From 15th to 17th April 1998 Ferrari worked non-stop both at Fiorano and Mugello, concentrating its attention above all on the tyres, a factor that proved crucial during the first three races of the season. Eddie Irvine drove at Fiorano on 15 April, setting a new track record of 1'01"616. He also tried out the new wing towers on the sides of the car, which caused a few problems as they flew off after just a few kilometres. In Tuscany, Eddie completed a total of seventy-eight laps to check out the high exhausts, placed halfway up the bonnet, just behind the driver's shoulders, and the car's grip. At 16:20 on 16 April, the former Jordan began to simulate a Grand Prix, completing 56 laps, interrupted only by the breakage of the right exhaust, which was immediately replaced.
"With the high exhaust the car is more driveable, especially coming out of corners. The engine had no problems, and the rest worked well too. I am very happy with the results of these tests".
A satisfied Irvine declared at the end of the day. On the Fiorano track, on the other hand, Michael Schumacher tests for a long time with a new type of wide tyres, to be used at Imola the following week. Schumacher, still with the F300 and the 047/D engine, completed a good 113 laps, stopping when it was already late at night, setting a new track record of 1'01"3. At the end of the second of the three test days, Jean Todt talks about the work done:
"The 047/D engine that was born for qualifying, i.e. to bring Schumacher higher up the grid, is now a race standard. And at every race the engine undergoes evolutions, sometimes small, sometimes big. A few days ago, at Fiorano and Mugello, we tested new electronic mappings for the Imola version of the engine".
And just talking about the Imola circuit, the French manager admits:
"There are long straights and you need better aerodynamics, more power and, above all, more drivable power later on, in the mixed sections. That's what we're trying to achieve".
In the meantime, Williams is also trying to develop the FW20 at Montmelò, while Benetton, at Silverstone, is trying to put a difficult start to the championship behind it, especially for Giancarlo Fisichella, who is ready to redeem himself already starting from the fourth round to be held at the Imola circuit, the ideal setting for the limelight:
"Of course, I am not satisfied, I would have liked the start of the season to be more positive, but the car is very good, it is well balanced and the tyres are there. Now we have to work on the qualifying strategy because, despite the rule change, it is crucial to start in a good position. I expect great things from Imola, also because it is the circuit where I won my first race in Formula 3 in 1992 and, coincidentally, it is also the track where I scored my first points in Formula 1 a year ago".
The former Jordan driver hopes to achieve an unforgettable result in front of his fans, perhaps with an exceptional podium:
"In the next race I dream of a podium with Hakkinen and Schumacher, hopefully in alphabetical order. Up until Brazil it would have been said that the World Championship was an affair restricted to Hakkinen alone. But now everyone is talking about Schumacher as the favourite with him. Formula 1 teaches us that development is so fast that ups and downs are the order of the day. At Benetton they are doing everything they can to reach the levels of McLaren and Ferrari. And I'm counting on that for Imola".
With the drivers on track for the test sessions, in London, on 16 April, a meeting takes place with the top management of the teams, chaired by Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley, to clarify the situation following the case of the third pedal, later considered illegal by McLaren, which brought to light some flaws in the regulations. Ecclestone and Mosley were unanimous in their support:
"The credibility of the World Championship is above everything and everyone".
A meeting from which, to tell the truth, very little came out, if not a sort of armistice between Ferrari and McLaren, and the commitment to draw up clearer regulations from next year. Montezemolo speaks his opinion:
"We need clarity, we cannot continue the world championship without certain rules. It's a dangerous situation, for the credibility of Formula 1, even more than for Ferrari's position. At this point it is vital to avoid that what has been put out the front door can come back in through the window at the first opportunity. It was, in any case, a useful meeting, which verified full harmony on the need to favour certainty of interpretation. There is no need for new rules or changes, but we need an agreement on the meaning of the rules. Very important foundations have been laid for next year, but also as far as the current season is concerned, I am confident that there will be no more cases like the McLaren one, because the Brazilian ruling has been accepted by everyone, and everyone is working towards the common goal".
Meanwhile Ron Dennis declared at the end of the meeting:
"No one was on trial, there was no manoeuvring against anyone. We are just as concerned about the interpretation as the other teams. Besides, the result of the Brazilian Grand Prix, which was confirmed, rewards our good faith. Will the third pedal be back? It's not important at the moment. It won't be back until it finds its place in the current technical framework of Formula 1. That doesn't mean that in the future, with everyone's agreement, it won't be allowed back into the regulations".
A few days later, on April 22nd, Eddie Irvine carries out a test drive of the three cars that Ferrari will send to Imola (a meticulous check that will last until about 2:00 pm, before the cars leave in trucks to reach the Romagna circuit), while Michael Schumacher visits the Motor Show in Turin, where he takes the opportunity to meet the lawyer Gianni Agnelli:
"It was a very important meeting for me, because there are often strange rumours about Ferrari. And it's nice to hear from the top management of Fiat that they are totally committed to the Scuderia Ferrari. So now I'm sure that the lawyer will have his fingers crossed for me on Sunday, even though I don't know if he will come to the track to see us. The tests we did at Fiorano and Mugello were very positive, now our car is a winning car, but a lot will depend as usual on the tyres: if the tyres do their job, then it will be possible to win. I hope that all the fans with their screams will give us an extra push, a bit of that wind in our favour that never hurts. Joking aside, we are doing our best, really. Victory is here, just around the corner, and at Ferrari we are desperate to prove to our many supporters that our team is the strongest in Formula 1. At the moment it's an exclusive fight between us and McLaren, but even in the future I don't see any other team able to challenge us, because I know our huge development programmes. In front of us there are possibilities for improvements that - I believe - neither Benetton nor Williams can have. Of course, it will be possible for other teams to come back into the limelight, but there is bound to be a difference between us and them. We are in contact with all the technicians of the Fiat group, and we are working in an atmosphere of full cooperation".
On the circuit of Imola everything is ready to welcome the circus: the attendance record is expected for the Grand Prix of San Marino, ready to reach figures not recorded since 1983, when Patrick Tambay, at the wheel of the Ferrari, won over the opponents. During that weekend there was a total attendance of about 187.000 paying spectators. The track will also undergo some minor changes due to the construction of the new race direction, located at the back of the pit. In doing so, the finish line will also be moved, now just eighty metres away from the exit of the last corner, the Variante Bassa. This change avoids a sprint finish but does not change the starting line, which will remain the same.
The introduction of the new electronic system regarding the flags has been postponed. It consists of installing a three-light display on the steering wheels, which lights up with the colour of the flag also signalled by the track officials, thanks to impulses given by the race direction. This was a novelty that began to be discussed at the Austrian Grand Prix in the 1997 season, when Schumacher was penalised with a drive-through after overtaking Frentzen under yellow flags. The German defended himself after the race by claiming he had not seen the flags, which were apparently placed in a blind spot. At Imola, the FIA should have carried out the first test with this new technology, but as not all the teams are ready to put it on the steering wheels, it will have to wait. At the usual Thursday press conference Schumacher, Villeneuve, Trulli and Coulthard showed up. The German says he is sure he can have a good race:
"I feel the same as in Argentina. I see no reason not to do as well as in Buenos Aires. I know that my Ferrari is very good, we have made improvements since the last Grand Prix, when we were not too far from the McLaren, and especially in the race we were closer than in qualifying. Since a lot of things were fine-tuned in last week's testing, I don't see why we shouldn't be confident."
"I'm not saying I'm going to win, but I feel I can fight for the win. It will be crucial how the tyres work, because there is a lot of competition between the two brands of tyres, and you can't predict whether one or the other will come out on top. Without a doubt, we have been working a lot and successfully on the tyres, I don't know about the others; maybe they will too, we'll see. We certainly don't know how our tyres will adapt to this circuit and what the performance will be. Other changes to take comfort from? A couple of things regarding aerodynamics. I think we're going to use the tower wings on the bellies of the car, we've got a couple now for today, and three more starting tomorrow. With those wings, the Ferrari looks like the Empire State Building in New York; I don't know how they work, Irvine tried them at Fiorano. On the other hand, we won't have the high exhausts, because we have to solve some reliability problems, but they should be there in Barcelona".
Jacques Villeneuve, on the other hand, clarified a small rumour that had been fueled in the previous days, which saw him in Ferrari next season:
"I was asked a question, and I simply gave an answer. I've never spoken to Montezemolo, also because it's not worth it, he doesn't understand anything about cars and when he talks he makes people laugh. They asked me if I could possibly go to Ferrari, if Schumacher were to leave it, and I said: why not, if there is a vacancy in a top team?"
Schumacher, with a smirk painted on his face replies:
"I have never thought about leaving Ferrari".
Jock Clear, Jacques Villeneuve's track engineer, says that the Canadian driver only gives his best when he is having fun. Accusations are raining down on the Williams driver, but the 27-year-old replies:
"I know what they say and write. They're kicking me, but it's normal: one day you're the greatest, the next day you're an idiot. When you race for Williams, it's always the drivers' fault".
Defeated in Buenos Aires, Mika Hakkinen, not present at the press conference but still surrounded by journalists, knows he has to respond strongly to the exceptional performance of Schumacher and Ferrari two weeks earlier. The Finn, however, shows no sign of concern:
"I believe that our setback in Argentina was accidental. They did everything right, we did something wrong. But second place was also a good result, you have to be happy with that. But I'm sure of one thing: this is the best McLaren I've ever driven. It is strong in all areas: aerodynamics, chassis and engine. We're in front and the others are chasing, even if the advantage over Ferrari narrowed in the last race. These days we have worked a lot on everything, as always. We should have an even better engine, but something has also been done on the chassis. Then we worked hard on the tyres, even the wet ones".
Explains Mika, who at Imola will celebrate the hundredth Grand Prix. The battle between Ferrari and McLaren is not the only one ready to flare up, because there is another one going on since the first race of the year, and it is the one between Bridgestone and Goodyear. For the Imola weekend, Bridgestone's technical director, Hirohide Hamashima, confirms the arrival of new rear tyres, in response to the wider, higher performance front tyres introduced by Goodyear in Argentina. Lots of tests for both suppliers, on five different circuits for Goodyear, and two for Bridgestone, which also tested new wet weather tyres - in great secrecy - with Prost.
Judging from the first free practice sessions on the Imola circuit, the values on the field seem to have returned to those of Melbourne and Brazil. Even if less overwhelmingly, Hakkinen and Coulthard are quietly leading the way, leaving Michael Schumacher half a second behind. The German's F300 is not fitted with the latest version of the engine, the 047/D, to be used directly in qualifying and the race. It was Irvine's turn again to test the tower wings, a novelty designed to increase the lack of grip in tight corners.
With a greater downforce it became possible to lighten the rear end by shifting the centre of gravity forward, bringing the car closer to a type of set-up more to Schumacher's liking. Side wings, however, are frowned upon by the FIA, who after the Grand Prix will discuss its compliance concerning driver safety.
"We're not too far behind Hakkinen, but I don't know if McLaren used new tyres as we did in the end. We are struggling more than expected, we still have to work a lot on the set-ups. I don't feel the car well, it's unpredictable. Irvine tried the tower wings, he likes them, he says they don't improve performance but they give more stability. The secret, however, lies in the tyres: whoever makes the best choice, and has the most competitive tyres, will have already won half the race".
Says Schumacher at the end of the day, while Ferrari's team principal, Jean Todt, talking about the tower wings, admits:
"Let's assume that all the aerodynamic load of this Ferrari is one thousand kilos. How much more do the towered wings add? Between ten and forty kilos, which isn't much, but it's still something. There's no aerodynamic device that makes you suddenly go from one thousand to one thousand five hundred kilos. So they work, but it's clear that we're going to try to make them work even better. It's the first time we've tried them, after all. Schumacher will also test them and we'll see more. I would be very happy with third on the grid as well. It's not a disaster. A tenth of a second from Coulthard means that anything can happen in the race, even that Schumacher overtakes him as has already happened. The McLarens are even stronger, I already said that in Argentina, let's keep our feet on the ground. It's difficult to make these assessments on Friday, because all it takes to change those gaps is ten litres more or less in the tank".
Meanwhile, Jacques Villeneuve and Williams' ordeal continues. At the end of the tests, although he managed to set the fourth time, the Canadian driver returned to talk about the car's problems:
"Yes, I did better than in Argentina, but if we look at the times we are still at the same point. The car drives badly, the rear end always has the same problems. We did a little better because this is a circuit that suits our car, which has good understeer: that's all. There is still a long way to go to catch up with the McLarens, and I don't know what else we can do: we are stretched to the limit, we would need a few more horses. We are also preparing the candelabras but they won't be ready before Monte Carlo. The development of the engine is not up to the mark, the pressure on me is strong, but I think I can resist, as I have always done. In Argentina the car wasn't on the track, I didn't make one corner the same as another. And when the car doesn't work, the best a driver can do is defend himself with his teeth at the wheel".
The next day, in qualifying, almost everything is the same: the only difference is the order in which the two Silver Arrows are placed. Hakkinen loses the rear wheel coming out of the Variante Bassa during his best attempt, spins violently, keeps control of the car by a hair, but the correction costs him a couple of tenths, as well as the pole position.
Coulthard, on the other hand, makes no mistake and takes his seventh career pole, beating a frowning Hakkinen by a tenth in the post-qualifying press conference.
"I'm a bit annoyed, but the important thing is to start on the front row and get a good start: if the Ferraris get ahead of us straight away there's trouble because on this track it's difficult to overtake. It will be interesting to see what happens, I think that it will not end like in Argentina, but every race here is hard until the last corner".
The Finnish driver asserted, while his team-mate was beaming at the pole he had just taken:
"I'm happy, also because the car in qualifying was not as good as in the morning. It's great to be on pole, especially after a final session in which I thought I might have lost the lead: I knew Mika would improve his time and get closer. It's great to get out on track and be able to react to incredible pressure".
Talking about the agreements made within the team, the Scot reiterates:
"That's the deal: with Mika I have a great professional relationship, we work well together but we don't see each other much outside. For the team it's better to have two drivers competing against each other, but working together in the pits. Hakkinen is the number one threat for me because he has the best car of all the others. But if I arrive first at the first corner, half the problem is solved. And if I have a clear track I can go: I think it's my turn to win, of course I'll have to avoid an accident on lap four like in Argentina".
Then, responding to the accusations that came in the wake of the incident with Schumacher in Argentina, Coulthard replied:
"They told me that I'm not aggressive: my fault was that I gave him the opportunity to squeeze in, but the accident happened because Michael was far too aggressive. What can I do about the fact that in the impact between two cars my car flew away? If it had been the other way round, they would have told me I was good and aggressive. Anyway, he won, congratulations. The Goodyears can be better for one lap, as we saw in practice: when the Ferraris put on the new ones, they gained a second, but in the race it's a different story. Schumacher can get excited, but his car doesn't gain any horsepower thanks to people shouting".
Finally, the Scotsman closed his speech with a joke:
"Of course after doing that favour for Ferrari in Buenos Aires, I was thinking of a better welcome".
Mercedes racing manager Norbert Haug is also visibly happy, saying:
"To be on pole in Italy is fantastic, considering all the enthusiasm there is. The team's work is proving to be excellent. Four starts in front of everyone in four races, you couldn't ask for more".
On the second row are Schumacher and Irvine, both wearing sidewings: the German driver manages to lap in 1'26"437, four tenths slower than Coulthard, while his teammate, although fourth, is more than a second behind the poleman. Alex Wurz, fifth in the Benetton on a circuit where a reaction was expected from Giancarlo Fisichella, was still in good form. He was in tenth, six tenths slower than his teammate. Worse was the other Italian driver, Jarno Trulli, succumbing to a Prost far from the excellent performances of the past season, as confirmed also by the difficulties of Olivier Panis. The driver from Pescara is only sixteenth, the Frenchman does a little bit better, thirteenth. Fourth in free practice, sixth in qualifying. So much work during the tests for Williams has not brought much for now, as Jacques Villeneuve continues to complain of the usual problems highlighted so far:
"I don't want to cross my arms and that's why I fought even in practice but it's clear that a sixth place is hard to accept: last year at this time we were fighting for the first row. I want more. We have to wake up, find something. We have lost too much time to understand the problems with the car. And a further problem is to expect too much from the car, which at this moment in time can do no more than that. It's frustrating to struggle with the car and to see that all weekend it always stays where it started, it doesn't progress".
Not even a particularly efficient strategy could help the reigning Champion, since, according to the data collected during free practice, almost all the teams should opt for a two-stop strategy. On Sunday April 26th 1998, the stands are packed and the fans are full of enthusiasm and ready to push the Rossa towards success on its home track. The first of the sixty-two laps foreseen is rather eventful: Coulthard takes off perfectly, a little less Hakkinen, who has to slam the door to Schumacher to keep the second position; Irvine and Wurz do badly, with the Austrian who is immediately braked by a gearbox problem, blocked in the third gear.
The Benetton was almost stationary at the centre of the track and was passed by everybody except Hill, who didn't manage to avoid it and hit it with the front wing of his Jordan, which was inevitably damaged. The 1996 World Champion has to go back to the pits to replace the wing and start a comeback race. Also Wurz goes back to the pits, where the mechanics manage to partially solve the problem, occurred at the start, and send him back on track, although by now his race is compromised.
Rubens Barrichello's race ended after two corners, when he was hit by his teammate Magnussen. The Brazilian's Stewart lost its rear wing, while Barrichello continued for another hundred metres, only to end up in the gravel after losing control of the car. It was Barrichello himself who accused his teammate of hitting him. Not the ideal manoeuvre for the Dane, whose role in the team was already being strongly questioned, with Jos Verstappen jostling to replace him.
At the end of the first lap, therefore, Coulthard and Hakkinen were comfortably ahead, while Schumacher was third ahead of Villeneuve, who took advantage of a sly Irvine, and of Wurz's troubles to gain two positions; fifth there was just Irvine, and to close the points zone Frentzen. After a few passages on the finishing line, the first ones were all separated one from the other by some seconds; only Frentzen had to watch out for Fisichella and Alesi, who were chasing him wanting to enter the points zone.
The fight between Wiliams, Benetton and Sauber was also the only one in progress on the track, then Damon Hill thought of giving some liveliness to an extremely flat race, starting his comeback overtaking Nakano and Rosset. Wurz, on the contrary, seemed to have a good race pace, but he was lapped and found himself stuck behind Frentzen and Fisichella. A complicated situation for him, who as a lapped driver could certainly not risk an overtaking manoeuvre on his box mate.
Nothing else happened until lap seventeen when the biggest twist of the race occurred. At the Rivazza, the television director frames Michael Schumacher who easily overtakes Mika Hakkinen, while a few moments before they were more than ten seconds away. The leader of the world championship turns at reduced speed and continues at this pace until he enters the pit lane to retire.
It was a gearbox failure that took the Finnish driver's McLaren out of the race, while his team-mate's continued. But the British team's pit lane was on high alert, as they feared the same type of problem might occur. On the same lap Giancarlo Fisichella's race also ended, as he lost control of his car at the Villeneuve chicane and crashed violently into the barriers.
Not even the time to take note of the Roman's retirement, that the Benetton pit wall must also note the retirement of Wurz, parked at the side of the track with the smoking rear end. Thus ended a disastrous day for Benetton. Around lap 20, the fight for what is now third place also flares up: Irvine has approached and is putting pressure on Villeneuve. To overtake, however, seems utopian, except for mistakes of the adversary, therefore the pit-stops will decide the outcome of the battle.
On lap 26 Coulthard, Schumacher and Villeneuve stop, while Irvine continues for another lap. In his out-lap, Jacques was slowed down by Riccardo Rosset's lapping throughout the first sector, while in the meantime Irvine made the most of the Ferrari's empty fuel tank, and after a pit-stop he was back in front of the Canadian driver. Pit-stops didn't bring good results even to the other Williams driven by Frentzen, who gave up the fifth position to Jean Alesi, and then took it back at the moment of the second refuelling. Everything remains unchanged right up to the second pit-stop session. Villeneuve managed to keep close to Irvine, but at the moment of the pit-stop of the two at the same time, the Williams mechanics lose the confrontation with the Ferrari ones.
Irvine's pit-stop is perfect, around seven seconds, Villeneuve's one instead lasts for more than ten. So also the hopes of podium vanish for him, who has to be satisfied with the fourth place. After the second and last pit-stop, at fifteen laps to the end, Coulthard leads the race with a twenty second advantage over Schumacher. From the pit wall, Pat Fry, the Scotsman's track engineer, tells him to raise his times, to manage the car, to avoid mechanical problems as happened to Hakkinen.
The telemetry showed a small anomaly in the brakes, and the fact that Ron Dennis went back and forth three times from his pit stop to check the data drew the attention of the Ferrari men and Schumacher, who began to gain more than a second a lap on the race leader. The closer the chequered flag comes, the more Coulthard slows down, knowing that the advantage over his direct pursuer allows him to do so. On the last lap there were five seconds separating the two; under the chequered flag it would be four. In spite of what can be defined as a final thrill, due more to the reliability of the car than to Schumacher's pressure, David Coulthard won for the first time this season, a victory that acquired even greater specific weight thanks to Hakkinen's retirement.
The Finn still leads the standings with 26 points, but Coulthard takes ten points from him and flies to 23. Thanks to a solid second place, Schumacher can also smile, who rises to 20 points.
Irvine completes the podium, and, being awarded four points, allows Ferrari to total ten points for the constructors' classification: the distance of 18 points from McLaren remains unchanged.
Frentzen and Alesi close the points zone, while Ralf Schumacher, Esteban Tuero and Mika Salo are the three remaining drivers to finish a race that caused many problems, above all in terms of reliability. Six retirements were caused by engine failure.
Visibly happy with a win that put him back in the running for the World Championship, Coulthard spoke above all about the management of his car:
"I tried to manage, as much as possible, both the engine and the brakes for the whole race, and at the same time keep the gap on Michael. A gap that proved useful in the end. When Mika retired, I didn't know why, and to be honest I didn't want to know, in fact I didn't even want to think about it. It's certainly not ideal for the team to have one of the two cars out of the race, but at least we got the win, and I'm very happy about that. In the last stint we had a set of used tyres, and also because of that we couldn't be as fast as in the first part of the race, but I think that even if Schumacher had come any closer it would have been very difficult for him to overtake me. From the pits they told me to slow down, after the second pit stop I thought that Schumacher and Irvine could also try, so I pushed and the car responded immediately: there I knew there would be no problems".
Schumacher is also aware of this, saying:
"I knew that Coulthard was managing his car and that it would have been impossible for me to attack and overtake him, but I pushed anyway, you never know, I never give up, until I cross the finish line. Unfortunately that's how it went today, there was little I could do against the McLaren. If they had wanted to, they could have easily built up an advantage of at least forty seconds.
"There's no reason to think that in the next few races we won't be able to get on the podium again with both drivers, obviously I'd rather be in the middle than on the sides, but it was important today to get a good result for the many fans who came along. I would have liked to give them a win, but we will try in the next race. All the technical choices made by the team were right. We must strive to improve as much as possible. Tomorrow we will already be in Barcelona, to try some new things. However, to make the step forward we need, we have to work mainly on the tyres".
On the subject of the unsightly aerodynamic stanchions fitted to the Ferrari, Schumacher explains:
"Progress has been seen in the wind tunnel. And then in aerodynamic efficiency: more driveability".
Jean Todt agrees, admitting:
"We are happy with this result, but up to a certain point. Ferrari was born to win and must win. This is the result we are aiming for, the only one that interests us. And we didn't win today, even though everything went very well. We're a few tenths of a second short, let's say six or seven. It's not an easy job, but we face it with determination. The tyres, those are the ones that can leap forward. We will try some new ones over the next few days, hopefully they will be promising. Today's tyres went very well, but there's one thing we still need to understand: the last set-up went very well, the first didn't, and we want to find out why. In the last pit stop we put less fuel in because there were only sixteen laps left. In the first one, Michael had fuel for twenty-six laps. That's about twenty kilos of difference, it means a lot. And in fact, he did the fastest lap of the race just as he started light from the last pit stop. We got very close, and that creates a lot of pressure for them, but we're not ahead yet".
Third classified, at the second podium in a row, Irvine comments on the good fight with Villeneuve, and the umpteenth inconvenience caused by his seat:
"After five laps, every time I start to have pains in my back, they still haven't found me the right seat: it's a torment, this time I even had an injection before the start but it didn't solve anything, and it's something that makes me lose concentration. After the first pit stop I built up a good lead, but then I made a mistake at the first chicane, ending up on the grass, and those seconds disappeared. After that, we decided to bring forward the second stop, as there was a bit of traffic ahead of me, and we wanted to avoid it. The pit stop was excellent and allowed me to maintain my position. Villeneuve got close again, but we had little downforce today, and on the straight we were very fast. It would have been impossible for him to overtake me".
Hakkinen went home empty-handed, when he could have at least maintained the second position without too many problems. The McLaren driver, however, does not let the mishap upset him:
"I was second, and Schumacher wasn't bothering me. It would have been another one-two. Then, all of a sudden, I had this gearbox problem. Better to think positive: I'm still the world leader, after all. I'm very happy for Coulthard, also because he took points off Schumacher".
Coulthard's role, however, is certainly not only to take points away from Schumacher, especially after a victory that puts him just three points off the top. The risk at McLaren is to find themselves with an internal rivalry ready to explode, with the danger that between the two quarrels the third, Schumacher, will enjoy. An argument on which Ron Dennis will have to reflect carefully. In the meantime, the British manager confesses after the race:
"Yes, it was a slightly more stressful race than I thought it would be. The situation was always under control, and David was very good at following our instructions; Hakkinen had to stop because his gearbox overheated, so we advised him to reduce his pace to make sure he got to the finish line. I really feel sorry for Mika: he could have celebrated his 100th Grand Prix of his career much better. After Hakkinen's retirement, we were keeping an eye on Coulthard's gearbox oil temperature. It wasn't until Schumacher shortened up a bit that we told David to do a couple of fast laps to show we were still in control of the race. The German is an excellent driver, but we don't feel under pressure".
In front of the partying McLaren pit, Jo Ramirez, with a paper cup full of Rheims champagne and an ice cream, reiterated what Dennis had said, stating:
"It is not Ferrari that scares us, we are scared of Schumacher".
At Williams there were some small steps forward in terms of competitiveness, but the road for the World Champion team was still long and intricate. Villeneuve struggled with all his might to grab a podium, but the mechanics did not help him as he would have liked:
"We improved, but McLaren and Schumacher remain impregnable. Irvine, on the other hand, was in my sights the whole race, in fact I was even ahead of him. I tried to put pressure on him, hoping he would make a mistake, but it didn't happen. To be honest, I think I did the best I could. I regret that I lost too much time at the pit stop. I was third, and after the first stop, he passed me. Then, after the second stop, I suddenly found myself one to seven seconds behind. There is a lot of work to do. It's useless to think about the past, unfortunately this year it's a different story: we're lagging behind, and we have to invent something to become more competitive".
Patrick Head sings the praises of his driver and explains what went wrong at the pit stop:
"The fuel door wouldn't open, we had to unlock it by hand. I don't think Jacques would have finished on the podium anyway. He drove great, it was splendid, but our car is still inferior to Ferrari and McLaren".
Three days after the race, the Federation took its final decision on the side wings, which were initially fitted by Sauber, Prost, Jordan and Tyrrell and at Imola also by Ferrari. As expected, the towers are abolished, as they do not comply with safety regulations. A stance was caused, in this case, by the loss of the appendix by Alesi, in Argentina, in the pit lane. In addition, the Federation's main doubts concerned the possible overturning of the car, and what could have happened with the presence of those wings. The wisest decision was therefore to make them illegal. As a result, the teams will have something less to work on for the tests that will take place immediately after the towers are abolished, on the Montmelò circuit, where the fifth round of the 1998 World Championship will also be held.
Davide Scotto di Vetta