|San Marino GP Review|
|Max Galvin, England|
Once again, it is time for the latest in the Lola team debacle. The specialist press were claiming that Eric Broadly had finally called a halt to the proceedings and that there was no chance of Lola re-emerging later on in the season. In addition to this, there were some reports that the F1 division of Lola Cars was about to be placed into receivership and everything sold off to cover the debts that the team had incurred in their abortive season.
Before the race
The weekend started with three of the teams sporting new versions of their engines. Mercedes and Ford were planning to use their new engines all weekend (the new Ford was for Stewart Grand Prix, not Tyrrell Racing) whereas Ferrari were only intending to use the 46/02 during practice and qualifying.
Practice was, once again, the usual mixed kettle of fish, with Jacques Villeneuve well down on his team mate and Eddie Irvine beating his Ferrari team mate Michael Schumacher. Whilst I'm sure that the tifosi the world over were screaming and jumping for joy when the Ferraris were 1 and 2 in the first practice, the "comeback" didn't last for long and both were overhauled in both second practice and qualifying.
Qualifying itself was a relatively exciting hour, with the Williams-Renault pair battling hard for the honours. For the 4th time in 4 races, Jacques took pole, with Frentzen second. Notables in qualifying were Olivier Panis (4th), Ralf Schumacher and Giancarlo Fisichella (5th and 6th) and Johnny Herbert (7th).
The Benetton-Renault drivers were both slow again, with the 11th and 14th grid positions reminding me of the races when Schumacher was banned in 1994. Both drivers and team alike are mystified about the lack of performance, and after the pre-season promise, the sponsors must be wondering whether their money would be better spent with another team. Perhaps Flavio would have been better off keeping Ligier and getting rid of Benetton?
As Sunday dawned, leaden skies over the circuit, confirmed what the weather forecasts had said, that there was a strong likelihood of thunderstorms. Before the warm up in the morning, the heavens opened and, for once, we had a chance to see the drivers running on their wet tyres and to see if the Bridgestone teams had the advantage that existed before the season start. The answer, apparently, was no. Whilst the Stewart pair was well up in the order, Panis 3rd and Damon Hill 11th, Eddie Irvine was fastest and Jos Verstappen was a long way up the grid showing that perhaps the drivers or luck played a large part.
The promise of a wet race remained unfulfilled and the cars rolled out of the pits on a damp track, that was dry enough to run slicks on. Even so, most teams opted for some kind of compromise setup that would allow them to run reasonably well in the advent of rain.
In the final few minutes before the race started, Damon Hill suffered yet another set back to his 1997 campaign when the Arrows-Yamaha developed an oil leak on its out lap from the pits. Despite immediately returning to the pits and the team working frantically on the spare car, Damon failed to get out of the pits before they were closed and was therefore destined to start from the pitlane 10 seconds behind the rest of the field.
When the lights went out, Jacque Villeneuve made a great start, followed by a lightening quick Michael Schumacher and a slightly more staid Heinz-Harald Frentzen. Olivier Panis was overtaken by both Ralf Schumacher in the Jordan-Peugeot and Johnny Herbert in the Sauber-Petronas. In the run down to the revised Tamburello, M. Schumacher held off Frentzen and using some slightly dubious looking blocking techniques did the same into the Villeneuve corner. Schumachers team mate, Eddie Irvine, managed to squeeze his Ferrari past Giancarlo Fisichella on the exit of Tamburello, the yellow car taking the last place in the top 8.
Bearing in mind the squabbling behind him, Villeneuve could have been expected to pull out a reasonable lead in the first lap, but at the end of the lap he was only just under half a second clear. Whether the new rules have really made things closer or that Jacques is lacking pace in the races in 1997 remains to be seen, but regardless, the fact is that the racing at the front is as close as it is in the rest of the pack.
The misery of the Minardi team continued when Jarno Trulli retired on the very first lap with an unspecified mechanical problem.
On lap two, a hard pushing Jan Magnussen ended his race at the Acque Minerale, when the rain setup Stewart bottomed out on a bump and spun the SF1 into retirement. Ralf Schumacher, another 1997 new boy, was having another good day, setting fastest lap the second time round the circuit.
After 4 laps, the top 4 were separated by just over 3 seconds, the closest I can remember for a long time, with the 5th and 6th placed drivers only 1.5 seconds behind that. Heinz-Harald Frentzen was another driver apparently enjoying himself, keeping up with the Ferrari of press rival Schumacher relatively easily. Johnny Herbert, in 5th, was another driver having a good weekend, apparently regaling in the attention lavished on him at Sauber since the departure of Frentzen. Whilst not quite on the pace of any of the cars in front of him, Johnny was using the Ferrari engine to it's fullest potential, keeping Olivier Panis at bay.
One driver not having a good time was Gerhard Berger, the Austrian completing a 720 degree rotation before leaving the Benetton-Renault in the gravel at the Acque Minerale. Bergers team mate Jean Alesi was having a similarly torrid time, the pre-season pace setting Benetton only managing 11th place at that time.
For 5 consecutive laps, Jacques Villeneuve claimed fastest race lap (at the time), but was still unable to pull any more than a 1.5 second lead over the chasing Ferrari, both drivers setting identical lap times on one lap.
At this stage, with 3 retirements, the running order was Villeneuve, M.Schumacher, Frentzen, R.Schumacher, Herbert, Panis, Irvine, Fisichella, Coulthard, Hakkinen, Alesi, Barrichello, Larini, Diniz, Verstappen, Salo, Nakano, Hill and Katayama.
This wouldn't be the case for long, with World Champion Hill, pushing Shinji Nakano hard for 18th place. Even though he had closed at the rate of three seconds per lap, Damon was unable to get past him and at the Variante Bassa, he made an excessively ambitious move. Coming from a long way back, Damon tried to force his way past the Japanese driver, but Nakano was already turned in and committed to the corner. The inevitable then occurred and both cars were dumped into the gravel. Damon has since been given a 1 race ban, suspended for 1 race.
For the next few laps, Olivier Panis seemed to slip back from Herbert and into the grasp of the chasing pair of Irvine and Fisichella. Whilst he was able to hold them off for a short while, it became clear that there were problems with the Prost-Mugen Honda and on lap 17, both managed to get past.
This seemed to signal the start of a brief flurry of retirements with Herbert and Ralf Schumacher both retiring on lap 18. Initially, there seemed to be a possibility that they have made contact with each other, but both retired because of mechanical failure, with Ralf making it back to the Jordan pit before exiting. Ralfs exit was due to a broken driveshaft and Johnnys due to an engine failure brought on by an electrical fault.
On lap 21, Olivier Panis pitted for fresh tyres, his car apparently chewing up the usually tough Bridgestones at a shocking rate. This moved the battle between the two McLarens from one for 7th to one for 6th and the final point. McLaren-Mercedes were as far from winning as they have been in any race, with even the new Mercedes unable to help them find the extra needed to challenge even Sauber.
As the crews made ready for the first round of stops, Villeneuve had a 4 second lead over the remaining Schumacher and Frentzen who in turn had 27 seconds over Irvine and Fisichella.
Schumacher was the first top stop, the Ferrari mechanics getting him underway in 9.4 seconds. Interestingly, a mechanic was on hand to check the width of the front right brake disk showing that not just Williams are having brake wear problems. On consecutive laps, the rest of the top 4 came in, with Irvines stop taking 9.4 seconds, Villeneuves 10.1 and Frentzens 11.1.
Oddly, the result of the stops was that the 2 Williams drivers had their positions reversed even with Frentzens longer stop. Clearly the German driver had been held up by Schumacher and the former World Champions stop gave him the space he needed to get some quick laps in. This, combined with relatively slow out laps for Schumacher and Villeneuve moved Heinz-Harald into first place, giving him a chance to win and silence his critics.
The stops had also moved Hakkinen and Alesi into the top 6 behind Coulthard, all three apparently set to make a single stop rather than the two of the front runners. On laps 33, 34 and 35, all three of the above drivers came in for their stop, with Olivier Panis joining them for his 2nd of 3 stops.
As Coulthard came out of the pits, he just managed to squeeze ahead of Irvine and Fisichella. Almost immediately, the Ferrari started pushing the McLaren and a haze of gray smoke was visible coming from the diffuser. Irvine started to understeer on the entry to corners and oversteer on the exit, confirming that the Mercedes was losing oil. Strangely, the team decided not to call David in either not noticing the spray or not caring.
On lap 37, Irvine slid wide once again and this time, Giancarlo Fisichella was prepared and moved his Jordan ahead of the Ferrari. Almost immediately however, the positions were very nearly reversed as Fisichella understeered in the Rivazza.
Yet again, McLaren decided to let David continue and their stubbornness was rewarded on lap 39 with the dramatic expiry of the engine whilst being closely shadowed by Fisichella. The young Italian was clearly shocked and swerved violently before setting down to the job of staying ahead of Eddie Irvine.
At the front, Frentzen was driving away from Schumacher and had a 6 second lead over him. Schumacher for his part had a 20 second lead over 3rd placed Villeneuve, although this was more due to the Williams driver having some kind of problem than the skill of the leading two drivers.
This was confirmed on lap 41 when Villeneuve went into the pits and Patrick Head rushed out with a new steering wheel, the Williams apparently suffering from sticking gears. After over a minute, the cause seemed lost, and Jacques was sitting there shaking his head as the mechanics rocked his car backwards and forwards in an effort to knock the gearbox into neutral. Although they eventually succeeded, the team decided that the problems were too serious to warrant Villeneuve continuing. This, combined with the retirement of Coulthard, moved Alesi into 5th and into Hakkinen 6th.
The retirement of Villenueve also sparked the second round of stops for the front runners. Frentzen was first, Fisichella second, Schumacher third, and Irvine fourth. Frentzen maintained his position after the stops, Schumacher stayed 2nd, but Irvine moved ahead of Fisichella into 3rd place.
By lap 50, Frentzen was coming up to lap the Alesi/Hakkinen battle, each driver clearly intent on finishing ahead of the other. Whilst Heinz-Harald had a 3.5 second lead over Schumacher, any delay in passing the Benetton and McLaren could result in the loss of his first victory. Even with the relatively fast pace of the battling cars, Frentzen and Schumacher both had little trouble in passing, both Alesi and Hakkinen moving aside when the need arose.
On lap 57, the rain that had been promised by the dark sky started to fall. Although only a drizzle, all the remaining drivers would have been hoping that it stopped as soon as possible, allowing them to continue without mishap.
Happily, within two laps the rain had stopped, and Schumacher was closing on the leading Williams car. On lap 59 it was down to 2.8 seconds and it looked like Schumacher would stand a chance of winning in front of the adoring Tifosi.
As the lap counter approached 62, the gap remained relatively static, with Frentzen apparently able to hold the gap at just under three seconds. Further back, Irvine was doing a similar job keeping Fisichella at bay to keep the second Ferrari in a podium slot.
This was how it ended, with Larini, Panis, Salo, Verstappen and Katayama rounding out the finishers.
The podium was a happier affair than it has seemed of late, with most of the attention focused on first time winner Frentzen. Schumacher and Frentzen, the press would have it, are on less than friendly terms, but Schumacher appeared genuinely happy at his countrymans victory in the press conference.
Speaking of the press conference, Frentzen was the source of the oddest comment I suspect we will ever hear from the lips of a race winner. Talking about the win he said "It's amazing. It's like oil on my soul".