Italian GP 1997

Italian GP, 1997

David's dull day

IT was possibly the dullest race in Formula 1 history but to McLaren and to David Coulthard these things are not important. A win is a win and this was a finely-judged one, an indication that McLaren may not have been building the best cars in recent years but the team still knows how to call the best tactics.

God alone knows how the Romans ever built an empire. Having spent a weekend at Monza one sees nothing but disorganization. The Italians work very hard to create clever things like priority access roads and then for no apparent reason they padlock gates and go home and the policemen stand there, shrugging as only Italian policemen can and say that it is not their fault and that there is no reason to call them idiots.

Even if the gates are open there is always a line of people trying to argue their way in, saying that they are a member of the Agnelli Family or that they have a special meeting with Meester Ecclestone in a very short time and they are in a terrible hurry. The policemen simply shrug as only Italian policemen can and everyone behind gets annoyed.

And then you are in and all you have to worry about is the thousands of spectators who have been directed onto the special express route into the circuit and who do not see why cars should be given any priority. Little old ladies on bicycles wobble across the road without looking and men with silly beards drive Fiats into trees as they gawp at the lady spectators.

Anyone who gets into the paddock at Monza breathes a sigh of relief. The journey through the mad world outside is over for another day. Inside the paddock the passion is muted but you can still feel it. There is a buzz in the air and the track commentators always seem to be in overdrive.

The Italians love it, which possibly explains why Jean Alesi always does well at the Autodromo Nazionale. "My passport is French," he said. "But my father and mother come from Sicily. I feel French but my blood is Italian. There are some circuits where you feel a lot more than in other places and I am in love with this circuit. You can push for the whole lap."

Jean took his only pole position of a long career at Monza in a Ferrari in 1994. This year he did it again in a Benetton. This was not really a surprise in that the Benetton was competitive on the fast blasts at Hockenheim and Monza is not very different these days. Handling in high-speed corners is important, but there is not much fiddly stuff with which the B197 has struggled all season. Jean was delighted, of course, particularly as he has still to find employment for next year.

"I have a massive chance to win the race," he said. "I have no complaints. I had a bit of a shock after my first qualifying run when I saw the lap time. I asked them to change the tires and let me have another try and it was a good one."

In fact Jean took pole by the smallest of margins - 0.052secs - on a day when all the top five teams had both drivers covered by a single second.

Gerhard Berger was just four-tenths slower than his team-mate but this meant that he was seventh on the grid. "My car is good," explained the Austrian, "but it's not perfect and I just could not match Jean's lap time."

Second fastest was the Williams of Heinz-Harald Frentzen who had been on the pace all day. He had taken pole early in the session but was bumped off by others on their second runs. He then took it back only to have the same happen again. In the final moments he went out and everyone waited for a Williams pole but, rather oddly, HH aborted both his final attempts.

"I knew it was going to be very tight," he explained. "I thought I could have improved a little bit and I was going for another try but there was some dirt and stones at the first chicane and I could not continue my lap."

He went slowly round and then seemed to do the same again. "I ran very hard over the curb and lost a couple of tenths. I had to stop my lap because I had no laps left."

Second on the grid was still a good effort and Heinz was happy, although he knew that he was unlikely to be able to win the race unless Jacques Villeneuve was out of contention, because the French-Canadian is ahead in the World Championship and he would have to move aside to help Jacques. He was asked if there were any team orders. "Nothing is impossible," he said.

Villeneuve - desperate to claw back World Championship points on Michael Schumacher - was fourth on the grid with a lap time just a tenth slower than that of Frentzen.

"We are more competitive than we expected after testing here last week," Jacques said, "but when you are fighting for pole position it is always frustrating when you do not get it. For the race it is not very important because it is a track where you can overtake."

This comment raised an eyebrow or two in the press room. Overtaking is easy at Monza? Yes, it was in the 1950s but in recent years this has not really been the case. Overtaking at Monza today is very hard.

The man who split the two Williams boys was Italy's rising star Giancarlo Fisichella, who was just 0.076secs off pole position. He is still of an age where being third on the grid is a thrill.

"I am very excited," he admitted. "I hope to get on the podium for my fans. Their support is incredible. There is a lot of support for Ferrari but also for me."

For the third time in three races Giancarlo was faster than his Jordan team-mate Ralf Schumacher, who was half a second slower and five places further back on the grid, in eighth place. Ralf complained that he had lost time with a steering problem in the morning and then struggled with the set-up. "I am finding the chicanes the most difficult," he admitted.

The most interesting thing about the Jordan effort was that it was the only team to risk going with Goodyear's softer tire compound while all the others decided to use the safer hard tires. Monza is not a track which is particularly hard on tires and everyone seemed to be considering the best strategy to be a one-stop race.

Fifth and sixth on the grid were the two McLarens with Mika Hakkinen 0.007secs ahead of David Coulthard. This was disappointing because the team had hoped to be right up on the front two rows - as has been the case in recent races. Hakkinen felt he might have done better had he not had an engine failure in the Saturday morning session.

The possibility of further Mercedes engine failures on race day hung over the team. They have a great engine there, but it is still not 100% reliable and Monza is very tough on engines.

Ferrari were ninth and 10th on the grid with Michael Schumacher only two-tenths faster than Irvine. The team tried to say that it was pretty much what they had expected to happen but this must have been a bit of a disappointment for the home crowd turning up in force to see the red cars doing battle with the Williams.

It was the team's worst qualifying of the year and the local press were quick to point it out. "I could not do better," admitted Michael. "I think that the moment the track temperature goes up, our tires overheat so they do not work properly and lose grip."

Irvine has rarely managed to get as close to Schumacher and so he was quite pleased. "As usual we will be better in the race than in qualifying, where we were not competitive," said Eddie.

At best Ferrari was looking for a podium finish for Schumacher as he tried to defend his World Championship lead against the Villeneuve attack.

The Bridgestone boys were rather less competitive at Monza with the chosen tires about a second off the Goodyear pace in qualifying trim and a certain amount of blistering going on. Fastest of the lot was Rubens Barrichello in his Stewart-Ford who qualified 11th with his team-mate Jan Magnussen in 13th slot on the grid. This was a good performance and, for once, the Ford engines managed to hold together - although Jan Magnussen would suffer a failure in Sunday morning warm-up.

Splitting the two Stewart boys was Johnny Herbert's Sauber in 12th position. This was a disappointment. Johnny's efforts were not helped by the fact that he crashed at the Ascari chicane in the last few minutes of Saturday morning practice.

"I'd been pushing a bit too hard on worn tires," Johnny explained, "I touched the curb when the car slid a little and it came round on me and I hit the wall. But you've got to try, haven't you? I managed to all my laps in the afternoon and the car was better than in the morning but the conditions were not and so that canceled out any improvement."

Johnny's Sauber team-mate Gianni Morbidelli was struggling with understeer in the Parabolica which meant that he was losing speed all the way down the main straight. He was 18th on the grid. The Swiss team was not very pleased.

Arrows' Damon Hill was the center of much talk in the paddock over his future but was not going very well on the race track. He qualified 14th with Pedro Diniz 17th. Damon was short of horsepower on the straight and tried to get a tow from Heinz-Harald Frentzen on his final runs.

When two cars are very close together the car behind benefits from the front car pushing through the air and, by pulling out suddenly to overtake, gets a brief "sling shot" speed advantage. This is called "getting a tow" or "drafting". In motor racing employing such tactics to get a few split seconds count very much.

"I got a tow over the start-finish line and then he backed off," Damon reported. "I went ahead with my lap. It wasn't going to be a good lap so I slowed down and waited for him to come past, thinking he must be on his run now, put my foot down, got a tow and he lifted off again. I am not sure what he was doing."

Prost was a disappointment with Shinji Nakano 15th on the grid and Jarno Trulli 16th. On Friday Jarno had been a lot quicker but on Saturday morning he had a spin and damaged the hydraulic pump when he spun over a curb and had a dramatic fiery moment as all the fluid came out onto the exhausts. In the afternoon he found the car to be very nervous, went off at the second chicane and had to take to the spare car with which he could not attack.

Nakano was happy with his showing and both drivers were hoping for much better performances in the race - which is usually the case with the two Prost-Mugen Hondas.

At the back end of the grid the two Tyrrells were 19th and 20th, Mika Salo outrunning Jos Verstappen on this occasion. Both drivers complained that the cars lacked straight-line speed.

It was a similar story with Minardi. Ukyo Katayama qualified 21st on the grid, despite a couple of nasty moments when he had car failures at high speed. The first was on Friday at the Parabolica when his front suspension broke under braking and he was pitched sideways and hit the barriers very hard. The second was on Saturday when his gearbox locked solid and he was turfed into the sand trap at the first chicane.

WITH overtaking so difficult at Monza the start and the run down to the first corner is incredibly important. Traditionally at Monza drivers have been told that they must not cross the white line. Drivers who did so in 1978 were blamed for the accident which led to the death of Ronnie Peterson.

This no longer seems to matter. Before the race a couple of teams inquired whether the white line could be crossed or not and there is apparently no regulation which says one should not do it.

When the lights went out, therefore, David Coulthard and Eddie Irvine - on the left side of the grid - got away well, as they so often do and, to avoid the slower cars ahead of them, went left over the line. As the field filed into the first chicane Alesi and Frentzen were ahead as expected but then in swooped Coulthard, having blown past Hakkinen, Villeneuve and Fisichella. Michael Schumacher also did a good job and passed his brother Ralf and Berger to grab seventh.

Also on the move was Herbert - up two places from 12th - and Trulli who blasted from 16th to 12th. The big losers were Ralf Schumacher, who dropped from eighth to 11th and Barrichello who went from 11th to 15th.

"The start of the race is always one of the most important things you do," Coulthard explained. "You can gain places in a few seconds which might take you 30 laps otherwise. It is an area on which I have always concentrated."

Despite Coulthard's great start Alesi was in the lead and there he stayed. He managed to pull out a tenth here and there but never really broke away from his chasers and after lap 18 the gap began to close again.

"I had a little bit of oversteer in the low-speed corners," Jean explained later. "It was quite difficult to judge how to use the throttle. I had an accident in the warm up when I had the same feeling so I slowed down a little bit. It is really impossible to overtake unless you make a mistake."

The drivers all knew that any changes in position would come during the pit stops and so it became a question of pacing themselves until the stops began. The men who could go furthest would have to stop for less time because they would need to take on less fuel.

The first men in were the two Williams drivers: Villeneuve coming in on lap 28 and Frentzen on lap 29. Prior to his stop Heinz-Harald had been looking very strong. He was running second and reckoned that he would have been quicker than Alesi had he been ahead. He later admitted that his stop was probably too early.

"I was quicker than Jean but it was really difficult to overtake," he said. "Our plan was to come into the pits on a schedule and I think it was slightly too early. I did good lap times at the end of the run and gained some time and we were very quick in the pits as well."

Alesi was still ahead with Coulthard on his tail but we knew that both would have to pit very soon. Now it was a question of who had the most fuel on board. The cars with the heavier fuel loads would need less fuel and so would be able to get away faster.

On lap 31 Coulthard - who had survived a very sideways moment at the Ascari Chicane the lap before - saw Alesi's pitboard calling Jean in next time around. He decided to follow the Benetton into the pits. He had extra fuel in his tank which meant that he could go on longer if he had wanted to but he figured that it would be better to pit with Alesi and get ahead there and then rather than risk staying out and trying to make time with the risk of traffic disrupting the plan. If they came in together they would both have the same traffic problems to deal with. David radioed in and the McLaren team confirmed that the Benetton crew was ready for Jean.

"I thought it was best to follow him. We knew that McLaren does the best pit stops. If you look at the pit stops this year we are always quick because the guys are the best. It was down to them. They did a fantastic job."

It was a straight race between the pit crews and as Jean and David sat immobile in their cars the seconds must have dragged by very slowly.

"When you see someone pitting at the same time as you there is a massive tension," Alesi explained. "I think the boys did a good job but getting the fuel in took a little bit more time."

David was at rest for 7.8secs. Jean was stationary for 8.7secs. It was not a vast different but it was enough to win the race.

Coulthard's speed in the pits certainly caught Frentzen unawares. "I was really surprised that David came out in front of me," shrugged Heinz-Harald. "It was quite a good maneuver to pit quite late. It is good experience."

The race was effectively over. When everyone else had pitted - Hakkinen and Michael Schumacher both briefly led before they stopped - David was ahead of Jean and Heinz-Harald was down in third place. Hakkinen was fourth - McLaren having pulled the same trick with Mika to get him ahead of Fisichella and Villeneuve, whom he had been shadowing since the start. Mika's race was to be disrupted on his second lap after his stop when a big chunk of rubber came out of his tire. Technically-speaking this was a delamination, which meant that for Mika it was like trying to lap Monza as if it were one long cattle grid. Mika slowed down and headed for the pits. New tires were put on but he had lost far too much time to figure in the race. He set a series of fastest laps as he charged back and even managed to overtake a few backmarkers - a major achievement.

The problem, it turned out, had been caused by a tire delaminating. "We have not seen anything like that at all this weekend," said Goodyear's F1 boss Perry Bell. "We will have to analyze why it happened back in Akron."

Hakkinen was history and McLaren was totally focused on Coulthard. "The second half of the race was really just cruising," David admitted. "Once you have a lead you obviously don't want to make a mistake."

His driving became wonderfully smooth as he reeled off the laps, unperturbed by the efforts of Alesi and Frentzen behind him. Did it mean that McLaren was competitive again?, someone asked. "We have proved that on certain tracks we have a winning advantage," David said diplomatically. "We have found something this weekend which may have been causing some of the reliability problems. This was changed at the race track."

This turned out to be something complicated in the oil pressure system but whatever it was it seemed to have worked.

In the closing laps David admitted that he was thinking about the events in Britain in recent days and after the race he dedicated the win to the memory of Diana, Princess of Wales, who had died recently in a Paris car crash.

"I have only scored four points since Melbourne," he said later, "so this comes at a good time for me. It was largely down to teamwork that I got out ahead of Jean. It was down to the mechanics."

Alesi finished second, 1.9secs behind, and while disappointed not to have won was happy to be on the podium. "Nobody is to blame," he said. "That's racing. Once David was ahead I was not able to overtake him. But I was pushing until the last lap hoping he would make a mistake. It was not an easy end to the Grand Prix."

Williams' Heinz-Harald Frentzen was 2.4secs behind the Benetton but seemed quite happy to be there. Fourth, 1.5secs behind Frentzen, was Fisichella in the Jordan and right behind him was Jacques Villeneuve. It all looked very close but the fact was that while the cars could run in convoy there really was no hope at all of any overtaking.

Fisichella did not get the podium he had hoped for but was content with fourth place. "I still feel I did a good job. I was quite nervous and excited before the race and at the start I made a mistake which cost me a place."

Villeneuve collected only two points which was a pretty catastrophic result given that many people felt that Monza was an opportunity to claw back some points to Michael Schumacher.

"I really pushed hard," Jacques explained. "The car was better than fifth but the start was just average. I was between Fisichella and Coulthard before the braking and I didn't want to get stuck in a sandwich so I braked early and let them fight it out in front of me. Then I was stuck behind Fisichella. I could run quicker than him but as soon as I got close I could not fight."

To minimize the damage in the World Championship Michael finished sixth so Jacques gained back only one point. "Considering everything that happened this weekend, we can be really satisfied with this result," Schumacher said. "It could have been a lot worse. The next two races are on tracks which require much more aerodynamic downforce so I am sure we will once again be competitive."

Irvine finished eighth after a lonely but uncontroversial race. Splitting the two Ferraris was the Benetton of Gerhard Berger but the veteran's story was much the same as everyone else. "With so many cars running at very similar speeds on the circuit there was very little to do," he reported. Hakkinen ended up ninth and was naturally disappointed.

The first of the Bridgestone men was Trulli in the Prost, a minute behind the winner at the end of the race, proving that the tire gap was much the same in the race as it had been in the qualifying. Nakano followed his team-mate home in 11th, while Sauber's Morbidelli was 12th - a lackluster performance.

Johnny Herbert might have given Sauber a slightly better result - ninth - but he retired in spectacular fashion on lap 39 in an accident with Jordan's Ralf Schumacher. Naturally both drivers blamed the other.

"He overtook me going past the pits," said Johnny, "but I stayed close to him into the braking area down to the first chicane. I just had time to brake a little when he pulled right into my path and left me nowhere to go. What he doesn't seem to understand is that in very high-speed places like that you need to give the other guy racing room and he didn't do that. I don't mind a battle or a bit of racing but what he did is not the way to do it. It was unnecessary and unacceptable and the sign of an inexperienced driver who still has a lot to learn about the art of racing closely at high speeds."

The rest of the Sauber team was as outraged as Johnny.

Ralf said that he felt he had given Johnny enough room but that under braking Johnny had hit his right rear wheel. The incident caused Ralf to retire. "The car felt unstable and I was not happy to drive it like that."

Barrichello managed to get his Stewart home in 13th place but Magnussen retired with no drive after his second pit stop. He had struggled for most of the race with a bad vibration.

Tarso Marques finished 14th in his Minardi but Katayama went off after eight laps and clipped a wall which damaged his brakes beyond repair.

Neither Arrows nor Tyrrell managed to get a car to the finish but none of the cars were on the pace. Damon Hill suffered a major engine blow up while Pedro Diniz suffered a rear suspension failure and went off on the fifth lap. Jos Verstappen retired after 12 laps with a gearbox problem while Mika Salo went out with an engine failure on lap 34.

After the race, curiously, many of the drivers said they had enjoyed themselves enormously despite the fact that the crowds were dozing off in the grandstands. One must only presume that they stayed just in case the five cars ahead of Michael Schumacher all went out with mechanical trouble...

10 David Coulthard McLaren-Mercedes  53 1h17m04.609  1m23.347 
Jean Alesi Benetton-Renault  53 1.947  1m22.990 
Heinz-Harald Frentzen Williams-Renault  53 4.343  1m23.042 
12 Giancarlo Fisichella Jordan-Peugeot  53 5.871  1m23.066 
Jacques Villeneuve Williams-Renault  53 6.416  1m23.231 
Michael Schumacher Ferrari  53 11.481  1m23.624 
Gerhard Berger Benetton-Renault  53 12.471  1m23.443 
Eddie Irvine Ferrari  53 17.639  1m23.891 10 
Mika Hakkinen McLaren-Mercedes  53 49.373  1m23.340 
10 14 Olivier Panis Prost-Mugen Honda  53 1m02.706  1m24.567 16 
11 15 Shinji Nakano Prost-Mugen Honda  53 1m03.327  1m24.553 15 
12 17 Nicola Larini Sauber-Petronas  52 1 Lap  1m24.735 18 
13 22 Rubens Barrichello Stewart-Ford  52 1 Lap  1m24.177 11 
14 21 Jarno Trulli Minardi-Hart  50 3 Laps  1m27.677 22 
Damon Hill Arrows-Yamaha  46 Engine 1m24.482 14 
11 Ralf Schumacher Jordan-Peugeot  39 Damage 1m23.603 
16 Johnny Herbert Sauber-Petronas  38 Accident 1m24.242 12 
19 Mika Salo Tyrrell-Ford  33 Engine 1m25.693 19 
23 Jan Magnussen Stewart-Ford  31 Mechanical 1m24.394 13 
18 Jos Verstappen Tyrrell-Ford  12 Gearbox 1m25.845 20 
20 Ukyo Katayama Minardi-Hart  Damage 1m26.655 21 
Pedro Diniz Arrows-Yamaha  Suspension 1m24.639 17