|Belgian Grand Prix Review|
|Max Galvin, England|
Another Grand Prix over, and another dominant performance by a former World Champion. Although Jacques Villeneuve ruled in qualifying, in the race the master of Spa-Francorchamps, Michael Schumacher, humbled him.
Before the race
In qualifying, there were few surprises, with Villeneuve and Williams dominating the in dry as expected.
Benetton were also on the pace as expected, with Jean Alesi taking the second spot on the grid. Gerhard Berger was not so good, and after a brush with the armco on one fast lap, was left with a damaged car and ended up back in 15th place.
Probably the performance of the session was that of the Arrows team, and in particular Pedro Diniz. Not only was this the best performance in qualifying from Arrows in a long time, but Pedro beat Damon Hill fair and square for the second time this season. Considering this is considered to be a test of car AND driver, this was impressive indeed.
For McLaren, things were not so rosy, with Mika Hakkinen being briefly disqualified for fuel irregularities. McLaren appealed against this, hence his reinstatement, but if the hearing goes against them, they could find their result excluded and the team levied with a large fine.
Fifteen minutes before the scheduled start of the race, the rain started to fall heavily. Where in some areas the rain was heavy, but clearing well, in others (the bus stop for example) there was standing water on the ground. This hazard caused Ralf Schumacher to crash his Jordan-Peugeot on his out-lap on the way to the grid, leaving him a long jog to pick up the spare car before starting from the pits.
Also starting from the pits was Jarno Trulli, his race car having developed a fault that prevented it being used in the race.
Michael Schumacher was clearly irate with the decision to go ahead with the race and gesticulated at the marshals as he arrived on the grid. That this had any affect on the powers that be is doubtful, but the teams were told that the race would be started behind the safety car and would carry on like that until the track was safe.
Then the sun came out and confusion was reigned on the grid. Teams that had expected to run full wet setups now moved over to either full dry or compromise setups in order to get the best from the obviously changeable conditions.
So, at 2pm local time, the Belgian Grand Prix got underway behind the safety car (being driven by former British F3 champion Oliver Gavin). For 3 laps the cars drove at what was a pedestrian pace for them, but must have been right on the limit for the Mercedes at the front.
So bad were the conditions that Mika Hakkinen actually ran off the track at Les Combes and briefly passed the two cars in front of him before braking to let them pass.
As the cars came across the line for the start of lap 4, the proper race started, albeit now down to 41 laps of action rather than 44.
Immediately, Jacques Villeneuve started to pull away, but it was clear that this was more down to Jean Alesi slowing the field than to the pace of the Williams.
As the field crossed the line to end lap 4, Villeneuve had a 1.545-second lead over Alesi, who was only 0.276 seconds ahead of Michael Schumacher. This wasn't the case for long as Schumacher moved along the inside of Alesi at the La Source hairpin and forced the Benetton wide, taking second.
The next target was Jacques Villeneuve who should have been out of reach for the time being at least. Amazingly, Schumacher caught him on the run up to Les Combes and passed easily as the pair braked for the corner. The reason for this was clear, with Schumacher running a compromise setup that gave him greater grip in the wet where Villeneuve was apparently running a full dry setup.
It was soon clear that the lead Ferrari was in different class to that of the rest of the field and the former World Champion pulled out a massive 5.8 seconds over the first lap.
That Michael was on intermediate tyres and the rest of the field was on full wet tyres was one factor and Jacques Villeneuve decided that he needed these to stand a chance of winning the race. So, at the end of lap 6 Jacques arrived in the Williams pit for fuel and the new tyres. Intermediates seemed a strange decision however, as there was a dry line starting to appear, and with the track temperature rising, slicks looked to be the right choice.
At the back, Ralf Schumacher had to try his best to recover from starting from the pitlane. This caused him to fly off the track and into the gravel on lap 6, but luckily for him he was able to rejoin.
On the other hand, Prost-Mugen driver Shinji Nakano was not so lucky when he followed Ralf into the gravel less than a lap later. Unlike Ralf, Shinji allowed himself to get bogged down in the gravel, resulting in instant retirement.
With Schumacher lapping around 10 seconds a lap faster than the rest of the field, a tyre change was required for most of the drivers and most decided on slicks.
Alesi pitted on lap 7 and both Frentzen and Irvine stopped on lap 8, taking on fresh rubber and fuel before stopping.
Also in the pits on lap 8 was Rubens Barrichello, the Stewart-Ford driver coming in to retire after having made contact with Heinz-Harald Frentzen earlier in the race.
One lap later, Damon Hill arrived at the Arrows pit and demanded that his car be fitted with intermediates rather than the slicks that the other drivers were taking on. Apparently unable to pass his team mate earlier on in the race, Damon felt that more rain was imminent and this would give him the edge he needed to add to his points haul.
This left the top 6 as Michael Schumacher, Giancarlo Fisichella, Mika Hakkinen, David Coulthard, Pedro Diniz and Johnny Herbert.
David Coulthard was having a poor weekend (in terms of pace) compared to his team mate Mika Hakkinen and was being harried in the race by both Pedro Diniz and Johnny Herbert. Such was the relative lack of pace of the McLaren driver, that both Pedro and Johnny had little problem taking his place from him on lap 10.
Lap 11 saw Herbert, Coulthard and Villeneuve stop for slicks and fuel. This was already the 2nd stop for Villeneuve and the team was not happy with his decision to go against their advice about stopping on lap 6. The next lap around saw Diniz and Hakkinen amongst the front runners stop for their new tyres.
It was now clear that slicks were the way to go, as Mika Salo (Tyrrell-Ford) and then Jean Alesi set fastest race laps on laps 12 and 13 respectively. Not only was a Tyrrell setting fastest lap surprising, but also Jan Magnussen was actually in 3rd spot, having not yet stopped (although he stopped on lap 14).
The last important stop to occur was that of leader Michael Schumacher. The Ferrari driver arrived in the pits, took on fresh rubber and fuel, and was gone in around 8 seconds. Such was his lead however, that Schumacher emerged over 40 seconds ahead of second placed Jean Alesi.
So, with the first round of stops finished, on lap 16 the top 6 was as follows:
M.Schumacher -> 41.194s -> Alesi -> 12.942s -> Fisichella -> 4.927s -> Hakkinen -> 1.418s -> Herbert -> 1.310s-> Coulthard
Lap 16 was also the time when Damon Hill stopped to get slick tyres as it was clear that his intermediates were costing him 3 or 4 seconds per lap over the other cars.
Within 2 laps, however, it began to rain in some areas of the track, making some sections (from Stavelot to the Bus Stop in particular) very slippery.
It was this area in particular that claimed the next two retirements as on laps 18 and 19 respectively, both Tarso Marques and David Coulthard made mistakes that spun their cars out of the race. The latter must have been extremely happy that the 1998 McLaren contract was already in his pocket as his dismal performance would not have convinced even an F3 boss that he was suitable for his team.
The next victim was Jacques Villeneuve who was obliged to take to the grass after outbraking himself in the run up to Les Combes. Both of the Williams drivers were clearly faster than they had been, but both were suffering badly from their choice of a full dry weather setup on their cars.
Heinz-Harald Frentzen though had come to grips with the sliding car and was setting about passing Johnny Herbert for 5th place. The Sauber was carrying much more downforce than the Williams was and for several laps, Frentzen tried everything he knew in an effort to pass Herbert. With the extra grip, Johnny was able to outbrake his former team mate consistently, but eventually Frentzen managed to get a good run out of Eau Rouge and pass before the braking point at Les Combes.
On lap 22 Ralf Schumacher lost control of the Jordan and smashed head-on into the wall on the short straight after Les Combes. Ralf said that he had been driving as fast as possible to make up for it, but the car would not go as quickly as he wanted on the slippery track. This is presumably why he went off, but I'm sure the team will ask him why he just didn't take a little more care after he forced them to rebuild 2 chassis.
Lap 23 saw the second round of stops begin, with Alesi stopping and both Frentzen and team mate Berger stopping on the very next lap. This moved Giancarlo Fisichella into 2nd place, showing that driving within the limits of the conditions is better than running flat out and stuffing the car into the wall.
Surprisingly, both the Tyrrell cars were running strongly, with Jos Verstappen and Mika Salo both proving that a good chassis and driver combination is easily the equal of a works engine in difficult conditions. Sadly, Jos lived up to his reputation (deserved or not) as an erratic drive when he spun out after pushing too hard on the run up to the Bus Stop. Luckily, it was in a safer place than last year and he was unhurt.
On lap 30, both Mika Hakkinen and race leader Michael Schumacher stopped for the second and final time, Hakkinen being dropped to 6th and Schumacher having his lead reduced to a little under 28 seconds.
The next lap saw the arrival of Fisichella, Herbert and Villeneuve, emerging in 2nd, 5th and 8th respectively.
With Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger stopping on laps 33 and 34, the top 6 looked like this:
Schumacher, Fisichella, Hakkinen, Frentzen, Herbert, Villeneuve, with the gap between 1st and 2nd positions now a massive 37 seconds.
With 10 laps to go it seemed extremely unlikely that anyone could catch Michael Schumacher, but with the track almost bone dry, there was a chance that the extra downforce on the Ferrari could ruin the tyres very quickly.
Schumacher was prepared for this however, and took every opportunity to cool his tyres by running on the damp parts of the track down the straights. Similarly, Heinz-Harald Frentzen was also looking after his tyres in an attempt to get himself onto the podium.
Finally the conditions were dry enough to suit the Williams cars and Jacques Villeneuve began to set about reeling in Johnny Herbert to salvage as many points from the mess that he had made of the race so far.
Sure enough, Giancarlo Fisichella started to close on Schumacher, the Jordan running a lower wing setting, but was only taking around 1 second a lap from the Ferrari driver. Frentzen on the other hand was unable to get any closer to Mika Hakkinen than 1.5 seconds, try as he might.
Further back, Villeneuve was also having problems catching Herbert despite setting fastest race laps on consecutive laps.
For Eddie Irvine, things didn't work out as well as they had for his team mate and following a poor weekend, he was punted out of the race when he had a coming together with Pedro Diniz on the last lap. Where most will apportion the blame to the latter, Irvine himself said "On my last lap Diniz hit me at the chicane as he tried to pass me. Unfortunately this is the sort of thing that can happen when you are fighting for a place."
This is how the race finished, with Schumacher almost 27 seconds clear of Fisichella, who was in turn 4 seconds ahead of Hakkinen.
In the post-race press conference, Schumacher said, "I am more than happy today and it is hard for me to find the words to express how I feel. When I was on the podium I had no thought in my mind. I was simply enjoying the sensation of being very happy. From the start of the race, I felt we had made the right choice and that I could win. Winning at Spa is always special for me, as it is my favourite track."
M. Schumacher (Ferrari) G|
Fisichella (Jordan-Peugeot) G
Hakkinen (McLaren-Mercedes) G
Frentzen (Williams-Renault) G
Herbert (Sauber-Petronas) G
Villeneuve (Williams-Renault) G
Berger (Benetton-Renault) G
Diniz (Arrows-Yamaha) B
Morbidelli (Sauber-Petronas) G
Salo (Tyrrell-Ford) G
Alesi (Benetton-Renault) G
Magnussen (Stewart-Ford) B
Hill (Arrows-Yamaha) B
Katayama (Minardi-Hart) B
Irvine (Ferrari) G
Trulli (Prost-Mugen) B
Verstappen (Tyrrell-Ford) G
B: Bridgestone G: Goodyear
1h 33m 46.717s|
+ 1m 03.741s
+ 1m 25.931s
+ 1m 42.008s
+ 1m 42.582s