Before the track temperature dropped a few crucial degrees, which helped to produce the faster times that were a feature of the latter stages of qualifying, Mika Hakkinen, in the McLaren-Mercedes, seemed poised to start from the first pole of his career. But moments before the flag fell, Heinz-Harald Frentzen shaded his time by 65 hundredths of a second, making the most of a radically different qualifying set-up that, he said, made his car feel much better. But then Villeneuve stole the limelight from his Williams-Renault team-mate, beating him by 0.134sec.
"They went quicker, that's all there is to it," a resigned Hakkinen said. He had set his quickest lap early in the session and then sat back to monitor developments. "Up until the last five minutes I was confident I could keep the pole. And I did one more lap that was three-tenths faster than my previous best at the first two split sections, but then I ran into traffic."
As Hakkinen had set the pace with a lap of 1min 21.797sec half way through the one-hour session, Frentzen and Michael Schumacher seemed his strongest threats. But then Villeneuve got close with a 1min 21.918sec lap that left dust clouds hanging as he put a wheel in the dirt exiting the Woodcote corner that leads on to the pit straight.
"The track temperature was higher so the times were quite a bit slower," Villeneuve said. "But then that cloud came over right at the end." His final lap of 1min 21.598sec was an unexpected success. "It was pretty good," he admitted, "but I didn't think I'd get the pole because I made a couple of mistakes."
Behind him, Hakkinen and Schumacher shadowed Frentzen in third and fourth places respectively, but behind them the competition was so closely bunched that a mere seven-tenths of a second separated first from 11th. Schumacher's brother, Ralf, in the Jordan-Peugeot manufactured just across the road from Silverstone's main gates, made up for the error that had seen him spin on his first lap of the weekend, by taking fifth place just ahead of David Coulthard in the second McLaren. Eddie Irvine, in the second Ferrari, Alexander Wurz and Jean Alesi in the Benetton-Renaults, Johnny Herbert in the Sauber-Petronas and Giancarlo Fisichella in the second Jordan were all left with tales to tell of the fractional improvement that could have moved them up several places.
"There's no question that the field is closing up," Villeneuve agreed. "When you are ahead, you know it's that much more difficult to improve and now other teams are beginning to find out how to set their cars up for the latest tyres."
Gary Anderson, the technical director of Jordan, offered a less prosaic suggestion: "Williams have irritated people by being one and a half seconds a lap faster for the last few years and that tends to motivate you to catch them up."
Despite the challenge to his supremacy, Frank Williams smiled his usual calm, poker player's smile and agreed that the season was turning out much the way he had anticipated. "You can never underestimate Ferrari," he said in response to the Italian team's lead in the drivers' and constructors' championships. "Their performance is absolutely no surprise to me."
And he countered the accusations that part of Villeneuve's recent downturn is that he has been forced to run chassis set-ups that he does not like. "Patrick Head is an enormously experienced technical director and one of the most intelligent people in the paddock. People from other teams have offered huge amounts of money to lure him away. But there is no way that Patrick would ever tell a driver that he had to run a specific set- up. That's not the way he works. But he has got 20 years experience behind him, so of course it makes sense for drivers to listen to his input."
Eighteen years ago, Frank and Patrick stood on the threshold of their very first triumph, when Clay Regazzoni won the British Grand Prix. With 98 further successes under their wheels, today could yield the milestone 100th. But Frank has no time for sentimental indulgence and says it means little to him.
"It doesn't really mean much at all. To me, it's just another race, and, of course, we want to win. The historical aspect isn't something that I dwell on at all, though I would point out that when Ferrari and McLaren passed the 100 mark they temporarily stopped winning."
That is clearly not on the agenda for the team which, despite its eroded margin of superiority, still rose to the occasion yesterday. But Hakkinen is similarly focused and, despite missing out on pole, he is confident of a good race. "I haven't been driving as well as I should be this year," he admitted. "The car is very good, but it's just me. I don't really know why, but believe me I have been working very hard on it. I'm here to win and I believe I can. I know my car is very quick in race configuration and I am feeling very positive."
This afternoon, the three most successful teams in history go head-to- head, but yesterday Schumacher sat serenely through all the drama. As usual, the Ferrari has suited Silverstone far better than he has been letting on and, whatever happens today, he will carry the championship lead with him on his home ground at Hockenheim in two weeks' time. Graphics Omitted.Reuse content