San Marino Grand Prix 1997 - Race Preview   HomeContentsHelp

Back to F1 ChampionshipTop


Race Day : April 27th 1997

Imola - The Tifosi Await

With it's vast and fanatical following for Formula One and Ferrari especially, Italy had two Grands Prix as early as 1957 but a dubious (and oft misinterpreted ) FIA ruling that each country should only have a single Grand Prix, led to the small principality of San Marino lending its name to a second 'unofficial' grand prix for the tifosi, after the death of Ronnie Peterson at the previous years Grand Prix at Monza. It was used for the Italian Grand Prix again in 1980, where few who were there will forget the total disintegration of Gilles Villeneuve's Ferrari as it came to rest in the middle of the track at the Tosa Corner. The straight leading to the corner has now been renamed Villeneuve. No matter that it is 50 miles away from the principality, it is close enough to Ferrari's home stamping ground and as such has close links with Maranello and the first race counting for championship points, was held at the circuit in 1981.

Built in 1950 in parkland 20 miles South East of Bologna, the Autodromo Dino Ferrari was greatly updated with new pit complexes and hospitality suites in readiness for its new role in Motor Sport history, the authorities not knowing quite how notorious their circuit would become in later years. Following the deaths of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger during the 1994 event, further drastic alterations have taken place. Already the power circuit had been slowed with the building of a number of chicanes, but following these tragic events, the Tamburello, Villeneuve and Variante Bassa bends were all altered to meet the (some say) knee-jerk requirements of the FIA.

Tamburello in particular has seen the lucky escapes of both Nelson Piquet and Gerhard Berger and of course the death of Senna. Once a true racing driver's corner this majestic fast sweeping curve has been clipped both front and back to ensure that no matter where else on the track the misfortunes of a driver may befall, it certainly won't be here.

Current Championship contender Jacques Villeneuve, said of Imola last year that, 'it used to be a nice track, but after all the chicanes were added, its not fun anymore.' This seems to sum up the opinions of several drivers, but despite this, it is a power circuit and the cars with the strongest engines will survive. It will also test brakes to their maximum and, being (unusual for a European Circuit), anticlockwise, it will be tough on the drivers' stamina.

Gary Anderson Technical Director of Jordan Peugeot reckons that the European circuits are real 'race tracks' rather than temporary ones that are used only a few times a year, "In Europe the track itself does not dictate the lap time as has been the case in the first three Grands Prix where, because of the dirt, a small mistake can result in a big loss in time." He explains, "At Imola the drivers can really push because the surface is cleaner and the traction consequently much higher. For Imola you need a responsive car to cope with the fast chicanes, the braking and the changes of direction."

World Champion Damon Hill had a great tactical win here last year, pulling an extra 6 laps worth of fuel at the start, to enable an 'out of sync' pit stop that would put him ahead of Michael Schumacher. With the unwitting help of 'hot off the line' David Coulthard who held Schumacher in check, Hill was able to stay in touch with the Ferrari until he lost the fuel weight and the German had to pit. No such luck for our glum chum this year. It is interesting to note that last year, Hill had won all of the Grands Prix contested this year so far, including Imola and it must be disheartening for the man to see his name gradually being eradicated from the statistics. With the flagging Yamaha, even a finish looks unlikely but no one could drag a better performance from the 'old Danka' like Hill who in turn, will behave like a true champion and give the TWR team his full support as he sees his dreams, however modest for this season, crumble even further.

The race this year will mark the 200th grand prix appearance of Austrian veteran Gerhard Berger, who would love to celebrate with a grand prix victory at the circuit on which he has not won previously. There is no reason why he should not, as despite qualifying badly put in a feisty performance in Buenos Aires last week.

Stewart Ford driver Rubens Barichello was a happy man after Argentina despite not finishing what would have been a fine race for him. "After the race I told my crew to leave my car alone-it was the best I had ever driven! Even though we didn't finish, I know how much potential the car has and our performance in practice and qualifying proved it." He went on in a more sober mood, reflecting on the events in1994, "In one dark weekend we lost Roland, and in Ayrton I lost not only a personal friend, but a fellow Brazilian who was a giant in our sport. On top of that I had a very big accident myself."

Choice of tyres will also be critical here, as the 'grippiness' of the soft Bridgestones, especially exiting the chicanes, will be extremely good. A decision for the Goodyear runners in choosing hard tyres for added durability, could have serious consequences on a track with so many tight corners.

With little or no passing areas, this could end up being a race of strategies where most of the passing is done in the pit lane during refuelling and retreading. A heavier car with tyres that last could have an advantage over a nimble but delicately shod machine that may have to make extra pitstops. Goodyear softs blistered badly in the heat in Argentina, but the heat should not be so much of a problem in the European Spring weather and heaven help the top teams should it rain. With the Bridgestone's reputation already legendary in the Pit lane and the Prost Honda of Olivier Panis making inroads to the 'big 5' a shake up for the podium could be in order.

The inevitability however will be that the Williams Renault will dominate. Villeneuve's certainly, Heinz Harald Frentzen's debatably. Putting a brave face on it after Argentina and, bitterly disappointed, he called all the good spirits to his aid and declared, "I hope I'm in the valley of my luck graph and that Imola will be the start of my season. " Mika Hakkinen consistent so far in all his races this year, should also finish in the points and, is only one point down on team mate Coulthard despite the Scot having taken the glory in the opening round at Melbourne. Be prepared to give Jarno Trulli a big hand too. A future champion in the making there, and if the scrapping Jordan duo of Ralf Schumacher and Giancarlo Fisichella can keep out of each other's wheels, then we should see many flashes of yellow and those beady eyes towards the front of the pack.

Processional it could turn out to be, but who might be leading that procession could be the surprise of the season - if he ain't a French Canadian of course.


Chris Richardson

1997 Championship Contents

Formula 1 Contents