Report The weekend had been a bizarre one. If you thought that the voting in the Eurovision Song Contest had been wierd the night before, it had nothing on the points at the end of this race. Not only did a Williams not win, but neither did a...
The weekend had been a bizarre one. If you thought that the voting in the Eurovision Song Contest had been wierd the night before, it had nothing on the points at the end of this race. Not only did a Williams not win, but neither did a Benetton, a Ferrari or a McLaren. It wasn't one of the expected "possibles" either of Jordan or Tyrrell. In fact it was the first time that the driver had won a race, and his team had since 1981......
It was a wet race. All weekend it had been dry, then shortly after the morning warm-up it rained. And rained. And rained. It had stopped by the start, but all cars were on wets and ready for the off. Schumacher started from pole, and was expected to take the lead. Hill had other ideas and quickly dispensed of Schumacher by the first corner. Schumacher dispensed with himself shortly afterwards after hitting the armco at Portier and broke his left front supsension big time. Verstappen also joined the club, along with Fisichella. Barrichello and Lamy also joined the club, all in different places, and all quickly plucked from the track. So, it was Hill that lead the first lap, with Alesi 4 seconds behind, followed by Berger, Irvine, Frentzen and Coulthard. Coulthard was trying a new way of improving his race by wearing a helmet complete with Schumacher livery. Presumably by his efforts Schumacher was wearing Coulthards... Villeneuve made a good start and was up to seventh by the end of the first lap. So, at the end of lap 1 only 16 cars remained. Frentzen was a man on a mission, and was harrying Irvine for all he was worth. By the end of lap 2 Hill had extended his lead to 6 seconds, and 9 by lap 3. Katayama was soon out of the race, leaving 15 cars in the race. Hill was in a race of his own, setting the pace with laps around the 1m49 mark. TWR/Arrows/Footwork were soon set for a torid race, when Rosset went off by reversing into the Rascas. And then their were 14. By now Hill was a clear 11.6 seconds ahead of Alesi.
It was Irvine and Frentzen that provided the fun in the early stages, with the German trying this way and that to get by Irvine. Coulthard was just behind and threatening to do the same to Frentzen.
1. Hill 2. Alesi 3. Berger 4. Irvine 5. Frentzen 6. Coulthard 7. Villeneuve 8. Salo 9. Herbert 10. Hakkinen 11. Brundle 12. Panis 13. Badoer 14. Diniz 15. Rosset 16. Katayama 17. Schumacher 18. Barrichello
By now the cars behind Coulthard were also in the fight for fourth. Diniz soon went off, making 9 cars in 6 laps. At this rate the race would be over by the hour.... Panis is clearly a man with a mission, and soon tries to take Brundle. Hill was now 14 seconds ahead of Alesi, and setting a string of fastest laps. Frentzen was clearly being held up by the Ferrari ahead, as was the rest of the queue behind him. The two Benettons ahead were pulling away from Irvine, and they were making no impression on the Williams ahead.
Berger was clearly in trouble, he pulled into the pits on lap 10, was refueled, but no new tyres were fitted. He tries to pull away, stalled and retired. 10 retirements in as many laps. 25 minutes anyone? Irvine was in by far the widest car, with no-one finding a way by. Frentzen was piling on the pressure on Irvine, and it showed as the Ferrari slewed this way and that. By lap 15 the battle was getting very heated, with Frentzen being very determined to get by. A bit too determined as it turned out, as he clipped the rear of the Ferrari and turned his front wing around by 90 degrees. He made his way back to the pits and had a new wing and wheels fitted in an impressive 14 seconds. Hill was now 21 seconds in front of Alesi, and almost a minute ahead of the battle for third. Panis had made his way up to 8th by lap 20, and was the only driver to have overtaken more than one person in the race. The only other driver to overtake anyone was Hill at the start..... Frentzen was now way back and setting fastest laps, massively quicker than the Ferrari he tried to take before. Coulthard by now had dropped back from the Ferrari, and was holding up the traffic behind him. Hill and Alesi, clearly bored by now, set a string of fastest laps between them, then on lap 26 Frentzen pitted and fitted slicks. Alesi set a 1m41.466, then Frentzen did a 1m31.689. Clearly slicks were the way to go as Hill, Alesi, Irvine, and Panis all pit and go out onto the track. Brundle also went onto slicks and was soon off the track. Villeneuve also changed to slicks, and had the geurney flap removed from the rear wing. Panis was now the quickest man on the track, setting a string of sub 1m30 laps, reaching 1m28.540 by lap 33. On lap 35, Panis made his only real mistake of the race, pushing Irvine off at the hairpin. Irvine stalled, but rolled down the road and bump started it. He made it back to the pits, had a new nosecone fitted, and then promptly stalled it in the pits. He soon rejoined the race. On lap 37, Panis set another fast one, 1m27.603, followed by a 1m36.787. Irvine rejoined the track just ahead of Panis, but one lap down. Sensibly, the Ulsterman lets the Frenchman through.
By lap 40 it was clear the race wouldn't go to full distance. It was 39 laps or 52 minutes. Hill was commandingly in the lead, when suddenly going through the tunnel a huge cloud of smoke billowed out of the back. The Williams had blown a Renault engine, and Hill pulled off. It was now Alesi in the lead, and he looked set to keep it. By lap 41 only 9 cars remained (10 if you included the Forti of Badoer). Panis came up to lap Irvine on lap 44, and Coulthard was up to get the Frenchman. Irvine once again sensibly let him by. Lap 50:
1. Alesi 2. Panis 3. Coulthard 4. Herbert 5. Villeneuve 6. Salo 7. Hakkinen 8. Frentzen 9. Irvine 10. Badoer (sort of. Six laps back....)
On lap 53, Alesi pitted for fuel and tyres, and got away cleanly. He rejoined 11 seconds ahead of Panis. The skied were now darkening, and Panis was piling on the pressure on Alesi! He cut the lead to 10.8 seconds. On lap 60, Alesi pitted - clearly an unscheduled stop - and Panis took the lead.
1. Panis 2. Coulthard 3. Herbert 4. Villeneuve 5. Salo 6. Hakkinen 7. Alesi 8. Frentzen 9. Irvine 10. Badoer
The Benetton team were checking the tyre pressures and they were low. Irvine was now taking chunks out of Panis, though not on the same lap. Alesi retired. Coulthard was now in a battle for first with Panis, as he gets by Herbert. Panis was now taking the race by the scruff of the neck, and took his lead to 2.8 seconds. Then Panis came up behind Badoer and was held up. Coulthard started to catch, as he realises they may be a few laps ahead and lets them by. Coulthard was only 1.5 seconds behind Panis, but had Irvine inbetween. With 13 minutes to go Panis had extended his lead to 3.5 seconds. Badoer was not in a coherent frame of mind, and closed the door on Villeneuve at the hairpin, Villeneuve goes into the armco, and retires. Panis now had the race under control (it feels rather odd writing that), and extended his lead to 3.9 seconds with around 10 minutes to go.
1. Panis 2. Coulthard 3. Herbert 4. Salo 5. Hakkinen 6. Frentzen 7. Irvine 8. Badoer (sort of, he certainly was making his presence known)
With 9.5 minutes left the gap was down to 2.5 seconds, then 2.9 seconds. Irvine pitted for a splash and dash, and suddenly the gap was down to 2.5 seconds again.... With 7 minutes to go it was trying to rain, as Panis had a 3.2 seconds lead, then 3.3 seconds. McLaren were ready for a pitstop, when suddenly Irvine, Salo and Hakkinen all join their cars together.... Irvine spun out, when Salo and Hakkinen came around unseen and rammed the Ferrari. So, with 5 minutes to go only 4 cars remained (5 if you must include the Forti). On lap 72, with 2 minutes to go the order was Panis, Coulthard, Herbert, Frentzen. Panis had 2.5 seconds on Coulthard and looked set to win. They crossed the line about 20 seconds short of the 2 hour mark, and so went around again. In the end it was Panis who took the flag and won for Ligier. Who said Grand Prix's are boring?
1. Panis 2. Coulthard 3. Herbert 4. Frentzen 5. Salo 6. Hakkinen 7. Irvine
-- 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