Monaco GP 1997

Monaco GP, 1997

Modern Mr. Monaco

IN the old days Damon Hill's father Graham was called Mr Monaco. Today that role has been taken over by Michael Schumacher, who walked to his third win on the streets of the famous Mediterranean port - thanks to rain, skill and the fact that the Williams team screwed up badly...

On January 8, 1297 Francois Grimaldi, an Italian buccaneer along the rocky coast of what is now called the Riviera, disguised himself as a monk - they had not signed the Geneva Convention in those days - and wangled his way through the gates of the fortress of Monaco, a rock which dominates a part of the coastline. He then opened the gates for his pirate friends and they saw off the soldiers of the ruling family of Genoa who had previously controlled the castle.

Seven hundred years later, thanks to a couple of historical accidents, Monaco remains independent, the smallest sovereign state in the world. It covers less than a square mile but is known throughout the world as a glamorous place where the wealthy and the famous hang out.

This is largely due to the success of the casino which opened in 1863 and to the glamorous image Monaco enjoys thanks to its two classic motor sport events: the Monte Carlo Rally and the Monaco Grand Prix. It was a glittering place in the 1920s and 1930s when anyone who was anyone spent their winters enjoying the tropical microclimate which exists beneath the massive cliffs of the corniche. It is almost always sunny and one of the major attractions today is the tropical Jardin Exotique. The glamour of Monaco was crowned in 1956 when Prince Rainer Grimaldi, a direct descendant of the old pirate, married beautiful Hollywood actress Grace Kelly. Ever since then, their children Caroline, Stephanie and Albert have kept gossip magazines in business.

Prince Rainier has worked hard to broaden the Monaco economy so as not to have to rely on the beautiful people, but there are still many famous and wealthy Monaco residents who like the liberal taxation laws, the private banks and the pleasant lifestyle which Monaco offers. At Grand Prix time Monaco is at its most glamorous and everyone throws a party or two.

World Champion James Hunt used to say that the Monaco Grand Prix needed two weeks rather than one, the first for the parties and the fun, the second for racing. James would have enjoyed this year because Monaco celebrated its 700th anniversary with not one but two Grands Prix, with vintage car races on the Sunday before the big event.

James would certainly have enjoyed the battle for pole position when things got down to the serious business on Saturday afternoon. Thursday had seen Johnny Herbert fastest in his Sauber, which was an achievement for the Swiss team, but on Saturday it was back to normal with the two Williams drivers taking on Michael Schumacher in the battle for pole position.

Monaco qualifying is, of course, a more significant battle than most, because overtaking is virtually impossible in the race itself. It has always been a track where a great driver can do a good job despite a poor car and so it was no surprise to see Schumacher much more competitive than he has been at other races this year. Using one of the latest 046/2 engines he recorded a lap of 1m18.235s after only 20 minutes of the hour-long qualifying session. Traditionally the track gets faster towards the end and so this was a really great effort and it would remain unbeaten until the dying moments of the session.

"I was a bit surprised by the lap," Michael admitted later, "but I did not really believe that it would be the time to beat because, I thought, if I can go this quick others can do it as well."

And yet no-one could beat it. It was 15 minutes before Frentzen managed to get into the 1m18s. He then went back into the pits for a rethink.

"I was not expecting it to be easy to beat Michael's time," he explained. "I was not quite happy with the front of my car and I was trying to get more grip. We decided to go for a risky set-up at the end. It was really exciting. I just went for it. I could not believe it when the team told me it was an 18.2s. I knew that Michael had one more shot to go and I was not sure I would keep pole."

The funny thing was that Frentzen's time, with just a couple of minutes to go, seemed to rattle the unusually unflappable Schumacher. He left the Ferrari pit a little later than he should have done and was held for 15 seconds in the pitlane while a Tyrrell was pushed out of his way. Suddenly it was a question of whether he would get to the start of his lap before the chequered flag came out, signalling the end of qualifying. Michael was worried. He overtook his team mate Eddie Irvine and put the hammer down. He reached the start-finish line with three seconds in hand - it was all a bit ragged - and so was that final blast for pole.

"I was at the maximum," he explained later. "I had a problem with too much understeer at Casino and at Mirabeau."

It sounded plausible enough but one has to wonder if Frentzen's success and his growing competitiveness is beginning to get to Schumacher.

Although he would never admit it publicly Frank Williams hired Heinz-Harald not only because Frentzen was quick but also because he was the one driver whom Frank felt Schumacher might be worried about in a good car. Perhaps a few dents to the invincible image and Michael's extraordinary confidence and self-belief would begin to get eaten away. At this level of the sport the confidence of the driver is everything and his mental strength is vital.

Whatever the case, Schumacher's final lap was good, but it was not good enough, stopping the clocks at 1m18.362s.

Villeneuve seemed rather overshadowed by Frentzen and - as last year - did not seem to be very comfortable on the streets of what is his home town. He was also not well - although for some reason the team did not bother to tell the world. He spent most of the weekend wrapped up in a huge jacket to protect himself from a chill.

Perhaps this was why he kept making mistakes in the final corners of his flying laps. F1 drivers nowadays must be so fit that even a slight problem can affect their performance.

"We didn't have a good day at all," said Jacques. "The car is better but I kept making mistakes." His final lap saw a wild slide at the final corner and after crossing the line he went too quickly into Ste Devote on his slowing down lap and the rear slid wide and clonked the barriers, damaging the rear suspension. He crawled up the hill and through Monte Carlo and then parked the car down on the waterfront - to stay out of the way of the final mad dashes of his rivals.

The lap time would have been good enough for the front row but Frentzen's last-minute blinder pushed Jacques back to third, which was disappointing but nothing compared to the disappointment of Schumacher's Ferrari team mate Eddie Irvine, who was 15th on the grid 1.5secs slower than his team mate.

"The afternoon session was a total mystery to me," said the Ulsterman. "I was slow coming out of all the corners because I had to wait for the front end to bite. My set-up was not that different to Michael's."

Fourth on the grid was Giancarlo Fisichella who continues to impress in his Jordan with his smooth, flowing style of driving which is very different to the more cut-and-thrusting way Ralf Schumacher drives.

"My target was to be in the top six," explained Giancarlo, who was second fastest before the Williams drivers went for their final blasts. "It was a shame I could not stay second but the competition was very strong indeed."

This was certainly true. There were eight drivers within a second of pole position and 15 within 1.5secs. A blink here or a hesitation there meant a drop of several places.

The most impressive thing about the two Jordan boys was that neither messed up their pre-race preparations with any incidents. Between them they had one slightly bent steering arm.

Ralf was sixth quickest - three-tenths slower than Fisichella - and not very happy about it. "It was my fault," he admitted. "The car was good. I am frustrated."

David Coulthard was fifth fastest for McLaren with Mika Hakkinen eighth - which, funnily enough, were exactly the same grid positions as the pair had in 1996. As last year, the Mercedes engines are powerful, but the aerodynamic downforce with the McLaren chassis appears to be the problem. This is not a big problem at Monaco and so the team tends to be more competitive than normal.

McLaren's great strength is its organization and this was amply demonstrated when Hakkinen crashed at the exit of the Swimming Pool section early in qualifying. Within minutes he was back out on the track and setting good times. That was impressive. The team is also good at calling strategies, and reliability is usually good, so they were hoping that Monaco would have its traditional high-rate of attrition.

After the excitements of Thursday Johnny Herbert ended up seventh on the grid in his Sauber. On Saturday morning Johnny had crashed at Mirabeau, backing the Sauber into the barrier and knocking off the rear wing. This lost him time and although the car was repaired for the afternoon the track conditions had changed and Johnny had not been able to keep up. It was a matter of a few tenths. Larini was three-tenths slower than Johnny which meant that the Italian was 11th on the grid.

Benetton managed to get a driver in the top 10 for the first time since Brazil - an amazing but true fact for a team using Renault V10 engines. On this occasion Jean Alesi was ninth and Gerhard Berger 17th. The team morale has hit rock bottom and has bounced down. The paddock is swirling with rumors of management changes and takeover bids. Alesi says that he hates his car so much that he doesn't even like the color scheme and Gerhard Berger is talking to Indycar teams about his future. All of which goes to prove that people who do not understand racing should not run racing teams. Without Michael Schumacher, Tom Walkinshaw and Ross Brawn, Benetton is hopeless. It is time for the sweater salesmen to go back to a business they understand.

Alesi did what he could. He loves and excels in the committed driving of Monaco and if he was ninth that was all the car could do. Berger was miserable. He had an accident on Saturday morning and so had to use the spare car.

"It was sliding in the corners and the more I pushed the worse it got. It was our usual problem in qualifying and I just could not get a time."

Tenth on the grid was a good effort for the Stewart team which was having a stressful time as the F1 outsiders at Monaco for the first time. Rubens Barrichello was the fastest Bridgestone runner.

The overall impression was that this time Goodyear had the advantage over Bridgestone - thanks largely, it must be said, to the fact that Goodyear has a great deal more experience. The Bridgestone tires were rather too conservative.

Jan Magnussen was 19th in the second Stewart having his first visit to the circuit. "My biggest problem here is that I keep forgetting how to breathe," he explained. "I keep finding myself at the end of the lap and suddenly remember to take a gulp of air."

Twelfth on the grid was pretty much a disaster for Prost's Olivier Panis, the winner of the 1996 race. Having said that it should be remembered that last year Olivier started from 14th and still won the race.

Olivier struggled with the set-up and then damaged his car - and his chances - with a crash at the last corner on Saturday morning which forced him into the spare for qualifying. In race trim he reckoned he would be fast... A bit like last year really.

Shinji Nakano - in what will probably be his last race for the Prost team - was 21st, 1.3secs off the pace of Panis.

Damon Hill was hardly ecstatic about his 13th position on the grid for Arrows, although he was only 1.4secs from pole. Lack of engine power could not be blamed on this occasion, the car must take some of the blame. Pedro Diniz was a couple of tenths behind Damon - a good showing - but complained of traffic and touched a wall, damaging the rear suspension on his last lap.

Fourteenth on the grid - ahead of a Ferrari and a Benetton - was Mika Salo's Tyrrell which just goes to prove that there is not much wrong with the Tyrrell chassis which 100 horsepower could not fix. Unfortunately Cosworth has not been able to find the necessary horses in the old V8 engine - and this is delaying the program.

Jos Verstappen ought to have done better than Salo because he was due to use the one evolution ED4 engine (the ED4-and-a-half). This however blew up on Saturday morning. Jos then tried a bit too hard and crashed at the Swimming Pool early in the session. The spare was set for Salo and there was not enough to change all the settings so Verstappen would start 22nd and last on the grid.

Minardi's Jarno Trulli and Ukyo Katayama were where one expects to see them, 18th and 20th, with Trulli ahead again.

AFTER a series of pleasant days without rain Sunday morning dawned quite nice but by the time people began to arrive at the track it was clouding up. The warm-up resulted in a Williams 1-2 and it seemed that we would have business as usual. Hah! With about 30 minutes to go before the start the first raindrops began to fall, just a few and then a few more. It was not enough to worry about having to run with wet tires but the teams all rushed off to their meteorologists to ask them what was going to happen. The weather boffins at Williams assured the team that there would be a flurry of rain drops and then the clouds would clear away and everyone would live happily ever after in a pleasant Monagasque afternoon.

They got it horribly wrong.

"I stand by the decision," said Frank Williams after the race. "That is the way it happens sometimes. It worked for us in 1983 but this time it was not right."

Both the Williams drivers went to the grid with slicks and dry settings, Frentzen's car had a softer suspension than Villeneuve's - which would show up later in the race when he finally got onto wet rubber.

Michael Schumacher used the recognition laps to try out two cars, set differently, one for the dry and one for intermediate conditions. At times like this Michael always takes a risk. His aim is to win races and unless you have the dominant car it is always worth a risk, the worst that can happen is that you will get stuck in the midfield. If you're lucky the cards will fall your way and you will look like a genius. Just as happened last year in Barcelona, Michael looked at the conditions and put his eggs firmly in the wet basket.

The Jordans went on intermediate tires. McLaren's Coulthard went the same route but Hakkinen followed the Williams idea of slicks.

When the lights went green Michael Schumacher got away well but Frentzen and Villeneuve were not as quick off the mark, which gave Fisichella the opportunity to sneak ahead of Jacques going into Ste Devote. He took Ralf Schumacher with him, so Villeneuve found himself bumped down to fifth. Behind there was plenty of chaos and confusion with drivers bumping into one another a great deal.

"It was chaotic," Irvine said. "The Ferrari must be a very strong car because I was hitting cars up the back and being hit from behind and from the sides. God knows how many contacts I had with other cars."

Damon Hill was in agreement. "The first lap was absolutely extraordinary," he said. "It was so slippery. We were going slowly and everybody was trying like mad to pass everyone else. They were going around the outside, the inside. I went round Loews Hairpin with four cars abreast."

The most remarkable thing was that, despite the mayhem, there was only one retirement, and that was the other Arrows driver, Pedro Diniz, who spun off of his own accord at the corner after Loews...

The retirements would come at the harbor chicane on lap two when the West-sponsored McLaren team, literally, went west. David Coulthard, who had dropped to seventh on the first lap, spun his MP4-12. "My car was not really set up for the rain. I made a mistake and lost the rear end turning into the chicane."

The car hit the barrier and came to rest blocking the inside line into the chicane. Those behind had to go around. This was easier said than done. Panis and Villeneuve made it but behind them Alesi and Hakkinen (not a good combination) made rather a meal of it. Mika on slicks tried to brake but could not and went into the back of Jean. He went across the chicane and rejoined just as Irvine and Hill were threading their way through the carnage.

"The Benetton jumped over the curb, came onto the track and stopped. Irvine stopped but I was so close behind him that I could not avoid him." The impact broke Damon's suspension and those behind had to duck and weave to avoid hitting him. That was end of the day for Arrows.

Up front Michael Schumacher was simply driving away from his rivals. He had a 6.6secs advantage at the end of lap one. It was 11.5secs on lap two; 15.7secs on lap three and 22.1s by the end of the fifth lap. When he got to around half a minute he backed off a little and began to maintain the gap. By the mid-race he was able to pit without losing the lead and the only glitch was on lap 53 when he skated up the Ste Devote escape road and lost 10secs.

"It caught me out," he said. "I locked up the front tires and could not slow down. Rather than risk going round the corner and spinning I decided to go straight on."

He duly won by 53secs. It would have been more but he backed off in the final laps in order to avoid having to do one extra lap before the two hour limit brought out the chequered flag, after 62 of 78 scheduled laps. It was a brilliant display, an example of clever thinking and good driving. You cannot fault Michael. When others make the wrong choices, Michael gets it right.

The early laps saw the Jordans running 2-3 but it was not long before Stewart's Rubens Barrichello was mixing it with them, profiting from good power delivery from the Ford engine - it may not have much power but at least it comes in smoothly - and consistent Bridgestone wet weather tires. Rubens was through into second by lap six and there he stayed unable to catch Schumacher but unchallenged by others. Like Schumacher he made one mistake but rejoined without hitting anything solid.

"I think the Bridgestone tires were better," said Rubens. "They did a great job in the winter tests and the Bridgestone wets were a lot better but now Goodyear has caught up a bit."

It is still hard to tell which tires are better because we do not really know how good the Stewart might be since it has not been very reliable so far this year. Having said all that, Goodyear won in the wet - and thus demolished the myth that Bridgestone wets were better. The Goodyear boys can be proud of that.

The celebrations at Stewart were aided by the fact that Jan Magnussen also did well, climbing up to sixth place before spinning over a curb and damaging a front wing. He finished seventh, surviving a second spin.

Third place behind Barrichello went to Irvine which was another good result for the man from Ireland. He had started on totally dry settings but with a little extra downforce. In places he reported the car was terrible - "like driving on ice" - but it was sensational under braking and that meant that while everyone else was floundering in the early laps Eddie was able to overtake cars at will. "Everything went my way today," he reported.

After his adventures with Hill and Alesi at the chicane on the second lap Eddie moved up as those ahead fell by the wayside. He was fifth by lap 11 and was able to catch Fisichella and Panis because the Jordan was slowing up the Prost badly. Having started with a large load of fuel, Eddie was able to run longer than both men ahead and thus able to pass them both. He was helped by the fact that the rain meant the race was shortened by 16 laps so that his refueling could be done very quickly.

Panis came home fourth but reckoned the car was one of the most difficult he had ever driven. "I battled for a full two hours to get the car to the finish and even successfully overtook Fisichella in the Swimming Pool section, so I guess that is not bad."

It was a drive of gritty determination but restraint. He had charged up in the early laps and then found himself stuck behind the Jordan for lap after lap, unable to pass. He got Fisichella in a super move just before the mid-race fuel stops but by then Irvine had been able to get into a position to pass both of them.

Nakano did nothing of note until he spun on the straight going up the hill from Ste Devote on lap 36.

Fifth place went to Mika Salo in his Tyrrell which was a remarkable performance. The Finn had been part of the hurly-burly in the early part of the race and had some damage to a front wing but he plugged away gamely while in the pitlane the Tyrrell strategists came up with an audacious plan. Salo had been going for one stop but the rain was such that the race was to be 16 laps shorter - and slower - than planned. They calculated that Mika could go without a stop if he drove to save fuel.

"I started coasting through corners to stay off the power," he said. "It was great thinking but I was not sure we were going to make it. My tires were completely shot and when it started to rain a bit more heavily I lost all grip and I was lucky not to hit a wall."

Verstappen tried to do the same but had to come in for a splash and dash. He finished in eighth place despite a spin.

Fisichella came home sixth and was happy with that.

"I was never able to apply full power," he said. "otherwise the car would have slid off the road. It was very difficult to control."

Peugeot Sport boss Pierre Pierre-Michel Fauconnier summed up the performance aptly after the race. "Giancarlo demonstrated his talent and maturity in these dangerous conditions."

Ralf Schumacher did not make it home. He pushed his way past his team mate on lap six and Fisichella was so careful not to put himself in a position of danger with the German that he let Barrichello through as well. On lap 11 Ralf went too fast and spun in Casino Square.

For Benetton, Gerhard Berger made it to the finish in ninth place which was a pretty dreadful result. Gerhard had spun on lap 10 and removed his front wing which meant he had to pit. He then drove all the way to the flag without stopping again. The chequered flag finally put him out of his misery. Alesi lasted only until lap 17 when he spun off and stalled while trying to pass Salo for sixth place at Portier corner.

The only other finisher was Ukyo Katayama in his Minardi who spent the whole day at the back of the field. Minardi team mate Jarno Trulli went into a barrier at Mirabeau when he went off line as Frentzen overtook him on lap 8.

The story of Williams's adventures was rather sad. Heinz-Harald and Jacques could do little. Jacques pitted on the third lap for wet tires and rejoined at the tail of the field. He tried to fight back but hit a wall on lap 17 and came into the pits to retire. Frentzen came in on lap five but had to stop again for fuel on lap 37, by which time he was a lap down. In the end he hit a barrier at the chicane.

Sauber failed to get a car home, Herbert running fifth until the 10th lap when the car hit a bump and he had a fairly big crash at Ste Devote. Larini decided to pit early to change tires. He then had electrical problems and had to pit again. He rejoined and ran at the tail of the field until he spun on the straight on lap 26.

It had been a race which we will probably remember for years. Not because it was particularly exciting but because Michael Schumacher got it all right - and everyone else got it wrong. As a result he leads the World Championship for Ferrari.

Now who would have thought...

Michael Schumacher Ferrari  62 2h00m05.654  1m18.235 
22 Rubens Barrichello Stewart-Ford  62 53.306  1m19.295 10 
Eddie Irvine Ferrari  62 1m22.108  1m19.723 15 
14 Olivier Panis Prost-Mugen Honda  62 1m44.402  1m19.626 12 
19 Mika Salo Tyrrell-Ford  61 1 Lap  1m19.694 14 
12 Giancarlo Fisichella Jordan-Peugeot  61 1 Lap  1m18.665 
23 Jan Magnussen Stewart-Ford  61 1 Lap  1m20.516 19 
18 Jos Verstappen Tyrrell-Ford  60 2 Laps  1m21.290 22 
Gerhard Berger Benetton-Renault  60 2 Laps  1m20.199 17 
10 20 Ukyo Katayama Minardi-Hart  60 2 Laps  1m20.606 20 
Heinz-Harald Frentzen Williams-Renault  39 Accident 1m18.216 
15 Shinji Nakano Prost-Mugen Honda  36 Spin 1m20.961 21 
17 Nicola Larini Sauber-Petronas  24 Spin 1m19.468 11 
Jean Alesi Benetton-Renault  16 Spin 1m19.263 
Jacques Villeneuve Williams-Renault  16 Accident 1m18.583 
11 Ralf Schumacher Jordan-Peugeot  10 Spin 1m18.943 
16 Johnny Herbert Sauber-Petronas  Accident 1m19.105 
21 Jarno Trulli Minardi-Hart  Accident 1m20.349 18 
10 David Coulthard McLaren-Mercedes  Accident 1m18.779 
Mika Hakkinen McLaren-Mercedes  Accident 1m19.119 
Damon Hill Arrows-Yamaha  Accident 1m19.674 13 
Pedro Diniz Arrows-Yamaha  Spin 1m19.860 16