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Race Day : September 7th 1997

Coulthard flies the flag at Monza

Alesi puts Italian blood on the podium as Ferrari disappoint the fans at 68th Italian Grand Prix

"We are very happy to win. We just caught it right.." Ron Dennis Team manager West McLaren Mercedes

"A point is better than nothing..." Jacques Villeneuve

A disappointing race for the Scuderia brought no joy to the Italian fans as Scotsman David Coulthard swept passed the chequered flag some 12 seconds ahead of Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari, who barely scraped into the points, one place behind a lacklustre Championship rival, Jacques Villeneuve. In a brave attempt to make the best use of his pole position, Jean Alesi in the Benetton-Renault came a close second and by dint of his Sicilian blood gave the Tifosi some comfort in what was, despite it’s speed, a processional race at best. Heinz Harald Frentzen flying the flag for Williams all weekend, came in third after a drive that showed the flaws yet again in his team’s strategy.

Crucial to Coulthard’s performance today, was his flying start. Alesi got away well in front of Frentzen, but pulling out along the inside of the track, the Scotsman’s McLaren swept passed team mate Mika Hakinnen, Jacques Villeneuve and Giancarlo Fisichella to slot in behind the German and then commenced harrying him for the first half of the race. Running a heavy fuel load, Alesi managed to eke out a small lead in the early laps but with speeds of the top five runners fairly evenly matched, he was never more than three seconds ahead of the Williams.

Just as Coulthard’s McLaren was hounding Frentzen for 2nd place, so Hakinnen was doing likewise to Villeneuve for 5th, setting the first of a string of fastest laps and by lap 20 with positions unchanged, Alesi’s lead was slowly being eroded by Frentzen and Coulthard who seemed to be moving as one, so close were they lapping.

As fuel loads became lighter, the gaps started to close but the McLarens whilst fast in a straight line, lacked the Williams’ grip through the corners and the four drivers found themselves in a stalemate of sorts with Fisichella driving for all he was worth, a useless pawn in the centre. Fastest laps were reeled off by Fisichella, then Frentzen, then Coulthard and it was unusual not to see Schumacher’s name on the list. The Ferrari was indeed struggling over 10 seconds behind the leader and making little headway.

Lap 28 saw the first of the pit stops by Villeneuve trading his 5th spot for 11th and the following lap saw his team mate stop for scrubbed tyres giving Coulthard the opportunity, with clean air in front of him, to close up on Alesi. "our scheduled pit stop was too early at that stage." said Frentzen after taking his third place. "At the end of the first run my lap times were quicker and I was surprised when David came out in front of me so I lost a place." Villeneuve was in agreement but did not slam the team’s faulty strategy in not allowing the Canadian to lose more of his fuel load enabling some quicker lap times prior to pitting. "It’s always better to pit later than anyone else, but you can’t always judge that before." He said. "We lost a lot of time in the pits independently of our strategy."

As the front runners pitted, so Fisichella, Hakinnen and Schumacher all had their brief moments as leader of the pack but the significant moment came when on lap 33 both Alesi and Coulthard dived in for fuel and rubber simultaneously. Less than a second separated their positions yet the McLaren team, working like a well oiled machine, turned the car around in 7.8 seconds, nine tenths quicker than the Benetton. Coulthard closer to the pit exit, was off the blocks and running leaving his pit crew to dodge the sliding Alesi blasting off in hot pursuit, rejoining the race in 4th and 5th positions. Coulthard had been given the upper hand by superior teamwork and it was a gift that he was not to surrender under any circumstances. "We could have stayed out longer," Coulthard said later. "but we saw Jean’s pit board and thought it best to follow him in. I got out in front of Jean and it’s all down to the mechanics" Praise where praise is due and it was indeed the key to the race. Alesi hung on grimly to the McLaren but was never able to mount a challenge crossing the line a fraction under 2 seconds down. "Starting from pole, I was looking for a win." Said a far from disappointed Alesi. "David was in front of me at the pit stop and I was not able to overtake him."

From then on to the line, positions remained the same, the only excitement being provided at Rettifilio by Johnny Herbert’s aerial ballet into the tyre barriers caused by the thoughtless actions of Ralf Schumacher, who having overtaken the Sauber-Petronas, moved in on the Englishman leaving him nowhere to go but the grass. Herbert’s front tyre hit the rear tyre of the Jordan Peugeot and he surfed the gravel traps by way of an extremely fast final approach. "Ralf passed me and I wasn’t worried." Herbert sprightly and unhurt, said later. "As we came to brake he just tried to squeeze me a little. It would have been nice if I had had a little bit more room. My rear wheel may have gone on the grass. It was unnecessary and unacceptable and the sign of an inexperienced driver who has a lot to learn about driving at high speeds." Schumacher had a different story to tell and reminiscent of his attitude towards his team mate Fisichella when he knocked him out in similar circumstances in Argentina, he was unrepentant towards the hapless Englishman. "He braked as I did and I left him enough space. Maybe he should have braked a little earlier, I had passed him already and I was in front. I felt him touch my rear wheel and I felt the car jump forward and at first I thought it was a bump, but then I saw Johnny spin off. I think it’s his mistake not mine." It did him no good either, as a lap later, he too retired with damaged rear suspension. He said, "The car felt unstable and I was not happy to drive like that." It is hard to understand why he was not called before the stewards when Villeneuve was admonished with a one race suspended ban for the rest of the season for a far lesser infringement.

The unlucky Hakinnen having set yet another fastest lap was forced into the pits from 5th position with a badly flat spotted tyre, leaking air. This put him down to 14th place and effectively out of the race. Having had his third place taken away from him in Belgium due to a fuel illegality, suffering two heavy accident prior to that race and seeing his team mate leading the race he was now contesting, should have taken a toll on the Finn but some magnificent late charging took him up to 9th and gave him the fastest lap of the race.

World Champion Damon Hill’s under-powered Arrows-Yamaha was totally out of it’s depth on the fast Monza circuit and on lap 48, no doubt totally exhausted, rattled itself to pieces for the 8th time in 13 races, exploding in a cloud of white oil smoke scattering droplets in front of the fast approaching McLaren of Hakinnen. It was an interesting way of gaining a position and despite Hill’s body language as he slowly got out of his car, he seemed resigned to his fate. "It was a small engine problem. It just destroyed itself in front of Mika Hakinnen who was right behind me and I buried him in oil!" He joked. "But we weren’t in the points, so it was a lot of hard work for nothing."

The flag fell on Coulthard after 53 laps of uninspiring racing, the muted reception from the crowd illustrated that the passion was missing this year. They had no one to cheer on and some took the option of a snooze in the 35 degree sunshine. The battle that was supposed to be, never was, both championship contenders taking a back seat in a race of back seat driving. Schumacher came out the luckiest having only concede a point to his rival. "Competition was very close, " He said, talking about the power similarities of the top six finishers. "We were at the bottom of that competition line and we got the best out of it. We lost only one point which is satisfying." Hardly words of consolation to his fans but he did not seem worried taking comfort that even the Williams were having an ‘off’ day too. Villeneuve was similarly philosophical. "A point is better than nothing." He said. "We knew that this wouldn’t be a great track for us and it was going to be worse for Ferrari but they managed to hang in there and finish 6th so we catch them a whole lot."

A disappointed Fisichella came in fourth and, after such an excellent result in Belgium and a very promising qualifying session, he had expected more. "I was really hoping to finish on the podium today, but the aim is always to finish in the points and 4th place is still wonderful in front of the crowds at Monza." Talking about the race, he went on, "I was quite nervous and excited before the race and at the start I made a mistake which cost me a place. The race was very difficult and I was under a lot of pressure, especially from Villeneuve. I found the car ‘nervous’ today and had some problems with understeer with the second set of tyres and really had to anticipate the curves."

It probably gladdened the hearts of countless British fans around the world that the Union Flag should be raised at the end of such a desperately sad week. Coulthard may enjoy his moment of glory, but the real battle has just been put on hold for a fortnight. The next race in Austria, Berger’s Home Grand Prix, will see more Italian fans streaming across the border where hopefully, their hero will live up to expectation. As Coulthard said, "The A1-ring is like Monaco without the barriers." It’s a circuit that favours high downforce and exceptional cornering qualities. This is something that the McLaren lacked today, when a frightening moment as Coulthard put the car sideways through the second chicane, almost put him out of the race.

Hollywood beef-cake Sylvester Stallone was prowling the pits, every inch the ill-informed anorak, having done a Movie deal with Bernie Ecclestone, based on the life of Ayrton Senna. ‘There will be sweat, passion conflict and intrigue and there will be good guys and bad guys’ thinks Mr Sly, as befits "The most exciting sport in the world!" If Stallone has his way it will be Senna standing in the cockpit of his car at the front of the grid, arm raised, girl friend Sharon Stone by his side, shouting "OK move ‘em out! Take ‘em to Missouri!"

Whilst the Formula 1 fraternity can only hold its breath and grit it’s teeth as to the probable outcome of such a dubious pairing, the Scotsman laid a subdued note to the Champagne ceremony. "I was wondering if I should spray the Champagne" He said afterwards. "I was told it would be acceptable. It was very emotional to hear the National Anthem." The realities of Motor racing are not shrouded for long however and the battle will surely recommence. Overtaking on the track rather than the pit lane would be a bonus, but the win by McLaren keeps the championship wide open and for the race fan it seems, it's the only thing they have to look forward to.


Chris Richardson



Final Positions of the 68th Italian Grand Prix

Autodromo Nationale di Monza

Sept 7th 1997



1. David Coulthard (Britain) McLaren 1h 17m 4.609 s

2. Jean Alesi (France) Benetton +1.937 s

3. Heinz-Harald Frentzen (Germany) Williams + 4.343

4. Giancarlo Fisichella (Italy) Jordan + 5.871

5. Jacques Villeneuve (Canada) Williams + 6.416

6. Michael Schumacher (Germany) Ferrari + 11.481

7. Gerhard Berger (Austria) Benetton + 12.471

8. Eddie Irvine (Britain) Ferrari +17.639

9. Mika Hakkinen (Finland) McLaren + 49.373

10. Jarno Trulli (Italy) Prost + 1:02.706

11. Shinji Nakano (Japan) Prost + 1:03.327

12. Gianni Morbidelli (Italy) Sauber + one lap

13. Rubens Barrichello (Brazil) Stewart + one lap

14. Tarso Marques (Brazil) Minardi + 3 laps

Not classified (DNF):

15. Damon Hill (Britain) Arrows 46 laps

16. Ralf Schumacher (Germany) Jordan 39 laps

17. Johnny Herbert (Britain) Sauber 38

18. Mika Salo (Finland) Tyrrell 33

19. Jan Magnussen (Denmark) Stewart 31

20. Jos Verstappen (Netherlands) Tyrrell 12

21. Ukyo Katayama (Japan) Minardi 8 laps

22. Pedro Diniz (Brazil) Arrows 4


Fastest lap: Mika Hakkinen 1:24.808 (244.929 kph)


1997 Championship Contents

Formula 1 Contents