Italian Grand Prix: race report

Monza, Formula 1's ultimate theatre, once again provided an afternoon of drama and tragedy. Michael Schumacher equalled Ayrton Senna's tally of 41Grand Prix victories in front of the Ferrari faithful, beating Mika Hakkinen's McLaren by 3.8s. But a huge opening lap accident at the second chicane ended David Coulthard's world title chances and left a marshal in critical condition after being struck by a tyre

Italian Grand Prix: race report

Schumacher's Italian Grand Prix win puts him just two points behind Hakkinen's total of 80 points, and ends a win drought that stretches back to the Canadian Grand Prix in June. But it was all too much for the double world champion, who shattered his media-cultivated iceman image by breaking down in tears at the post-race press conference and having to be comforted by Hakkinen and his brother Ralf.

With just three races to go, starting with Indianapolis in two weeks, the constructors' title race remains just as close: McLaren has 131 points, with Ferrari just four behind. Should Schumacher and Ferrari ultimately overturn the deficits, then Monza, the Scuderia's spiritual home, was an apt venue to begin the fightback.

The feared and much-predicted multi-car accident didn't come at the modified first chicane, but at the second. As the lights went out, Schumacher got away from the line ahead of a fast-starting Hakkinen, with Barrichello losing ground and tucking into third. But bar a minor, albeit potentially far more serious skirmish that put Eddie Irvine's Jaguar out, the field passed through the Rettifilio chicane cleanly.

It was on the run up to the second chicane, the Variante della Roggia, where it all went horrendously wrong. Jordan's Heinz-Harald Frentzen went for a diminishing gap between his team mate Jarno Trulli and Barrichello, but as the train concertina-ed for the chicane, contact was made and in an explosion of flying wheels and bodywork, Trulli rammed Coulthard's McLaren.

As all four cars cannoned into the gravel trap, trouble began further back in the field: Pedro de la Rosa's Arrows slammed into the back of Johnny Herbert's Jaguar and was launched into a violent series of barrel rolls. The Arrows hit Coulthard's McLaren during its flight and came to rest upside down in the gravel.

It was one of the most violent accidents of recent years, but miraculously, neither the Spaniard nor the other four drivers involved in the original collision had been injured.

Sadly, the incident wasn't totally without casulaties: a flying wheel from the accident had bounced over a barrier and hit a marshal, who received attention at the trackside for serious head and chest injuries, before being taken to the circuit medical centre.

With the dust settled and the clear-up beginning, the drivers began to take stock of what had been a very lucky escape.

"I tried to overtake Barrichello, but he seemed to brake very early," said Frentzen. "I couldn't avoid him and I hit him, but at that point I also felt somebody hit me from behind."

Coulthard, the innocent party in the melee, was surprisingly philosophical about an incident that had effectively ended his world title chances: "It was inevitable, but it all just happened one corner later than expected," he said. "I was covering my inside from Trulli and then there was a concertina effect going into the chicane, with Heinz, I think, triggering it.

" It might be still possible for me to take the world title," he added, "but as things stand, I'll just have to try again next year."

With race director Charlie Whiting possibly fearing a repeat accident if the race was re-started, the safety car was deployed as the carnage was cleared away. Schumacher led from Hakkinen, with Jacques Villeneuve's BAR-Honda third and Ralf Schumacher's Williams-BMW fourth. Giancarlo Fisichella's Benetton, Jenson Button's Williams, Alexander Wurz's Bennetton, the Arrows of Jos Verstappen, Marc Gene's Minardi and Nick Heidfeld's Prost completed a rather strange top 10, with the pace-setter from the morning warm-up, Ricardo Zonta, down in 13th after pitting under the safety car on lap six.

On lap 12, the remaining cars were unleashed once again, but within seconds, the ill-fated race had claimed another victim: Jenson Button's Williams. Just prior to the restart, Schumacher had suddenly checked his speed, forcing Villeneuve to slow behind. Button swerved to avoid the BAR, but went onto the grass and kissed the barrier. As the race went green again and the young British driver cranked his Williams-BMW up to race speed, the car speared off the track and into the Parabolica barriers.

"We're supposed to keep the same pace all the time when we're behind the safety car," fumed Button. "But when Michael slowed, everybody spread out and I had nowhere to go."

Villeneuve didn't agree...

"Michael was only doing what you're meant to do in that situation," said the Canadian. "The guys behind should calm down."

At the re-start, Schumacher and Hakkinen had immediately begun to put air between themselves and the rest, but behind it was all change. Villeneuve was still third, but Ralf Schumacher was quickly caught and passed by Verstappen and - get this! - Zonta's BAR. Having re-started in 13th, the Brazilian was flying, picking off cars seemingly at will.

On lap 15, Verstappen gained a place as Villeneuve's BAR ground to a smoking halt, the possible consequence of so many laps behind the safety car.

"The car was easy to drive and very quick," said a rueful Villeneuve. "We were on a one-stop strategy and then it just stopped."

That handed the BAR baton to Zonta, who harried Verstappen for third and took the place with an awesome outside pass, before pitting for fuel and tyres on lap 23. Cue the start of a second fightback through the field for the Honda-powered Brazilian.

On lap 33, with the leaders into the backmarkers (and Minardi's Gaston Mazzacane doing a great mobile chicane impression), Verstappen pitted and rejoined seventh, leaving Ralf Schumacher to play best of the rest again behind the dominant lead pairing.

Zonta, who'd climbed back into the lower reaches of the top six, pitted again for a splash and dash on lap 36. But with so little fuel used because of the laps behind the safety car, the leaders were pushing the window for new tyres and fuel well past the two-thirds distance mark of the 53-lap race.

With the lead pairing over 30 seconds ahead of Ralf Schumacher's Williams, the leading Ferrari finally peeled off and pitted on lap 40. He was at a standstill for just 7.2s, but still rejoined in second place, ahead of his brother in third, then Fisichella, Wurz, Verstappen and the ever-charging Zonta.

Finally, finally, finally, Hakkinen pitted on lap 43, stopping for just 6.6s and rejoining 12s behind Schumacher. But with backmarkers between them, the Finn's work was doubly cut out - especially with Mazzacane continuing in full idiot mode and ridiculously blocking the McLaren. Still, Hakkinen was giving it a go and had halved the gap within the space of five laps.

"We made some modifications during the stop," said Hakkinen, "but it was not enough. Added to that, the couple of Minardis didn't make it easy to overtake."

Of the men vying for third (and now the best part of 40s behind the leaders), Wurz peeled in on lap 43 and stopped for 6.1s; Ralf Schumacher nipped in for just 6s on the jacks on lap 44 and Giancarlo Fisichella peeled in on lap 44 - only for the Benetton to lose a huge chunk of time when clutch problems prevented the distraught Italian from pulling away from his pit.

Okay, regroup on lap 50, with just three laps remaining: Schumacher led by 6.2s, with Hakkinen 43.6s ahead of Ralf, who had 8.1s over Verstappen. Wurz was 7s behind the Arrows, with the yo-yo like Zonta 3.5s behind in sixth.

After the extraordinary events of the previous 50 laps, Schumacher reeled off the final three with no drama. On his final lap, the German eased the pace slightly to allow Hakkinen to narrow the gap to 3.8s at the flag, but it had been a trouble-free run for the Ferrari man, who scored his first Grand Prix victory in six races in front of the jubilant tifosi.

"The Ferrari was a little bit faster today," mused Hakkinen. "Not much, but enough. At the end, I believe Michael eased off a little, but..."

Ralf made it a one-three for the Schumachers, with Verstappen fourth, ahead of Wurz and Zonta, who had closed to within 1.8s of the Benetton after a hard-charging afternoon at the wheel.

So, in front of the faithful, on the hallowed tarmac of Monza, Ferrari and Michael Schumacher have narrowed the gap to Hakkinen and McLaren to just two points. But what happens next is anyone's guess... It's Indianapolis in two weeks, and a journey into the unknown as F1 finally returns to the USA. One thing's for sure, though - this thing's going all the way down to the wire...

For full race results from the Italian Grand Prix, click HERE.

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