Damon Hill 3 - Opponents 0. The second race on the new Buenos Aires circuit proved to be a bit short of the mark for racing but still had a few redeeming features.
Qualifying gave few surprises in terms of positions but the best drives of the weekend were by Schumacher, for getting his ill handling Ferrari onto the first row in a visually spectacular style, Verstappen, for managing 7th in the Arrows-Hart, and to Marques for getting the underpowered Minardi up to 14th, well ahead of his team mate. A mention, also, has to be made of the Forti team making the second race in a row, albeit with Badoer almost a second faster than Montermini.
Verstappen is showing that the form from the start of last season was not luck and is looking like potential World Champion material. The Arrows-Hart is underfunded but is clearly a good package and I expect the TWR run team to achieve it's aim of a top 6 finish in the Constructors Championship.
The track also deserves a mention here for it's bumps. Parts of the circuit had been attacked with a JCB by a touring car driver who had felt badly done by in his race a few weeks previously. The damage didn't seem to be properly repaired as the bumps were visible of television. Jacques Villeneuve said that the bumps were spine jarring and the bump at the end of the pit straight even managed to set off the fire extinguisher in Johnny Herbert's Sauber-Ford. The drivers complained about this and the officials tried to remedy the problems with concrete, but apparently this had no discernible effect.
As the lights switched off (still doesn't sound right does it), Hill and Schumacher made flawless starts with Alesi making a storming run and Villeneuve dropping down to 9th behind Verstappen. As the leading four cars of Hill, Schumacher, Alesi and Berger streamed away from the rest of the field, the McLaren of David Coulthard (now 5th from 9th on the grid) was holding up the cars behind him and disappointing his fans I have no doubt, much to the delight I'm sure of Villeneuve who set about getting back up the field, passing everyone including Coulthard in 8 laps in his charge to fifth.
The front runners were a significant amount faster than everyone else on the track and Hill, Schumacher and Alesi were running in close formation, never close enough to try anything but still pulling out a lead over Berger. On lap 16, Hill started to lap the back of the field, passing Badoer and a slowing Mika Salo, whose Tyrrell-Yamaha has, once again, failed to live up to it's preseason testing promise. Later in the lap, both Marques and Salo would come in, the Minardi driver for his scheduled stop and Salo to fix an undisclosed problem. Brundle, on a 1 stop strategy was passed by Ukyo Katayama, another driver who hasn't lived up to his 1994 promise. On lap 19, after an unimpressive race, Mika Hakkinen brought his McLaren-Mercedes into the pits and retirement because of a sticking throttle, which looks like a recurring problem with the MP4/11 this year.
Three laps later on lap 22, the first of the front runners, Schumacher, came in for his first stop, relinquishing his second place to Alesi and rejoining in 4th. The Benetton-Renault would only have the place for one lap as Alesi was coming in for his stop. Even though Alesi's stop was around a second faster than Schumacher's, the German squeezed past him when he rejoined the track, indicating that Schumacher is as fast on cold tyres as he is on race temperature tyres. On the next lap, Hill, still leading, and Berger, now up to 2nd, both came in for their first stops. Both drivers left the pits without mishap and the leaders returned to their original places (Hill, Schumacher, Alesi, Berger) when Villeneuve stopped on the next lap.
Until this point there was little going on in the race with only Hakkinen and Rosset retiring but all this was soon to change. On lap 26, Luca Badoer's Forti tangled with Diniz's Ligier-Mugen Honda and was flipped onto it's rollbar. For a few seconds there was no movements but then the steering wheel dropped free and Luca started to fall out of the car. The marshals were inexplicably just standing around. Admittedly there were still cars moving at race speed around that part of the circuit, but that's their function at the track and they should have been helping him get out of his car. All of this brought out the pace car and demolished the five second lead that Damon Hill had over Schumacher and the 40 second lead that he had over Villeneuve in 5th. For the next five laps, the field would follow the Renault Clio safety car in what is supposed to be a way of slowing the race and ensuring that there are no more problems until the race restarts. This wasn't the way it worked, however, with Katayama going off with a differential problem and, more spectacularly, Diniz's race ending in a ball of fire.
Murray Walker thought that the engine broke and severed a fuel line, creating a fire but to me it looked like the fuel filler cap failed. The resulting fireball engulfed the Ligier and Diniz spun into the gravel trap. Obviously he moved very quickly, but I have never seen a driver get out of his car so fast, and the lucky (maybe he should be considered unlucky) Brazilian escaped with only light burns to his hand.
For another 2 laps the field followed the pace car, swerving from side to side to keep some heat in the tyres and then the race started again with the drivers having to do one lap without overtaking. On this warming up lap Frentzen seemed to suffer from a lapse in concentration, spinning his Sauber-Ford into the gravel at turn 2 for no apparent reason. Strangely enough, this corner also proved to be a bit of a problem for Marques as, on the next lap, he also forgot what he was doing and drove into the back of Martin Brundle's Jordan-Peugeot just after the man from Kings Lynn lapped him, putting both of them into retirement.
At this point, the race settled down into the same pattern as before with Hill pulling away from Schumacher, Schumacher from Alesi and so on down to Villeneuve. Hidden just below the top 6 were David Coulthard and Jos Verstappen who were fighting a spirited battle for seventh place. Lap 40 saw Schumacher coming in for a slightly early pit-stop and the retirement of Pedro Lamy from 13th in his Minardi-Ford. Schumacher's stop took 12 seconds, some 5 seconds longer than his previous stop and it started to look like he had a problem. Over the next few laps I examined the number 1 Ferrari as well as I could and I noticed that the rear wing was badly bent (later we were told that it had been damaged by something when he was following the pace car).
Lap 44 and Alesi came in from second place for his second, and final, stop of the afternoon. The Frenchman managed to stall the Renault engine as he tried to move off and lost at least 10 seconds in the resulting rush to start the engine again. This meant that he had dropped behind Schumacher's Ferrari. In typical Alesi fashion, he set about catching the Ferrari and was behind it as the two cars entered the pit straight on lap 45. At turn 1, Alesi managed to outbrake Schumacher but it soon became obvious that it was more Schumacher's car that was helping the Benetton driver than his own, as even cars that were a lap or more down on the German were soon passing him as he slowed down. Lap 46 saw the end of the World Champions race, with poor rear grip and severe vibrations cited as the reason. The same lap also saw off Mika Salo and his Tyrrell-Yamaha that most people thought had stopped on lap 16. This outstanding driver must surely get a top drive next season with the skills that he obviously possesses and I think he is a more mature driver than his compatriot Mika Hakkinen.
Between lap 50 and 52, Villeneuve, Hill and Berger all came in for their final stops and returned to the track in the same order they came in. All was not well for Berger as he returned to the pits a lap later suspecting a puncture. A quick tyre change later and he was off again, only to park the car on the grass a lap later with his suspected puncture turning out to be damaged suspension.
From here on in, the top 3 remained in formation with Hill leading Villeneuve by 15 seconds and Villeneuve leading Alesi by 5, despite the best efforts of Alesi to catch him. The only change in the order was, in fact, Verstappen overtaking Coulthard in a classic maneuver at the end on the straight, moving the Arrows up to 6th and denying McLaren driver of any points that he was hoping for. The last bit of drama was in the Jordan pit, with the team contemplating bringing in Barrichello from fourth to splash a bit of fuel into his tank as he was running low. Oddly enough, of the remaining runners, both Alesi (3rd) and Irvine (5th) broke down on the slowing down lap (presumably from running out of fuel) but the Jordan driver managed to make it to the Parc Ferme.