Jacques Villeneuve had Rubens Barrichello to thank for the unexpected reprieve that gave him a second chance in yesterday's Brazilian Grand Prix.
During qualifying Patrick Head, technical director of Williams, had been overheard shouting in argument with team technicians: "Jacques is good, but he's not God!" And in the first start Villeneuve indeed proved that he is not invincible. The Canadian was side by side with Michael Schumacher, but the German had the inside line and as Villeneuve refused to concede the lead his Williams ran wide and on to the grass at the exit to the first corner.
Further back, as traffic bunched, Damon Hill tangled with the Jordan driver Giancarlo Fisichella, damaging the nose of the spare Arrows-Yamaha he had been obliged to race after his intended race car had developed a fuel leak just before the start. The cars of Eddie Irvine and Heinz- Harald Frentzen were also damaged as they took avoiding action. But the race was actually stopped because local hero Barrichello's Stewart-Ford failed to leave the start line at all and lay stranded dangerously on the grid.
When the race resumed 15 minutes later, Schumacher grabbed the lead at the start from Villeneuve, with Mika Hakkinen muscling his McLaren-Mercedes into third ahead of the Benetton-Renaults of Gerhard Berger and Jean Alesi, and Olivier Panis in the Prost. But at the end of the first lap Villeneuve signalled his intentions by calmly pulling alongside Schumacher on the pit straight and gliding into the lead. His much-vaunted team-mate Frentzen made an appalling start and was only 13th ahead of the Italian novice Jarno Trulli.
Shrugging off his earlier indiscretion, Villeneuve lost no time in extending his advantage over Schumacher, while Hakkinen and Berger were locked together with Alesi and Panis, and further back Hill maintained an encouraging seventh place ahead of a weaving bunch comprising David Coulthard, Fisichella, Ralf Schumacher in the second Jordan, the recovering Frentzen and Johnny Herbert in the Sauber-Petronas.
Berger caught Schumacher by the sixth lap, after passing Hakkinen two laps earlier, and the Ferrari and the Benetton went through the first corner side by side at the start of lap eight, but Schumacher just kept the advantage. Four laps later Berger got a better run at him down the straight and slipped neatly ahead, forcing the former champion to surrender second place. Berger now had a clear road, but Villeneuve was already a long way up it, with a cushion of 10.3sec. In two laps Berger had cut that back a little, but from then on Villeneuve stabilised it at just over eight and a half seconds, and later maintained it at a still comfortable six seconds after both had stopped twice for fuel.
Villeneuve's first fuel stop came on lap 26, with Schumacher, and the Canadian just maintained his lead over Panis, who was driving a great race on a one-stop strategy in the Bridgestone-shod Prost. Stalemate had set in by half distance, but after stopping at last on the 35th lap Panis was pushing back into the top three as Schumacher, Hakkinen and Alesi all made their second pit calls.
Further back Hill's race was as impressive as Frentzen's was dismal, and if Frank Williams has not already entertained second thoughts about replacing his British world champion, it is about time that he did. Hill persistently kept his Arrows in seventh place ahead of challengers and ran as high as fourth place during others' stops. He was obliged to yield the position to Hakkinen by lap 32, but then staged a replay of his old battles with Schumacher by keeping the Ferrari driver at bay. It was confirmation of his own ability, and an endorsement of the threat that Bridgestone will pose to Goodyear as the season develops. As he held Schumacher back, Alesi moved in on the Ferrari. Finally both challengers went by in the first corner when they forced Hill off line on lap 38, but it was a fantastic - and mostly unexpected - showing from the world champion's new car. When he dropped back and later retired on lap 69 with the rear end of the car on fire it was a disappointment, but the TWR Arrows team had made a strong point after their unhappy start in Australia.
As Villeneuve coped with a late-race challenge from Berger as they lapped traffic, Panis remained comfortably ahead of Hakkinen, who had his hands full with Schumacher and Alesi. The Benetton chief Flavio Briatore had merely smiled when asked what precautions he had taken to avoid a repeat of Melbourne, where Alesi had missed his pit stop signals and subsequently ran out of fuel by the side of the track, and this time the Frenchman behaved himself as he dogged the duo in the fight for fourth. Johnny Herbert brought the Sauber home seventh, just outside the points, but well ahead of Fisichella.
"The car was very strong but the last set of tyres didn't have the same grip, but it was okay," Villeneuve beamed as he got his world championship campaign off the ground to share joint leadership with the Melbourne winner David Coulthard, who had a lacklustre run to 10th place. "The first start? I just didn't want Michael to come by!" he added.
As the champagne flowed in one part of the Williams garage, a bitterly disillusioned Frentzen could only hold his head in his hands after a performance which must have raised further serious doubts within the team's management.
Head commented afterwards, somewhat ominously: "We are going to have a word with Harald to find out what the problem is. But I have to say that, relative to Jacques, he did not have a strong race."
1 Jacques Villeneuve (Can) 10pts
(Williams-Renault) 1hr 36min 6.99sec (average speed 192.905kph)
2 Gerhard Berger (Aut) 6pts
3 Olivier Panis (Fr) 4pts
(Prost Mugen-Honda) +15.87
4 Mika Hakkinen (Fin) 3pts
5 Michael Schumacher (Ger) 2pts
6 Jean Alesi (Fr) 1pt
7 Johnny Herbert (GB) Sauber-Petronas +50.91; 8 Giancarlo Fisichella (It) Jordan Peugeot +1min 0.63; 9 Heinz-Harald Frentzen (Ger) Williams- Renault +1:15.40; 10 David Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes; 11 Nicola Larini (It) Sauber-Petronas; 12 Jarno Trulli (It) Minardi-Hart; 13 Mika Salo (Fin) Tyrrell-Ford; 14 Shinji Nakano (Japan) Prost Mugen-Honda all +1 lap. 15 Jos Verstappen (Neth) Tyrrell +2 laps; 16 Eddie Irvine (GB) Ferrari +2 laps; 17 Damon Hill (GB) Arrows +4 laps; 18 Ukyo Katayama (Japan) Minardi +5 laps.
Did not finish (not classified): Ralf Schumacher (Ger) Jordan 52 laps completed; Rubens Barrichello (Brazil) Stewart 16; Pedro Diniz (Brazil) Arrows 15
Did not start: Jan Magnusson (Den) Stewart-Ford.
Fastest lap: Villeneuve 1:18.397 (197.089 kph)
1 McLaren-Mercedes 17pts
2 Williams-Renault 10pts
4 Ferrari 8pts
5 Prost Mugen-Honda 6pts
6 Sauber-Petronas 1ptReuse content