Jacques Villeneuve shone all weekend in Belgium but in the end a better pit strategy, when the safety car came out, helped Michael Schumacher to his second win of the season.
Qualifying on Saturday had been curtailed by the onset of rain, giving Villeneuve a well deserved pole position from team-mate Hill. Pole at Spa is not as crucial as at other circuits, such as Hungary, but nevertheless it was no doubt welcome to be ahead of Hill.
On Sunday, before the start, it looked as if the race would be rain affected and right up until the a few minutes before the start most teams were undecided as to whether to start on slicks or rain tyres. In the end all teams started on slicks and the rain, luckily, stayed away.
As the lights went out Hill made his now customary poor start dropping back behind Schumacher and Coulthard, while Villeneuve went off into the lead pursued by Schumacher.
It’s unusual not to have some sort of incident at the first corner at Spa and 1996 was to be no different. A tangle in the middle order put out Panis, Frentzen and Herbert but, fortunately, the cars were able to be cleared away without stopping the race. Out the front the gap between Villeneuve and Schumacher remained about one second with an ever increasing gap back to Coulthard in third place. Hill remained down in fourth place seemingly unable to do anything about Coulthard, in fact a gap appeared and Hill fell back into the clutches of Hakkinen.
Villeneuve and Schumacher traded fastest laps over the first dozen laps but Schumacher never looked likely to threaten Villeneuve. On lap fourteen the safety car came out to allow wreckage to be cleared away after Jos Verstappen had gone off at high speed (he had been in a couple of laps earlier complaining of a sticking throttle). Ferrari were more on the ball and Schumacher dived into the pits and this was to prove the turning point in the race. Villeneuve said after the race that there had been a misunderstanding over whether he should come in or not – a confusion that cost him the race. A similar fate awaited Hill who thought he was being called into the pits only to discover otherwise and had to overshoot the pit entrance, costing him valuable time. Williams, who’s pit work so far this season has been exemplary, looked sloppy compared to other teams.
Five laps later the safety car was gone and the race resumed with the order being Coulthard, Hakkinen, Schumacher, Alesi, Villeneuve and Salo, Hill was back in 13th place. Villeneuve overtook Alesi twice, the first time at La Source where he was immediately retaken by the Frenchman. Later round the lap Villeneuve made the manoeuvre stick. Ferrari, Williams and Benetton had decide on two stops while McLaren were to make only one so by lap 25 the McLarens were out of the way and the order was Schumacher, Villeneuve, Alesi, Salo, Hakkinen and Hill.
In spite of the second stops the positions remained reasonably fixed to the flag. Despite Villeneuve being only one second behind Schumacher for the last third of the race he never had much opportunity for passing so Schumacher took the win.
The time taken by Villeneuve to learn each circuit is getting less with each race as his confidence in the car increases, regardless of whether he wins the championship this year he will be a formidable challenge next season right from the first race.