For the second race in succession McLaren were the dominant force lapping the entire field and giving Mika Hakkinen his third successive race win.
No-one expected great things from Williams this weekend and therefore no-one should have been disappointed but some signs of improvement would have been encouraging. That Frentzen was the “best of the rest”, taking third place on the grid behind the McLarens, was encouraging but the gap was still vast. Things did not go so well for reigning champion Villeneuve who found himself down in 10th position after a heavy off caused his car to have to be rebuilt.
It has become almost expected that Frentzen would drop a few places at the start of any race, this was not to be the case this time as he held onto his third place keeping back the pack lead by Eddie Irvine. Thus at the end of the first lap the order was Hakkinen, Coulthard, Frentzen, Irvine, Schumacher, Wurz and, making up three places, Villeneuve.
By the end of the third lap the gap from second place Coulthard to Frentzen was already four seconds and rising. As Hakkinen put in fastest lap after fastest lap the gap had increased to nine second by lap seven. Once again it was obvious that there was nothing anyone could do about the McLarens, the other teams could only hope that Hakkinen or Coulthard had reliability problems.
Lap 14 had seen the gap increase to nearly 16 seconds but now Frentzen had other things to worry about – Michael Schumacher. The Ferrari was now on the tail of the number 2 Williams and so it remained until the first pit stops around lap 27. Schumacher was in first stopped for just 8.5 seconds. Frentzen meanwhile stayed out but was behind traffic and so when he came for his stop, despite it being quick than Schumacher at 7.7s, he rejoined behind the Ferrari.
Villeneuve was not having a happy race his first pit stop took 9.3 seconds and put him down to 13th place. The order now was Hakkinen, Coulthard, Wurz, Schumacher, Frentzen and Fisichella. The first round of pit stops having been completed it became obvious that, to add insult to injury, the McLarens were only going to be stopping once to everyone else’s twice.
Although the gap from first place Hakkinen to 9th place Villeneuve was 1 minute 16 seconds Villeneuve had not lost the will to fight and in quick succession took Irvine for 8th and then Alesi for 7th. Unfortunately this is the highest Villeneuve would make all weekend.
Lap 43 and once again Schumacher was all over the back of Frentzen, who locked up at turn one in an effort to keep the Ferrari behind, which he did until his pit stop on lap 45. A stop of 8.1 seconds dropped the German down to 6th position. On lap 49 Villeneuve came in for his stop, came out and was immediately lapped.
Michael Schumacher, sensing that places would be made up in the pit stops, left has stop very late, to lap 53. However stalling the car cost him 13.6 seconds. By this point Wurz was all over the back of Frentzen and coming into turn one the Benneton passed the Williams for what would have been third place – had Schumacher not exited the pits just moments before the dueling pair.
>From this point on the race remained fairly static until the flag, with Frentzen being lapped just three laps from the end. Frentzen cam home 5th with Villeneuve just out of the points in 7th.
Another disappointing race for Williams from whom so much is expected. It is difficult to make any progress when the team is so far away from it’s home base so this would seem to suggest that there is going to be at least one more race, in Argentina, where the gap is so vast before the gap can be brought down.
Post race Villeneuve criticised the team for the poor performance of his car – at this point in the season it would be as well to have a motivated team working to close the gap, Villeneuve comments will not have help the cause.