On the formation lap Frentzen was slow away, and dropped back down the field, and had to pick his way back to the front of the pack. Likewise at the start Frentzen made a tardy start, as Villeneuve pulled away into the lead. Panis had a go at ...
On the formation lap Frentzen was slow away, and dropped back down the field, and had to pick his way back to the front of the pack. Likewise at the start Frentzen made a tardy start, as Villeneuve pulled away into the lead. Panis had a go at moving up the field with a charge down the inside, but fell back down the field for a little while. A little further down the pack Barrichello and Schumacher colided. It looked like the red flags would be out, but after two television unfriendly races it was decided to pull out the pace (sorry safety) car. Barrichello got away from his collision and made his way back to the pits. Schumacher was not so lucky. He was out on lap one. Hill had made a superb start and had made his way up to 6th place when the car came out. The order behind the car was Villeneuve, Frentzen, Panis, Irvine, Fisichella and Hill.
After a few laps clearing up the wreckage racing resumed, and Panis was making a charge for Frentzen big time. By lap 6 Panis had taken Frentzen for second, whilst Frentzen suddenly toured and stopped. It was reported later that the clutch release mechanism was released - it was not clear if it was automatic or manual. On lap 7 Ralf Schumacher was starting to make his precence felt and took Hill for 6th. Barrichello was also making an impression after his lengthy pit stop, and was up to 15th place. Panis was definitely the man to watch, though, setting the fastest laps. By lap 14 Johnny Herbert was catching Fisichella fast, whilst Diniz was making an impression with his move up to 9th. Barrichello continued to charge hard and was one of many to watch as he moved up to 11th behind Verstappen. Alesi was after Hill in 7th. The French-Sicillian made an impossible move around the outside of the corner, and caused both to spin. Only the Englishman's quick reflexes stopped the pair coliding. Neither of the cars appeared to be damaged and rejoined - though several places down the field.
By lap 19 the Williams team were ready for a pit stop, whilst on the track Panis' race was over, and unfortunately he retired. The team were gutted as they felt sure they were in with a chance of victory today. Alesi was again after Hill, and took him only for Hill to instantly retake the place. Villeneuve soon pitted, and managed to rejoin the race ahead of Irvine in second place. A quite remarkable achievement to keep the lead from a slender lead. Herbert was also in, as Ferrari also prepared for a stop. The Stewart team also called in Barrichello early to try and aid his battle with Verstappen. Irvine pitted in 7.3 seconds, allowing Fisichella and Schumacher into second and third for Jordan, only for Schumacher Jr to make a move on Fisichella that was never on, diving down the inside of the sister car forcing both to spin. Fisichella retired, whilst Schumacher continued on his way for future battles in the race.....
On lap 25 Barrichello retired after a gutsy drive, whilst Larini was having dramas of his own, with a refuelling rig that did not like being a refuelling rig. After what seemed an eternity the hose went into the car and he was on his way. There was clearly visible some fuel leaking out of the nozzle on it's removal. Schumacher was charging hard after Villeneueve, and taking seconds out of his lead. Salo soon pitted and stalled in the pits, whilst Schumacher continued his charge after Villeneuve, and Berger managed to take Diniz.... The temperature of the track was now climbing fast, and was soon up to 35C. This was playing against the Williams, and into the hands of Jordan (who were making a very good job of it), McLaren and Benetton (who suddenly managed to find a turn of speed).
With the order now Villeneuve, Schumacher, Irvine, Herbert, Hakkinen, Alesi, Berger, Diniz, Hill, Verstappen, Magnussen and Trulli and things being very close at the front of the pack, Villeneuve managed to find some speed from somewhere and started to pull out from Schumacher, only to hit backmarkers again, and allow the German to catch up again.
By lap 32 Schumacher was only 4 seconds adrift of Villeneuve, further back Diniz pitted for a very long stop, whilst out on the track Hill retired after overheating and loss of air pressure. The pit stops were now under way again for the one stoppers, with Schumacher and Alesi pitting. This gave Villeneuve a temporary breather, with Irvine 11 seconds adrift. Berger was next to pit, whilst Villeneuve had to make the second of three stops allowing Irvine into the lead. Katayama further down the field did some impromptu display work and spun. Nakano wanting the same exposure back home did the same in sympathy. Neither touched each other. Herbert (sandwiched between the two) managed to get around the corner without bothering with the display work. Irvine was clearly enjoying his stint at the front, and was something of a revelation after the last two races. By lap 43, the Ferrari team were ready for his stop. With only a 12 second lead he was going to loose the the lead to Villeneuve, but as consolation he did manage to keep ahead of Ralf Schumacher in 3rd. Larini's luckless race continued, with a slow 12 second stop and a conk out in the pit lane. His team managed to get him going again and off he went on his way. Only 12 cars were left by now.
Schumacher continued to push hard, and after a long trying to get past Trulli he finally managed it on lap 51, and was after Irvine. Further down the pack Diniz's superb charge was over, with a cooked Yamaha engine spewing water left, right and centre. It wasn't clear if as a result of the engine failure his wheels locked or he slid off on his own water. Williams were ready again for Villeneuve (his third stop), but his lead was a slender 22 seconds, and the reckoning was 26 seconds was necessary to keep the lead. Somehow though he managed to pit and get out in the lead - just. After weeks of the clash of the handbags between Irvine and Villeneuve it was now on the track, and Irvine was desparate to show what he could do. Villeneuve was up to Magnussen, and this allowed Irvine and Schumacher to close up even faster. Villeneuve was suffering and went very wide over "The Bump". Magnussen let the Canadian through, and a few corners later when they too had caught up he allowed Irvine and Schumacher through cleanly as well. Villeneuve now only had a 1.7 second lead over Irvine, who was absolutely inspired this afternoon. There was 10 laps to go (usually the snoozathon part of the race) and a real battle was going on.
Further down the field Berger suddenly found a turn of speed and was setting fastest laps. Irvine meanwhile was chopping into Villeneuve, taking the lead to 1.5 seconds, then suddenly he was right on the tail of the Canadian. 8 laps to go, and only 0.6 seconds between first and second place! A little further back Magnussen took Larini, with Larini soon to spin off. Magnussen then a little while later had an engine blowup. Villeneuve suddenly upped the ante with 5 laps to go, and pulled out a second from nowhere, only for Irvine to claw it back again. The time gap was meaningless, for lap after lap Irvine dogged the Canadian and made him work hard for his lead. Into the last lap and it still looked possible that Irvine could do it. Even into the last quarter of the circuit it looked like Irvine might - only might - just manage it. Into the final corner Irvine was still on the Canadians tail, but it was Villeneuves day, and he took the flag after a truly remarkable race.
Villeneuve Irvine R Schumacher Herbert Hakkinen Berger
-- 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