Before the start of the Italian Grand Prix, the drivers had been highly skeptical of the safety of the revised first chicane at the Monza circuit, and in today's Grand Prix, their dire predictions came true. Michael Schumacher survived the...
Before the start of the Italian Grand Prix, the drivers had been highly skeptical of the safety of the revised first chicane at the Monza circuit, and in today's Grand Prix, their dire predictions came true.
Michael Schumacher survived the start, though, and claimed a clear victory at Ferrari's home race, with a margin of some four seconds over his archrival and championship leader, Mika Hakkinen.
On Saturday, Jordan-Honda driver Jarno Trulli had described the situation clearly: "This race has the most dangerous start of the F1 season," Trulli had said. "You come at it at very high speed with low downforce and a heavy fuel load, and the corner is very tight and very slow."
While polesitter Schumacher, third-place man Hakkinen, and Jacques Villeneuve (fourth on the grid) got through the chicane cleanly, mayhem ensued behind them. Rubens Barrichello made a poor start from the second front-row spot, and fell back to fifth, behind Villeneuve and David Coulthard's McLaren, with the Jordans of Trulli and Heinz-Harald Frentzen bunched up tightly behind.
Eddie Irvine's Jaguar and Mika Salo's Sauber touched wheels entering Rettifilio, though, and the Irishman ended his race in the gravel trap. Salo, too, experienced some damage, and ended up having to pit and fall to the back of the field.
It was Variante della Roggia -- the second chicane -- though, where the new layout truly fell apart. With the front runners bunched up tightly by the first chicane, Barrichello, Trulli and Frentzen were all attempting to get through Roggia at the same time, and there simply was not enough room.
"I tried to overtake Barrichello," said Frentzen. "He seemed to brake very early, so I couldn't avoid him. At that point I also felt somebody hit me from behind."
The threesome made contact and headed for the gravel trap, taking Coulthard with them, with carbon fiber flying scattering evrywhere, ending Coulthard's and Barrichello's championship hopes for good.
"It might be still possible for me to take the world title," reflected Coulthard, "but as things stand, I'll just have to try again next year."
Worse was still to come as the foursome slid off: at the back of the field, though: at the back of the field, Pedro de la Rosa was going too fast, and ran into the back of Johnny Herbert's Jaguar. de la Rosa's Arrows tore off the left rear suspension of the Jaguar, and launched itself in the air, cartwheeling in the air and bouncing off Coulthard's McLaren before finally landing upside down next to Barrichello's Ferrari.
"[After the start] I settled down behind the Benettons," explained Herbert. "Then, as we went into the second chicane, it was obvious that something had happened. I could see a wheel about 100ft up in the air and then Pedro [de la Rosa] went straight into the back of me and that was the end of it."
"I hit him on the rear wheel," explained de la Rosa. "This launched me into the air and then I just barrel rolled until the car stopped. Fortunately I am okay, there is no problem. It is a racing incident. I wouldn't say I was unlucky as I am lucky to be here."
Miraculously all the drivers walked away from the incident with no apparent injuries. Unfortunately one of the fire marshals was not as lucky; having been hit by a flying wheel, apparently from de la Rosa's Arrows, he received emergency medical care, including a heart massage, at the trackside. Alas, this was to be to no avail, and the marshal, Paolo Ghislimberti, 30, later succumbed to the severe head injuries at the hospital.
All the accidents took a long time to clear, and the field -- now reduced to sixteen cars -- circulated behind the safety car for an unprecedented ten laps. Even the safety car period, though, was not without drama: on the final safety car lap, with the car getting ready to pull of and let the field through, Schumacher slowed down quickly. This forced everyone to slow down to keep from overtaking, but Jenson Button, the first-year Williams driver, was caught off guard.
At the last moment, Button swerved to avoid Vielleneuve's BAR-Honda, ran onto the grass, gently touching the barrier. As he accelerated to race speed, he spun off a second time, this time smashing into the barriers at Parabolica with finality.
While Button was furious with Schumacher, Villeneuve, the 1997 World Champion, saw things differently: "Michael was only doing what you're meant to do in that situation. The guys behind should calm down .."
As the pared-down field finally got away, Schumacher showed that he was the class of the field, setting a fastest lap after another. Hakkinen was experiencing a slight handling imbalance, and simply could not match the German's pace, falling behind by some ten seconds by the time of the pit stops.
The Finn took advantage of a perfectly executed McLaren pit stop and slight handling adjustments to begin to make a dent in Schumacher's lead, but, in the end, it was too little, too late. At the checkered flag, he was still nearly four seconds adrift, and never in a position to truly challenge for the lead.
"The Ferrari was a little bit faster today," Hakkinen reflected. "Not much, but enough. All in all, it would have been nice to win but I scored some important points."
Villeneuve's excellent showing was cut short by the expiry of his Honda engine, a sad end to the manufacturer's 200th Grand Prix anniversary. His teammate, Ricardo Zonta, though was hell-bent for a good showing.
After being the fastest in the morning warm-up session, the Brazilian had a poor start, and had to make unplanned stop to replace a tire punctured during the Herbert-de la Rosa incident on the first lap. With a light fuel load, Zonta ran as high as third before having to visit the pits, and finally finished the race in sixth position.
Ralf Schumacher drove a solid race to finish third in a Williams-BMW, but nearly a minute behind. Behind him, Jos Verstappen (Arrows), Alexander Wurz (Benetton-Playlife) and Zonta filled the remaining points-paying positions.
Schumacher's win, in front of thousands of enthusiastic tifosi, was clearly an emotional one, and the German broke down in tears during the press conference. The win not only gives him a strong position for this year's Championship, but also ties him in career victories at 41 with the late Ayrton Senna, only ten behind all-time leader, Alain Prost.
"This was a very emotional win, even more so than in 1998," said Schumacher. Here we are, in Italy, and after some difficult races we are back on the right road, as we proved all weekend. I am still not in front in the championship, but this win is a big relief."
The news of the death of the marshal dampened Schumacher's happiness, though: "I am very sad to hear about the death of a track official. Under these circumstances, what happened in the race has only a secondary importance."
With the United States Grand Prix in two weeks' time, the championship battle will now be wide open between Hakkinen and Schumacher. The track at Indianapolis will be new to everyone, and will likely provide a wild card for one of the contenders for the third World Championship.