After the rigours of South America, the F1 circus returned to Europe with audible sighs of relief, and in the bright sunshine of the Imola paddock the mood was upbeat. Whether your season is going well or badly, a Grand Prix in Italy is always a heart-warming experience, because you’re in a country whose people truly understand the romance and tension of motor racing, and down the generations always have.
I have to dash for a Sunday evening plane after each Grand Prix to be at my Monday morning desk for the day job, so I never take my hire car into the paddock on race day. Instead, in the hope of a more rapid getaway, I leave it beyond the public car parks and walk in among each country’s jostling crowds, excitedly anticipating their annual chance of seeing Formula One in the round, rather than on the small screen. It is always a salutary experience. It reminds me, if ever I were in danger of forgetting, that wherever I am in the world it is your honest, common-or-garden motor racing enthusiast who makes it all possible in the first place. Without him and her, I’d spend my Sundays mowing the lawn.
It would be hard to find a greater contrast than Imola and Barcelona. The Spaniards love their bull-fighting and their motorcycle racing, but they have no heritage of F1 heroes. Alex Soler-Roig and Luis Sala have never set their pulses racing. The crowds walking in, apart from being more sparse, are less knowledgeable, less involved: they’re going to a spectacle which they don’t clearly understand, but have been told is worth a look.
Italy is something else. If you haven’t heard the roar of a Monza crowd as a Ferrari makes up a place, you’ve missed one of racing’s great experiences. I can never walk into that dusty, leafy park in the early mist of a September Sunday morning without the hairs rising on my neck, so great is the sense of history, of glory and sometimes tragedy, seeping out of the very brickwork. Imola, of course, has exuded its own sense of tragedy ever since that awful weekend four years ago. But it too has its sense of glory, with Ferrari’s home at Maranello not far up the road, and of conflict, with the controversial victory that Didier Pironi snatched from Gilles Villeneuve when they were Ferrari team-mates in 1982. It was a race that they were bound to win, provided they looked after their marginal fuel range. So they made a Coulthard-and-Hakkinen agreement. Pironi reneged on it, and Villeneuve was speechless with fury. They never spoke again: the Canadian died 13 days later at Zolder.
But a Grand Prix in Italy starts long before you get to the circuit. Going to Imola, the cognoscenti avoid the dull Bologna-Rimini autostrada and drive to the track along the Via Emilia, an old Roman road, straight and narrow, that further along its length formed part of the old Mille Miglia course. You find yourself in a Brockbank cartoon traffic jam, hurtling door-handle to door-handle at 60 or 70 miles an hour, two and sometimes three abreast, with the more adventurous Cinquecentos and Twinsparks weaving from lane to lane to make up a length here or edge out a rival there. Almost every car has a Ferrari flag draped across the rear window, and the yellow shield of the Prancing Horse is applied indiscriminately to the flanks of rusty Renaults, respectable BMWs and even an incongruously shiny Rover 214. Suddenly the whole hurrying queue screeches to a shuddering, tyresmoking halt, punctuated by the tinkle of headlamp glass, and we all sit there, hooting good-humouredly, until the traffic starts to move again. Up the road we find the reason for the delay: a hard-driven Ferrari 355, making a third lane down the outside, has struck an oncoming van and is stewed, badly crumpled, across the road. No-one seems to be hurt, and the additional chicane introduced by the wreckage is negotiated with enjoyment by all.
Your car finally parked, the atmosphere walking in among these happy, excited and rather mad people is almost enough to make Ron Dennis a Ferrari fan. Most carry picnics that make audible clinking sounds, so that later you understand their noisy joy, after a long day in the sun on the hillside above that wonderful plunge into the double left-handler at Rivazza, as they herald two Ferrari drivers onto the podium.
It’s a phenomenon, this Ferrari worship in Italy. Fiat and Marlboro realise its extraordinary power, and pay astronomical sums to put their products in its reflected light. While the Ferraris are driven by a German and an Irishman, Benetton a team owned by an Italian family, with an Italian driver who allies teen-idol looks with a raw, young talent raise scarcely a wave. Minardi, at the back of the grid, are acknowledged more with expressions of sympathy than support. Only Jean Alesi seems to merit a special cheer and this not because of his Sicilian ancestry and Latin temperament, but because he was loyal to Ferrari through five difficult seasons.
So, when the drivers were paraded before the race on one of Bernie Ecclestone’s low-loaders (today’s sad replacement for the former arrangement of showing them off from the cockpit of fine vintage sports cars), the heaving spectator banks naturally erupted into a solid mass of Ferrari flags. Then, as the truck turned through the tight corner at Tosa and started to grind uphill towards Piratel.la, David Coulthard glimpsed among the ocean of prancing horses a single blue flag, waving bravely, with the same diagonal cross of St Andrew that he’s always worn on his helmet.
There was plenty of pressure on the lantern-jawed Scot at Imola. As we noted last month, to keep his championship hopes burning, and to ensure that he didn’t slide imperceptibly into the invidious role of No 2 driver in an all-conquering team, Coulthard badly needed a strong weekend. His fine pole in Argentina led only to a questionable collision with Schumacher, and then another with Jacques Villeneuve, who this season is having to learn all about driving defensively. One point only: meanwhile Häkkinen salvaged a useful six and Schumacher, victorious, went second in the points table.
So this weekend David had to deliver, to show that he is indeed joint head prefect in Mr Dennis’ class. And deliver he did. The history books will show that Häkkinen retired with gearbox failure and Coulthard won the race, but in fact he was the dominant McLaren force all weekend. After a brief engine problem in Friday practice he took a convincing pole position, a tenth of a second ahead of a rather ragged Häkkinen. He was easily fastest in the Sunday morning warm-up, and when the lights went out he rushed away into a comfortable lead, while Häkkinen did a good team-mate’s job of making sure that Schumacher’s Ferrari remained third.
Coulthard built on Schumacher at a steady 1 sec a lap, and on Villeneuve, in fourth, at 2 secs a lap. Then suddenly came Häkkinen’s retirement, his gearbox internals overheated to scrap value. And for the next two tours Coulthard’s pace abruptly slowed by 2 secs a lap. Just as we and those flag-waving Ferrari fans were starting to speculate on a Ferrari victory, David reverted to his earlier pace. Afterwards, we asked him: what happened on those two laps? Were you talking on the radio to your pit? Were you worried about what had happened to Mika happening to you?
Traffic, he replied. It was just traffic. Look at the lap chart and you’ll see that was when I started to lap some backmarkers. They told me Mika had stopped, but not why. I didn’t want to know. It would just have been something else to worry about.
Hmm. And yet, as the race went into its final stages, Coulthard’s lead shrank. With the final pitstops done and dusted, the gap was 21 seconds with 15 laps to go. Schumacher was a picture: his driving was punchily aggressive, visibly on the limit, yet always remaining on the ragged edge of smooth. Every lap consistently in the 1:29s. With 12 laps to go it was 16.1 secs, with five laps to go it was 12.3, with two laps to go it was 5.1. On the last lap, as the McLaren came into the final chicane, the Ferrari was rocketing out of Rivazza. At the flag, the race was David’s by 4.5 secs.
It was no problem, he told the press-room. I didn’t want to stress the car: I knew exactly what the gap was at any time, and I wanted to make sure I got home. The car was great. No, I still don’t know why Mika stopped.
Much later, from a definitely non-Ron Dennis-approved source, I learned that for much of the race Coulthard’s gearbox oil temperature had been wonyingly high. So David coolly followed Fangio’s dictum: Win the race by the smallest margin necessary. At Imola he was definitely Head Boy in Mr Dennis’ classroom.
Another driver who could have left Imola with a quiet sense of satisfaction although he probably didn’t, because he sets himself much higher goals was Damon Hill. The longer-wheelbase Jordan made a much better fist of coping with the quicker Imola corners than its predecessor had done in South America, and Damon out-qualified Ralf Schumacher at last, starting a strong seventh. A faltering Wurz put paid to Damon’s front wing on lap one, and the resulting pitstop dropped him to 19th place. His drive back up to seventh, ahead of his teammate, was a feature of the race, and though he’d have earned no points, it was still cruel luck when his car failed with three laps to go.
The Ferrari fans left happy, too. McLaren might still be on top, but the genius of Schumacher, improving Goodyears, and gremlins in Woking’s gearboxes had all given them hope for the future and particularly for their beloved Monza, four months away. They were in high good humour for the scramble back down the Via Emilia to Bologna, which turned into a good imitation of the race’s weaving dash from the grid to the first chicane. But I caught my plane, having – to everyone’s surprise – returned Mr Hertz’s car with its headlamp glasses intact. I, too, always return from a Grand Prix in Italy with a smile on my face.