For the first time this season Alex Zanardi was closer to his team mate and was finally showing some of the form shown when winning his two Cart championships. However at the end of the weekend the team still came away with no points having come within four laps of scoring.
Williams came to Imola buoyed up after a successful test earlier in the week had left Ralf Schumacher at the top of the tables. Sadly that sort of form was not reflected in equally lofty qualifying positions but had at least allowed Alex Zanardi more time in the car. This meant that Zanardi was more of a match for Schumacher in qualifying leaving him just one place behind his team-mate. However seeing that Schumacher was only 9th that was still nothing to write home about.
Once again there was the usual problems at the start of the race when Jacques Villeneuve had gear selection problems with his BAR and it was a miracle that all the cars managed to dodge around him. This instantly promoted the two Williams drivers. Of the two Schumacher made the better start dicing with the Jordans for position into the first corner. Zanardi too was there but he came of worst and so at the end of the first lap Schumacher had climbed to 7th while Zanardi had dropped to 11th.
The very nature of grand prix racing these days is processional and so it was at Imola. Hakkinen, until he punted his car into the wall, was pulling away with ease and once again it looked like a McLaren benefit. However the was of attrition got to other first and by lap 17 Ralf Schumacher had made his way up into 6th with Zanardi 9th.
So it continued for another 10 laps. Ralf Schumacher made his first stop on lap 28, by this point he was up to 4th position. Almost as soon as he was out of the pits the German was seen coasting at the side of the track – his race was run.
This still left Zanardi who came in a lap later from 8th. While Zanardi wasn’t gaining on anyone much he was doing a sterling job of keeping most behind him. This ensured that he wasn’t going backwards and was able to make up places as others dropped out. This meant that by lap 48 Zanardi reached 6th position – in his first points scoring place for Williams. Not only that but Zanardi was close to both Fisichella and Herbert in front of him – this was to be his undoing.
On lap 58 Johnny Herbert’s Ford engine let go in a most spectacular way and as the Stewart driver crossed the track he left behind him a trail of oil. It was obvious that anyone following would have to tread carefully if they weren’t to trip up. To be fair to Zanardi travelling so closely behind the Stewart left him no chance to take avoiding action and so with just four laps to go the Italian spun off the track into a gravel trap that he was never likely to get out of.
It is fairly self evident that Zanardi is still coming to terms with the transition from Cart to F1. Comparing Zanardi with Schumacher the Italian seems to be struggling with the car compared to the smoothness of Schumacher. However on the strength of this weekends performance it is evident that Zanardi can be a match for Schumacher. Whether the car can deliver the goods this year is another matter though. Both drivers will be hoping that the BMW test this week delivers all that it promises and more…