After the huge step forward in performance over the last couple of races Williams came to Germany playing down their chances of a competitive race. They came within 10 laps of taking their first race for nearly two year…
Due to the unpredictable nature of the weather around this part of Germany qualifying was always going to be a bit of a lottery. Rain punctuated the hour long Saturday session and it quickly became clear that the pole sitter would be the one who held his nerve longest and went out last. The pole position changed places a number of times and with just five minutes to go Ralf Schumacher took the lead only for Coulthard, Hakkinen and Frentzen set faster laps in the closing seconds.
While Schumacher was fourth on the grid Alex Zanardi was struggling to get to grips with a circuit that he had only driven round once before – on a moped! At the end of the session Zanardi was well off the pace back in 18th position.
The start was one of the most bizarre ever witnessed. As the cars sat on the grid waiting for the red lights to go out all of the top six started prematurely only to stop a few yards later. Ralf Schumacher was lucky not to run into the back of David Coulthard’s McLaren. What caused them to move was unclear but as one moved the others followed. The start by this point had been aborted due to a problem further down the grid – reputed to be Zanardi sitting in the wrong grid position.
At the second start the got cleanly away until the first corner when Wurz, to avoid a slowing Hill, jinxed to the right hitting the Sauber of Diniz and sending him into a series of frightening barrel rolls. The Brazilian was trapped underneath his car but was obviously moving and was quickly removed by the marshals. Zanardi was another to loose out as part of this fracas being forced wide over the gravel trap. While this was going on the safety car was brought out and circulated until the end of the 6th lap. At this point the order was Frentzen, Hakkinen, Coulthard, Schumacher, Fisichella and Panis. Zanardi was dead last in 17th.
The top four started to pull away from Fisichella’s Benetton with Schumacher loosing no ground to the McLaren of Coulthard. Meanwhile at the back Zanardi was starting to make up places but that came to an end on lap ten when, going into the last corner, he attempted to pass Zonta and the two came together. Zanardi went into a spin and stalled his engine going no further.
By lap 15 the order had not changed but the gap between Schumacher in 4th and Fisichella in 5th was up to eight seconds. The Williams was all over the gearbox of the trailing McLaren and on lap 18 Schumacher made a move on Coulthard into the last corner. The two were side-by side going down the main straight but the German couldn’t make it stick. A lap later however it was a different matter and with the track wet for the beginnings of rain it was second time lucky as the Williams past into 3rd position.
When Hakkinen went in early for wet tyres Schumacher went up to second position and begin to climb all over Frentzen. On lap 27 Schumacher came in for his first stop and in a brave move elected to remain on slicks while others were moving to wets. The order on lap 35 was Coulthard, Schumacher, Barrichello, Fisichella, Herbert and Villeneuve. Just two laps later Coulthard slide off the track to retire moving Schumacher up into the lead!
On lap 42 Schumacher came in for his second scheduled stop which dropped him back to third position behind Fisichella and Herbert. This became second position when Herbert pitted and first when Fisichella went off the circuit. Now it was just a dash to the flag and Williams first win for nearly two years. Unfortunately that wasn’t to be as this race still had one more surprise up it’s sleeve as with ten laps to go Schumacher picked up a right rear puncture and had to limp back to the pits. When he rejoined he was down in 5th behind Herbert, Trulli, Barrichello and Badoer.
While Schumacher was able to pass Badoer to take 4th the others were too far up the road to be troubled. The final result was Herbert, scoring the first win for Stewart, Trulli, Barrichello, Schumacher, Hakkinen and Gene. As Ralf Schumacher walked back to the pits his body language gave away how he was feeling – gutted.