After qualifying on Saturday all looked set for a perfect race for the Williams team on Sunday. Hill had regained his qualifying form for an excellent pole position and Villeneuve, who had tested here previously, was a strong second, ahead of Schumacher, Alesi, Berger and Irvine.
Where practice and qualifying had been dry the race was set to be wet, very wet. This did not look good for Villeneuve, who still is not comfortable driving in the wet having come from Indy where they don’t race in the rain (don’t want to get that paintwork wet now do you?!). However when the lights went out it was Villeneuve who got away into that all important, spray free, first position. Hill was slow to start but nowhere near as slow as Schumacher who dropped back to eighth place. At the end of the first lap Villeneuve led by 1.732 seconds from Alesi, Hill, Berger, Irvine and Schumacher. Already several drivers were out, most notably David Coulthard.
The slippery conditions were catching a number of drivers out, including Irvine who spun but rejoined in 15th, and last, place. Panis went into the pits to retire on the second lap, so ensuring no repeat of his Monaco win. On lap four it was Hill’s turn to slide off keeping his momentum over the gravel trap to rejoin after Schumacher. Then he did it again on lap eight rejoining this time down in eighth place, some 28 seconds behind Villeneuve. At the end of lap 10 the order was Villeneuve, Schumacher, Alesi, Berger, Barrichello and Frentzen. To complete what was turning out to be a bad day for Hill, on lap 12, entering the main straight he lost the rear end spinning round and coming to rest against the pit wall. He was straight out of the car and later confessed to being rather glad to not have to continue in the conditions, which weren’t improving. At the end of the season lost points, such as these, may well tell in the final championship positions.
While all this was happening Villeneuve was gamely trying to put off the inevitable and hold off Michael Schumacher – on lap twelve he was through and then set about putting some space between himself and Villeneuve. By the end of lap 13 the gap was 6.6 seconds.By lap 20 there were only 10 cars running and it looked like a repeat of Monaco was a possibility, where only three cars finished.
Lap 24 and Schumacher was into the pits for the first of what would be two stops. Having been over 37 seconds ahead of Villeneuve he was in and out of the pits without loosing has first place. The first, and only, stops of the rest of the top runners took place on lap 32 for Alesi, 35 for Berger and Frentzen and 37 for Villeneuve. The order after the stops was Schumacher, Barrichello, Alesi, Villeneuve, Berger and Frentzen.
Schumacher, the only top runner to make two stops, came in for his second on lap 42, rejoining with his lead intact.
By lap 50 the field was reduced to just six runners: Schumacher, Alesi, Villeneuve, Frentzen, Hakkinen and Diniz. The gap between Alesi and Villeneuve was 8.65 seconds but just five laps later this had been reduced to 4.4. Over the next few laps Villeneuve closed the gap, the closest he came was at the end of lap 59 when the gap was only 1.6 seconds. At this point Alesi rose to the challenge and by the end of the last lap the gap was back up to 3 seconds.
The weather once again played an important part in the outcome of the race. Jacques Villeneuve gained valuable race experience of running in the wet which can only stand him in good stead for the future. Hill meanwhile looked almost amateurish in comparison and may well yet regret not staying the distance to gain some useful points. He still leads the championship by a reasonable margin, but Schumacher is the class of the field and won’t let up until the flag drops at the last race of the season.