Argentina was not to be a race weekend of McLaren domination as the gap was closed – but not, unfortunately, by the Williams team. This weekend was the first run for the new, wider, Goodyear front tyres and the shorter wheelbase FW20. And on Friday things looked hopeful as Frentzen topped the timesheets in the changeable conditions. However the realities of the situation became more apparent during Saturday qualifying.
While the gap to the McLarens had obviously been closed it was the Ferraris of Michael Schumacher and Eddie Irvine that were setting the pace and not the Williams duo. In the end Jacques Villeneuve was pushed down off the third row of the grid by Ralf Schumacher. Heinz-Harald Frentzen fared little better qualifying in 6th position, in front of his team mate once again.
After mixed weather over the first two days of the weekend the race day itself looked like being dry – exactly the conditions the Goodyear runners were hoping for. When the lights went out both Frentzen and Villeneuve made up places and at the end of the first lap the order was Coulthard, Hakkinen, Schumacher, Frentzen, Irvine and Villeneuve. However it was shorted lived as Coulthard passed Hakkinen for 2nd place Frentzen was being passed by Irvine for 4th. Then on lap 3 Frentzen was passed by team mate Villeneuve and a lap later by the Sauber of Alesi. By this point Villeneuve, up to 5th position, was already 10 seconds behind the leader, Coulthard.
Anyone who thought that the race was already in the bag for Coulthard was very mistaken as Schumacher made a lunge past Coulthard on the 5th lap, catching the McLaren driver by surprise and pushing him into a spin and down to 6th. Schumacher now set about putting a big enough gap between himself and Hakkinen to allow him to do two stops to the McLarens one. Villeneuve meanwhile was obviously holding up Alesi in 5th place but there was nothing Alesi could do about it on this tight and twisty circuit.
The Williams team had elected to do only one stop, which would explain the apparent lack of pace compared to the other Goodyear runners, notably Ferrari, who were on a two stop strategy. Villeneuve stopped on lap 38, stationary for 12.4 seconds, rejoining 9th just ahead of Coulthard’s McLaren. Frentzen was in the next lap but was unable to select first gear and then stalled the car, costing him dearly. As if that wasn’t bad enough in his rush to get out of the pits Frentzen managed to break the pit-lane speed limit causing him to be pulled in for a 10 second stop-and-go penalty five laps later – that was effectively the end of his race and this dropped him down the field to 11th.
Coulthard, still smarting from his clash with Schumacher at the beginning of the race, was trying to pass Villeneuve in an effort to salvage something from the race. Villeneuve was having none of it and the two touched – unfortunately the Williams came of worst and that was the end of Villeneuve’s day. Frentzen continued to the bitter end and came in 9th, one lap down.
Williams took no points away this weekend and look no closer to being on the pace of the McLarens or, now, the Ferraris. The cars seem to be reliable but that will be of no consolation to the team that has become so used to winning in the last few years. Next stop is Imola and there will need to be a great leap forward if the team are to salvage anything from this years championships