What a contrast to Spain two weeks ago, this weekend Damon Hill could do no wrong, storming through to his fifth victory of the season. Even if Michael Schumacher had better luck than he did I very much doubt that he would have been in any position to stop Hill from winning. On home ground Jacques Villeneuve started as favourite to win but even with a different pit-stop strategy to Hill he could not get close to his team-mate.
Hill’s perfect weekend started on Saturday when he took pole from Villeneuve. There was one point, close to the end of the session, when Hill was down in fifth place and it looked like he wasn’t going to be able to improve but he pulled one quick lap out of the bag to storm in front of Villeneuve and Schumacher. The session was stopped twice to clear up the Benettons of Alesi and Berger who just didn’t seem to be able to stay on the track.
There was drama before the race had even got under way on Sunday. As the cars streamed away on the formation lap Schumacher was still being tended to by a number of Ferrari mechanics. He finally got away, but would have to start from the back of the grid – an inauspicious start.
When the lights went out Hill led from Villeneuve, Alesi, Irvine, Hakkinen and Berger. Ferrari’s miserable weekend continued on lap two when Irvine retired with suspension failure. Hill, meanwhile, was already pulling away from Villeneuve. From lap 2 to 5 the gap went from 2.9 to 4.085 seconds.
Schumacher obviously had a problem with his car because instead of scything through the field in a manner we have come to expect, he made it up to 13th place, behind Salo, and there he stayed. Hill had a point to prove and did so by setting the fastest lap on almost every lap increasing the gap over second placed Villeneuve. All this was indicative of a two stop strategy, while Villeneuve would make two. A year ago many criticisms were levelled at the Williams team over their poor race strategy, this year it has improved out of all recognition, being second to none.
Hill duly came into the pit on lap 27 being stationary for only 9.4 seconds. The next few laps were to be Villeneuve’s only on in front of his home crowed. He too was in 8 laps later confirming that he was on a one stop strategy when he stopped for 11.5 seconds. The positions at this point were Hill, Alesi, Villeneuve, Hakkinen, Coulthard and Berger.
Schumacher was still making a meal of getting up the grid and on lap 42 went into the pits for his only stop. As he powered away something very obviously dropped off his car. This transpired to be the drive-shaft and, not surprisingly, meant that he crawled back into the pits at the end of the next lap.
Over the final few laps Villeneuve began to close in on Hill, bringing the gap down to 4.183 seconds at the finish but somehow you got the impression that Hill was just toying with Villeneuve and could have easily pulled more out of the bag if it had been necessary.
A good win for Hill in a dull race. He now extends his lead in the drivers championship over Villeneuve to 21 points. It’s not over yet but it’s certainly getting that way. As for the constructors championship if Williams don’t win it then I’ll eat my PC!