A British Grand Prix crowd expected Damon Hill to extend his lead in the title odyssey, and Hill had every reason to believe they would not be disappointed. However, from the sluggish start that sucked him from pole position into the pack, Hill was anxiously grappling with new lines, ultimately to no avail.
He was written out of the show at the start of the 27th lap, a front- wheel locking device sabotaging the Williams-Renault and sending it into a high-speed spin which deposited him into the gravel trap on the outside of Copse Corner. Villeneuve, already in command of proceedings, knew the only obvious danger had been removed from the cast. The rest was relatively straightforward and he completed the 61 laps 19sec clear of Gerhard Berger's Benetton Renault.
The Benetton challenge did not end there. They protested that the front- wing end plates on Villeneuve's Williams were illegal. The stewards deliberated until deep into the evening before deciding otherwise, and the result stood. Mika Hakkinen, in a McLaren-Mercedes, was third, Rubens Barrichello, in a Jordan-Peugeot was fourth, David Coulthard (McLaren) fifth and Martin Brundle (Jordan) sixth.
Villeneuve had reduced his partner's advantage in the championship to 15 points and, although Hill remains the favour- ite, he will not underestimate the potential of the opposition. Villeneuve's second win in 10 Formula One races, on the circuit where his late father, Gilles, made his debut 19 years ago, will serve to fend off the criticism of his general use of the best car in grand prix racing.
Villeneuve's knowledge of this track, where he and Hill pound out most of their test miles, reinforced an unshakeable self-confidence, and having resisted Jean Alesi's characteristic assault at the first corner, he pulled away from the hounds. "After my first win I've been second most of the time behind Damon so I wanted to reply," Villeneuve said.
"I've closed the gap and on a day like today the points difference can disappear very quickly. I don't know why Damon had a bad start, and I don't care. I'm just happy he did." Ahead lies unfamiliar territory for the 25-year-old, beginning with Hockenheim, and the German Grand Prix, in a fortnight. He must also anticipate a renewed offensive from his team- mate.
Hill, who doubtless smiled to himself when the Ferrari again failed Michael Schumacher, this time because of a hydraulic fault which forced him to retire after three laps, was less amused to be stuck behind Hakkinen. More than once he poked the nose of the Williams down the side of the McLaren, and each time he thought better of an attempt to overtake. Hill appeared to be taking another stab as they made for Copse at 175mph, but suddenly the car whipped round and the Englishman's day was done.
He said: "I felt something wrong four or five laps before and radioed in to the team to say I had a problem. It's a real shame because although Jacques had a good advantage, I still could have gone with a one-stop strategy, and there's every chance I could have gone on to win. I could have come second at the very least.
"I had a bad start and with a heavier fuel load I couldn't get past Mika. But the fact is the car broke, so I would not have scored points anyway. Motor racing is not an exact science. Something seized at the front and just pitched me off the road.
"A 15-point lead is still very valuable to me. I need everything I can get from now to the end of the season. I've been telling everyone you can't count on a 25-point lead lasting that long. The way things go you have to have retirements now and then. Ferrari have had it a lot worse than we have. The only thing to do now is look ahead."
Ferrari, who also lost Eddie Irvine early in the day, must pray Hockenheim and beyond provides a passage from this torment. Jean Todt, their beleaguered team director, said: "It's a nightmare. We don't seem to be able to give Michael the quality of car he deserves. But things will be different in Germany, and they have to be because that is his home grand prix."
Schumacher, champion for the past two seasons with Benetton, has accepted the title is beyond his reach this time. Still philosophical, he said: "I feel more sorry for everyone else in the team than for myself. It is often the case that little things cause the biggest drama. But together we must overcome this difficult moment and we will succeed."
Alesi was put out of the race with a wheel-bearing failure, clearing the way for Berger to claim his best result for Benetton. "It has been a hard season for me and my team so I am very happy today," the Austrian said.
Hakkinen was gratified to have his first podium finish of the season, while Johnny Herbert, the winner of this race last year, was back in the real world yesterday, eighth in the Sauber Ford.
British Grand Prix
1 J Villeneuve (Can) Williams-Renault 1hr 33min 00.874sec 10pts
2 G Berger (Aut) Benetton-Renault +19.026sec 6
3 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes +50.830 4
4 R Barrichello (Braz) Jordan-Peugeot +1:06.716 3
5 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes +1:22.507 2
6 M Brundle (GB) Jordan-Peugeot +1 lap 1
7 M Salo (Fin) Tyrrell-Yamaha +1 lap
8 H Frentzen (Ger) Sauber-Ford +1 lap
9 J Herbert (GB) Sauber-Ford +1 lap
10 J Verstappen (Neth) Footwork-Hart +1 lap
11 G Fisichella (It) Minardi-Ford +2 laps
Did not finish (not classified):
12 J Alesi (Fr) Benetton-Renault 44 laps completed
13 O Panis (Fr) Ligier-Mugen-Honda 40
14 P Diniz (Braz) Ligier-Mugen-Honda 38
15 D Hill (GB) Williams-Renault 26
16 P Lamy (Por) Minardi-Ford 21
17 R Rosset (Braz) Footwork-Hart 13
18 U Katayama (Japan) Tyrrell-Yamaha 12
19 E Irvine (GB) Ferrari 5
20 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari
Fastest lap: Villeneuve 1min 29.288sec (127.81mph)
1 Hill 63pts
2 Villeneuve 48
3 Schumacher 26
4 Alesi 25
5= Coulthard 16
8 Panis 11; 9 Barrichello 10; 10 Irvine 9; 11 Frentzen 6; 12 Salo 5; 13 Herbert 4; 14 Brundle 3; 15= Verstappen, Diniz 1.
1 Williams-Renault 111
2 Benetton-Renault 41
3 Ferrari 35
4 McLaren-Mercedes 32
5 Jordan-Peugeot 13
6 Ligier-Mugen-Honda 12
7 Sauber-Ford 10
8 Tyrrell-Yamaha 5
9 Footwork-Hart 1