Only five races left. The finishing line is now beginning to be seen in the distance for Ferrari and Michael Schumacher, leading both world classifications. Not far away, Jacques Villeneuve and Williams are anything but willing to let go, aware of the fact that they have something more in the way of performance than their rivals. A discourse, however, that has been going on since the beginning of the season, and despite that, Villeneuve has never been able to take the lead of the World Championship with strength and constancy.
With the end of the championship getting closer and closer, there is no shortage of predictions on who is the favourite to win it over the other. Some well-known faces from the paddock, who know a thing or two about winning world titles, have also spoken out on the subject. Jackie Stewart, for example, said:
"I think Williams, and consequently Villeneuve, is still the favourite. From a technical point of view it is more consistent than Ferrari, moreover, since it has been at the top for so many years, always more or less with the same group, it has the habit of fighting until the end without losing its way. It can make mistakes, and it has, but it has the most competitive and versatile car, capable of winning on all circuits".
Flavio Briatore, on the other hand, is of a different opinion, obviously on the side of the man who took him to the roof of the world a few years earlier:
"I know Michael too well to think that he will miss this opportunity. Compared to Villeneuve, he has the advantage of experience and a better ability to concentrate. Moreover, Ferrari has everything to win this year. A competitive car, a close-knit team and valuable technicians. It can't miss the target. Of the races that have yet to be run, the most difficult, paradoxically, could be Monza. For the pressure you have to bear when racing at home and because there will be many fast and competitive cars there, including our Benetton. In any case, if Michael gets through the Italian Grand Prix unscathed, maintaining a good advantage, he will be able to say he has half a world championship in his pocket".
On the contrary, Alain Prost doesn't open his mouth:
"After the first few races of the season, I would have said that Williams would have gradually taken advantage of the world championship and Villeneuve would have won the title. Now, even if Ferrari has gained a fair advantage, I think the chances are even and that they will fight until the last race. In theory, on based one most recent tests, Williams should be superior to Ferrari even at Monza. Even if other teams could be included in the fight. In that case everything would play in favour of Schumacher who, thanks to his class, is always able to place in the points. I have always thought that you have to be able to achieve the best possible result without overdoing it when you are not able to finish first. Villeneuve has also matured a lot in this sense, so the challenge is very open with equal chances of final success".
As Briatore said, Ferrari knows that the home circuit could prove to be one of the toughest on the entire calendar for the characteristics of the car, and if in Belgium it was the rain and the talent of Schumacher in those circumstances that saved the Prancing Horse from a complicated race, at Monza this may not be repeated, especially if the sun shines. Schumacher declared on the eve of the test session to be held at the Monza circuit:
"We lack top speed. We hope to find it before Friday".
Tuesday 26 August 1997, from 7:45 a.m. onwards, eleven thousand paying people arrive on the lawn and in the grandstands to watch Ferrari and the Formula One teams go round. The hype is already very high. The teams try to find the ideal set-up, except for the McLaren, on which Mika Hakkinen tests and seizes the engine: when the British car is running at 312 km/h on the main straight, suddenly the Finnish driver loses control and spins around, then crashes against the guard-rail, bruising his wrist. Schumacher runs thirty-nine laps, finding that he is inferior to Williams, Prost and Sauber in terms of top speed: 316 km/h against the 320 km/h set by the rival team:
"It's not a problem with the engine, but with the aerodynamics".
Schumacher explained, even though Irvine's car began to leak oil after 33 laps and was forced to return to the pits; a sign that not everything is perfect. At the end of the day the best time was set by Jean Alesi, with Benetton, in 1'24"579, while Schumacher stopped at 1'25"399.
The next day, Gianni Agnelli and Luca Cordero di Montezemolo arrive at Monza in their helicopters and fly to the Ferrari pit lane to watch the second round of testing with sixteen thousand spectators who come to applaud Schumacher at every lap. Commented Agnelli:
"Schumacher told me that it will be a difficult race and that this is a circuit that offers advantages to other cars. I also spoke to the driver about the condition of the car and I think we can improve the aerodynamics. Frankly, I don't know if it will be possible to do it in ten days, but I noticed that the nose had been changed and that tests were being carried out".
When Giancarlo Fisichella arrived at the Ferrari pits to greet Montezemolo, the Maranello team president congratulated him, saying:
"Giancarlo, you're doing very well, you're competitive and I hope you'll take some points away from Williams".
And Giancarlo replies:
"Thank you, but be careful, I can also take points away from Ferrari".
On August 29th, 1997, having finished the Grand Prix simulation with another good time, Fisichella returned to Rome, but not before having breakfast with Alesi.
"I feel the importance of the race, and this charges me. The more the pressure increases, the more I feel at ease, and all this gives me strength".
Declares the young Roman, who then, talking about the challenge between Villeneuve and Schumacher adds:
"I don't help anyone. I will do my race without caring about Villeneuve or Schumacher. I will try, if I am in the right conditions, to stay ahead of everyone. Honestly, I can say that in these three days everything went well, and that for the Grand Prix I have as objective the podium, so I hope that some of the incitement to Schumacher will be also for me, to give me the cue to make a great race".
In an opposite mood Michael Schumacher, who declares, coming out of a back gate as fans ask and get the empties from the twelve Ferrari red bottles signed by the German driver and containing, of course, champagne:
"We have found a better set-up even if not yet fully satisfactory. I hope to start at least from the second row and finish on the podium. We will have fewer problems in the race than in qualifying".
On the last day of testing, Villeneuve, who left the track without any damage at the Roggia corner, while he was about to go back to the pits, was curiously approached from the stands by some girls of his fan club from Bergamo, who gave him a pair of boxers with a note that read: Since you are always seen from far away in the pits, wouldn't it be a good idea to show you your boxers up close?
Villeneuve laughs and before going away he gives an affectionate kiss to a fan. At the beginning of September, then, it's back to Lombardy to take part in the eagerly awaited Italian Grand Prix. The sold-out is guaranteed, and the support of the fans is not only for Ferrari but also for the home drivers Fisichella and Trulli. Giancarlo, much more than Jarno has high expectations for this weekend, thanks to his Jordan that should allow him to fight for podium positions. Ferrari team manager Jean Todt is cryptic in front of journalists' microphones:
"Monza will not be the decisive race of the championship, because there are still five to go. However, it is very important because we are on our home track, there is a huge expectation from the fans who have not come here for years to see a Ferrari leading the championship. We have done everything we can to prepare the race in the best possible way, both in testing and in the work done at Maranello, but it is difficult to make predictions".
The Monza weekend does not start in the best way for Ferrari, as the FIA announces the disqualification inflicted on Mika Hakkinen in the Belgian Grand Prix, due to irregular fuel. Villeneuve thus gains one position and consequently one point on Schumacher, who bitterly comments:
"He has nothing to do with it. What does a driver have to do with the petrol they put in his car? Besides, how can you think that McLaren, Mercedes and Mobil, all big and famous companies, would take such a risk with a mess that was made on purpose? What advantage would that slightly different petrol have given them in Belgium? None. I was in a similar situation a few years ago and I had to pay for it. No, I just don't understand this kind of thing. In the meantime, Villeneuve gains one point and Williams two, and they are points gained on the table, if I may say so. It's a shame, I didn't expect a solution like that towards the end of a championship, it's a shame".
From -12 to -11. Frank Williams welcomed the news:
"I'm happy for this decision, of course I feel sorry for my friend Ron Dennis, but right now we need everything, even these little points. The situation is not easy, Schumacher and Ferrari have made a lot of progress in recent years".
Frank had one more reason to smile at the end of free practice, because Heinz-Harald Frentzen set the best time, one second ahead of his teammate Villeneuve and Jean Alesi. The German, even if not condemned by mathematics, can hardly re-enter the fight for the title, therefore in the Williams house they take a decision that goes against the historical philosophy of the team, always reluctant to play team games. According to some rumours, Frentzen will have to be ready to help his teammate in his battle against Schumacher. A decision that derives from the complicated situation in the classification, as well as from the fact that the technical advantage on the pursuers has been reduced to almost zero.
The Monza weekend, however, will also be remembered because of the accident in which Princess Diana Spencer lost her life on 31 August 1997. She was the victim of a car crash under the Pont de l'Alma tunnel in Paris, together with her partner Dodi Al-Fayed, when their Mercedes, driven by driver Henri Paul, crashed into the 13th pillar of the tunnel. Michael Schumacher, who arrived in Monza by helicopter, let off steam and spoke openly about the problems faced by celebrities due to the intrusiveness of the media:
"As soon as I heard the news it was a shock for me. A tremendous shock, I knew her, she was an exceptional person. But now, just a few days later, a sense of irritation, of anger, of great rage has taken over in me. The photographers' fault? I don't know, the paparazzi are just a link in the chain of communication. It's easy to blame them for chasing the princess, it's almost spontaneous. But what am I supposed to say about the television stations that are now crying in all their programmes, but they too are always there, watching you with their cameras and microphones, spying on you, wanting to capture everything about you, even your soul, and then broadcasting. But now they are crying, they are scandalised. It's the media world as a whole that should be accused. I for one am worth less than Lady Diana. I'm very well known too, I'm a popular figure too, but not nearly as popular as she was. And yet in my small way, I often suffer from such situations. It was in Paris that I had an experience similar to that of the princess, except for the conclusion, so I know what anguish all this pressure creates. The problem is not to get into a tunnel at that speed to sow paparazzi: it should be solved in other ways. It's up to politicians, to parliaments to find solutions, but one thing is certain: the private lives of us popular figures have as much right to be protected as those of ordinary people. But how? I know that in some countries they have put fines on newspapers that publish a certain type of photo, but it soon happened that the fines turned out to be enormously inferior to the profit that the publication of the same photos produces. So what? As long as newspapers publish, photographers take photos, and television broadcasts, there is no end in sight. The basic problem is that a basic principle must be spread: those who watch you, those who follow you, have no right to disturb you. And this must apply to photographers, journalists, television stations and also to the public of all the characters who take on popular contours. I respect everyone's work, but sometimes certain photographers...".
"Well, the next time it happens to me, I really don't know what reaction I might have. Sometimes I try to make photographers happy by telling them: OK, take these pictures for me. They take them and they stay there. They never leave, they don't let you through, they hunt you down. I say photographers, but it applies to everyone, more or less. In a certain sense, even the fans. I'd love to go out onto the lawns here at Monza amid these Ferrari's supporting crowd who are our real and only secret weapon in this Grand Prix. But how do I do that? Where do I go? Where do I arrive? And how do I get out? So I don't. And I'm forced to come here by helicopter, which is the only way. Because the fans, like the photographers and everyone else, think they have the right to do what they want with you. But everyone should know and get it into their heads that no one has that right. No one at all".
The free practice is rather complicated for Ferrari, as Schumacher is only thirteenth, author of a straight in the final part of the session with a consequent flight on the kerbs that causes the breakage of the rear suspension; but it is the time obtained by the German driver that raises some worries, as this is almost three seconds slower than the excellent performance obtained the week before, during the tests. Jean Todt explains this performance:
"The conditions today were very different to those of the past few days. At that time, the asphalt temperature had reached forty degrees at a momentary high, today it was a stable forty-four degrees and this is not good for the tyres".
At the end of practice, Schumacher, dark in the face, confesses:
"I'm not nervous, but a bit worried, the suspension problem prevented me from attempting a fast lap: now I don't know exactly how I stand compared to the others, I'll have to analyse the situation with the technicians. I have been running with a lot of fuel in the tank most of the time, which is one of the reasons why I am in thirteenth place. Anyway, I don't think I can take pole position, but we at least have the chance to fight for the second row".
During the Monza weekend, the Benetton family announced that they had decided to take over the running of the team, ending the Briatore management:
"Flavio Briatore is a man of great qualities, a man I respect a lot, but he is also a man in demand. It should not be surprising if he decides to accept new proposals, and it is right to take them into account".
Says Alessandro Benetton, in a white shirt and dark blue jeans, speaking with a rich and colourful basket of flowers behind him that fills the cameras besieging him with colour:
"When you lead a group of this importance, a team where more than two hundred people work, it is mandatory to have back-up solutions".
The divorce was not the result of a sudden quarrel, however, Flavio Briatore does not reveal the real reasons:
"I will speak at the end of the season, I can tell you that the Benetton family will remain in Formula 1 for a long time. Please just don't stick me with a future linked to motorbikes. My interest in Formula 1 is great, but the world of motorbikes doesn't interest me".
The Benetton family comes into its own, since in addition to Alessandro, his brother Rocco will also be involved in Formula 1:
"His presence will be proof of the family's desire to become more and more involved in Formula 1. For us, for the interests of our product in the world, racing is a decisive communication vehicle. This is why another member of the family will also be directly involved".
The team's technical centre remains in Enstone, England, while Fisichella is expected to be the team's lead driver for 1998. Jordan's claims are not seen as an obstacle by Alessandro Benetton, who is keen to point out:
"Our contract is clear. I will reserve the right to understand if someone is bragging in this story".
On Saturday, all the worries of the previous weeks, which had been put to rest by a positive test session, re-emerged powerfully at Ferrari. Schumacher ninth, Irvine tenth. For the German, it was the worst qualifying since his arrival in Ferrari, a horrible timing if you think that it happened in front of thousands of fans of the Red. Schumacher tries everything to improve his lap time, he even goes down on the track with the mule, which he had never tried until that moment. A meagre consolation for the fans may be the fact that there is a bit of Ferrari there on the front row: the former Ferrari driver and fans' favourite, Jean Alesi, takes his second career pole position, lapping in 1'22"990:
"At the end of the straight I touched 355 km/h, it's simply fantastic".
Jean admits, beaming, after enjoying the applause that accompanies his Benetton corner after corner, as he waves and arrives with his arm raised. It's his party and he enjoys it to the hilt. Without the anxieties and torments of previous years, with the detachment of someone who has learnt to carry the job of a driver, Jean proudly admits:
"I'm fine, I'm calm, I don't have to prove anything to anyone. Racing at Monza is not easy, you need experience. I'm fighting with some kids, apart from Schumacher and Berger they are all the same. All the same on the track and above all off the track. All followed step by step by a manager who decides for them and earns more than them. I am always me, I can be angry, bad or nice, but I am always me, I don't ask anyone to do my part. Around me, I don't see anyone who has the personality of Senna or Mansell. I was driving and I was laughing, I could see their difficulties, this is a special, magical track. You have to know how to do it. Today everything went well, but I expected it. Pole was no accident, we worked well. I know very well that the race will be something else, this is a joy that lasts little and must be enjoyed to the end. I have a French passport, I speak French better than Italian, but my parents are Sicilian and my blood is Italian. I think people have understood that I have always done my job with the utmost commitment".
As he returns to the pits, compliments are pouring in for Jean, including those of Alessandro Benetton, who says:
"I don't want to be presumptuous, but maybe I'm lucky. To take pole at this time of transition is important".
Not far away, Flavio Briatore retorts by saying:
"We have never been so competitive. After losing Schumacher, we had to restructure the team, remaining in a Benetton dimension. I was criticised for the technical choices I made, but the guys I put in the key positions are proving that the trust was deserved. My great satisfaction is to leave a strong team".
Behind Alesi, Frentzen and Fisichella are fifty-two and seventy-six thousandths respectively. To give a further idea of how tight qualifying was, there is the fact that Schumacher himself paid just six tenths compared to the poleman of the day. The words of Jean Todt and then Schumacher do not bode well for the race:
"There's nothing to do, unfortunately it's in qualifying that you measure your worth; I didn't expect such a performance. The top five teams are in the top ten and we are in ninth and tenth; these are the values today. Maybe Michael could have done a bit better but that doesn't change the situation much. We have lacked aerodynamic efficiency since the beginning of the year. We knew that this circuit, like Hockenheim and Spa, presents a serious handicap for those who don't have good aerodynamic efficiency. And maybe we will also pay for them in Japan with all those fast corners. We can't load the wings too much and so the car works all on the chassis. We have improved a lot, but the others obviously improved more. It's a difficult weekend for us. Also, the high asphalt temperature doesn't give us an advantage, when it's cooler we can exploit the potential of our car more".
Michael Schumacher also repeats the same concept:
"As soon as the asphalt temperature rises, our tyres get too hot and lose grip. Until last Saturday I was absolutely pessimistic, then the tests went better and I was convinced that they could be repeated during the race weekend, instead we are back to the levels of ten days ago. I tested with the mule because the race car didn't convince me. We have little speed. I am disappointed. Now everything becomes more difficult, I will have to do an attack race, luckily the race is long and many things can happen".
Then, as Schumacher walked away with a very dark and drawn face, the journalists' attention shifted to Eddie Irvine, who in fact reiterated the words expressed by the German driver:
"The car doesn't work, it can't get into the corners, it tends to go straight. We tried a few modifications but things got worse and worse. This is a problem we don't know how to solve. When there is a corner, I brake but the car gets out of tune with the rear end, it skids, and the brakes wear out unnecessarily. Then you come out of the corner hard and think you can accelerate and recover. But no, there is no acceleration, we are slow on the straights and it will be impossible to overtake. However, I will add one thing: all these problems will have cost me a couple of tenths of a second, even improving these defects we are not competitive. It's going to be a tough race and the worst time will be at the start because I have to try and make up positions but I also have to be careful not to damage Michael in front of me. We can only hope that the others, those in front of us, have problems during the race".
Jacques Villeneuve is in fourth position, preceding the two McLarens, the other Benetton of Berger and Ralf Schumacher. Reached by journalists, the Canadian does not make any statements regarding the question of the team orders that should favour him:
"I don't know anything about it, and anyway I'm not going to ask anything to Heinz Harald. We are more competitive than I expected after last week's tests. Of course, it's frustrating to fight for pole and not be able to do it, but here it's not so important to be in front at the start because it's a circuit where you can overtake".
Sunday morning's thirty-minute warm-up delivered two new candidates for victory to the race. Mika Hakkinen is ahead of everyone, Coulthard is third, while Jean Alesi has a small mishap when he makes a mistake at the first corner and goes into the wall. Most of the damage was to the rear axle, but it was minor and not difficult for his mechanics to repair.
The yellow flags are not respected by Villeneuve, who does not slow down and incurs in the third penalty of the season from the stewards, who then give him a conditional disqualification for the next eight races. Especially in the first four races, those of the current season, Villeneuve will have to be very careful.
In 1996 Schumacher sent the Italian public into ecstasy by winning the race, taking advantage of the carelessness and the retirements of the others, caused in some cases by the piles of tyres at the chicanes. Mindful of the events of last season, the race direction replaces the tyres with higher kerbs, but Schumacher's hopes of victory this time are very low.
And not only because of the starting position (in 1996 Alesi started from the sixth position and at the first bend he was leading the race, only to lose the duel with Schumacher in the game of stops) but also and above all because of the inconsistent race pace of the Red car, condemned even before starting to a defensive race, with the hope of limiting the damage by entering the points zone.
The strategies, which can sometimes upset the balance, in this case leave less room for the imagination of the pit wall, since almost all drivers seem destined to make a single pit stop. In terms of tyre choice, everyone, except for Jordan who prefers the soft ones, is aiming for the hardest compound. As a result, the start could take on an even more decisive role.
When the lights went out Alesi got off to a good start and didn't let himself be threatened by Frentzen, who kept the second position; the same couldn't be said for Fisichella, who perhaps felt the pressure of the public and made a wrong start losing his position in favour of a surprising David Coulthard, who passed from the sixth place to the third in a few hundred metres. He was followed by Fisichella, then Villeneuve, Hakkinen and Schumacher, who was able to gain two positions at the start, although he remained outside the points zone.
The first phase of the race was characterized by an Alesi who tried in vain to escape, and the two Williams who had to defend themselves from the attacks of the McLarens; the most decisive one was made by Hakkinen at the end of the third lap at the first bend, Villeneuve however resisted and kept him behind. For the rest, there is very little action on the track.
Alesi held an advantage of between two and three seconds over the duo of Frentzen and Coulthard, then there was Fisichella who remained a few seconds behind those in front as well as Villeneuve and Hakkinen. Schumacher, on the other hand, didn't have an excellent race pace because of the heat that made the tyres suffer, and gradually lost contact with Hakkinen, also having to start watching out for the pressure of Gerhard Berger.
On lap 20 Alesi began to have some problems with the tyres and raised his times, favouring the rejoining of Frentzen and Coulthard, thus leading to the formation of a leading trio, where however no one continued to attack. A frustrating condition in particular for Coulthard, evidently the fastest driver of the three.
On lap 28 Villeneuve is the first of the leading drivers to stop in the pits, imitated on the next lap by Frentzen. For both of them the stop was about ten seconds, and with hindsight, a little too early. In fact, Hakkinen sensed the important moment and set the fastest lap in the race, in an attempt to take the position over the Canadian, and why not, even something more. On the thirty-second lap, the crucial moment of the race: Alesi and Coulthard return at the same time, the pits of the two teams are close to each other. However, Coulthard's stop is shorter.
This is because the Scotsman's tank contains more petrol than the Benetton's, so there is logically less fuel to take on board. Although the work of the two teams of mechanics is impeccable, Coulthard manages to return to the track ahead of Alesi, potentially taking the lead of the race while waiting for the drivers who have not yet stopped in the pits to refuel. Frentzen's slightly early stop did not help the German, who had to queue up helplessly with Alesi's Benetton. Hakkinen and Schumacher are the last to return.
The Finn tries an exasperated overcut in the attempt to threaten the first place of his teammate, but on his return lap Morbidelli inexplicably refuses to step aside, making him lose a couple of very important seconds. After the pit stop Hakkinen was back on track behind Frentzen and ahead of Fisichella and Villeneuve, virtually fourth while waiting for Schumacher to make his stop; when Michael made his pit stop too, he found himself in seventh position.
Williams' decision to let its drivers back in slightly early does not pay off. Coulthard now leads the way ahead of Alesi and Frentzen, who has lost a position as well as Villeneuve, who has gone from fifth to sixth. In the following laps, Mika approached Frentzen to compete for the third step of the podium. With so many laps to go, he could create some overtaking opportunities. But no.
Any hope of seeing a real duel in this second phase of the race vanished into thin air when a puncture forced the unlucky 28-year-old driver of the McLaren to an additional stop that relegated him well out of the points zone, in fourteenth position, while his teammate was travelling undisturbed towards his second success of the season. Hakkinen's sporting misfortune favours Schumacher, who thus enters the points zone. This is however relative as Villeneuve rises to fifth position, so, exactly as before, he would gain one point on his rival in the standings.
The only emotion in the last few laps is given by Johnny Herbert and Ralf Schumacher, in a tussle for positions in the middle of the group. At the first bend Ralf flanked the Sauber but widened his trajectory causing a violent high-speed contact between the two cars. The front left suspension of Herbert's Sauber breaks, the car becomes unmanageable and ends up violently against the barriers. Herbert is fortunately unharmed
The young Schumacher seems able to continue, but after a precautionary pit stop, he stops at the edge of the track and retires. There are some sparks between the two after the race, as Ralf first apologizes but then blames Herbert for the accident, and Herbert on the other hand does not spare criticism for the young German:
"Schumacher is a fool. A manoeuvre like that, at that speed, to go from tenth to ninth...I could have died or killed someone. He closed in on me, he didn't give me any space, he basically knocked me out. He's an immature driver who still has a lot to learn about the art of racing at these speeds".
Peter Sauber, team principal of the Sauber racing team, went on to say:
"For the good of the sport, the driver's head should be changed, but I can't do that, he's not my employee".
Perhaps the young German driver, already in the news for having caused a few accidents during the year, would have deserved at least a warning from the race direction, which instead chose not to intervene. In the meantime, Hakkinen gained a few positions but didn't go any higher than ninth, while Villeneuve tried to trouble Fisichella by attempting an overtaking move that would have been worth double because then in front of him there would have been Frentzen, ready to give way, but the Roman driver didn't let himself be surprised. Nothing else happened.
David Coulthard won the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, preceding Alesi and Frentzen at the finish line, and he could celebrate his third success in his career on a special podium like the one of the Italian circuit. The victory in Australia was in some ways a daring and lucky one, this one instead is a great proof of strength for him and for McLaren, which is a candidate to be the referee for the World Championship in these last tests. Coulthard, who had picked up just four points after that win in Melbourne, climbed to 24 points, fifth overall, and dedicated the victory to Lady Diana, who had tragically passed away the previous week:
"I dedicate the victory to the memory of Lady Diana, in the last ten laps I thought only of her. I think I only scored four points after the victory in Melbourne, so I would say that this success was really needed. I have to thank the great work of the team and especially the mechanics. It is thanks to their amazing work during the pit stop that I was able to overtake Alesi. Once again I had a great start, another key factor in the victory. Talking about the strategy, we could have lengthened the first stint, but then the team decided to make a pit-stop at the same time as Alesi; we know we are the quickest in making stops, and today we showed it again. On this kind of circuit we are very strong, it is difficult to say if we will be as strong in the next races".
On the podium the crowd chanted for him as if he were still wearing the red Ferrari suit, showing that he had not forgotten his years at Maranello. It may not be a victory, but Alesi is equally happy with his performance:
"I was hoping to win but I am still satisfied to be on the podium, because Monza is a very special place for me. The car was fast, but David passed me during the stop, and at that point, I couldn't try to overtake because he was uncatchable. Frentzen didn't worry me, I knew it would be difficult to overtake me unless I was a bit careless. In any case, it was not an easy race finish".
Frentzen regrets the strategy adopted by his team, but he can still smile for his fourth podium of the season, the second in a row:
"I didn't expect Coulthard to be able to overtake me, but I have to say that third place is still a good result for me. Before stopping for a break I tried to push as hard as I could, because as Jean has already said it was almost impossible to overtake him on the track. Maybe our stop was a bit too early, which made us lose our position to David".
Giancarlo Fisichella, on the other hand, was ecstatic, arriving at the finish line in fourth place, confirming his excellent driving skills. It was not by chance that Jordan wanted to keep the Italian driver for two years, thus interpreting the loan contract from Benetton, who instead wanted him back for 1998. The English team appealed to the High Court of Justice of London, while Benetton appealed to the FIA tribunal of Lausanne, beginning to acquire personality also in defending its own strategic choices.
"Today my car was tiring to drive, especially in the corners, where I had problems with understeer: I was sliding and losing precious time. The difficulty of the race was that we were all very close to each other and there was the risk of making a mistake, of running into someone, of being overtaken for a small mistake, perhaps on the brakes".
Giancarlo was the only one to start on soft tyres, so when asked if this choice had not influenced the result, the Italian driver replied:
"With the hard tyres nothing would have changed, I would have lapped with the same times or maybe worse. With the soft tyres the car had a better set-up. I fitted the right tyres. Things didn't go as I had hoped on the eve of the race, but in the race I immediately understood that there was nothing I could do, that I would only win if everyone in front of me made mistakes. I gave it my all. And hopefully also some emotions".
Then, talking about the wrong start, the Jordan driver admits:
"Here at Monza I felt the pressure of the people, their hopes and ambitions. That's why before the start my legs got weak. It's the first time this has happened to me. I was nervous, agitated and I started badly. I made a mistake, which cost me a place, going from third to fourth. But I justify myself: in front of this crowd I felt I was going fast, I wanted the podium at all costs, an uncertainty can happen. I still have many years ahead of me, more Monza will come, and I can promise the fans who may be disappointed today triumphs and good placings".
On the other hand, leaving aside the start, Fisichella did very well, to the point of earning the compliments of Villeneuve, who tried in vain throughout the race to overtake him:
"Finishing ahead of him is a great satisfaction, also because indirectly I did Ferrari a favour. But Schumacher has no illusions, if he had been behind me I would have behaved in the same way. And then with Villeneuve we are friends since Formula 3 times, I am a bit sorry to have taken away an important point, but I race for myself".
Jacques Villeneuve was obviously hoping to gain more points in the standings considering the problems that plagued Ferrari:
"On a day that should have been disastrous for Ferrari, we gained very little. It's not much, but it's better than nothing. As long as I didn't have anyone near me the car was going quite well, but in traffic it was slippery and difficult to control. I was scared at the start. There was a big pile-up, anything could happen and I preferred to let Coulthard through. I shortened the gap to Schumacher, but only by one point. It could have been three if I had managed to overtake Fisichella. But he did well to keep me behind, past him, I would have had Frentzen ahead of me and we could have been a team effort. Unfortunately, it wasn't possible. I also lost time at the pit stop and I don't know why. I haven't given up hope, there are ten points to make up and four races left. I'm optimistic because Suzuka and Nurburgring are good circuits for us".
At the Ferrari wall, however, there is a sigh of relief at having escaped danger. An underwhelming weekend that helps to keep the feet on the ground of the team directed by Jean Todt, who states:
"I know very well that finishing sixth is not the same as winning, but we have limited the damage; it went very, very well, we are still leading the drivers' and constructors' championships. The way things have been going over the last few days, frankly I think it's a very good result. It doesn't mean that we are optimistic about winning the championship. No, it doesn't. There are four races left, that's 40 points, and anything can still happen, but we should do well in at least two of them. So everything is still very open, we can fight until the end, also because I don't think Villeneuve did a great race. The Williams remain the opponents to beat. They are the fastest. Our margins of improvement are modest, we will try different things for the next rounds, but they will not be radical changes: to have more aerodynamic load we should change the circuits and above all wait for the 1998 car. The most difficult for us is Suzuka, but Magny-Cours was also difficult and we won. In Austria we have a good chance, but I don't give in to predictions: the important thing is that today in Monza we limited the damage".
On the same line the declarations of Schumacher, who maintains an advantage of ten points on Villeneuve:
"I didn't have a competitive enough car and I pulled out the best possible result: there was a big difference between last year and this year, unfortunately. It has to be said that it could have ended much worse: I only lost one point, I still have a ten point lead after fearing that I only had four or five left. It's a step towards the world championship. I knew there were aerodynamic problems, but I didn't start the race to keep my positions: in Formula 1 you never make conservative choices. After the start I didn't feel comfortable because the first set of tyres didn't give the performance I wanted, the performance I was hoping for. First I had a lot of understeer and then suddenly it turned into oversteer and driving like that is not good. I felt slowed down by these difficulties".
"When I changed tyres, everything went better, the car became faster but unfortunately it wasn't enough because overtaking is impossible here, as we saw. We had planned the delayed pit stop, we had chosen to do the second part with less fuel onboard and the tyres already broken in. But, I repeat, it didn't help much. I tried to attack Villeneuve and I even caught up, I was going well, but there was always too much of a gap to catch him. I did what I could, but I just couldn't do any more. But now come some races where the faults we had at Monza will no longer be there. I am very afraid for the Japanese Grand Prix, it has corners where we could have the same lack of aerodynamic efficiency that we had here. Instead in Austria and at the Nurburgring we should do well, so I see the championship as very open, interesting. I apologise to the fans, there will be at least a hundred thousand for me and maybe they expected more. I know, they wanted me to win, but I have to take care of the championship and to come home today with ten points is a very good thing for me and for Ferrari".
Finally, Michael gives a brief but clear explanation as to why there wasn't much overtaking on the track:
"The top eight came within seventeen seconds of each other: we're all close together and there's no overtaking to speak of, because when you get in the slipstream the air is so dirty that it gets into the intakes and takes power away from you".
Even in the Constructors' standings Ferrari retains its position thanks to its 85 points, but with only one advantage over Williams, which benefits from a double points placing (the second in a row, a rarity for Frank's team). McLaren, with 38 points, still has fifteen lengths to make up on Benetton to be able to think about third place.
After the post-race comments, Michael Schumacher quickly left the Monza circuit in his private helicopter, heading immediately for Geneva. At Monza, Michael didn't have a moment's rest. As soon as he got out of the Ferrari, he had to rush to promotional engagements with sponsors. Then he had to submit to hugs, greetings, photos and pleasantries with Stallone and a dozen other more or less famous people, followed by meeting the crowd, autographs, caps, T-shirts and the new Ferrari mobile phone. Then the race, exhausting and in many ways disappointing.
For these reasons, on 8 September 1997, although he was expected, Schumacher did not show up at the Ferrari stand at the Frankfurt Motor Show, where he was supposed to present the new personalised line of cars designed by him. However, he gives a press conference by telephone, in which he explains that:
"When I got out of the car at Monza my arms were in pieces, I couldn't feel them anymore. It was very hard to drive in that heat and, above all, to drive a car that had problems in the chicanes and corners. In the end I was exhausted and so I asked to be excused from this commitment. I need at least two days of calm, rest and silence. On Wednesday I have to go to Mugello, then there are two more Grands Prix in a row, in Austria and Luxembourg, where I absolutely have to score points if we want to win this championship".
After the rest, Schumacher will have to carry out a strange but important test: to try and compare his Ferrari with a Sauber equipped with the 1996 Ferrari engine. More or less with the same engine, Michael will therefore have to understand the goodness of the Swiss chassis, which under the guidance of Herbert and Morbidelli never goes wrong on any circuit.
In the meantime, at Mugello, again on 8 September 1997, Ferrari with Irvine, Williams, Prost and perhaps even McLaren took to the track. These teams had rented the track, which belonged to Ferrari, to follow the race and see it up close, since it was Ferrari that had the role of hare, except for the disappointing Monza Grand Prix. The tests will serve to fine-tune the cars for Zeltweg, the Austrian track where the race will take place on September 21st, 1997.
Davide Scotto di Vetta