Frank Williams said that he wasn’t interested in the 100th win for the team – each win being important. But you suspect that he must have been pleased to see his team pass this important figure some eighteen years after the first win on the same circuit. The win however was a could only be described as a lucky one and if the championship is not to slip away the team have to raise their game considerably.
As is becoming customary all the action for pole took place in the dying minutes. With seven minutes to go things had looked pretty static and the likely hood of Mika Hakkinen having his first pole position were high. Then out came Frentzen to pull himself up to the top spot only, as is so often the case, to see himself overhauled in the last few seconds. This race it was his team mate Jacques Villeneuve who did the dirty deed. A Williams one-two on the grid – could it be repeated in the race? The question was answered before the race had even begun as Frentzen stalled on the grid when, apparently, he put his FW19 in first rather than neutral. Frentzen was sent to the back of the grid and worse was yet to come.
At the start Villeneuve made a good get away from Schumacher, who now had a clear track in front of him. Meanwhile at the back Frentzen was passing many cars in an effort to make up for lost time. Unfortunately at about only the third corner he was hit for behind, puncturing his tyre and immediately putting him out of the race. Not a position that is likely to help Williams in the constructors championship or help Frentzen retain his position in the team.
The first four laps were run under the safety car to clear away a Minardi in a dangerous position. Once the safety car had pulled in Villeneuve and Schumacher pulled away from the chasing pack – while the gap between the Williams and the Ferrari was never more than 2 seconds, the gap back the third placed man Coulthard was up to 20 seconds.
At the end of lap 21 Schumacher went in for his first stop, in what was plainly a two stop strategy. He rejoined after being stationary for only 7.1 seconds. A lap later it was Villeneuve’s turn to stop – and stop he did. The wheel nut on the left front tyre sheared and extended the stop to an excruciating 33.6 seconds – this had handed the race to Schumacher on a plate. Villeneuve rejoined in 7th place with it all to do. To make matters worse Schumacher put in a series of fastest laps while Villeneuve languished behind the Benetton of Wurz. By lap 33 Villeneuve was up to forth place, due to pit stops, and making no impression on the Benetton pair in front of him.
So far this year Williams have had plenty of luck – all of it bad. Today that was about to change. On lap 37 Schumacher went in for what looked like an early second stop but on his out lap he began to slow and coasted back to the pits with wheel bearing failure. This temporarily promoted Villeneuve to the top spot with the second Ferrari of Irvine behind, scoring more valuable points for the constructors championship. However when Irvine went in for his stop he only made it to the end of the pit lane before coasting to a halt with exactly the same problem as Schumacher – no points for Ferrari today.
With Schumacher out of the way Villeneuve could make up some of the points lost to Schumacher in the last few races. After his second stop Villeneuve was 5.5 seconds behind Mika Hakkinen, who had been on a one-stop strategy. However Hakkinen had been the man of the weekend and was not going to let Villeneuve by without a fight. However that was not to be necessary. As Villeneuve got to within a second of the Finn his Mercedes engine let go and Villeneuve was past.
Villeneuve had no problems and took the flag for his 4th win of the season but it was a very hollow victory and one felt sorry for Mika Hakkinen who once again had been denied – perhaps he should get a chance next year behind the wheel of a Williams?
Win number 100 is significant – only two other teams, McLaren and Ferrari, have achieved the feat. However history counts for nothing in the race for the championship and Villeneuve will have to be more convincing in the forthcoming races if he is to beat Schumacher to this years title.