1997 San Marino Grand Prix: Frentzen Follows Through
June 20, 2014 by Jeremy McMullen
Except during that dark weekend at Imola in 1994, Williams had been on a roll at the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari. However, with a little more than half a race still to run in 1997, the team would be looking to its newest member to keep the streak alive.
Heinz-Harald Frentzen wasn't just some fresh face in the Williams-Renault lineup for 1997. He was so highly-touted and thought of by Frank Williams and other team managers the German would come to the Grove-based team having taken over the seat vacated by the reigning World Champion.
Damon Hill had been with Williams since 1993 and had scored his first victory in Formula One while with Williams at the 1993 Hungarian Grand Prix. In 1994, Hill would be teamed with non other than Aryton Senna. But, while Senna struggled to come to grips with the car, Hill would at least score some points for himself and the team. Then, all of that would change when the team arrived at Imola for the San Marino Grand Prix.
In 1990, Williams would struggle for top results. Over the course of the season the team would score just two wins. One of those victories would come at the hands of Riccardo Patrese. The race? It was the San Marino Grand Prix. Over the next five years, Williams would go on to win three times at the famous Imola circuit. However, when the team left Imola in 1994, after a terrible and shocking day, Hill would now be the team leader at Williams.
Though Hill would struggle in 1995 in perhaps the best car on the grid, the son of the late Graham Hill would uphold the memory of Senna by winning and restoring Williams to the top step of the podium. In total, Hill would seemingly throw away a shot at the title, and in a superior car. The result would be that the 1996 season would be entirely different between Hill and the Williams team.
Frank Williams had lost favor for Hill and would become rather taken with a German that, as of a couple of years earlier, had no options. However, Heinz-Harald Frentzen would be taking advantage of his shot at Formula One and would be putting together impressive performances for the Sauber team. These performance would motivate Williams to offer the German Hill's seat. Frentzen would decline the offer and, in 1996, Hill would go on to win no less than eight races over the course of the season and would become the World Champion.
But the damage had been already done. Hill was to be out at Williams at the end of his World Championship season. Frentzen would be approached and would finally accept Williams' overtures. The German, who had yet to win a race, was about to take over the seat of the reigning World Champion.
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The first three races of the 1997 season suggested Williams had made a huge mistake. An 8th place, followed by a 9th, were the best Frentzen would manage in the first two races of the season while Jacques Villeneuve, Frentzen's teammate, had at least one victory.
Frentzen would not help his cause any more when the team arrived in South America for the Argentine Grand Prix. Villeneuve would go on to score his second-straight victory of the season. Meanwhile, Frentzen would retire with clutch failure with just a few laps remaining. The replacement for the World Champion was not working out as the team, or the Williams-faithful, had desired. Williams appeared to have made a mistake.
And now, Williams arrived at Imola for the San Marino Grand Prix. Damon Hill had provided the team two-straight victories around the maligned circuit. His replacement hadn't even stood on the podium yet with Williams, a team in which the German was picked to truly demonstrate his talents and reclaim a title he had earned in his junior formula days of being 'faster than Schumacher'.
The Imola circuit had changed a good deal as a result of Senna's and Ratzenberger's deaths in 1994. Therefore, a new set a record books would be made for the revised circuit. The first two entries would include Damon Hill as victor, and both for Williams. The Grove-based team had overcome the darkness of that 1st of May in 1994 in the best way possible. It had been the only team to win on the newly-revised Imola circuit and Villeneuve and Frentzen would be the ones handed the task of keeping the streak alive.
In Villeneuve's case, this was not out of the realm of possibilities. He had already scored a couple of victories in 1997 and already had six wins to his credit as a Formula One driver. It was just the third year in Formula One for the Canadian, but he was showing why he was the favorite for the crown in 1997.
In Frentzen's case, his best result in Formula One had been just a single 3rd place result in the Italian Grand Prix while driving for the Sauber team. The Sauber team was not a consistent front-runner, and therefore, suggested Frentzen had the talent to pull off a victory. But he was struggling to prove that point in his first year with Williams.
There was certainly potential there. The German had started from the front row in two other races and would make it three out of four when he would start in 2nd place alongside his teammate for the San Marino Grand Prix on the 27th of April.
This was in the heart of Ferrari country and the Ferrari fans would be out in force leading up to the 62 lap race. At the start, Villeneuve would get away well and would lead the way. Willed-on by the passionate Italians, Schumacher would make a great jump and would be ahead of Frentzen off the line. Heinz-Harald had already developed a habit of falling back at the start of races and having to charge, if he could, toward the end. Now he was behind his teammate and Schumacher. It appeared it was going to be another long, and disappointing, day for Hill's replacement.
Frentzen would show signs of life by fighting with Michael through the first few corners. But, eventually, Frentzen would slot in behind his fellow German and would be left looking for another way to move forward.
Heinz-Harald would continue to pressure Schumacher while Villeneuve would draw away with the lead. Pitstops would cycle through. Villeneuve's stop would be slower than Schumacher's and Frentzen's would be quicker than them all and he would emerge with the lead of the race, albeit very tenuous with Schumacher now breathing down his neck.
As the cars continued circulating out on track, not all would be well for Williams' greatest hope. Villeneuve would have trouble with his paddle-shift semi-automatic gearbox. Constantly getting stuck in gear, the Canadian would make an unscheduled stop for new tires and a new steering wheel. Unfortunately, the new wheel would not be ready in time and valuable seconds would be lost adjusting the settings and attaching the new wheel. However, the car would not come out of third gear, despite the new wheel. The day was over for the Canadian. All hopes for the continuation of the streak turned to Frentzen. This, by no means, appeared to be a sure-thing.
The race would come down to a race leading up to and coming out of the pits. Frentzen had done his work. He pulled out a bit of an advantage over Schumacher and would have things in his favor heading into the pits. Efficient work by the team meant he emerged in 2nd place with Schumacher still to make his stop.
Frentzen needed to get on it straight-away. This would be one of those times in which he could not sit back and wait for the race to come to him. He was in, perhaps, the best car on the grid. He needed to take advantage of it at this moment if he was to show his worth and come out ahead when the red Ferrari emerged from its stop.
Schumacher would come into the pits. The seconds would begin to tick-away. The biased crowd would nervously wait and watch. Eyes would quickly flick back and forth between the Ferrari in the pits and the Variante Bassa chicane. Just 6.9 seconds would be all Ferrari needed to get Michael rolling again. However, the Italian faithful would be worried. Frentzen would be out of the chicane and flying past the start/finish line when Michael was finally able to release the button and get up to speed. Just five seconds separated the two combatants, but the end was near.
Frentzen wasn't without his concerns and he was a little concerned the victory would slip through his fingers. Rain had started to fall lightly and there was some concern it would pick up. All of the cars were on slicks and this posed a risk. But in addition to this, there was concern about the brakes on the Williams. They seemed to be going away and this forced Heinz-Harald to have to brake earlier and get off the power sooner. There was just five seconds between himself and Schumacher. The lead was in hand, but not entirely safe.
Concentration was waning. The German needed everything just to mind the gap between himself and his fellow German in the Ferrari. Willed-on by the frenzied Tifosi, Schumacher had much in his favor and he had been in this place before. Frentzen had never won a race, and now, it was within reach. The weight could not have been any heavier.
Heading into the final lap of the race, Schumacher would close the gap significantly. Less than two seconds separated the two Germans. A slight bobble by the Williams pilot and the Ferrari would slip past to victory. But today Frentzen would demonstrate his quality. Keeping his head and keeping everything neat and tidy through the final chicane, Frentzen would power on across the line to take his first-ever Formula One victory holding back the red storm behind him by just a little more than a second!
Finally, Frentzen demonstrated what Williams believed he had in him. He had seemed absent through the first three races of the season and incapable of maintaining the team's performance in 1997, and at Imola. However, he had finally earned his victory. What's more, he would maintain the team's streak on Italian soil giving Williams its 6th win out of 8 races.
Much had been expected of this German coming into the start of the season, and he had certainly disappointed. It was clear to many that Williams had made a mistake. Frentzen appeared to be quick, but incapable of following through when it counted. But, on that 27th of April, in 1997, Frentzen would come through, and in a big way.
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