As the current Williams drivers, Jacques Villeneuve and Heinz-Harald Frentzen, qualified for the team for the last time it was evident that both were still trying – possibly to impress their new employers – and this was reflected in their final positions. Frentzen was 5th on a track he knows well with Villeneuve in 6th – the Williams team third team behind McLaren and Ferrari, exactly as they would finish in the constructors championship.
Once again the final race of the season would decide the drivers world championship and once more Michael Schumacher was a contender, however this year a Williams driver played no part, for the first time in a number of years.
The start would be key and Schumacher was expected to make a good get-away from his pole position. The first start was aborted when Jarno Trulli stalled and was put to the back of the grid – the race was no reduced by a lap to 52. At the second restart the unthinkable happened and Michael Schumacher stalled his engine instantly putting him to the back of the grid and virtually ensuring the Mika Hakkinen was the new world champion. The race would now be over 51 laps.
Anyone who thought that Schumacher would not bother was very wrong, from 21st on the grid by the end of the first lap the Ferrari driver was up to 12th and he continued to make steady progress until he came to the back of Hill on lap 5 and remained stuck in 7th position.
Up front the departure of Schumacher had instantly promoted the two Williams drivers. Frentzen made a good start to promote himself to third while Villeneuve maintained his 5th position. However, as usual, both drivers began to slip away from the leaders. Frentzen was 6 seconds behind Hakkinen on lap 3 and the gap was up to 15.5 seconds by lap 8.
On lap 15 the Schumacher fight back caught Villeneuve, who conveniently ran wide allow the Ferrari to easily slip past. The order now was Hakkinen, Irvine, Frentzen, Coulthard, Schumacher and Villeneuve. Three laps later Frentzen was into the pits for his first scheduled stop, surrendering his podium position to Coulthard, something he would never regain.
Schumacher continued to slice through the field making it to third position by lap 24, an amazing feat considering where he had started, but this was all to end on lap 31 as his Ferrari picked up a puncture. The flaying rubber from the rear tyre smashed into the car causing too much damage to allow Schumacher to continue and so he pulled off and got out of the car looking dejected.
Schumacher’s loss was, of course, Hakkinen’s gain, he could now cruse to the championship title. Others, however, could not afford that luxury, particularly Williams now facing a challenge from Jordan and Hill. Both Villeneuve and Hill pitted on the same lap (34) and despite Villeneuve’s stop taking less time than Hill’s the Jordan driver still exited the pits first courtesy of their position down the pit lane.
With the championship now settled the race order settled down too. On lap 43 the order was Hakkinen, Irvine, Coulthard, Frentzen, Hill and Villeneuve. It looked like staying that way until the last lap of the race when, during what can only be another characteristic lapse of attention, Hill slipped past Frentzen for fourth place. Hill will be hoping that this is how it is once Frentzen transfers to Jordan as from the end of the race.
A reasonable end to the season for Williams given how disastrous it was looking. Next year we can expect more of the same, at the same time the BMW engine will be tested but the engine hasn’t really been the weakest link this season. The whole package needs looking at…