After Saturday it looked as though it must be Schumacher’s race. A blisteringly quick time just pipped Damon Hill to the coveted spot. Here, more than any other circuit, the pole is so important as once you have someone in front of you it is almost impossible to pass. With this in mind Hill made a great start to beat Schumacher into the first corner and, unusually, everyone else also made it to the first corner. Beyond that they started dropping like flies. The first casualty was Michael Schumacher who, rather uncharacteristically, slid off into the barriers and didn’t complete the first lap. The reason for all these mishaps was the weather conditions. There had been rain in the morning and although the track was now drying out the conditions were very slippery.
With his great rival out of the way Hill looked set for a clear run to the flag. Rather than take it easy though he put in fastest times on laps 9,11, 14, 15 and 19.
Villeneuve, meanwhile, had not been so lucky. Qualifying only in 10th place, he was up to 7th by the end of the first lap. He was now stuck in a line of traffic with a slow moving Irvine at the head in fourth place. Villeneuve made up another place when, on lap 10, Berger went into the pit with some problem and retired.
Frentzen soon got fed up of having Irvine in the way and tried to push his way through coming off worst and having to go back into the pits for a new nose. On lap 22 the order was Hill, Alesi, Irvine, Coulthard, Villeneuve and Salo. Six laps later, with a lead of 20 seconds, Hill was into the pits for a drop of fuel and slick tyres. Despite the quick stop Hill emerged just behind Alesi. He wasn’t to stop there for long as on the very next lap Hill was by with very little resistance from Alesi. On the same lap Villeneuve was into the pits for his stop and rejoined 8th.
Lap 31 and the order was Hill, Alesi, Irvine, Panis, Coulthard and Herbert. Panis makes up a place when he nudges Irvine who stalls his car and then has to bump start it. Irvine dives back into the pits – when he stalled the car he had instinctively undone his seat belts and now had to have them done back up. He rejoins the circuit one lap down, just ahead of Panis!
Hill was making his way towards another victory when smoke emerged from the back of his FW18 through the tunnel and by the time he had reached the exit his race was run – engine failure. Alesi took up the lead and the race was his for the taking as he was 28.5 seconds ahead of Panis followed by Coulthard, Herbert, Villeneuve and Hakkinen.
Then on lap 61 the unbelievable happened, Alesi retired, leaving Panis and his Liger in the lead. The chase was on, could Coulthard catch Panis and if so could he pass him? Would they make it to the flag? Villeneuve wouldn’t, he was passing Badoer who turned in putting them both out. Badoer was fined for his misdemeanour’s but this was of little use to Villeneuve who had lost a prime opportunity to gain some valuable points.
Lap 72, with the clock ticking ever closer to the two hour mark, Irvine spins and Salo and Hakkinen plough into the back of him. There were now only four cars running, Panis, Coulthard, Herbert and Frenzen, who was a lap down. The two hour mark passed on lap 75, three laps short of full distance and Liger had their first win for 15 years and Panis his first.
I cannot remember the last time a team outside of the top four (Williams, Ferrari, Bennetton or McLaren) won a grand prix, though I suspect that it might have been Ayrton Senna in a Lotus.
No points for Hill, no points for Villeneuve and no points for Williams, but then again no points for the top four either. Panis moves up to 4th in the drivers championship – Damon watch out!