With less than an hour to go before the race the skies opened, and rain fell to the track. Most of the field sensibly chose to go for various types of wet tyres, the notable exception being the Williams team who later said they had information...
With less than an hour to go before the race the skies opened, and rain fell to the track. Most of the field sensibly chose to go for various types of wet tyres, the notable exception being the Williams team who later said they had information that the track would dry up half an hour into the race. The rain, though, was constant, though not a downpour. Intermediates were thought to be the option for today.
With Frentzen on pole, and Schumacher beside him a tense start was expected, however it turned into a damp squib with Schumacher tearing into the lead, with Fisichella following through. Frentzen was down to third with Ralf chasing hard behind him. The elder Schumacher was tearing into the lead, with those behind barely able to keep anywhere near the pace. The man on the move, though, was Barrichello who was already up to 6th place. Diniz was the first retirement, spinning off at Portier. The McLaren of Coulthard was next to spin at the new chicane, and narrowly avoided being hit by the next few cars through. Hakkinen (his team mate) however did not avoid him and piled in, knocking his wheel off. Coulthard managed to get going and limp around. Somehow in the melle Hill had a coming together with a Benetton and Ferrari who had come to a stop and his race was over. It was now the end of lap 2, and Schumacher held a 11 second lead over Fisichella.
Villeneuve, seing the error of the Williams Way pitted on lap 4 for wets on a car set up for dry conditions. In the process of pitting he almost collected the pit wall. Frentzen continued to drop back and was now back in 7th place. By the end of lap 4 Schumacher had a 17 second lead over Fisichella, with second to fifth covered by 2 seconds. Villeneuve's pit stop threw him down the order - down in 18th place behind Larini. Ralf Schumacher had a little moment, half spinning, alowing Herbert to take advantage. Larini spun for the second time in a lap, whilst Frentzen pitted very slowly. The Saubers, however, did not look good in the wet, though Herbert was doing his best at pushing Fisichella, whilst Schumacher Sr was having a lurid wide moment at Mirabeau, and Barrichello moved up to second, with Ralf taking Fisichella for 3rd! By the end of lap 7 Schumacher had 27 seconds over Barrichello. Trulli, further down the field, paid for being a gentleman to Frentzen, slithering into the barriers allowing Frentzen through. Herberts race was over on lap 10 with a coming together with a barrier. Berger also joined in the Barrier Kissing Club at Mirabeau, losing his front wing in the process, necessitating a 20+ second pit stop.
Frentzen was now up to 15th place, and Ralf Schumacher entered Casino Square - literally! In the process he had lost a wheel. His race was over. 1996 anyone? Eddie Irvine had a lurid moment at the chicane, whilst Barrichello joined in the fun at the chicane. Villeneuve was going very slowly, until Schumacher came up to lap him. Suddenly the Canadian found 2 seconds a lap, and then passed the Prost of Nakano (who looked very out of place again). By the end of lap 15 Schumacher had a 30 second lead over Barrichello, who in turn had 17 seconds over Fisichella, with Panis a further 7 seconds behind, followed by Irvine and Salo. Schumacher eventually got past the Canadian to lap him, with Barrichello and Panis the fastest on the track. Alesi was now on the tail of Salo in 6th place, then just as quickly lost it, spinning at Portier, got going again and almost collected Magnussen in the process, then stopped again and stalled. Exit one Benetton. Villeneuve was in the pits again in his vile handling Williams, which was handling even viler after an altercation with a barrier, and retired. His team mate, Frentzen, was now up to 10th place.
Panis was charging again, and making progress on Fisichella. Larini retired from the race now on lap 23 with a right rear puncture (presumably after hitting something). At the 1 hour mark (it was definitely going to be a 2 hour race) Schumacher pitted quickly. The Panis-Fisichella battle became a threesome with Irvine joining in. Panis then made a wonderfully decisive and well though out move after taking an unusual line from the entrance of the tunnel, down through the chicane and into the swimming pool to take Fisichella at the exit. Deflated, he was soon picked off by Irvine as well. At the front (and back) Schumacher lapped his Williams-shoed countryman in 9th place.
THe order now on lap 36 was Schumacher, Barrichello, Panis, Irvine, Salo, Fisichella, Magnussen, Verstappen, Frentzen, Katayama, Nakano and Berger. Frentzen was the next to have an excursion, going down an escape road, but surviving for another day. The Prost team were now ready for a stop. Panis pitted well and cleanly, and lost a place. Frentzen also was pitting. Whilst all this was going on the Prost of Nakano somehow ended up going downhill on the uphill section to casino square. Barichello pitted for the Stewart team, with a very smooth unrushed stop.
Frentzen, like his team-mate, was suffering from a foul handling Williams in the conditions, and tried to modify the steering by launching over the kerbing at the new chicane into the barrier, continuing for a little while before the double-point-in wheel arrangement decided it had had enough. This was surely the worst performance from the Williams team in many a year. Ferrari were ready for a stop for Irvine, who had a very loose looking Ferrari. Eventually he pitted with a very clean stop, keeping his third place from the Prost of Panis. Magnussen was next to pit, and soon was rearranging the front wing of the Stewart. Salo was looking good in 5th place and was notable for being the only driver who hadn't stopped (with only 15 minutes to go it looked unlikely as well). Then drama! The excitement! Schumacher went off at St Devote - could a Stewart really be about to win? - he then kept it going, and rejoined the race in the lead having lost 10 seconds from his 85 second lead..... Drama over. Salo was the only driver in danger of losing a place in all reality, with Fisichella chasing for 5th place.
The order was now Schumacher, Barrichello, Irvine, Panis, Salo, Fisichella, Magnussen, Verstappen, Berger and Katayama. With three minutes to go Magnussen spun off at the chicane (easily the most popular spot this year), but kept the car going, and back into the race. It was over 2 minutes to the end of the show, the Ferrari in the lead would have two laps to go, unless he slowed down. And Schumacher did slow down. A lot. Almost to a stop a few yards from the line, only to accelerate the last few yards to take the win a second or two over the magic two hour marker, and Schumacher and Ferrari into the championship lead. Few would have predicted that a race or two ago.
1. Schumacher 2. Barrichello 3. Irvine 4. Panis 5. Salo 6. Fisichella 7. Magnussen 8. Verstappen 9. Berger 10. 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