This was the weekend that Hill really should have won on. His chief rivals were both suffering (Villeneuve because he didn't know the circuit, and Schumacher because of his car) and a win here would enable him to take the title at the next Grand Prix in Belgium.
Before the race
As with the last race, Forti failed to show for the Hungarian GP, despite the team management saying that they had a new sponsor lined up to take the place of Shannon who defaulted on their payment. It now looks like Forti will miss the rest of this season at least and may well be forced out of F1 entirely, continuing the trend of new teams leaving in their second year.
Qualifying was the usual three horse race, with Schumacher, Hill and Villeneuve battling it out for the first three places. There were, however, a few pleasant surprises with Irvine taking the 4th spot in his Ferrari and Herbert (Sauber-Ford), Brundle (Jordan-Peugeot) and Katayama (Tyrrell-Yamaha) all outqualifying their usually faster team-mates. The biggest surprise of the race was Minardi, and former Pacific, pay-driver Giovanni Lavaggi, managing to qualify inside the 107% rule, and also being relatively close (7 tenths of a second) to his more respected team-mate.
As the grid formed up for the start, something that became immediately obvious was that off the racing line, the Hungaroring circuit was uncommonly dusty. Damon Hill had, we've been told, been attempting to clean his part of the grid in practice, but didn't seem to have much effect.
When the red lights went out, Hill made his now customary crap start.
"I am pretty disgusted about the start," he said. "The way the clutch works doesn't suit me and I have been working to get Williams to supply me with a clutch I can use more easily. I am going to have to concentrate even more on that and we will be going to Barcelona for testing, so I expect to be working on it then."
Excuses, excuses, some may say, but whatever the reason, both Villeneuve and, more importantly for Hill, Alesi got by into the first corner. Due to Hill's slow start, both Berger and Irvine were slowed down and couldn't take advantage of their own good starts. This aside, the order into the first corner was Schumacher, Villeneuve, Alesi, Hill, Irvine and Berger, the top 3 constructors monopolising the top 6.
Inevitably, there was a first lap accident, this time on the approach to turn 2. Pedro Diniz (Ligier-Mugen Honda) and Mika Salo (Tyrrell-Yamaha) tangled as they fought for the racing line and both spun, the Tyrrell becoming the first retirement on the spot, and the Ligier retiring in the pits. Pedro Diniz has come in for a lot of criticism this season (I've been one of his critics) but seems to be making the transition from rich-boy to racing driver at last, outqualifying Olivier Panis at one race so far.
>From the very start, Schumacher's Ferrari and Villeneuve's Williams were in their own race, with Alesi clearly holding up Hill behind them.
"I lost the race in the first 10 laps," Hill said "It was over, Jacques and Michael were long gone. I considered coming in earlier, but the best strategy would have been to carry on and do a two-stop. I thought I knew what I was doing, but the strategy changed after the first stop."
The gap was becoming bigger with every lap and by lap 5 it was approaching 4 seconds. The problem was not that Hill wasn't fast enough to pass Alesi, but more that the circuit and current technical regulations do not make overtaking easy and if he was to force the issue an accident could occur.
On lap 6, Martin Brundle managed to make the Jordan team even more miserable by understeering off the track into the gravel and doing a significant amount of damage to his wings and suspension, ending his race there and then. The Jordan-Peugeot combo promised much at the start of the season, but has consistently failed to repeat the form that was shown in Brazil. Peugeot are known to be disappointed by this lack of success and may well be looking to fresh pastures for 1998.
Lap 11 saw the now inevitable excursion/retirement of Jos Verstappen in the TWR Arrows-Hart, as he flew off the road. Jos was another who promised much at the start of the season (as his reported $5,000,000 price tag goes to show) yet has really lost the plot over the recent races. Rumors have linked him with McLaren, TWR and his former employer at Benetton for 1997, but he will have to be a bit more careful if he wants his career to continue in F1.
By the end of lap 11, the Schumacher-Villeneuve battle was 14 seconds ahead of the Alesi-Hill fight. Another problem for Hill was that although Irvine and Berger were not exactly on his tail (3 second gap to Irvine and 6 second gap to Berger), any mistake would have moved the Ferrari and Benetton close enough to cause problems.
2 laps later, the first stop of the race occured, with Heinz-Harald
Frentzen coming in for the first of what looked like 3 stops, taking 6.5
seconds, confirming the 3 stop theory. This left the top 10 in the
Schumacher, Villeneuve, Alesi, Hill, Irvine, Berger, Hakkinen, Herbert, Coulthard and Barrichello.
On lap 16, Eddie Irvine made a mistake, running wide and allowing Berger to make the only change in the top 6 positions by passing the Ferrari while it was trying to rejoin.
Lap 19 and Schumacher was in for his first stop, taking on fuel and new tyres in 7.9 seconds. As a result of this, Schumacher rejoined in 5th, between Berger and his team-mate, Irvine. This was the first of the important stops and after this, the the next 2 came in in quick succession. Villeneuve came in on lap 21 rejoining 3rd and Alesi on lap 23, rejoining 3rd (Villeneuve having moved up to 2nd due to Alesi stopping).
At this point it became clear that Alesi had been holding Hill up to the tune of at least a second a lap as he quickly set the fastest race lap so far (1m 20.929) and started to increase the gap between himself and Villeneuve. Hill knew that he was going to be coming in for a stop relatively soon and had to make the best of his tyres and low fuel load to make up some of the defecit. Hill later said that he had wanted to change from a 3 stop strategy to a 2 stop strategy, but the people on the pit wall didn't so he was overruled.
The McLaren-Mercedes cars have been looking a lot better of late (certainly the best for we've seen since Senna left), but today was not to be David Coulthard's day. As the Scotsman exited the last corner on lap 24, the gearbox locked up on him, pitching him into a spin that left the MP4/11 stranded at the side of the track. This lap also saw the first stop (of what was probably going to be 2 stops) for Gerhard Berger, the Benetton team getting him underway in 9.2 seconds.
Finally, on lap 25 came the stop that most people were waiting for, that of Damon Hill. The Williams-Renault was stationary for 6.8 seconds, before powering down the pitlane to come out a cat's whisker behind Jean Alesi, promoting Villeneuve to 1st and Schumacher to 2nd, albeit 10 seconds behind the leader. This state of affairs only lasted for a short period as Hill passed Alesi when the Frenchman ran wide at turn one, allowing Hill to get through.
On lap 32 the world saw what it had been expecting for the whole race... a smoking Ferrari. This time as with the last race, Eddie Irvine was the recipient of a ride back to the pits because of gearbox failure. The F310's were using the original titanium-carbon fibre 6-speed gearbox at Hungary, but are expected to move to a new, steel 7-speed 'box for the Belgian GP in a week and a half.
Once again, the race settled down as is often the case after the first
round of stops with:
Villeneuve 1st (10s), Schumacher 2nd (20s), Hill 3rd, Alesi 4th, Berger 5th, Hakkinen 7th, Barrichello 8th, Panis 9th, Frentzen 10th, Katayama 11th, Rosset 12th and Lavaggi last (his team-mate having retired in the pits almost unnoticed on lap 25).
Almost immediately, Hill started setting fastest race laps, almost every lap, eating into Schumacher's lead as the Ferrari dropped back from one Williams to within the grasp of another. The rest of the field was in a similar position, few cars were close enough to each other to race so each driver had to concentrate on going as fast as possible without falling off the track, rather than concentrating on other drivers.
Lap 36 saw Herbert retire from what was his most competitive race this year (we'll ignore the bizarre Monaco GP result), qualifying and running ahead to team-mate Frentzen for the whole weekend and looking comfortable in his track position. Herbert needs more races like this if he is to stay in F1 in 1997, particularly as there seems to be more good drivers than seats for next year.
On lap 39, the gap from Villeneuve to Schumacher was over 17 seconds and Hill had cut the lead down to 12 seconds, but this all became academic as the number 1 car came in for it's second tyre and fuel stop (6.9 seconds for those who care), moving Schumi behind Hill, yet in front of Alesi.
One lap later, the leader also came in for his second stop (7 seconds),
but Hill never had a chance to complete a lap as leader as he stopped on
the next lap (6.7 seconds). This left the field in the following
J.Villeneuve (1st), M.Schumacher (2nd), D.Hill (3rd), J.Alesi (4th), G.Berger (5th), M.Hakkinen (6th), R.Barrichello (7th), O.Panis (8th), H-H. Frentzen (9th), Katayama (10th), Rosset (11th) and Lavaggi (12th).
The order remained like this (with Villeneuve edging ahead and Hill reeling Schumacher in), until lap 46 when Jean Alesi drove his Benetton- Renault into the pits for his second stop (8.7 seconds) emerging in 6th place behind team-mate Berger and Mika Hakkinen. Berger in turn pitted on lap 49, dropping down to 6th, behind Alesi.
Again, this wasn't the case for long as Hakkinen pitted on lap 52 for the second and last time, dropping behind Alesi and Berger again. This lap also saw the retirement of the second Sauber-Ford, driven by Heinz- Harald Frentzen, as the German drove his car into the garage because of an unknown failure (unknown by me at the time of writing at least). As this was all happening, Hill was giving viewers and spectators alike a reminder of why he is the Championship leader with a superb display of controlled driving, talking almost a second a lap (at times) out of the lead that the Ferrari had over him.
2 laps later, Micheal Schumacher pitted for the final time (9.7 seconds), going from 2 seconds ahead of Hill to 25 seconds behind him (although he managed to stay ahead of the Benetton's). This left Villeneuve 26 seconds ahead of Hill with almost enough time for a pit stop without losing the lead.
As it happened, there wasn't enough time as a cross-threaded right-rear wheel nut, cost him 8 seconds in the pits (lap 58) and left him 15 seconds behind Championship leader Hill, although once again Hill didn't have much time to savour the feeling of leading the Grand Prix as he came in 2 laps later. The stop went off without a hitch (6.6 seconds) and he rejoined the track 7 seconds behind Jacques Villeneuve. Finally it looked like we would have a race on our hands between the two Williams drivers with Hill giving chase to his young Canadian team- mate.
On lap 65 Berger managed to continue his, and Renault's, run of bad luck by blowing another engine up (he lost an engine at Hockenheim while leading). As he said himself after the German GP "I may be only 7th in the Championship, but people seem to forget that I have had a lot of bad luck this season, usually when running in the points". In some quarters there have been suggestions that Renault have reduced their interest in F1 since they announced that they are pulling out. Personally I don't believe this, but there have been a lot more failures this season than ever before. Mind you, maybe this is because we expect them the be indestructable.
So, with around 11 laps to go there were the signs of a real fight starting. Hill began to cut into the lead by around a second a lap at first, but when Villeneuve realised this he started to go a lot faster, at one point lengthening the lead. This didn't continue though because through the traffic, the Canadian seemed to have more problems than his team-mate. By lap 70, Villeneuve's lead had been slashed to under 2 seconds, but there was no place that Hill could pass and not risk taking both cars off (not a good thing to do when you are about to wrap up the Constructors' Championship).
On lap 70 (7 laps from the end) Schumacher's race came to an end, a mechanical failure ending his chances of earning 4 points for himself and his team. This brings the total of non-finishes to 9 from 10 starts for Ferrari, the worst set of results since the 70's. Schumacher is said to have signed for 1998 already, but I can't help but wonder if this could be a big mistake.
The death of the last Ferrari left the runners in the following
Villeneuve (1st), Hill (2nd), Alesi (3rd), Hakkinen (4th), Panis (5th), Barrichello (6th), Katayama (7th), Rosset (8th) and Lavaggi (9th) [NB Lavaggi was officially classified as 10th due to being behind Schumacher on the track].
The final 7 laps saw Hill doing his best to look for an opening, but Jacques drove an unusually smooth set of laps (he usually locks wheels and slides all over the place) and kept him behind. At the flag, Hill was only 8 tenths of a second behind, and the pair crossed line in formation, making the 5th Williams 1-2 of the year.
The win left Hill 17 points ahead of Villeneuve in the Championship and
the odds are against the Canadian managing to take the title as even if
he won every race and Hill came second, Hill would still win.
At the post-race conference, Hill was quick to criticise his start and
the cause, but the final word should be given to the winner:
"I am especially happy to have beaten Damon on the race track, particularly one that is not my kind of place."