Monday September 17th, 2001
By Timothy Collings
French veteran Jean Alesi accused Renault-owned Benetton team chief Flavio Briatore of telling his drivers to ignore an unofficial drivers' safety accord at the Italian Grand Prix on Sunday.
Alesi, 37, told Italian and French television reporters the Benetton drivers - Italian Giancarlo Fisichella and Briton Jenson Button - had been persuaded by Briatore to disregard the agreement not to overtake until after the second chicane on the opening lap.
"Some of the team managers have threatened their drivers," Alesi said before the race when the drivers' pact collapsed and their leader, Michael Schumacher, was seen hurrying from car to car to inform them of what had happened. Briatore was not available for comment. Later, Alesi expressed his relief, after finishing eighth, that the event had passed off without major incident.
"We are all happy that it is over now," he said. "I am relieved to be leaving after this kind of race which is hard and when it is difficult to concentrate and, of course, on a fast and very dangerous kind of circuit like this one."
Alesi had supported World Champion Schumacher's crusade to make the opening lap safer because the chicanes had remained fundamentally unchanged despite objections and comments from drivers after last year's tragic race in which a marshal was killed by an accident at the second chicane on the opening lap.
"We were all behind Michael because he behaved like a perfect leader," Alesi said. "He is a leader, a champion and we respect him. He held his head high. That is why the majority of the drivers supported him."
The breakdown of the accord followed a drivers' meeting on Sunday morning in which the start and first lap safety and security were discussed. Schumacher put his proposal forward and it was supported by all except Canadian former World Champion Jacques Villeneuve of BAR-Honda.
But later the group of 'rebel' drivers grew. After a meeting involving Briatore, Arrows chief Tom Walkinshaw and BAR head Craig Pollock, it emerged that their drivers were not expected to obey the 'slow and safe' approach to the opening lap.
Briton David Coulthard, of McLaren Mercedes-Benz, said his team chief Ron Dennis had given him and team mate Mika Hakkinen the freedom to choose what they wished to do but the choice had been taken away by the situation which evolved.
He said that the way in which Button drove at the start, when he attacked down the inside on the run to the first chicane and then attempted to brake late, was a perfect example of what they were seeking to prevent.
"Benetton were clearly desperate to get some points but that clearly did not do them or Jenson any good," Coulthard said. "It was always going to end in tears the way he did that. The ridiculous thing is that even when you warn people, they still think they can brake 10 metres later than they do in qualifying. He (Button) went too fast into the first chicane. I could see it. I think he was wrong to do that."
The irony was that the over-enthusiastic Button not only ended his own race but also that of his future team mate Jarno Trulli of Jordan, with whom he collided at the first chicane. While this happened his current team mate Fisichella, who will swap teams with Trulli next season, was forced to start from the pit lane in a spare car after a fuel problem on the grid with his race car.
Fisichella said afterwards that he had been told by Briatore how to approach the race, following the drivers' morning meeting. "I work for the team and the team pay me to work for them, so I do what my team chief tells me to do," he said.
Schumacher, who finished fourth, said he was happy that there had been no accidents but sad that "some people were forced to act against their own wishes and decisions".
His Ferrari teammate Rubens Barrichello was also upset. "It's bad when you have an agreement and just one guy doesn't want to do it, but that's pretty much life," he said. "At the end of the day, there were drivers told by their team managers that they couldn't do it as well."
Villeneuve, however, was adamant that he would not go ahead with Schumacher's plan and after securing sixth place in the race said he would never abandon his racing ethic.
"We are race car drivers," Villeneuve told British television station ITV. "Because we signed contracts before the season and everyone was happy to be a race car driver and to earn millions of dollars. Because we knew a year ago that there would be a race at Monza and nobody complained.
"I am a racer at heart and all my life I grew up dreaming of being a race car driver and that's what I am. The day I don't feel like that anymore I won't stay in it just to make money, I will just quit."
Published at 08:28:49 GMT