So the championship goes to the final round. Jacques Villeneuve’s victory means that he still has a chance of winning the world title and keeping the coveted number one for next season. For outgoing Damon Hill his task is simple – score a single point to ensure the title leaves with him.
It could have all been over in Portugal, with a thirteen point gap between the Williams duo Hill needed only to finish ahead of Villeneuve. The weekend got off to a good start when the two Williams drivers slugged it out for pole, Hill coming out on top by the slimmest of margins: 0.009 of a second – leaving Alesi, Schumacher, Berger and Irvine in their wake. If qualifying was anything to go by it would be an exciting race and that is exactly what we got from the moment the lights went out. Hill led away weaving to keep a hard charging Alesi behind him. Villeneuve meanwhile was going backwards, from his second place he was down to fourth by the first corner. At this point Hill looked to have it in the bag as he pulled slowly into the distance. At the end of the first lap he was already 1.8 seconds ahead of the second placed Benetton. By the time eight laps had been completed the gap had been extended further still to 4.5 seconds with Villeneuve a further 2.3 seconds adrift.
On lap 16 things began to improve for Villeneuve, in what must be the overtaking manoeuvre of the season as he over took Schumacher round the outside! At the end of the next lap Hill was in for his first of three stops, rejoining 5th. Next lap it was the turn of Villeneuve, Schumacher and Berger. The order after the stops was Hill, Villeneuve, Alesi, Schumacher, Irvine and Berger. By the time of the second round of stops Villeneuve was only 4.4 seconds behind Hill and closing. Hill was in on lap 34 and Villeneuve a lap later. The gap was reduced to 2.1 seconds and on lap 37 Villeneuve set fastest lap – he was on a charge.
Over the next ten laps or so Villeneuve set about catching Hill and for a time it looked like we might see one of the few overtaking manoeuvres in Formula One, unfortunately the final round of pit stops intervened. On lap 48 the gap was 1.8 seconds and Hill was into the pit, then it was Villeneuves turn. It was a close run thing as Villeneuve exited the pit lane just ahead of Hill. He was later to recall seeing a car exiting the pits and thought it was a Tyrrell and hoping it would keep out of his way – some chance! Hill, now hampered with a clutch problem, began to slowly fall away from Villeneuve. By the time the flag dropped the gap was just shy of twenty seconds.
It is still possible for Villeneuve to win the championship but it would take a huge slice of luck. There would either have to be a mechanical failure or a mistake by Hill. I know which one my money would be on.