Just 20 minutes before the start of the race it started to rain. And rain it did, with much of the track awash with water, the worst place being at the bus stop chicane where huge lakes had gathered. Ralf Schumacher went off the circuit on his...
Just 20 minutes before the start of the race it started to rain. And rain it did, with much of the track awash with water, the worst place being at the bus stop chicane where huge lakes had gathered. Ralf Schumacher went off the circuit on his way to the grid and had to run back for the spare, whilst Damon Hill was gambling on it drying and setting up the car for dry conditions. With 2 wet compounds and 3 tread patterns available the race looked set to be governed even more so than usual by tyres. With the track sodden it was decided that the race would be started behind the safety car so that the drivers could get used to the new conditions. This was a very sensible decision.
For 3 laps the cars circulated behind Oliver Gavin in the safety car, and the truly treacherous conditions could be seen. The highlight of these laps? Fastest lap Ukyo Katayama who set a 3m13s lap on lap 2. The safety car peeled into the pits at the end of lap 3, and the race began, with Schumacher having a good go at Alesi. By the end of lap 4 Villeneuve had 1.5 seconds over Alesi, only to see Alesi taken by Schumacher shortly after. Schumacher was not standing still, and soon had Villeneuve in his sights as well, and proceeded to take both of them within one lap. His brother was not so fortunate, taking another journey across the Ardenne countryside. Schumacher (on Intermediates, against the others wets) was pulling away, and by the end of lap 5 had a 5.8 second lead over Villeneuve, with Alesi, Fisichella, Hakkinen and Frentzen behind. The battle of the race was the one for 3rd between Alesi and Fisichella, with Fisichella taking Alesi, and then up to 2nd when Villeneuve made a very early pit stop for intermediate tyres. Schumacher on these tyres was pulling away at 10s a lap....
Further down the field Nakano was already out, whilst the battle for 5th was governed by the very tardy Williams of Frentzen (on the wrong set up) who held up the queue of Diniz, Hill and Herbert. The surprise of the race at this stage was Alesi pitting for slicks at the end of lap 7. Diniz and Herbert made short work of Frentzen, whilst Hill also got by almost forcing the German off the track in the process. The Stewarts followed through as well. This was not going to be Williams' weekend. Berger was the next of the front runners to pit for slicks, and set about the track, making a list of the two Benettons, Irvine and Frentzen on slicks. Fisichella soon joined them, whilst Hill made the odd move of Intermediates, almost colliding with Fisichella who was exiting the pits - the Jordan team failing to keep their driver in till it was clear to exit. Herbert and Diniz made very short work of Coulthard (whose tyres were well and truly shot), taking Herbert to 4th, Diniz 5th and Hill now 6th. Coulthard was now in for slicks also. His team mate was also having problems and going off the track. Hakkinen was also soon in for slicks.
A huge slew of pit stops ensued over the following laps making it nigh on impossible to keep a good track of what was happening on the track. This was one confusing race in the early stages. Schumacher became the only runner to run his expected pit strategy, pitting on lap 14 for his first stop (many of the others were already on their second stops) and onto slicks. His 67 second lead only dropped to 60 seconds over Alesi after pit stops. The German was simply in a class of his own. The order at the end of lap 14 was Schumacher, Alesi, Fisichella, Hakkinen, Herbert, Coulthard, Frentzen, Berger, Verstappen, Villeneuve, Hill, Diniz, Salo, Irvine, Morbidelli, Magnussen, Marques and Katayama. Things at the front were getting a little closer - the gap from Schuey to Alesi was now only 41 seconds..... Hill had to make another stop to get rid of his intermediates, and so went out onto the track with slicks, just as it started to rain again on some parts of the circuit. So with 19 laps gone the order was now Schumacher, Alesi, Fisichella, Hakkinen, Herbert, Frentzen, Coulthard, Berger, Verstappen, Villeneuve, Diniz, Hill, Salo, Morbidelli, Magnussen, Ralf, Marques, and Katayama. Marques was then the next to retire.
The Williams started to get better as the track dried, with Frentzen having a very good go at Herbert in the Sauber. Herbert was able to brake a lot later than Frentzen, and so kept him at bay for quite some time. Frentzen had a daring go at the entrance to the bus stop, but gave up at the last possible second, Frentzen finally managaing to get through at the start of the next lap. Frentzen was now up to 5th, with Hakkinen ahead. Schumacher was an untroubled 38 seconds ahead of Alesi at the end of lap 21, and further still the next lap when Alesi pitted for more slicks. The drivers seemingly at random pitted and so the leaderboard made very difficult readings of who was really where - other than that Schumacher was in a race of his own.
Ferrari were now preparing for their second (and scheduled) stop, being turned around in 7.3 seconds. The sun was now breaking out wonderfully on some parts of the circuit, on other parts it started to rain again (though not enough to send everyone pitwards). From laps 31-33 most of the front runners pitted, and by the end of lap 33 Schumacher had 43 seconds over Fisichella, who in turn had 7 seconds over Hakkinenn, Frentzen, Herbert and Alesi. Villeneuve was not a contender today. After a few laps Villeneuve won (and lucked) himself up to 7th place, and then found himself battling Alesi for 6th place, finally managing at Le Combe. Alesi just gave in.
And so the race continued, and finished with a bit of excitement when Irvine and Diniz collided on the last lap, and Hill pitted at the end of the penultimate lap with a wheel that felt loose. Schumacher showed what makes him worth the money Ferrari pay him today.
1. Schumacher 2. Fisichella 3. Hakkinen * 4. Frentzen 5. Herbert 6. Villeneuve
* Hakkinen racing under appeal for alleged fuel infringements.
-- 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