Motor Racing: Sunday could have turned out a lot worse than it did

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The Independent Online
What a result! No one at Rothmans-Williams-Renault had expected Ferrari to be such a threat in the Belgian Grand Prix. Michael Schumacher's win was, perhaps, an example of how Jacques Villeneuve and I had been so intensely focused on competing against ourselves for the drivers' championship that maybe we took our eyes off the competition.

The crucial aspect from my point of view is that I came away from Spa- Francorchamps with a couple of points and Jacques managed to score just four more than me. That was a better result than it might have been. At one stage during Sunday's race I expected Jacques to win. I was quite surprised when they told me on the radio that he had actually finished second.

From where I was, some way down the order, it had been impossible to see exactly what was going on. I had been told that Jacques was running behind Schumacher and I assumed Jacques was bound to overtake the Ferrari eventually and win the race. From my position - ninth place at the time - everything was looking dire, particularly as I was struggling a bit with the spare car.

I made the switch not long before the start because of concern about an incident which had taken place during the warm-up earlier in the day. I had spun off the track and about half an hour before the race was due to start it suddenly occurred to me that the car had been in gear with the engine running when I had spun backwards. We looked at the incident on the video and the slow-motion replay showed the rear wheels make three revolutions in reverse while the car was in second gear. In effect, the wheels were taking the engine the wrong way.

I discussed the possible consequences of the spin with my Renault engineer, Denis Chevrier. It was clear from him that reversing the engine was not something which Renault had much experience of, and why should they - they are designed with only forward rotation in mind. So I decided to take the spare car. More than anything else I had to be sure of finishing, particularly as Jacques would have the advantage of starting the 13th round of the championship from pole position.

I made a better start than I expected, considering there was water on my side of the track, but I was very surprised when David Coulthard's McLaren shot past me on the long climb up the hill. That put me back to fourth place. Although the handling of the spare car was quite good I found I had too much understeer, particularly when running in close company. I was preparing to have small changes made to the car during my first pit stop when I came across an accident which, indirectly, would change the course of the race for the Williams team.

Jos Verstappen had gone off the road in a big way. I came round the corner to find tyres from the protective wall bouncing and rolling across the track. There were bits of debris everywhere and I had no alternative but to brake hard to avoid the tyres that were rolling across the track. But in order to miss the tyres I had to run over a large piece of suspension that was lying on the track. Thankfully, it didn't do any damage to me or the car. It was no surprise to see the appearance of the safety car, behind which we would have to run while all the wreckage was cleared.

This coincided at almost exactly the same time the pit stops were due and I received a message to come in from Adrian Newey. As I headed towards the pit lane, the entrance of which bypasses the chicane, and just before I actually got to the point where the pit-lane barrier starts, I was suddenly told to stay out.

This meant I couldn't rejoin the track directly and I had to work my way through a little chicane and then be held by a marshal until the track was clear. That cost me two places as Mika Hakkinen and Gerhard Berger went through. By the time I finally made my pit stop and rejoined I was in 13th place, at the back of the queue trailing along behind the safety car. I looked in my mirror and could see just one car behind me so, as far as I was concerned, I was as good as last.

The confusion had been caused when Jacques, who was due to come in before me, failed to hear the message due to communication problems and didn't stop. I had been told to come in also, but the pit was of course then set up for delivery of Jacques' fuel and tyres.

In hindsight, I could have come in but would have had to wait while they changed over all the equipment and tyres. This would have made it a long stop, but not nearly as much of a loss of time as I eventually suffered by being the last person to stop.

The team is under extreme pressure at times to make split-second decisions that can dramatically alter the race. This was one of those moments. It's like tossing a coin. Sometimes the wrong side turns up. Spa-Francorchamps just didn't go my way, and that's all there is to it.

I made up some places during the final phase and the car felt much better. Berger was pushing me hard in the closing stages so, all in all, I was very fortunate to get those two points at the end of such an eventful day. With three races left to run Jacques has reduced my championship lead by four points to 13.

The outcome of Sunday's race in terms of points was the same as the pair of us finishing first and second. On reflection, had Jacques made his first pit stop on schedule, he probably would have won the race and I would have finished third. That would have meant that he would have gained six points on me rather than four. Quite honestly, Sunday could have turned out a lot worse than it did.

Damon Hill Grand Prix Ltd

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