This was Gerhard Berger's first race back after his illness and his fathers death. It was also the first non-Williams or Ferrari pole in a long time. That it was Berger on pole sent a lot of tongues wagging - especially after his anouncement that...
This was Gerhard Berger's first race back after his illness and his fathers death. It was also the first non-Williams or Ferrari pole in a long time. That it was Berger on pole sent a lot of tongues wagging - especially after his anouncement that he would not be driving for Benetton in 1998.
At the start Berger got away well, as did Schumacher who rapidly was up to third ahead of Hakkinen but behind Fisichella. Not so good was the start of Marques who was out almost as soon as the race started. Even more disastorous was the starts of Irvine, Coulthard and Frentzen. The German made an impossible move on Irvine (and later expressed surprise at the result). Frentzen tried to go around the outside of Irvine from a long way back at the first corner, and Irvine shut the door on him. Frentzen didn't budge, and so one shredded rear tyre for the Ferrari, and one shredded front tyre for the German. Both made it back to the pits - the Ferrari clearly out with a large chunk of side pod missing, and on fire. Frentzens car was examined and was also out with suspension damage. Coulthard was also into the pits early on with a broken front wing mounting that lead to a spin. So by the end of lap one the order was Berger, Fisichella, Schumacher, Hakkinen, Alesi and Villeneuve.
Berger was having a wonderful race, and pulled away from Fisichella very easily, and by the end of lap 6 had a 5.2 second lead. For lap after lap he extended the lead. Further back, the reigning world champion had managed to take Herbert for 10th. Diniz soon was also up on Herbert, but colided - exit one Arrows.
Villeneuves tenure of 6th place looked shakey, with Trulli and Ralf Schumacher in close pursuit. Villeneuve was having a bad race, and was making no progress on Alesi, and dropping back all the time. Hill was the first to make his pit stop - on lap 11 - after getting stuck in a gaggle of cars. The order on lap 13 was now Berger, Fisichella, Schumacher, Hakkinen, Alesi, Villeneuve, Trulli, Ralf Schumacher, Barrichello, Magnussen (both Stewarts using the Series 7 engine), Fontana, Nakano, Salo, Verstappen, Hill, and Katayama.
On lap 14, Berger had extended his lead to 10.5 seconds over Fisichella. Further back, Fontana spun off the track, and rejoined the race - initially travelling in the wrong direction. I'll say no more. Alesi was the first of the front runners to pit during the window of the expected two stoppers, and rejoined in 9th. Berger followed on the next lap, and rejoined in 4th, behind Hakkinen. Berger made very short work of Hakkinen, and was soon on the trail of Schumacher and Fisichella. Villeneuve soon likewise pitted, as did Hakkinen and Schumacher. Berger was now up to second with Fisichella ahead. The gap? 8.6 seconds. The order was now Fisichella, Berger, Trulli, Alesi, Schumacher and Hakkinen. Fisichella pitted at the end of lap 23, and rejoined the race ahead of Alesi. Berger now found himself some 18 seconds over Fisichella. He really needed to extend that to 25 seconds if he was to keep the lead after his second stop against Fisichella's one. Magnussen's Ford let go.
Berger was now extending his lead by about a second a lap, as Alesi stopped for his second stop at the end of lap 30. Ralf Schumacher was not in good shape, with his wind screen coming loose, and he spent much of his time on the straights trying to re-attatch it! On lap 33, the In board went out for Berger, and in he came with just a 19.6 second cushion over Fisichella. It was not enough, rejoining the race just behind Fisichella. It was very close. Things got worse for Williams with Villeneuve spinning off apparantly on his own.
Barichello's Ford also let go and he joined Magnussen on the list of retirements. Berger was all over the Jordan of Fisichella, and made surprisingly easy work of it, just cruising by him out of the Ostcurve. Berger pulled away.... By lap 36, Fisichella was some 2.4 seconds behind the Austrian, when his left rear tyre punctured. Apart from a minor spin, he safely got the car back to the pits - a quick check and new tyres and he was out on the track again. Schumacher also made a last minute stop (was there a problem with the Goodyears?), and Schumacher just managed to keep second. The order was now Berger, Schumacher, Hakkinen, Trulli, Ralf Schumacher, Alesi, Fisichella, Nakano, Hill, Fontana and Verstappen.
Fisichella's brave attempt at keeping going was soon over, with the Jordan retiring after an oil pipe was damaged during the tyre failure - apparantly caused by hitting something very sharp. And so, Berger continued to make the fairy tail return to Formula 1, and took the win from all the expected winners. A wonderful return for Gerhard.
1. Berger 2. Schumacher 3. Hakkinen 4. Trulli 5. Ralf Schumacher 6. Alesi 7. Nakano 8. Hill 9. Fontana 10. Verstappen 11. Fisichella
-- 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