Motor Racing: Villeneuve holds Irvine at bay in tactical thriller

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The Independent Online
The best Formula One season in years continued in the sweltering heat of Buenos Aires yesterday when Jacques Villeneuve fought off the challenge of Eddie Irvine and a debilitating stomach upset that left him exhausted in the cockpit, to win a tactical cliffhanger of a race by just less than a second.

"It was really, really tough and I had to push very hard. The team did a good job but I think we chose the wrong tyres," Villeneuve said, admitting that the team hadn't expected anyone to stop just once. "After that last stop I pushed very hard, but one of my front tyres was blistered and Eddie was really charging. I wasn't sure I could hold him off. He gave me a really hard time today."

"It was a great race," Irvine said, "but in the end I just couldn't quite make it."

This gripping fight began as it meant to continue, when a collision between Olivier Panis and Michael Schumacher was narrowly avoided as the German moved across the Frenchman. Then Schumacher really did hit the back of Rubens Barrichello's Stewart-Ford in the first corner, and as they became entangled, David Coulthard's McLaren lost a wheel when the Scot ran into the back of Ralf Schumacher's Jordan. The Ferrari team leader was eliminated, as was Coulthard, and the safety car was deployed while the debris was cleared away.

This worked to Villeneuve's advantage insofar as Schumacher was out of the race, but the Canadian's impressive initial lead was eroded as Heinz- Harald Frentzen, Panis, Irvine, Giancarlo Fisichella, Damon Hill and Johnny Herbert headed the field as it bunched up behind the safety car.

For four laps they trailed round, but when the racing resumed on the fifth lap Villeneuve spurted ahead again as Panis began to pressure Frentzen. The German was feeling better after the head cold that had dogged him all weekend, but the feeling did not last for long for that very lap the second Williams-Renault slowed dramatically before grinding to a halt.

Villeneuve was also feeling unwell and had been taking plenty of fluids in the morning to relieve his stomach upset. But though Panis attacked hard in the opening laps, the Canadian stabilised the situation and began to draw clear.

When Panis dropped out on the 18th lap Villeneuve gained a respite, but a fresh challenge was brewing. The tight nature of the Autodromo Oscar Galvez makes overtaking even more difficult and pit stop strategy was thus of even greater importance. Where Williams and Ferrari had opted for Goodyear's softer compound tyres, Jordan, Benetton and McLaren went for the harder tyres and fewer pit stops.

After Ralf Schumacher had benefited when Irvine and Herbert made their first calls, and then ceremoniously removed Jordan team-mate Fisichella from second place on the 25th lap by tearing a leaf out of big brother's book by tapping him into a spin, the precocious German began to make serious inroads into Villeneuve's lead. By the 34th lap it was a mere 2.6 sec, but then Schumacher made his pit stop.

Villeneuve's second stop came on the 38th lap, and then it became clear that while Irvine was on a two-stop policy, Villeneuve and Williams had opted for three, to make the car as light as possible to ease the strain on its troubled driver. As Irvine thus led for Ferrari, Villeneuve's advantage over Schumacher was 9.6 sec.

Further back, Damon Hill's terrific start, which had seen him sixth on the first lap, was negated when Jean Alesi pinched him in the first corner on lap 18. Both of them spun, and resumed their fight behind Hill's Arrows team-mate, Pedro Diniz, Jos Verstappen, Mika Hakkinen and the fast recovering Rubens Barrichello. Neither Barrichello nor Hill lasted the course, however, dropping out on laps 25 and 34, respectively.

Irvine made his second pit stop on the 44th lap, handing the initiative back to Villeneuve, but when the Ulsterman regained the track still ahead of Schumacher, 9.1sec behind the Williams and just over three ahead of the Jordan, he emerged as Villeneuve's main threat as he settled into his best-ever F1 performance.

Villeneuve stopped for the last time on the 56th lap, and then it became a question of whether his 23.3sec lead would be sufficient to enable Williams to service his car and rejoin before Irvine overtook. The blue and white car was stationary for a mere 7.2sec, however, and as Villeneuve swept back on to the track, Irvine was just appearing over the start line.

With 16 laps left the first three were equally spaced, just over four seconds apart, but Villeneuve seemed to have things under control and just had to keep everything smooth on the way to the most welcome chequered flag of his brief but impressive F1 career, and the victory that drew him level with his late father Gilles' tally. But as Schumacher's challenge faded in the closing stages, Irvine was safe in second place and able to push really hard as he began to entertain ideas of a maiden victory.

With 10 laps to go, the Ferrari was only a second and a half behind its quarry. A lap later it was less than a second and Villeneuve was patently tiring. Yet it was as much a mental trial of strength, too. They were nose to tail with three laps left, cheered by thousands of Ferrari fans, but each time Irvine challenged, Villeneuve dug deep to find just enough extra momentum. It was without question the race of his life.

In the excitement Schumacher's wonderful performance, sadly, was eclipsed, but his third place was a great fillip for Jordan in its 100th grand prix. Fourth place was the subject of an equally gripping contest as Herbert just kept his Sauber-Petronas ahead of Hakkinen's McLaren-Mercedes and the hard-charging Gerhard Berger's Benetton-Renault, but this was a day when spectators had eyes only for the first two drivers.

1 Jacques Villeneuve (Can) 10pts

(Williams-Renault) 1hr 52min 1.71sec

2 Eddie Irvine (GB) 6pts

(Ferrari) +0.98sec

3 Ralf Schumacher (Ger) 4pts

(Jordan-Peugeot) +12.09

4 Johnny Herbert (GB) 3pts

(Sauber-Petronas) +33.03

5 Mika Hakkinen (Fin) 2pts

(McLaren-Mercedes) +30.35

6 Gerhard Berger (Aut) 1pt

(Benetton-Renault) +31.39

7 Jean Alesi (It) Benetton-Renault +46.46; 8 Mika Salo (Fin) Tyrrell- Ford at 1 lap; 9 Jarno Trulli (It) Minardi-Hart at 1 lap; 10 Jan Magnusson (Den) (Stewart-Ford) at 6 laps.

Did not finish (not classified): Nicola Larini (It) Sauber-Petronas at 9 laps; J Pedro Diniz (Bra) Arrows at 22 laps; Shini Nakano (Japan) Prost- Mugen-Honda all +1 lap. Jos Verstappen (Neth) Tyrrell-Ford at 29 laps; Ukyo Katayma (Japan) Minardi-Hart at 35 laps; Damon Hill (GB) Arrows- Yamaha at 39 laps;Giancarlo Fisichella (It) Jordan-Peugeot at 48 laps; Rubens Barrichello (Bra) Stewart-Ford at 48 laps; Olivier Panis (Fr) Prost- Mugen Honda at 54 laps; Heinz-Harald Frentzen (Ger) Williams-Renault 67 laps Did not complete one lap: Michael Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari; David Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes.

Fastest lap: Berger 1:17.981 (174.269 kph/ 108.289mph)