The Canadian's victory in the British Grand Prix was the 100th by a Williams driver and few can have been more precious for a team clinging to its status as the pre-eminent force in motor racing.
A jammed wheel nut on the Williams-Renault appeared to have frustrated Villeneuve's prospects and handed the race to Michael Schumacher, who began the day 14 points ahead in the driver's standings. Then, for the first time this season, the Ferrari let down the German and the road was open again.
Second place would have been a welcome reprieve for Villeneuve, but when Mika Hakkinen's McLaren-Mercedes expired six laps from the end the Williams had a clear run to the line. They resume hostilities, on Schumacher's home ground, a week on Sunday, separated by just four points.
Jean Alesi, of France, and Austria's Alexander Wurz, in only his third grand prix, claimed the other podium places for Benetton-Renault, a result which will bolster morale in a camp still seeking inspiration and direction post-Schumacher.
David Coulthard, hindered by brake problems, in the other McLaren, finished fourth, Ralf Schumacher, of Jordan-Peugeot, was fifth and, to the delight of driver and supporters alike, Damon Hill profited from the ever-lengthening casualty list, inheriting the final scoring position. One small point for man...
The celebrations, therefore, stretched from the distant and previously embattled Arrows- Yamaha compound to the top end of the paddock, where the champion team were gratefully toasting Lady Luck.
Patrick Head, William's technical director, admitted: ``We were very lucky because of Michael's problems. He was very strong. His single fastest lap was immensely fast. You never give up but my view was that second place was the best place we would achieve.
``You could say luck again went our way when Hakkinen went out, but chance and luck in this business tend to even out over a period of time. Sometimes it is with you, other times against. It was certainly with us today.''
Villeneuve was of the opinion fortune had, in fact, been even handed over the course of the afternoon's proceedings. ``We needed luck because we had bad luck at the start,'' he reasoned.
In effect, he suffered his first set back before a wheel had turned in anger. His team-mate Heinz-Harald Frentzen fought a losing battle with his clutch on the grid, and when they regrouped for the delayed start the second Williams was consigned to the back. That left Schumacher, who qualified fourth, with an uninhibited run down the inside to the first corner.
Villeneuve held on to the advantage afforded by pole position, but could not erase the image of Schumacher from his mirrors. The Ferrari came in a lap earlier than the Williams and Schumacher made his customary charge on the outgoing lap, doubtless anticipating a close encounter with the exiting Villeneuve.
It did not materialise because Williams's mechanics were wrestling with the front left wheel. Thirty-three seconds lapsed before the car was in motion again and by then not only Schumacher, but five others also had gone by. Now the mission was damage limitation.
Villeneuve said: ``I had a problem for 10 laps before my first stop and didn't realise it was because the front left was loose. When you are sitting there in a situation like that you are frustrated, but you become more aggressive. I had to push, push, push.''
Schumacher had a lead of 41 seconds when he made his second stop, re- emerging for what he - and Villeneuve - assumed was a formality. Instead, the Ferrari crawled back into the pits for good at the end of the next lap, sabotaged by a left rear wheel bearing fault.
``That's racing,'' said Schumacher, who has still not won a British Grand Prix. ``It was a shame. All the same, I am not too disappointed as I was comfortably in the lead. Technical problems happen - and to other teams as well.''
Hakkinen, on a one-stop strategy, was in front of Villeneuve as the Williams accelerated from the pits a second time and the crowd eagerly anticipated a stirring finale. As Head said: ``It could have all ended in tears.'' But it was the Finn and the onlookers who were to be saddened. The Mercedes gave up and Villeneuve went through.
Hakkinen, denied his maiden Formula One success, tossed his gloves to the appreciative gallery and said: "That's racing. I have been going for a win for so many years, but this is the best indication of what we can do.''
Villeneuve saw his victory has the manifestation of what he had to do. The momentum he must fear, is still with Schumacher, but the contest is on.
Villeneuve said: ``I don't think we were ever off track, but this was an important race for us. The championship has just changed around because we've cashed in some of those points. Once I saw P1 I was happy because that's where we should have been from the beginning of the race.''
Villeneuve did have to delay his festivities to visit the stewards, and explain why he had followed the safety car apparently too close for the driver's comfort. He was given a one-race ban, suspended for one race, which amounted to a rap over the knuckles when most were slapping him on the back. Frentzen, in his anxiety to make up ground, tangled with another car and careered out on the first lap. Eddie Irvine, in the other Ferrari, pulled up with a broken half shaft, and Johnny Herbert retired after a series of problems on his Sauber- Petronas.
BRITISH GRAND PRIX
1 Jacques Villeneuve (Can) 10pts
(Williams-Renault) 1hr 28min 01.665sec
(59 laps; average speed 124.022mph/198.435 kph)
2 Jean Alesi (Fr) 6pts
(Benneton-Renault) at 10.205sec
3 Alexander Wurz (Aut) 4pts
(Benneton-Renault) at 11.296
4 David Coulthard (GB) 3pts
(McLaren-Mercedes) at 31.229
5 Ralf Schumacher (Ger) 2pts
(Jordan-Peugeot) at 31.880
6 Damon Hill (GB) 1pt
(Arrows-Yamaha) at 1min 13.552
7 G Fisichella (It) Jordan-Peugeot at one lap; 8 J Trulli (It) Prost- Mugen-Honda +1 lap; 9 N Fontana (Arg) Sauber-Petronas +1 lap; 10 T Marques (Bra) Minardi-Hart +1 lap.
Not classified (did not finish): 11 S Nakano (Japan) Prost-Mugen-Honda 57 laps completed; 12 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mecedes 52 laps; 13 J Magnussen (Den) Stewart-Ford 50 laps; 14 J Verstappen (Neth) Tyrrell-Ford 45 laps; 15 E Irvine (GB) Ferrari 44 laps; 16 M Salo (Fin) Tyrrell-Ford 44 laps; 17 J Herbert (GB) Sauber-Petronas 42 laps; 18 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 38 laps; 19 R Barrichello (Bra) Stewart-Ford 37 laps; 20 P Diniz (Bra) Arrows-Yamaha 29 laps; 21 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Williams-Renault 0 laps; 22 U Katayama (Japan) Minardi-Hart 0 laps.
Fastest lap: M Schumacher 1 min 24.475sec (136.904 mph/219.047 kph)Reuse content