Japanese GP report

There was a long hold at the start of the race, as Coulthard put his hand to abort the start. A further five minutes would have to come between Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve's shoot out for the title. Five minutes in which the engine and...

There was a long hold at the start of the race, as Coulthard put his hand to abort the start. A further five minutes would have to come between Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve's shoot out for the title. Five minutes in which the engine and clutch temperatures would rise. Five more minutes for the world to wait and see who would be crowned world champion.

As the lights went out a Williams charged ahead and into the lead. The other dropping down the field to sixth. Against expectations it was Hill that was leading, and Villeneuve down the grid, having spun his wheels a little too much at the start. Berger and Hakkinen had made flying starts up to second and third, and Schumacher dropped down to 4th, with Irvine 5th. It wasn't long before we had the first retirement. Alesi slipped off the track and into the wall, cleanly removing the left side of his car. By the end of the first lap Hill only had half a second over Berger, as Coulthard pitted his car again. On lap 3 the first of the hear-in-the-mouth moments happened. As Hill and Berger came up to the chicane, Berger dived down the inside and the entry in a move that clearly was not going to work. The Benetton clipped the curb and damaged it's wing. The Williams of Hill was unharmed (and it would appear untouched), and so Hill was able to charge onwards as his rival for the lead dropped back and held up those behind whilst he made his way around to the pits. Indeed the field lost 2 seconds behind Berger (however, each lap Hill had made 1 second on them anyway). Berger was into the pits and rejoined in 14th place, and the Williams crew were also ready - just in case. Hill continued on with no apparant problems, and extended his lead to 4.6 seconds by lap 5. Villeneuve was making little impression in 5th place, and was lapping a good second a lap slower than Hill in the lead. The championship looked lost for Villeneuve.

Berger was making swift progress through the field, and by lap 7 was up to 12th (getting past Katayama and Verstappen). Villeneuve was going for it hard, but looked a little too ragged behind Irvine to do anything about him. Hill meanwhile was keeping a good 4.5 seconds between himself and Hakkinen in second. For several laps Villeneuve had a look at Irvine at the chicane, and finally on lap 12 makes it past him in a very brave manoevre by a lurid dive down the inside on the entry to the chicane.

Of the two title protagonists, it was Villeneuve who was now the faster - though in fourth place. On lap 13 with Hill going around in 1m45.8, Villeneuve was going around in 1m44.961 (the fastest lap at the time). Villeneuve soon pitted, and rejoined behind Berger in 10th. Was this a cunning strategy to take advantage of him not making an impression on those in front? If so it wasn't working as his Williams was held in the pits for extra time due to Barrichello coming down the pit lane. Back on the track Villeneuve made short work of Berger.

The Williams team were now ready for Hill and Schumacher pitted in a very good stop. Brundle also pitted, with Hill also pitting with a six second lead over Hakkinen. The pit entry road is especially long at Suzuka, and so a pit stop costs around 26 seconds. Hill found himself also been held for extra time in the pits as more cars came steaming into the pits on the same lap. The stop was an excruciating 11 seconds as a result....

Hill rejoined the race just ahead of Schumacher (who had been 26 seconds behind Hill in 4th), with Hakkinen also pitting from second. Villeneuve was now charging and setting fastest laps, with a 1m44.262 on lap 18.

Hill was now charging and in the lead still, and kept a 2 second cushion on Schumacher in second. Berger made his second - but first proper - stop on lap 22. Villeneuve was after Hakkinen who was in 3rd place. The Canadian was making a lot of corrections at the wheel in the process. A little further down the field Frentzen was challenging Barrichello for 8th. Hakkinen kept the Canadian behind, but struggled when he came upon an unco-operative Rosset. Somehow Villeneuve didn't take advantage. On lap 26, Katayama had a drama, losing his front wing in the process of trying to get past Rosset. Rosset soon received a 10 second "Blocking penalty", presumably for his behaviour with Hakkinen. On many close ups on the McLaren one thing was obvious - the front wing was very flexible, and was flapping up and down a great extent, especially when following other cars. The battle for 8th was getting more interesting, with Panis also joining in the fun.

On lap 30, Villeneuve was charging after Hakkinen still when he locked a wheel. On lap 32 Ann Bradshaw reported that Villeneuve had a puncture. Schumacher, Hakkinen and Villeneuve all pitted. Villeneuve rejoining ahead of Brundle (Hill, Schumacher, Hakkinen, Irvine, Berger, Villeneuve, Brundle). On lap 34, Hill also pitted in a very clean stop, and rejoined the race still in the lead, with about 2 seconds on Schumacher. On lap 34 Villeneuve set a fastest lap of 1m44.043, but followed that with problems getting past Katayama. Katayama was rewarded with a 10 second blocking penalty. Berger made his next out-of-sync stop in a superb 6.6 seconds. Then suddenly a Williams was off the track and stuffed in the gravel trap minus a wheel (it over took him in the process and went to visit the crowd). Villeneuve's wheel had somehow come detatched from the hub on the approach to turn 1, and so the Williams went into the kitty litter. Hill was world champion.

By lap 40 Hill was leading Schumacher by 3 seconds. Suddenly Irvine was facing the wrong direction at the exit of the chicane and retired. Berger must have been having an off day, as he made a move that never looked on - he dived down the inside of Irvine (who was a little wide, though not enough to go for), the two locked wheels, and the Ferrari was launched in the air and landed the wrong way around. It was at this time that the Williams team reported that Villeneuve's puncture had not been a puncture.

Towards the end of the race, Coulthard was having a good look at Herbert. He soon got by and was up to 9th. Hakkinen was not going to settle for 3rd behind Schumacher, and charged all the way home. At the front, Hill continued his serene march for the flag, and took it with 1.5 seconds over Schumacher. In the pit lane Georgie, Hill's wife, looked the proudest and happiest woman alive.

1. Hill 2. Schumacher 3. Hakkinen 4. Berger 5. Brundle 6. Frentzen 7. Panis 8. Coulthard 9. Barrichello 10. Herbert 11. Verstappen 12. Lamy

-- 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

F1/TouringCars http://web.ukonline.co.uk/Members/stephen.baines/index.html

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About this article
Series Formula 1
Drivers Jacques Villeneuve , Tiff Needell , Damon Hill
Teams Ferrari , McLaren , Williams , Benetton