As the cars lined up on the grid with the threat of rain playing large in the teams minds, it appeared that one driver had a better sense of what was to come than the rest. A spokesman for the Arrows team said that Damon Hill was in the pit...
As the cars lined up on the grid with the threat of rain playing large in the teams minds, it appeared that one driver had a better sense of what was to come than the rest. A spokesman for the Arrows team said that Damon Hill was in the pit lane having his set up changed to a full wet set-up. A leak later revealed that the truth was rather messier - a starter motor shaft oil seal failure. A bad start to Damon's campaign.
All got around the warm up lap with no problems, and even more miraculously after recent races, managed to negotiate the first corner as well without misshap - though Villeneuve did have a scarey looking moment fending off Michael Schumacher and Frentzen, with Schuey getting the jump on his countryman. Behind the top 3 were Ralf Schumacher, Herbert, Panis and Irvine. The top 6 were covered by a little over 3.8 seconds at the end of the first lap, and the top 3 by 1.5 seconds. By lap 2 the top 6 were covered by 4.4 seconds, with behind Irvine in 7th place Fisichella, Coulthard, Hakkinen, Alesi, Barrichello, Larini, Diniz, Magnussen, Verstappen, Salo, Nakano, Berger, Katayama, Hill and Trulli. Ralf Schumacher was charging hard, and already was setting fastest laps of 1m32.744 by the end of lap 2. For Magnussen the race was rather shorter, coming to an end on lap 3 with a trip into the gravel pit.
For lap after lap Ralf, Villeneuve, and Frentzen (though curiously not Michael Schumacher) traded fastest laps, with Villeneuve doing most of the pace setting. On lap 5 Berger joined the kitty litter club. By the end of lap 10, the top 3 were still covered by 1.6 seconds, whilst those behind drifted away, from 2.1 seconds on lap 4 to 10 seconds on lap 10. The top 3 were in a different class to the rest. Frentzen was charging hard to try and wrest second place from Schumacher, who was being equally defensive of his place. Further down the field Hill was stuck behind Nakano for a few laps and according to an interview with him later got rather fed up of it, so he launched a do-or-most-likely-die attack on the Japanese driver, and pitched both into the kitty litter. Not exactly a move worthy of a world champion.
By lap 19 it was clear that Panis' tyres were suffering (the Bridgestones not working as well at San Marino as they have so far this year), and let Irvine and Fisichella past. Coulthard also tried to take Panis, whilst Hakkinen was having a go at Coulthard. Ralf Schumacher was into the pits and retiring with a broken driveshaft. Herbert also joined the glee club and retired from a very credible 4th place. By lap 20 Panis' tyres were visibly shot, and he was in for a pit stop to replace the aged rubber. From nowhere we suddenly had a race, as Villeneuve's lead over Schumacher Sr suddenly fell from 4 seconds to 1.6 seconds - and now he was also coming up to lap Diniz. This sudden drama allowed the two Germans to catch up with the Canadian, though this gain soon evaporated with Diniz also delaying Schumacher and Frentzen. Schumacher pitted with a suspected long second stint to come, rejoining the race in 3rd, and allowing Frentzen to have a go at charging on towards the lead.
The pit stops were well and truly under way around lap 25, and Villeneuve had a lucky break as he was unable to get past Verstappen, and promptly pitted, allowing Frentzen into the lead. It was a longer than expected stop, with the left front wheel being either slow or problematic. Frentzen pitted the next lap, and likewise found himself delayed with the left front wheel. The top three were now reversed, with Frentzen (just) having the lead on Schumacher, with Villeneuve now third. He continued over the next few laps to extend his lead, and by lap 33 had 4.3 seconds over Schumacher.
The pit stops for Barrichello, Alesi and Katayama were now due, the latter stalling in the pit. Panis likewise pitted for his second stop, whilst Larini took an unscheduled trip through the pit lane. Coulthard also came in for his stop, and just as he left Hakkinen was also in, catching his team off guard. Hakkinen was forced to stop when he damaged his tyres with a confrontation with Verstappen. Villeneuve was dropping back fast, and now was a distant 9 seconds behind the top 2. The gap lengthed and lengthened - something was wrong with the Williams.
That, though, was nothing compared with the McLaren of Coulthard, which was suffering from massive plumes of smoke coming from the rear of it, to the dismay of Irvine and Fisichella behind. Suddenly the Mercedes engine let go, and with it any hope of Coulthard keeping his fourth place. Villeneuve's plight got worse, and on lap 41 he was in the pits for a new steering wheel as the gearbox was apparantly stuck in 5th gear. By 25 seconds the car had stalled, and the next 25 seconds were took up trying to get the car in neutral. After 2 minutes of trying the Williams was retired. Schumacher and Irvine were soon pitting for their stops, with the two keeping second and third. It was only in the last few laps that the race had any real threat of rain, though it kept off long enough for it not to matter. The major drama of the last few laps being Salo holding up Frentzen allowing Schumacher to close in massively on the last lap, though it was too late.......
Frentzen Schumacher Irvine Fisichella Alesi Hakkinen Larini Panis Salo Verstappen Katayama
-- Stephen M Baines
"[The Autosport sticker] started to peel off in the middle of Eau Rouge and it distracted me. In fact it was the first thing to hit the barrier" Tiff Needell - Jaguar XJR-15 Challenge - Interview with Autosport