Finally the result the team have been threatening since the introduction of the much revised FW20 – a place on the podium. Not only that but also one where the Williams of Villeneuve was able to keep pace with the front running McLarens. It was not all good news though as Heinz-Harald Frentzen gave Williams more reasons to let him go at the end of the season.
Saturday qualifying was not to be a good day for the Michael Schumacher adoring German public as the Ferrari driver could not get his car to work and only managed to drag it around to 9th position. Some suggested that this might be because something electronic, hidden and illegal had been taken off the car, such as a form of the banned traction control. Whatever the car looked a real handful to control even in the hands if Schumacher. Somehow it all looked familiar – this is where Williams had been earlier in the season – the car all over the place, the low qualifying positions. Not today though, today saw the continuing Williams resurgence.
Jacques Villeneuve was on top form, a fact confirmed by the team who apparently know when it’s going to be a good day because Villeneuve mixes peanut butter and chocolate spread for breakfast! The car looked good in Villeneuve’s hands, no longer twitchy, and he promptly put it onto the second row of the grid just a fraction behind the McLaren pair. Heinz-Harald Frentzen obviously hadn’t been mixing his spreads as a lowly 10th was all he could manage at his home Grand Prix.
At the start of the race Villeneuve made a poor start immediately falling behind the two Jordans. However Villeneuve was back past Hill before the end of the first lap and he then set about catching the second Jordan of Ralf Schumacher. When Villeneuve could make no inroads into Schumacher’s times it became clear that the Jordan was on a different pit-stop strategy. This was confirmed on lap 13 when Ralf Schumacher darted into the pits and Villeneuve took up third position. The order now was Hakkinen, Coulthard, Villeneuve, Hill, Michael Schumacher, Irvine, Frentzen was back in 8th position, some 24 seconds behind the leader.
Villeneuve remained just 5 seconds behind the McLaren pair until his first (and only) stop on lap 23. After all the pit stops had been completed Villeneuve was back into third position and catching Coulthard’s McLaren. The gap came down from 6 seconds on lap 30 to just 2 seconds seven laps later. It was then that the attack faded as Villeneuve had a problem with the car and had to back off. However the McLaren’s did the same and by the end of the race the gap was just 2.578 seconds.
Speaking after the race Patrick Head said: “(a good race) by 1998 standards, yes, but it’s good to be in there as a serious contender and we’ve got to try and build on that and make sure that we’re in that position for the rest of the races this year.”. Heinz-Harald Frentzen was not a serious contender today finishing just one place higher than his grid position in 9th. More reasons, as if the team needed them, to not renew his contract at the end of the season.