ATLAS F1   Volume 6, Issue 37

  Reflections on Monza

  by Roger Horton, England

As a race, it was pretty a straightforward affair; Ferrari managed to make their recent updates work, and as a result they gave Michael Schumacher a car with which he could win. He didn't disappoint them, or the 170,000 cheering Tifosi. Afterwards, at the post-race press conference, we saw a different side of the Schumacher character, when he wept openly at the mention of Ayrton Senna's name. This very public loss of control was a surprise to most, including, perhaps, to Schumacher himself.

The race was marred by the death of the Italian fire marshall Paolo Gislimberti, who was killed by flying debris during the crash on the opening lap that eliminated six cars. Once again, a preventable accident has occurred during a Formula One race in Italy, and given that the Italian legal system treats these types of deaths as "accidental murder," it seems likely that another drawn-out legal battle is in prospect.

Once released from behind the Safety Car, going into lap twelve, Schumacher lost no time in stamping his authority on proceedings. He put together a string of fastest laps, as his tyres regained the temperature that they had lost after being forced to run so slowly. In four laps he reduced his lap times from 1:28.294 to 1:26.919, and pulled out a three second lead over the chasing Mika Hakkinen.

As a contest the race was effectively already over. Unlike at Spa, the Ferrari was able to increase its pace as the fuel level lowered, and as its tyres did not degrade too much, Schumacher was able to set no less than eight more fastest laps, prior to making his one and only stop on lap 39. By this time his lead over Hakkinen was some ten seconds, and the Finn was already driving for a second-place finish.

Just as Rubens Barrichello showed us at Hockenheim, it is possible to overtake in modern Formula One on a high-speed, low downforce track, provided your car has lots of power and good brakes. Ricardo Zonta had both, and with the benefit of a low fuel load, he managed to climb from twelfth position as the safety car pulled in on lap twelve, to fourth by lap sixteen. This was some progress by any standards. He made it past Jos Verstappen into third by lap 21, before making the first of his two refuelling stops on lap 23. Although he eventually finished a slightly disappointed sixth, it was a good effort from a driver under some pressure to maintain his place in Formula One.

David Coulthard was the driver who suffered most from the mayhem at the second chicane, which not only ended his race, but also his championship ambitions for yet another year. The Scot had largely repaired the damage a poor qualifying performance had inflicted and was up to third position when he was put out of the race. He is now 19 points behind teammate Hakkinen in the drivers stakes, and once again the support role beckons. Stalling on the grid in Canada has been his only major driving error all year, and without question he is driving for a team where he is not the centre of attention.

The changes to the Monza circuit had already brought much drivers' criticism, although most were centred on the first chicane and not the second, where the major accident occurred. These incidents will surely raise some fundamental issues, not least of which must be the need for chicanes of this type in the first place. We have had chicanes for so long at Monza that it's sometimes hard to recall that for decades they raced without them. Now the need to 'slow the cars down' is perhaps causing as much trouble as letting them run at their natural speed.

The tightening of the new chicanes at Monza effectively made them slow corners rather than the more traditional ones in use at Hockenheim, where they are more like mid-speed left-right flicks. The design of the first Variante chicane was also an open invitation for a driver to make a reckless overtaking manoeuvre, as he has practically no chance of suffering any mechanical damage should he leave the track.

Obviously, once you tempt a Grand Prix racing driver with that type of opportunity, he is going to grab it with both hands, and surely that is not what racing at this level is supposed to be about. At Monaco, the drivers know full well that there is a penalty exacted if you go off line and they drive accordingly, so perhaps kerbs that damage suspensions if you hit them serve a purpose after all.

Indeed, the whole purpose of the second Variante chicane could perhaps be reviewed as well. With the huge run-off areas at the Lesmo corners that follow, just what would be so bad with cars arriving there at high-speed? It seems to work for the Parabolica corner, which is just about the only part of the original Monza track that is mostly unchanged and which seems to cause few problems.

But for the marshal's tragic death, the race would have been most remembered for Michael Schumacher's total loss of composure after the race. Last year, Mika Hakkinen also broke down after throwing away an easy victory, and his frustration and emotions overcame him as he buried his face in his hands in an attempt to hide his tears. For Michael Schumacher it appeared a combination of pure relief at achieving such an important victory - a victory demanded by the whole of Italy - and the realisation that he had equalled the number of wins achieved by the legendary Ayrton Senna, that proved to be just too much for him to handle.

Schumacher has been subjected to much criticism in Italy in recent weeks, as once again the nation sensed that the World Championship was slipping away. Former Ferrari favourite Clay Regazzoni even chipped in concerning Hakkinen's overtaking manoeuvre at Spa, stating that Schumacher was past his best, and adding that, "Michael would not have been passed in such a manner two or three years ago. He has become too cautious."

There were even suggestions that Schumacher needed to test more, and work harder. However, whatever accusations may legitimately be levelled at Michael Schumacher, his work ethic is not one of them, but clearly, and perhaps for the first time, Schumacher has realised just how badly Italy wants him to secure for them their world title, and just how intolerant the country will be if he fails them.

Even after he had composed himself enough to once again face the media, he had one more slight surprise up his sleeve, apologising should his actions at the restart have caused some other drivers problems: "As the Safety Car was about to pull in, I started accelerating and braking to warm up my brakes," he stated. "Some drivers at the back might have been caught out by this, and I apologise if I caused them a problem." In truth, the incident that saw Jenson Button spear off the track avoiding the Benetton of Giancarlo Fisichella ahead of him was more to do with Button's inexperience than any fault of Michael Schumacher.

At Monza we saw a totally new side to this German double World Champion. But the new apparently softer Schumacher on show was after he had won the race and restored his championship challenge. On the track, at the next race, the betting has to be that it will be business as usual.

Roger Horton© 2000 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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