San Marino Grand Prix 1997 - Qualifying Report   HomeContentsHelp

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Race Day : April 27th 1997

Villeneuve abhors it (F1, that is),

Frentzen floors it (the Williams, that is) and...

Alesi goes off the road (round the bend, that is)

Expectations were high for the Tifosi for qualifying at Imola today. With a favourable showing by the Ferrari’s in the first timed session yesterday and notably Eddie Irvine finding that his excellent showing in Argentina was more than just a flash in the pan. However, with all the teams dressed for speed and carrying mere droplets of fuel to carry them little more than three laps at a time, again it turned into the ‘Williams show’. But, the fourth consecutive Pole position by the French Canadian Jacques Villeneuve was not as easily gained as it has been in the past. Team mate Heinz Harald Frentzen suffering the slings and arrows not only from the motoring press but from within his own team for his lack of speed and driving ‘commitment’ performed his allotted task with aplomb, yet finishing the day three tenths of a second down. A country mile in Formula One, light years between two competing Williams’. It was obvious that he was trying hard to find a way round the track and shave tenths of a second from his lap time. A vapor of smoke from his tyres, a miniscule flick of the rear, a haze of dirt from the edge of the track, he put everything into it but despite finding the fastest way round, Villeneuve came back to find an even faster one.

After his scathing remarks about F1 being ‘too safe’ and ‘no fun’, it would have been an indictment of an apathetic participation in this event had he not taken pole position.

Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari put in the first real indication of future lap times with an early benchmark showing of 1.24.7, swapping the lead with Villeneuve in the first of four outings. Teammate Irvine, not seeming to be able to match the Ex Champion’s pace today, was doing his best, but overdriving to the point of slowing his car down. A realistic man not prone to over self congratulation, said of his promising times yesterday, "One day you’re a God, the next day a waste of space". One wouldn’t go quite so far as to think that, but a final 9th placing does not seem indicative of the Irishman’s true potential.

The surprise of the day was the performance put in by the two Jordan Peugeot drivers Ralf Schumacher and Giancarlo Fisichella. In a seemingly internal battle for position within the team as much as on the grid, the two arch enemies (for that is what they seem to have become after their unfortunate coming together in Argentina) did all they could to outpace each other. This time though, working to great effect for the team and leaving them with a third row lock out sitting pretty behind only the Williams’, a Ferrari and the Prost Mugen-Honda of Olivier Panis. "I am cross with myself for making a mistake in the first chicane when I was on my third run on the first set of tyres," said the young Schumacher afterwards, "but we should win points tomorrow and with luck, perhaps make the podium again." Hardly humble words there and in contrast to Fisichella, who commented, "Of course I would love to finish in Italy on the Podium, but winning points is the main thing." The chances of a home win for the Italian however richly deserved, must be zero.

We have come to expect a great deal from Panis and it was therefore no surprise that he finished an excellent 4th, highest of the Bridgestone runners. With a Peugeot engine next year and the continued development of the chassis, Panis could find himself inside the top three drivers by the end of next season. Unlike fellow Frenchman Jean Alesi, who yet again blotted his already disgustingly splattered copy book by over-braking on the downhill bend at Rivazza and rear-ending himself in the dirt. It will be the greatest of surprises to see him driving for Benetton next year, if indeed he gets a drive at all.

The luckless Damon Hill retired half way through the session coming to a standstill on a grass verge. Having had testing delayed by HM Customs & Excise when they impounded his car for a day on its return from Argentina, he suffered throttle actuator problems in yesterday’s timed practice session and was today unable to use the spare as it was set up for teammate Pedro Diniz who, with a following wind, managed an electrifying 17th. Forever cheerful, Hill refused to make a meal of his misfortunes. "There’s not much to say. We did the best we could and 15th is not a great result." Promising (as they all do) to do better in the race, he came out with one of those diplomatic understatements that has earned him the respect of the pit lane and a reputation as the sport’s most level-headed politician. "We need more horsepower." It could have been the modern day Shakespearean equivalent of King Henry’s cry of desperation from the fields of Agincourt, "A horse! A horse! My Kingdom for a horse!" but echoed from the back of the grid to the great engine supplier in the sky. It could also have been a stinging condemnation of broken promises of fulfillment by the Arrows team, but it was neither. "We must press on!" he said finally, like a fell-walker stopping for a quick swig of Lucozade before striding to the summit. In the face of adversity Hill certainly is one of the best.

Another driver forced to use his spare car and managing a meagre 13th place after such a great showing in Argentina was Stewart Ford driver Rubens Barichello. Running a revised ‘Project 6’ version of the Ford Cosworth, both race cars suffered high speed misfires and consequently the older ‘Project 5’ set the time for both drivers, Jan Magnussen slotting in 3 places behind. "This was ...the first time I had to cope with engine problems," said a disappointed Barichello. "It started to show up by the end of free practice, but we took the risk of continuing with that engine. Obviously in the spare, both the engine and the brakes were different and I think the time we achieved was the maximum I could have expected."

With the session closing, the top three were out in force all confirming, but not changing, the final position set earlier. Schumacher’s last mad dash was all smoke and rear end wiggle and as the chequered flag fell, Johnny Herbert’s Sauber Petronas slipped by and up a place to finish 7th pushing the McLaren Mercedes of Mika Hakkinen down to 8th. With David Coulthard 10th behind Irvine’s Ferrari it wasn’t a good day for the McLarens, and it seems incredible that he drove the same car to victory in Melbourne in the season’s opener. Coulthard will probably say that ‘it’s not the same car!’ but it still remains a mystery as to why the McLarens blow hot and cold with such regularity.

Revised front suspension for Gerhard Berger failed to keep the front end of his Benetton Renault on the track preventing his soft Goodyear tyres from generating the heat required, despite an extremely ‘grippy’ track.

Jarno Trulli -my tip for greatness in the next century- had a car with no power. People will say, "But of course, it’s a Minardi!" This is not the case and the Minardi has this year so far, been within very respectable parameters of averaged lap times, due to a large extent, to the talents of this young rookie.

Failure by both Villeneuve and Frentzen to obey yellow flags following an incident towards the end of the qualifying session, resulted in a one race suspended ban for both drivers.

Lets hope Villeneuve will be pushed to the ragged edge tomorrow and, if Frentzen can maintain his composure under pressure situations, the ‘God’ that Irvine talked about and, maybe currently sitting between the Canadian’s ears, just might be rocked on his throne.


Chris Richardson 26/04/97


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