A good test session here a week ago suggested that the team might do well here but the result was even better than anyone could have hoped for. The Friday session saw Ralf Schumacher topping the times but then this was Friday and these session are never a very good indication of qualifying performance. Or are they?
Saturday qualifying showed just how much the FW21 has improved over the course of the season and how much this circuit suits the car. With just one set of flying laps to go Ralf Schumacher was in 4th position with his team mate back in a season best 6th. If Schumacher expected to be beaten he certainly wasn’t expecting it to be by Zanardi. For the first time this season Alex Zanardi was showing the sort of flair and pace that had led him to be signed up by Williams and a superb lap rocketed the Italian further up the grid, ahead of his team-mate and into 4th position. For the first time this season both Williams drivers had made it to the top six in qualifying.
All this augured well for the race itself and at the start did not disappoint. As the lights went out Heinz-Harald Frentzen darted to his left to protect his position from Coulthard, however this left a massive gap for Zanardi who duly slotted in behind Hakkinen. However this was to be short lived as the Italian was quickly passed by the Jordan. However at the end of the first lap there were still two Williams’ in the top six and the order was: Hakkinen, Frentzen, Zanardi, Schumacher, Salo and Coulthard.
While the Williams pair weren’t holding the chasing pack up they weren’t keeping up with the leading pair either. By lap 10 Zanardi was 8 seconds behind the leader with Schumacher a further second behind. The German was pushing hard and using the full extend of the curbs and sometimes a lot more in his effort to keep up. On lap 18 Zanardi waved his team-mate past in a manoeuvre that certainly ensured Schumacher’s second position. The reason for this act of unheard of generosity was later revealed as a loose floor to Zanardi’s FW21. Release of Zanardi, Schumacher set about catching Frentzen in front of him and promptly set the fastest lap.
The problem that had caused Zanardi to allow Schumacher to pass was now having a major affect on his ability to keep the others behind and after a ten lap struggle both Barrichello and Salo passed in quick succession. Zanardi stopped shortly after this episode for his one and only stop and rejoined in 10th position. Meanwhile it was all action at the front as a rare error from Mika Hakkinen caused him to slide off the track leaving Frentzen in the lead with Schumacher’s Williams in second.
Schumacher stopped a couple of laps later than Zanardi and after all the stops were completed the Williams pair were 2nd and 7th. However neither were keen to remain in those positions and while Schumacher pushed Frentzen hard Zanardi did the same to Irvine.
Schumacher set one further fastest lap on his way to second position finishing just 3.2 seconds behind Frentzen’s Jordan. Zanardi was 7th.
“A great result for the team after a lot of very hard work. This further underlines Ralf’s talents and his remarkable ability to race lap after lap without any mistakes. We are disappointed with the outcome of Alex’s race, but despite his handicap he still managed to finish 7th.”
“I could feel something hitting the ground underneath the car early on in the race, around the third lap. It got so bad during the race that it was picking the nose off the ground. Unfortunately, it appears like the floor had come loose. I send my congratulations on a great result to Ralf.”
“This is my best result this season and I am glad I achieved it here. The first few laps of today’s race were quite dramatic, as Mika Salo and David Coulthard were trying to overtake me and I was trying to make my car as .wide as possible. I have to say thanks to the team and as well to my team-mate who made it incredibly easy to get by him which allowed me to drive my race. Without his help I think I wouldn’t have finished second today. Alex and I have an agreement: if somebody is quicker we help each other, because at the end of the day we are driving for the team to get the best result. No doubt that the FW21 has sensibly improved, I would say that it looks quite another car from what it was in Hungary.”