After Silverstone, Jacques Villeneuve and the World Championship are back on nodding terms, but his victory - the 100th for Williams - was anything but clear-cut. From the pole, Villeneuve narrowly led Michael Schumacher's Ferrari, but a loose wheel, and then a disastrously slow pitstop, seemed to have put him out of the reckoning.
Schumacher then took up the lead, and appeared set for his third win on the trot, but a rear wheel bearing failure put him out 20 laps from the end, and towards the end it was Mika Hakkinen's McLaren, on only a one-stop strategy, which was left to fend off the recovered Villeneuve. Six laps from the end, sadly, Mika's Mercedes V10 blew up, and thus it was a cruise for Jacques.
The Benettons of Jean Alesi and Alexander Wurz, steady rather than swift, claimed the other podium positions, with David Coulthard a disappointing fourth, Ralf Schumacher fifth - and Damon Hill sixth, the world champion in his tardy Arrows-Yamaha at last taking a 1997 point. The crowed loved that.
After two hot days of practice and qualifying, the elements for the race day were more uncertain. "When we were here for testing," said poleman Jacques Villeneuve, "we had some trouble getting heat into the tyres, so I hope the sun stays out."
Schumacher had been leading when a rear wheel bearing failed © LAT
Michael Schumacher, of course, was hoping for the very opposite, and not only because he is much better in the wet than anyone else: Ferrari's F310B may have come on dramatically in recent races, but to some degree long, fast turns remain its enemy, mid-corner understeer overheating the front tyres.
For Damon Hill, it was simpler still. He wanted rain for his home grand prix, because on a wet track his Bridgestone-shod Arrows-Yamaha had a tilt at being competitive. After Tom Walkinshaw's suggestion that he had lost motivation recently, Hill qualified the car 12th(the best-placed Bridgestone runner), and in the race morning warm-up - run in wet, then merely damp, conditions - he was fastest of all.
"The intermediate tyres worked well," Damon said. "We had a lot of fuel on board, so this is a genuine indication of our competitiveness in these conditions. Problem is, the weather conditions are going to be very tricky to call."
In point of fact, the weather looked set as race time neared, and the skies were not painting a picture Hill wanted to see. Clouds remained, but they were wispy and a dry race it was going to be.
Heinz-Harald Frentzen was the first story of the afternoon, and not for any reason that was good. Having put his Williams-Renault on the front row, he stalled it on the grid, and caused the start to be aborted. That being so, he had to take the second start from the back, and from there his British Grand Prix lasted half a lap. In short order he passed a couple of cars before tangling with Jos Verstappen at Becketts. The Tyrrell had to stop for a new nose, but the Williams bounced off the road, out for the day. This is not how you impress Patrick Head.
Heinz-Harald Frentzen's race ended on the opening lap © LAT
Heinz was not, though, the first man to retire, for Ukyo Katayama had somehow contrived to spin into the pitwall as he took his Minardi away from the grid, and the position of the damaged car prompted a decision to bring out the pace car. Villeneuve, Schumacher and the rest completed two laps at racing speed, then took up station behind the Mercedes; at the end of lap four, they were given the signal to go again.
Jacques later said that it had taken him a little by surprise, that he hadn't been expecting a restart on that lap despite the fact that the pace car's lights were out. Whatever, he kept the lead, from Schumacher, Coulthard, Hakkinen, Johnny Herbert, Schumacher Jr and Eddie Irvine.
It didn't look as convincing as qualifying had suggested, however, the lead hovering at a little over a second. "Somehow the front left wheel had become loose," Villeneuve said, "and that made the car very difficult to drive. I had to turn the steering much more than normal, and it was slow to react. Obviously, something was wrong, but I wasn't sure what it was, so I just concentrated on keeping ahead of Michael until the first stops."
For all of that, the two of them were into a race of their own, drawing clear of third man Coulthard at the rate of a second a lap, and more. Although David had qualified only sixth, he made his usual scintillating start, and was up to third by the first corner.
Among those he passed away from the grid was his team-mate Hakkinen, and this would cost Mika very dear, for this weekend he was decidedly the faster of the McLaren drivers. It was soon obvious that Hakkinen was being held up, and one wondered why, with Villeneuve and Schumacher disappearing into the distance, Coulthard was not directed by his pit to allow Hakkinen to get on with the pursuit of them.
The tyre stops began early, Jan Magnussen coming in on lap 14, then Hill on 15 and Rubens Barrichello on 16. All these were on Bridgestones, which was a surprise, given the Japanese tyres' reputation for longevity, but the Goodyear runners, too, were on their way in. Schumacher stopped on lap 21, but by now the McLarens had fallen so far back that he was able to return to the race without losing second spot.
Coulthard (left) made his usual scintillating start © LAT
A lap later, that became the lead. At the end of his 22nd lap, Villeneuve brought the Williams in, and now the loose front wheel caused another problem. "Somehow," Jacques shrugged, "it had got stuck and it took a long time to change it." Indeed it did. Long after the fuel was in, the other wheels changed, the mechanics were slaving away on the left front, and when finally Villeneuve got the signal to go, he had been stationary for almost 34 seconds, and was down to seventh.
It looked now to be on a plate for Schumacher, and Villeneuve accepted that. "At that point I thought the victory was gone - I was much too far back to think about catching Michael. On the other hand, although we'd lost a lot of time, everything felt okay after the stop, so I was able to push."
Schumacher, though, was out of range, and lapping very fast indeed, his cause aided further by the fact that Coulthard, now up to second place, was still obviously delaying Hakkinen, as well as Giancarlo Fisichella, who had caught the McLaren pair. Although he had stopped, and they had not, Michael led by 16 seconds.
Finally, on lap 28, Coulthard locked his brakes once too often, and slid wide, which allowed Hakkinen to go through; in a matter of two laps, he put four seconds between himself and his team-mate, who now found both the Benettons and the fast-recovering Villeneuve large in his mirrors.
More stalemate followed. The revised, faster, Silverstone may still be a significantly better racetrack than it was, but it still offers little chance for passing - not even to the driver of a faster car. "That part of the race was frustrating," Villeneuve said. "Coulthard and the Benetton guys hadn't been in yet, so their tyres were pretty tired, and they were sliding around a lot. Even though my car was very strong, it was impossible to run right behind another car - and pass."
On lap 30, Coulthard came in for his one and only stop, dropping from third to 10th, and at the same time Schumacher was badly held up by Fontana, this allowing Hakkinen to momentarily close the gap. At the end of the 33rd, though, Mika made his stop, rejoining in eighth place. Still to come in were the Benettons, now second and third, and still delaying Villeneuve.
As Alesi came in for tyres and fuel on lap 36, the complexion of the British GP changed. Schumacher's Ferrari, way ahead, suddenly had smoke trailing from its left rear wheel, and at the end of the 37th Michael was into the pits. They changed the wheels, and sent him out again, but almost immediately he throttled back, then completed the balance of the lap at a cruise, driving straight into the Ferrari pit.
The left rear wheel bearing had failed, and Schumacher, as usual, handled disappointment well. "Yes, it was a shame, but I'm not too disappointed because I was comfortably in the lead when it happened. In qualifying, I think Williams still have a slight advantage, but in the races I would say we are now competitive." Yes, Michael, quite.
He was not the only driver to depart in this period of the race. Barrichello's Stewart retired with a blown engine, and a similar fate awaited team-mate Magnussen.
Given that qualifying, too, had been a saga of broken engines (and that both Tyrrells retired with V8 failures), Silverstone can hardly be counted as a great weekend for the Ford Motor Company, but if the new P7 engine is as yet, unreliable, on performance it seems to be a marked advance on the P6.
Barrichello retired after 37 laps with a blown engine © LAT
Schumacher's retirement, together with the Benetton pitstops, left Villeneuve in the lead once more, with Irvine second, then Hakkinen, Alesi, Wurz and Coulthard. Jacques admitted that it was a great relief to see Schumacher go out of the lead.
"They used to retire quite often last year, but this year they've been finishing everywhere, so actually it's great to see something like this happening, because we've had our share of mechanical problems this season, and in terms of the championship it balances things out," said Villeneuve.
Schumacher's was the first 'mechanical failure' in a race by Ferrari in 1997. The second came only 10 minutes later, when Irvine, accelerating away from his pit after a stop, had his right halfshaft fail. No points for the Scuderia.
As Irvine retired, so Villeneuve lost the lead, the two of them making their second stops at the same moment, at the end of lap 44. When Jacques returned to the race, he was some six seconds behind Hakkinen, and the chase was on.
On its fresh Goodyears, the Williams swiftly hacked into the McLaren's lead: 5.5, 3.3, 2.7, 1.9, 1.0, it came down like that. But this is contemporary F1, where catching a car is one thing, overtaking it quite another. It was coming down to what looked to be a sensational finish, and if truth be told, most were hoping that Hakkinen could hold on, finally score that first victory which should have been his so many years ago.
Mika and Jacques had their own opinions of what would have happened. Of one thing there was no doubt: the McLaren's left rear tyre was blistered. "That," said Hakkinen, "allowed Villeneuve to catch me, but I had everything under control, and there was no way he could have got past."
"I think for sure I would have got him," countered Villeneuve. "Hakkinen was sliding around more and more, and I was just waiting for the last few laps..."
Hakkinen waves to the crowd after his retirement © LAT
In the event Jacques had no need to do that, for on lap 53, with but six to the flag, smoke erupted from the back of the McLaren, and the luckless Hakkinen could only pull off. He sat in the car a long time, taking in that he was not, after all, to make the top step of the podium. Then he climbed wearily out, waved in salute to the spectators and threw them his gloves. "This weekend," he said, "I have experienced every emotion in racing, I think, and of course the best feeling was leading. Now I have to wait for Hockenheim, where we can try again..."
Villeneuve acknowledged that it would have been a real fight. This, after all, was for a win, not merely for a place. "Both Mika and McLaren really needed a win," he said, and he admitted to feeling some sympathy for them. But the mask didn't slip completely: "You're not here to be nice to the other guy."
Thus, he cruised in for his fourth win of the season, and moved within four points of Schumacher in the World Championship. A lucky victory? "Mmmm, yes and no. I suppose any race you win after a 33-second pitstop is lucky - but then we had some bad luck earlier in the season, when the Ferrari was always finishing. Hockenheim won't be the best circuit for Williams, because it's long straights, slow corners, low downforce, but I think we're back on track again, and that's what counts."
Alesi and the precocious Wurz (third in only his third grand prix) found their Benettons' handling difficult in the early part of the race, when the cars were very fuel heavy. "There was too much oversteer then," commented Jean, "but after our poor qualifying performance, we really had no option but to go for one stop. And later in the race, on the second set of tyres, my car wasn't bad at all."
Coulthard may not have had a distinguished weekend, but he finished fourth, salvaging something for McLaren, and Ralf Schumacher was in the points for the third time, after a good, if untypically unobtrusive, drive in the Jordan-Peugeot.
Inevitably, though, it took Hill to bring the crowd to its feet. Very well, only a blown engine in Shinji Nakano's Prost-Mugen Honda brought Damon into the points for the last couple of laps, but he was cheered to the rafters when he took the flag, and rightly so.
"It's pathetic really," he smiled afterwards, "but on the slowing down lap I was getting all choked - and I'd only got one point! This really was the best we could hope for, and today I actually feel as if I've won something..."
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