San Marino Grand Prix 1997 – Race
Heinz-Harald Frentzen, in Argentina, predicted that the season for him would start at Imola, he wasn’t wrong, taking his first Grand Prix victory in fine style beating Michael Schumacher to the flag.
Qualifying was the usual Williams 1-2 with Villeneuve in his usual pole position. Some interesting names made up the top six as the quick Jordan duo of Ralf Schumacher and Giancarlo Fischicella put on a fine show to take fifth and sixth respectively.
This week there were no first lap dramas and the whole field got away with no problems. Villeneuve went into first place, Schumacher slotted in behind and Frentzen was forced to follow on in third place. It was obvious that Frentzen was quick and very keen to get passed Schumacher as he was all over the back of the Ferrari gearbox in the first few laps.
It quickly became obvious that this time Villeneuve was not going to be able to storm away, building up a lead which would prove unassailable. Over the first twenty the Williams duo traded fastest laps and the gap between Villeneuve and Schumacher slowly raised to four seconds, caused mainly by Schumacher having to concentrate on the second Williams looming large in his mirrors.
Schumacher took his first stop on lap 24 and was in and out in 9.4 seconds. Villeneuve followed a couple of laps later taking 10.1 seconds. A lap later it was the turn of Frentzen and, due to a problem with a sticking wheel took 11.1 seconds. Amazingly, when the dust had settled, Frentzen had come out in first place with Schumacher second and Villeneuve third. Frentzen, perhaps realising that this was his best chance to make up some time, put his foot down while Villeneuve and Schumacher were engaged in the pits, taking fastest lap in the process. It paid off.
As Frentzen started to gradually edge away from Schumacher Villeneuve started to go backwards. A gap of over six seconds was opening up between first and second while it was over nine between second and third.
Villeneuve made a second stop on lap 42 from which he would never re-emerge, his day over with a clutch problem. This still left one Williams in with a chance. Frentzen was holding up well in the lead and made his second stop on lap 44 taking 8.6 seconds. Schumacher stopped a lap later but, despite a stop quicker than Frenzen’s, still found himself four seconds adrift. Schumacher started to catch Frentzen but it was never really on and the gap never dipped below two seconds. Allowing Frentzen to take his first and surely not his last, Grand Prix victory.
The victory should silence his critics for a while but he will now be expected to perform like he did today every race weekend. Whether he can keep it up should be interesting to see.