Yet another race where the team seem to have made progress but at the end of the weekend have nothing tangible, in the way of points, to show for it. Unlike the mighty strides made by Ferrari who have dragged themselves up to be a match for McLaren, Williams’ progress has been more steady – but at least progress is being made. Another stride forward was made this weekend when Villeneuve took the car by the scruff of the neck and promptly placed it second on the grid right behind pole sitter Michael Schumacher. Frentzen, who announced this weekend that he is on his way to Jordan for the ’99 season, couldn’t get the same level of performance out of the car and finished the Saturday session 12th.
With Villeneuve splitting the two championship protagonists there was bound to be problems when the lights went out. As it happened there was no touching – but this was only because Villeneuve took avoiding action as Hakkinen stormed through into the lead between Schumacher and the Williams. This put Villeneuve down to 4th and this quickly became 5th as Schumacher, who had lost even more places, passed. At the end of the first lap the order was Hakkinen, Coulthard, Irvine, Schumacher, Villeneuve and Alesi. The Williams, for all it’s improvements, was no match for the McLarens or the Ferraris and quickly slipped further behind. By the end of the second lap Villeneuve was over 6 seconds behind and by lap ten it was up to 15 seconds. By this point Hill had also slipped past demoting Villeneuve to 6th
Heinz-Harald Frentzen meanwhile was having one of those drives that have typified his time with Williams. Starting so far down the grid, progress was slow to the point that on lap 15 Frentzen was still only 11th. Contrast this with Damon Hill who had started 14th and by this point was 5th. True they were on different strategies but that doesn’t make the overtaking any easier.
All the action was happening at the front as Coulthard went out and Schumacher passed Hakkinen for the lead. This had little impact on the Williams pair who were 4th and 8th by the time of the first pit stops. Frentzen’s stop was twice that of the other stoppers due to a stalled engine, prior to this he had also missed his pit signals telling him to come in and had run out of fuel out on the track and had to crawl back to the pits.
Villeneuve didn’t need his two stop strategy as on lap 38 he ran wide at one corner and having, dirtied his tyres, slipped wider still at the next and off into the gravel trap.
All interest for Williams fans was now over as Frentzen looked unlikely to set the track alight and so it proved as he had a fairly pedestrian run to the finish, 7th and no points.
With two races to go Williams are in serious danger of losing their third place in the constructors championship to Jordan, this would not be just reward for a team that have worked hard to improve an unfriendly car.