 1m26.712 18 
Damon Hill Arrows-Yamaha  11 Accident 1m25.743 15 
Gerhard Berger Benetton-Renault  Spin 1m25.371 11 
23 Jan Magnussen Stewart-Ford  Spin 1m26.192 16 
21 Jarno Trulli Minardi-Hart  Gearbox 1m26.960 20