|Italian Grand Prix Review|
|Max Galvin, England|
The Italian Grand Prix promised to be a Clash of the Titans, but in the end turned out to be more of a playground fight with the lead changing only in the pits. Although the first 5 home were separated by 6.4 seconds, the racing was non-existent and there was little to provoke even the slightest interest from anyone who isn't a die-hard racing fan.
Before the race
In keeping with the theme of the 1997 Italian Grand Prix, qualifying was a relatively dull affair with most drivers finishing in the sort of place that they could be expected to.
Jean Alesi is worthy of a mention, if only because he secured his first pole position since the same race in 1994. Whilst it hasn't done anything for him at Benetton, it will have certainly have moved him up on several shopping lists for next season.
At Stewart Jan Magnussen did an excellent job to line up just 0.224 seconds behind team mate Rubens Barrichello who was using the new phase 8 Ford engine. Sadly I suspect that this may be too little too late and unless he remains this close for the rest of the season his time in F1 may well be drawing to a close.
Jarno Trulli continued his run of underwhelming performances by being beaten yet again by Shinji Nakano. It is known that Alain Prost is unhappy with the feedback he has received from the young Italian and it is this that has prompted him to try to secure the services of Damon Hill for 1998.
The big story, however, is the lack of performance of Michael Schumacher in the Ferrari. Where we expect Eddie Irvine to line up at the bottom end of the top 10, we do not expect the same from the World Champion elect. Although both drivers were equipped with the new chassis for the first time, the balance was not found and neither Eddie nor Michael were able to get the best from it.
Before qualifying Damon Hill had arranged a one-minute silence to coincide with the end of the funeral service for Diana, Princess of Wales and was joined by most of the British contingent including Bernie Ecclestone.
As the lights winked out Jean Alesi did what was required and stayed ahead of the main threat, fellow front row starter Heinz-Harald Frentzen. Behind these two, David Coulthard slotted into third place having made another of his brilliant starts outdragging both Jacques Villeneuve and Giancarlo Fisichella to the first corner.
Another driver making up positions in the run up to the first corner was Mika Salo who managed to find a gap and squeeze his Tyrrell-Ford past Pedro Diniz, Gianni Morbidelli, and Shinji Nakano. Michael Schumacher also improved his lot by passing Gerhard Berger.
Fairly quickly Jean Alesi set about creating a gap for himself and was able to pull away from the chasing Williams at around 0.5 seconds a lap. This advantage gave him a relatively comfortable 2.777-second lead by the end of lap 4, having set consecutive fastest laps for the first 4 laps.
For Pedro Diniz, things weren't going as smoothly. At the start an electrical fault had caused his gear selection readout to give the wrong information which meant he was selecting gears too early. Lap 5 saw his problems worsen as a suspension failure made him spin at the chicane ending his race after crawling round to the pits.
Jean Alesi was having troubles of his own back at the front, a slower car having lost him almost a second over one lap and dropping him back into the reach of Frentzen and Coulthard. This pair had also pulled away from Giancarlo Fisichella who was in turn fending off both Jacques Villeneuve and Mika Hakkinen.
On lap 9, Ukyo Katayama had his suspension break for the second time during the weekend and had to take to the gravel. This punctured one of his tyres and after limping to the pits the Japanese driver retired.
On lap 14 Jos Verstappen suffered a gearbox failure ensuring yet another retirement for the Dutch driver through no fault of his own.
With the fastest laps being traded between Mika Hakkinen, Giancarlo Fisichella, and Heinz-Harald Frentzen the gap separating the top 6 was around 9 seconds. As hard as it is to overtake on slow circuits, on super fast ones it is even harder and this race was proving it in style.
By lap 20, Alesi had used up the Goodyear tyres on his Benetton and the chasing pack started to close in, knowing full well that if they were under his wing when the pitstops came around, they would have a good chance to pass.
This meant that on lap 27 the top 6 was like this:
Alesi -> 0.337s -> Frentzen -> 0.468s -> Coulthard -> 4.477s -> Fisichella -> 0.793s -> Villeneuve -> 0.603s -> Hakkinen
This left the top 6 separated by a staggering 6.718 seconds, a modern day record for the halfway stage of a race.
Lap 28 saw the start of the stops for the leaders, it being clear by now that they were all running a 1-stop strategy. Jacques Villeneuve was the first driver in, getting back underway in 11 seconds flat. Williams team mate Heinz-Harald Frentzen was next to stop, taking on tyres and fuel in 10.3 seconds.
The stop of the latter was the important one as it would be this that would more or less guarantee the finishing positions.
Lap 31 saw Giancarlo Fisichella stop (9 seconds), and also saw the retirement of Jan Magnussen, the Stewart driver dropping out because of a broken clutch.
On lap 32 both Jean Alesi and David Coulthard stopped for tyres, the former getting out in 8.7 seconds and the latter in an amazing 7.8 seconds. Clearly both of these drivers had been running with a lot more fuel in their cars at the start, permitting them to put less fuel in the car at the stop.
Mika Salo was the next retirement, his Ford v8 engine blowing at the Lesmos.
The final front runner to stop was Mika Hakkinen who stopped on lap 34 taking 9.2 seconds to receive fresh rubber and fuel. A lap later Michael Schumacher (at this time the leader) stopped for the first and only time, getting underway in 7.2 seconds.
With the stops completed, on lap 35 the top 6 looked like this:
Coulthard -> 1.805s -> Alesi -> 1.613s -> Frentzen -> 0.219s -> Hakkinen -> 1.411s -> Fisichella -> 2.119s -> Villeneuve
With the reshuffle Heinz-Harald Frentzen still had a McLaren chasing him hard, but now it was that of Mika Hakkinen. Mika tried all he could for two laps in an attempt to get himself into a podium position. All this effort came to nought in the end as a defective tyre forced Mika to stop on lap 37 for a fresh set of rubber.
On lap 38 Johnny Herbert was passed by Ralf Schumacher after the brakes on the Sauber had started to overheat. As the Jordan cut back in to regain the racing line before braking for the first corner, the right-rear wheel hit the front-left of the Sauber, forcing Herbert onto the grass and into the gravel at around 200 miles per hour. Not content with pushing Johnny off track at high-speed, the German driver then proceeded to lay the blame at the door of the Sauber driver saying that he had left enough room.
Whilst Herbert retired on the spot, Ralf Schumacher made it round to the pits to get a new tyre, but the team decided that the suspension was too badly damaged to continue. Not only did the manoeuvre show that he is still very much a rookie in terms of racing, but his excuse sounded very much like something that would come from a Formula 3 driver.
Give or take a hairy moment as David Coulthard slid his McLaren wide through Ascari, this was all the race had to offer in terms of a race that was worth watching. Although the drivers were able to pull close to the car in front, as soon as they hit the dirty air, they would drop back.
The final retirement, on lap 44, was that of Damon Hill, his Yamaha v10 expiring in spectacular fashion while he was running in 9th place.
Although both David Coulthard and McLaren were ecstatic about the victory, I have no doubt in my mind that the 1997 Italian Grand Prix will be forgotten quickly and only brought up as an example of how boring F1 can be at times.
At the "wrong" end of the top 6, Michael Schumacher was lucky to leave Monza having only given away 1 point in the chase and I am sure that had Jacques Villeneuve
The podium was a sombre affair, David Coulthard stating after the race that he was not sure if it was right to spray champagne and be happy when much of the World was in mourning over the loss of Diana, Princess of Wales. In the end they decided that tradition should take precedence and all three drivers made a half-hearted show in front of the massed throng of Tifosi.
David said "I am dedicating it to her (Princess Diana's) memory. I was very aware of the mood of the country back home. I had the pleasure of meeting her at Silverstone in 1995 when I finished second in the British Grand Prix and I still have a picture of her and the Princes up at home. For me, it was a very emotional moment today when the anthem was playing and the crowd was there on the track below me, the flag was being raised behind me... it all made me feel very emotional."
Coulthard (McLaren-Mercedes) G|
Alesi (Benetton-Renault) G
Frentzen (Williams-Renault) G
Fisichella (Jordan-Peugeot) G
Villeneuve (Williams-Renault) G
M. Schumacher (Ferrari) G
Berger (Benetton-Renault) G
Irvine (Ferrari) G
Hakkinen (McLaren-Mercedes) G
Trulli (Prost-Mugen) B
Nakano (Prost-Mugen) B
Morbidelli (Sauber-Petronas) G
Barrichello (Stewart-Ford) B
Marques (Minardi-Hart) B
Hill (Arrows-Yamaha) B
B: Bridgestone G: Goodyear
1h 17m 4.609s
+ 1m 2.706s
+ 1m 3.327s
7 laps: engine