Well, it was interesting, I'll certainly say that for the Italian Grand Prix. Last year we had Johnny Herbert winning the race after Damon Hill took both himself and Michael Schumacher out of the race. This year the race, if it can be called that after the pitstops, was won in splendid fashion by the scarlet #1 Ferrari. The main sadness being that we would have had a real race if Hill hadn't made his mistake with the tyres.
Before the race
In the ongoing Forti saga there is good news and bad news. The good news is that Guido Forti now has regained control of his team, but the bad news is that he hasn't really got enough money to run it. Oh well, Stewart Grand Prix should have the financial muscle to carry on beyond it's second year (Dome too if it decides to make the leap).
On the subject of backmarkers, I was pleased to see Giovanni Lavaggi qualify his Minardi-Ford (albeit last) for the race. The Minardi is a good chassis and it's a shame to see them struggling to beat even Arrows because of engine power. Maybe Flavio Briatore's influence with Mugen will get them the 1996 spec Mugen-Honda engines they want for 1997. While I'm talking about Flavio, there are rumours that he has sold Ligier to Alain Prost, but both parties seem to be a bit cagey about confirming this.
Anyway, back to business. The McLaren's were, again, at the front of the second division (i.e. Ferrari #2, Benetton and McLaren) pushing hard. With the possibility of a Hill-Coulthard or Hakkinen-Coulthard combination for 1997, things are looking good for race wins. In addition to this, they look like potential race winners this year if things continue as they are.
In the third division (these are my categories not anyone else's so bear with me), things were looking good for the British contingent. Martin Brundle outqualified Rubens Barrichello and Herbert went faster than Heniz-Harald Frentzen, apparently making a lie of the Frentzen is quicker than Schumacher comments. Frentzen may have been quicker before, but the double World Champion is head and shoulders above everyone else now.
The start of the parade lap saw Olivier Panis stall his Ligier-Mugen on the grid and consequently have to start from the back. The Frenchman has been looking more and more lacklustre as teammate Pedro Diniz starts to look better and better. Everyone remembers last year how Panis went to pieces after being outraced and outqualified by Martin Brundle and it looks like it's happening again.
As the lights went out, Hill made his best start in 4 races, closely followed by teammate Jacques Villeneuve. The real surprise however was the amazing getaway of Jean Alesi in the Benetton-Renault. He moved up from sixth on the grid to take first away from Hill as they entered the first corner.
The first corner usually claims at least one car on the opening lap, and it nearly happened again this time. Villeneuve moved wide and braked late as he tried to overtake Hill. Instead of moving into second, he only succeeded in locking his wheels and driving over the grass, and only luck prevented him hitting anyone or losing more than one place (Mika Hakkinen got past).
As the leaders approached the second chicane, Alesi got a bit wide, letting Hill dart past him and into the lead. Further back, the field had settled down with Schumacher having another poor start, demoting him to sixth, behind the McLaren-Mercedes of David Coulthard.
After the second of the two Lesmo's Alesi looked capable of overtaking Hill into the Ascari section and he even got as far as coming alongside the Williams-Renault. The problem there is that there is really only one good line through the corner and Damon Hill was on it, forcing Alesi to drop back out of range, ending the Frenchman's challenge (for now at least). At the end of the first lap, Hill was leading Alesi by a mere 0.6 seconds, but this was far enough to stop Jean getting a tow down the straight.
So, the first lap started, and with that a run of chicane tyre induced retirements and damage that robbed the spectators (at the track and at home) of an exciting race.
As the field streamed into the first corner, Villeneuve again got wide and hit the tyres, knocking at least on into the path of David Coulthard who hit it and spun into the gravel and retirement. Coulthard had commented before the race, both in the motorhome and on the grid, about the lack of suitability of the tyres (they were positioned to stop drivers "straight-lining" the chicanes) and felt badly done by when a mistake by another driver caused his race to end.
At the end of the second lap, Hill was leading by almost 1.5 seconds and Schumacher was up into fourth courtesy of Villeneuve's mistake (Coulthard out and Villeneuve's suspension damaged by the collision). Berger had moved up into sixth and he was doing his best to attack the Williams in front.
Lap 2 saw Panis spin at the first corner (this could have been a mechanical problem after his stall at the start) and Hakkinen also hit the tyres and damage his front wing. Personally, I expected Hakkinen to come straight in as the wing was practically ready to fall off, but no, the Flying Finn decided to carry on for another lap and, to be honest, didn't look that much slower than before (a testimony to how little front wing most teams were running). A stop on lap 3 dropped him down the field and out of contention for the win.
So, as lap 3 finished, the running order was Hill, Alesi, Schumacher, Villeneuve, Berger and Irvine (hooray!!).
On lap 4, Berger finally managed to pass Villeneuve, but his achievement was short lived as a mechanical failure stopped him less than half a lap later. Gerhard has been a revelation over the last few races and I feel that he could have been standing on the podium if his car hadn't given up the ghost.
Lap 5 saw possibly the most significant retirement of the race, Damon Hill. Hill was leading Alesi by almost 3.5 seconds when he made a mistake, hit the tyres and spun out of the race. Damon said:
"I had made a very good start, I was pleased with the way the race unfolded and I was enjoying myself. . . but what happened is just one of those things. I can't blame anyone but myself for what happened. I hit the barrier hard enough to bend the suspension. The tyres were put there for safety reasons and they were bolted down and I cannot blame anyone for that. I could have wrapped it up today, but now it will go down to the last two races and, maybe, down to the wire. I am kicking myself for what happened. I am very disappointed, not only for me, but for the team, for everyone who has worked so hard on my behalf. But it is no good looking back. I have got to get my head down now and work hard again and look ahead to the next race."
So, one title aspirant out and the other running very slowly (by his standards). It looked like the race was going to go to either Alesi or Schumacher and if the Ferrari fans had their way it would be the latter. The last time the Scuderia won at Monza it was 1988, just after the death of Enzo Ferrari and it signalled the start of the downward spiral that they are starting to emerge from.
Lap 6 also saw the retirement of Giovanni Lavaggi (engine problems I think), the first time I can remember that I've actually seen the retirement of a Minardi on TV rather than just not seeing it in the running order any more.
Now the race settled into a familiar pattern, with Alesi leading and Schumacher catching, Irvine following in third, unable to catch the cars in front but too fast for Villeneuve to catch and the Jordan-Peugeot pair following Villeneuve (to be honest Brundle looked like he was being held up) but not racing each other (who wants to risk taking out their teammate?). Everyone watching knew that Schumacher wouldn't be able to overtake Alesi unless he made a mistake so the race would be decided in the pits (just for a change).
Lap 8 saw the third Williams driver (currently Sauber number 1), Frentzen, exit the race in the ignominious manner as the man he is set to replace (hitting the tyres and spinning off).
Lap 10 saw Mika Salo retire due to mechanical problems in his Tyrrell- Yamaha. I bet that Mika is starting to regret the options he allowed Ken Tyrrell to take out on him now that he's stuck in the car for a third consecutive season.
On lap 11, Jacques Villeneuve stopped his car in the Williams pit for new tyres and fuel but, surprisingly, no attempt was made to repair his damaged suspension.
Lap 13 arrived and Pedro Lamy went, his Minardi-Ford joining it's sister
car in mechanical failure. At this point the runners were:
Alesi -> 1.135s-> Schumacher ->11.075s -> Irvine->10.542s -> Brundle - >1.611s -> Barrichello ->3.562s-> Herbert -> Diniz -> Verstappen -> Hakkinen -> Villeneuve -> Rosset
>From here until the pitstops, the only position changes were Diniz overtaking Herbert (Herbert made a mistake but Diniz was certainly faster as he pulled away quite quickly) and Hakkinen moving up through the field as fast as possible. In fact by the time the first scheduled pitstop happened he was right behind Diniz and looking for a way past (as Diniz was the first stopper he didn't need to risk anything). Another tyre retirement was Irvine who, on lap 24, hit the same stack of tyres that had claimed so many other drivers, bending his suspension beyond repair and retiring on the same lap.
The most important stop (Alesi) happened on lap 31, with Schumacher staying out. Although the Benetton pit crew were as fast as ever, 2 fastest laps before the Ferrari stop meant that Schumacher was leading by almost the entire length of the pit straight as he came out.
After the stops (everyone with the exception of Katayama was on one
stop) the top 6 looked like this:
Schumacher ->6.841s-> Alesi ->36.420s-> Hakkinen ->11.756s-> Brundle - >1.114s-> Barrichello ->6.490s-> Diniz
As we've come to expect, the cars would finish the race in almost the same order as they finished the pitstops. Ricardo Rosset added to the tyre victims on lap 34, joining the other 6 drivers who had reason to feel that the organisers had made an error of judgement.
The only excitement came with Schumacher, on consecutive laps, making mistakes at the tyre bordered chicane, once clipping the tyres but continuing without problem and the second time, getting on the power a little early, sliding the car round the corner.
Jacques Villeneuve had managed to get into 7th place but was being challenged by Johnny Herbert in the Sauber-Ford, only for the Ford v10 to let go on the last lap (they were one lap down hence Herbert's official position as 2 laps down at the end).
During the last 2 laps, the 200,000 strong crowd were cheering and waving their red flags at last seeing the victory they'd waited for for so long. As Schumacher crossed the line he raised his hands in his familiar 2 handed air-punch and signalled a track invasion like we saw at Imola this year. The only difference was that their new hero had won this race and they all wanted to see him get his trophy.
There were tears and smiles all round in the Ferrari pit as the mechanics celebrated with the spectators to leave a lasting picture in my mind (alongside the invasion when Mansell won at Silverstone in 1992) as to what Formula One should be like. Often F1 is treated as a business first and foremost, but this showed that there is room for emotion in the sport.
As is now customary, I'll leave the last bit to the winner..
"Never in my life have I experienced anything as incredible as this," said Schumacher. "It is hard to believe it. It is crazy. I have never seen so many people with so much emotion."
And this coming from a man who has won his home GP...