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Race Report

San Marino Grand Prix
Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari, Imola

Qualifying - Race - Analysis

3.04 miles

Qualifying : Sunny and dry

As has been the case all season, Jacques Villeneuve pulled that extra little something out of his Williams-Renault when he needed it most, putting him comfortably ahead of team-mate Heinz-Harald Frentzen.

Micheal Schumacher fought gamely but couldn't match the pace of the Williams, while Olivier Panis put in another strong showing to take the fourth spot. The Jordan's of Ralf Schumacher (who trimmed much of the grass around the circuit!) and Giancarlo Fisichella set the early pace but ended the session filling the third row.

While the McLaren's of David Coulthard and Mika Hakkinen had much easier time than in Argentina, they were no threat to take the pole. Also disappointing was Eddie Irvine, who could do no better than ninth after being fastest in the free session on Friday.

For the second race in a row the Benetton's of Gerhard Berger and Jean Alesi were in all sorts of trouble, being outpaced by the likes of Johnny Herbert's Sauber and Rubens Barrichello in the Stewart. Despite their great performances in testing, the team seems unable to get it right during a race weekend.

The Tyrrell's of Mika Salo and Jos Verstappen again sported the "X-Wings", but the they could not make up for the lack of horsepower the car suffers from. The new Ford V8 cannot arrive soon enough. While Minardi's Ukyo Katayama was the only driver who flirted with the 107% rule, before scraping in late in the session.

Once more the Williams team dominated qualifying, though this time Villeneuve had to really fight for it.

1996 Pole: Michael Schumacher (Ferrari) 1m 26.890s

The Starting Grid

Jacques Villeneuve Williams-Renault 1m 23.303s
Heinz-Harald Frentzen Williams-Renault 1m 23.646s
Michael Schumacher Ferrari 1m 23.955s
Olivier Panis Prost-Mugen 1m 24.075s
Ralf Schumacher Jordan-Peugeot 1m 24.081s
Gianni Fisichella Jordan-Peugeot 1m 24.596s
Johnny Herbert Sauber-Petronas 1m 24.723s
Mika Hakkinen McLaren-Mercedes 1m 24.812s
Eddie Irvine Ferrari 1m 24.861s
David Coulthard McLaren-Mercedes 1m 25.077s
Gerhard Berger Benetton-Renault 1m 25.371s
Nicola Larini Sauber-Petronas 1m 25.544s
Rubens Barrichello Stewart-Ford 1m 25.579s
Jean Alesi Benetton-Renault 1m 25.729s
Damon Hill TWR Arrows-Yamaha 1m 25.743s
Jan Magnussen Stewart-Ford 1m 26.192s
Pedro Diniz TWR Arrows-Yamaha 1m 26.253s
Shinji Nakano Prost-Mugen 1m 26.712s
Mika Salo Tyrrell-Ford 1m 26.852s
Jarno Trulli Minardi-Hart 1m 26.960s
Jos Verstappen Tyrrell-Ford 1m 27.428s
Ukyo Katayama Minardi-Hart 1m 28.727s

107 % rule time: 1m 29.134s

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Race : 62 laps, dry and cold - damp track

1996 Winner: Damon Hill (Williams) 1h 35m 26.156s

The Result

Heinz-Harald Frentzen Williams-Renault 1h 31m 00.673s
Michael Schumacher Ferrari 1h 31m 01.910s
Eddie Irvine Ferrari1h 32m 19.016s
Gianni Fisichella Jordan-Peugeot 1h 32m 24.061s
Jean Alesi Benetton-Renault 1 lap down
Mika Hakkinen McLaren-Mercedes 1 lap down

Nicola Larini Sauber-Petronas 1 lap down
Olivier Panis Prost-Mugen 1 lap down
Mika SaloTyrrell-Ford 2 laps down
Jos Verstappen Tyrrell-Ford 2 laps down
Ukyo Katayama Minardi-Hart 3 laps down
Pedro DinizTWR Arrows-Yamaha 54 laps - mechanical
Jacques Villeneuve Williams-Renault 41 laps - gearbox
David Coulthard McLaren-Mercedes 39 laps - engine
Rubens Barrichello Stewart-Ford 33 laps - mechanical
Johnny Herbert Sauber-Petronas 19 laps - engine
Ralf Schumacher Jordan-Peugeot 18 laps - mechanical
Shinji Nakano Prost-Mugen 12 laps - collision
Damon HillTWR Arrows-Yamaha 12 laps - collision
Gerhard Berger Benetton-Renault 5 laps - spun off
Jan Magnussen Stewart-Ford 2 laps - spun off
Jarno Trulli Minardi-Hart 0 laps - electronics

Fastest Lap

1997 : Heinz-Harald Frentzen (Williams) 1m 25.531s
Previous Record: Gerhard Berger (Ferrari) 1m 29.568s (1995)

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Analysis :
If Frank Williams had the personality of Eddie Jordan, he would tell the press "I told you so!", as his much maligned number two, Heinz-Harald Frentzen took his first Grand Prix victory with a great drive at a cold Imola track, still wet from the morning rain.

Cautiously driving the final laps to conserve his brakes, he fended off countryman Michael Schumacher to win by a small margin. Completing a good day for the Tifosi, Eddie Irvine brought home the second Ferrari for third, consolidating his reputation even further.

Early leader and polesitter Jacques Villeneuve lost out in the first round of pitstops and then fell foul to electrical gremlins in the gearbox on lap 41, while mechanical failures also took out the Jordan of Ralf Schumacher and Johnny Herbert's Sauber while both were running in the points.

The race had its fair share of incidents, with Damon Hill converting his Arrows into a three-wheeler as he attempted to pass Shinji Nakano, an early visit to the gravel trap for Jan Magnussen's Stewart and most disappointing, Gerhard Berger exiting his 200th Grand Prix with a multiple spin during the opening laps.

The McLaren team went for a one-stop strategy which got them up into the points, but the Mercedes behind David Coulthard let go while he ran in fourth spot. Team-mate Mika Hakkinen had an eventful afternoon, going through the gravel attempting to lap the Tyrrell of Jos Verstappen. He dashed into the pit to change tyres, to find that Coulthard had just departed! The crew recovered very well and sent the Finn on his way just a fraction slower than they had serviced Coulthard. The incident put Hakkinen just behind Jean Alesi, who was having a very quiet race in the second Benetton and despite Hakkinen's efforts that was how they finished.

All the cars ran on soft compound tyres, but the highest placed Bridgestone runner was the Prost of Olivier Panis, who was a disappointing 8th. The only other finisher on the Japanese rubber was the Minardi of Ukyo Katayama, who brought up the rear all day.

After being punted off in Buenos Aires, Giancarlo Fisichella was thrilled to get his first championship points and add to Jordan's tally in their bid to keep the Peugeot engines for 1998. The young Italian used the expiring Mercedes of Coulthard to his advantage when he slipped by Eddie Irvine, but the Ferrari pit crew put their man back in front and he never relinquished the place.

So Frank Williams can smile (though no-one will see him!) and Heinz-Harald Frentzen can relax, for now he has shown the world he has what it takes to win. Whether he can make a run at the driver's championship will be seen at the next few races, it is now up to Villeneuve to respond and Schumacher to step up, otherwise he may not be the number one German driver this year.

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Photo credits : AP