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Race Day : September 7th 1997

Hill looks for the hot seat

Tifosi look to Schumacher to take the prize

The expectations of the tifosi this year more so than last, will be high. The Grand Prix at Monza, traditionally the place where all the rumours are laid to rest regarding driver placements, should be as closely fought off the track as on.

The only safe bet for next year, seems that Michael Schumacher will be driving for Ferrari again. The key piece in the jigsaw of driver's musical chairs is Damon Hill. When he sits down, everyone else will begin to move. With Ron Dennis announcing last week that he intends to keep his two McLaren drivers David Coulthard and Mika Hakinnen, Hill's chances of a competitive drive have taken a downward turn. A seat with the Jordan Peugeot team is possibly available, provided that star turn Giancarlo Fisichella's currant 'on loan' contract is not recognised by the FIA's contracts board. This would put him firmly with Benetton under a ten year management deal with team boss Flavio Briatore, a team that the young Italian is reluctant to go to, having tasted the sweet smell of success with Eddie Jordan's seemingly friendlier team. If Jordan were to retain Fisichella, then there could be a place available with Benetton, Briatore having ditched both Gerhard Berger and Jean Alesi in favour of young and cheap, wunderkind Alexander Wurz and one other. To add to the confusion Alesi has already offered his services to Jordan for a million pounds and that is considerably less than Hill's perceived asking price of seven million. Jordan however has had Alesi before and the Mercurial Frenchman has only one race win to his credit (with Ferrari in Montreal) whereas Hill has 21 and has the experience of winning which is an all important ingredient for a team hungry for victory. Although thought to be non-committal, Jordan said last week that, "It would be a brave man who turned down a world champion." Whether this was a backward way of saying, "Damon. reduce you price and we can talk.." or not, no one but Jordan is sure, but it is thought that main sponsor Benson & Hedges would be prepared to cough up an extra 4 million to secure Hill's services. Jarno Trulli's place as second driver to the already confirmed Olivier Panis at Team Prost is for similar reasons, in doubt, but his 'loan' contract from Minardi and again, Briatore, should be easier to break if the right amount of money changes hands. Prost represents the last ditch for Hill and a final choice between staying put at Arrows or a year's sabbatical would be his only other option. Monza should sort all these variables out, but if not, Hill will find himself in the same predicament as last year, having just been ousted by Williams and on a dwindling market for a competitive drive. The result was a season of frustration and changing fortune for the World Champion.

If Michael Schumacher can keep the form that he showed in Belgium two weeks ago, then we can be sure of a spectacular finish to the race. This will however, not necessarily come from the drivers but from the Tifosi - the fervent Ferrari fans who will invade the track in their thousands should a red car pass the chequered flag first. Schumacher has every chance of achieving a second win on Ferrari's home turf in two years and with the collective passion of a hundred thousand fans rooting him on, the scenario looks favourable for complete chaos as the chequered flag falls. Woe betide the stragglers trying to make up points. They will be hard pushed to make it to the line let alone the pits.

Opened in 1922 in the grounds of Monza Royal Palace, the Autodromo Nazionale was an awesome 6 mile combined road and oval circuit with huge banked concrete curves at each end. It has also claimed the lives of over a dozen racing drivers including Ascari in 1955, Wolfgang Von Trips in 1961, Jochen Rindt in 1970 and Ronnie Peterson in 1978. It has also claimed the lives of over 40 spectators. After 3 drivers were killed on the same day in 1933 the oval circuit was abandoned until it was restructured in 1955 with revised but still venerable banking. The only part now used is the pit strait past the original grandstands, leading to the spectator friendly chicanes at Rettifilio Varlante, where the original North Curve swept away right, into a long banking curve. Tantalising glimpses can still be seen as the cars thread their way through the chicane to the Curva Grande. The cars appear from the trees in the final part of the deceptive Parabolica and pass the point where the old South Curve banking used to feed onto the pit straight.

Last year saw the first of Hill's chances at clinching the championship title, end in a collision with some temporary tyre barriers at the Goodyear chicane, erected ironically at his own suggestion, to prevent drivers cutting the corners and dislodging lethal concrete slabs of curbing.

Having pulled out a commanding lead over Alesi by lap six and driving with skill and determination, maybe his exuberance got the better of him and he smacked 'those tyres' with his right front wheel. His car made a fine pirouette and came to a standstill mid track at the exit to the chicane. "I just have to admit to making a mistake" he said later, "There's no one to blame except myself. That was probably quite an easy race victory and I threw it away".

The magic came back to Monza as Schumacher took the flag and the crowd exploded with joy. Jacques Villeneuve came in over a minute and a half down and one lap behind. Team boss Frank Williams must have wondered where it all went wrong, knowing that his cars should have outpaced the field.

This year, although Williams are still regarded as the main force, it has not gone their way and it is only by dint of good fortune and with a few lucky wins for Villeneuve, that the championship is still in contention.

Fisichella has a race win in his sights and buoyed by his second place in Belgium and a car that will be one of the fastest on the long straights that Monza provides, Schumacher could have an unexpected fight on his hands.

Hot weather has not been kind to the Scuderia this year suffering as they have been with tyre problems, but with a better handling lightweight chassis and the Germans undisputed driving abilities a win looks more than likely. It could even be the underachieving Heinz Harald Frentzen that will do the honours for Williams this year. Villeneuve has said that their chances in Italy don't look good.

This year with Schumacher mellowing and Ferrari on a high from Belgium, the fans, amassing at what they call La Pista Magica, will be as passionate as ever. The Iron bars that surround the paddock - where normally wire fencing would do in all other tacks, will be swamped with passionate Tifosi, some armed with bolt cutters, all desperate to touch the hand of their hero who can restore their faith in the Prancing horse and the grandeur that was once Ferrari.


Chris Richardson



1997 Championship Contents

Formula 1 Contents