I was lucky to keep my lead intact
Tuesday 10 September 1996
Everything I'd achieved at the start went out of the window on the sixth lap when I clobbered the tyres on the exit of a chicane. I made a mistake; there is no getting away from it. I was trying to cut the kerb too close and I touched the tyres, hitting them hard enough to break the front suspension and spin me round.
The moments which followed were extremely harrowing from my point of view. As I walked back to the pits, I could imagine Jacques working his way through the field and making the most of my misfortune to take 10 points off my 13-point lead. But as I reached the exit of the pit lane, I saw Jacques coming out. Since the race was only 11 laps old, I knew it was too early for a routine stop and I began to realise he had a problem. I went back to the Rothmans Williams-Renault motor home to see how the race developed and was even more surprised to see Jacques dropping further back. As the 53-lap race progressed, it became clear that Jacques would not manage to finish in the first six and would therefore fail to score points. It was a strange mixture of amazement and relief that Jacques was not able to capitalise on my mistake.
Although Villeneuve's problems at Monza will give me a better chance in the championship during the final two races, nothing can erase the immense feeling of disappointment that I have for not cashing in on what I feel sure would be a dominant victory.
In the light of the recent announcement that Williams will not be renewing my contract next year, I have had a lot to think about lately. It would have been great to have won on Sunday but that's not really the most important thing to me at the moment. Winning the championship means more than anything else. My sights are now set on testing in Austria this week and then going to Estoril for the Portuguese Grand Prix in a fortnight's time. My objective has to be to finish ahead of Jacques, which will clinch the title for me.
The start of the first lap at Monza was one of the season's most exciting. Jacques started to pull alongside me and I moved across to make sure he didn't push me across to the left. As long as I kept him where he was, he would have to go the long way round when we reached the chicane. Meanwhile, Alesi had made a startling getaway and he sneaked through and into the lead. As we went through the first Lesmo comer, Alesi ran wide and had to back off. I came through the corner cleanly and out-braked the Benetton into the second Lesmo.
With Alesi myself and Jacques, I knew I was on to a good thing.
Alesi had another stab going into the Ascari chicane. That was touch and go. I saw his front wheel on my left-hand side and I thought that there was a fair chance that the pair of us would finish in the gravel trap. I held my ground on the outside and he managed to keep us both out of trouble. I really put the hammer down to get away from the Benetton. I expected Alesi to hold up Jacques for a lap or two, but didn't realise that the situation was even better than I had thought, because Jacques was actually in fourth place.
I have to admit that there is a certain irony in that I should retire from the race because I hit a temporary tyre border which was a measure instigated by myself and other drivers in consultation with the FIA circuit safety director in order to keep the cars from using too much of the kerbing. If we had not put the tyres there, there was every chance that there might be a serious incident with the cars breaking their front wings through contact with the kerbs. Without the tyres in place, there was the additional hazard of cars running over the backs of the kerbs and ripping up lumps of concrete which would then be tossed on to the track. This happened to Jacques on the Friday and resulted in him having a broken front wing, something which is extremely dangerous on a high-speed circuit like Monza.
Although not a perfect solution, it was agreed that we would simply have to make sure that we steered clear of the tyres because, as I was to prove, the penalty for touching them could be severe. Michael Schumacher, the eventual winner, was very lucky not to put himself out after hitting the tyres, but several drivers were not so fortunate.
My sense of disappointment was even greater because the car was handling superbly. It was nearly perfectly balanced and I was really enjoying myself. I would have loved to have driven every lap of the Italian Grand Prix in that car. It left me craving the sensation which comes when I lead the race and win with a car that is running beautifully. It's the best feeling in the world and I missed that as much as anything on Sunday night.
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