Atlas F1 Reflections on Monza

  by Roger Horton, England

Heinz-Harald Frentzen might have won the race, but it was Mika Hakkinen that stole the headlines. So frustrated was he at throwing away a certain win and the vital ten points that went with it, that the normally laid-back Finn did what most of us do every now and then - he broke down and wept. Most of us, though, don't get to share our angst with several hundred million TV viewers.

Make no mistake, this was a costly error. He could well have put the championship beyond both Frentzen and his teammate David Coulthard if only he had kept his McLaren on the road for those last twenty or so laps. Team orders would have surely followed and that so hard to achieve feat of back to back titles would have been at his mercy. If only...

Mika Hakkinen, though, has the priceless asset of a supportive team to soothe away the pains that a blow like this can inflict on any driver's self confidence, and by any rational assessment must still be odds on favourite to retain his title. David Coulthard once again failed to fully exploit the opportunity afforded by his teammate's mistake. Once you are at the back of the queue in a Monza tail-back, then seeing the front again is just about impossible and so it turned out for Coulthard.

For Frentzen any lingering pain still left over from his Canadian Grand Prix crash would have been washed away by the elation of scoring a truly significant victory. Just who would have predicted - at the Jordan launch some eight months ago - that it would be Frentzen, then largely ignored by the mainly British media, who would be doing the winning for Eddie Jordan's Silverstone based outfit?

Back then Damon Hill was the story. The driver who had scored the team's first ever race win at the previous year's Spa race was sure to be the driver in with an outside championship chance if the car lived up to Eddie Jordan's famous pre-season hype. Well it has and he hasn't, and just how Frentzen, the driver the Williams team discarded, has resurrected his career has become one of the biggest stories of the '99 season.

Frentzen is driving with that sure footed confidence that comes from knowing just when to push and just when to settle for what he has. At Monza he was briefly headed by the resurgent Alex Zanardi during a sometimes frantic first lap. The forceful way he re-took his position was the move of a driver at one with his car. Confident that it would do his bidding when asked. The '97 Frentzen, then driving the car that was the class of the field, only ever briefly flirted with such form. He had it to score his maiden win at Imola and it remained with him to take a pole position at Monaco - both ahead of his fellow German Michael Schumacher. Then it was gone and with it his chance of championship glory, the mid field beckoned, until Eddie Jordan called.

The Jordan team has clearly progressed into a very serious Formula One outfit and Eddie Jordan's decision to shake up his technical staff, painful though it must have been at the time, is clearly paying him back in spades this year. That the engine is clearly more Honda than Mugen must be concentrating the minds of the likes of Cosworth and Ilmor who will be clearly aware of the growing challenge posed by the Japanese giant as it prepares for its full time return next year.

If Jordan are a happy team moving forward, Ferrari are clearly a team in crisis. It was no surprise that Ferrari chairman Luca di Montezemolo called the team's engineers to a meeting after their disappointing performance at Spa-Francorchamps. That the team's drivers could only manage to qualify sixth and eighth at their home track was a major surprise and shows just how quickly the team has lost its way in the absence of Michael Schumacher. In Formula One if you stand still with developments you slide down the grid in double quick time. For the first ten races or so Eddie Irvine was able to mix it with the front runners over most race weekends. Except for the French Grand Prix wet weather qualifying lottery, he has never been lower that sixth on the grid and often within three to four tenths of Schumacher.

Clearly he has been unable for some reason to make the car work to its full potential at the last two races and it is hard to put the blame solely on Irvine. To be in with a serious shot at the title so late in the season makes any doubts about his motivation ludicrous, and drivers don't lose their speed overnight. If the team that Michael Schumacher has built around him can only perform for him then the longer term future for Ferrari looks bleak indeed. Perhaps the Ferrari team management can just see the Benetton team's pits from their own position of relative eminence down at the elite end of the pit-lane, but they surely don't need reminding just what happened to the Enstone based outfit pretty much the moment 'Schumacher and Co' departed.

The Williams team returned to form with a bang at Monza. Alex Zanardi answered his critics with a superb qualifying performance. In the race he fought well at the front until his Williams once again let him down. His plain common sense in letting his clearly faster teammate through once his Williams had lost its edge shows that you don't always need team orders to have team strategy and hopefully the lesson will not have been lost on Ralf Schumacher, who was himself less than impressed with the Ferrari team conspiring against him in Belgium. Williams showed at Monza that if and when BMW provide them with a competitive engine, Williams will make good use of it.

Not all the races in the '99 season are providing totally stimulating wheel to wheel action, and this Monza race ended up delivering pretty much what we have come to expect. But the big picture looks healthy, and with four drivers still in with a chance at the title, the '99 season looks set for yet another Asian showdown.

Roger Horton© 1999 Atlas Formula One Journal.
Send comments to: Terms & Conditions