At the end of the tests held in May on the Silverstone circuit, Ferrari was about two seconds behind what seemed to be the unreachable Williams. For this reason, the new session scheduled a few days after the race at Magny-Cours acquires even greater interest in understanding how much the values on the field have changed, although it is already evident from the results of the last few outings that Williams is now far from unreachable. Moreover, at Grove the situation was rather tense: with Damon Hill's experience emigrated to Arrows, the car seemed to present some too many imperfections in comparison with last year, above all highlighted by the difficulty to find the right setting during free practice, a problem often felt by Frentzen, but also by Villeneuve.
Not to mention the less than an idyllic relationship between the team and the Canadian, with Patrick Head who threw a few jabs at his driver at the end of the French weekend, seeing him as the one primarily responsible for the wrong choice of set-up for the race. This fuelled the rumours that Villeneuve was ready to leave the factory in 1999 to join the project of a completely new team financed by the investments of Reynard and British American Tobacco, a team in which the driver himself would have a shareholding. In the meantime, during the tests on British soil, new positive results arrived for Ferrari, with Schumacher just behind the Jordan of his brother Ralf and ahead of Frentzen at the end of the first day's work:
"Evidently with the changes made recently the car has acquired a good constant balance, but we don't know what conditions the others have been running in".
Before the start of the race weekend, the English press began to criticise Schumacher for being very pessimistic in his predictions on the eve of the previous French race, accusing him of deliberately accentuating this hypothesis:
"That sounds like a lot of nonsense to me. You can see that the newspapers don't know what to write about me anymore and are inventing these controversies. I got a prediction wrong and that's fine, I apologise. But why don't you remember the previous predictions that I got almost all right?"
But the British journalists aren't happy to look like they're making things up, so they insist they want to know how and why Ferrari has improved so much:
"The turning point was in Canada, and since then we've been going well, even with changes to the car that even we didn't hope for. Our climb is over. I'm used to saying what I think based on what I know when I answer a question. Well, in last week's test here at Silverstone we made up a lot of ground compared to previous tests, a sign that the changes made in Canada and France are effective, a confirmation of our step forward. But it's also true that there's a lot of competition. There are no longer only Williams and Benetton, now Jordan and others are also doing well. In the last tests, we saw that there are ten cars within a second of each other, but I feel confident in our progress. I don't want to say any more".
At the same time, there is still talk of Eddie Irvine's contract renewal with Ferrari, which is still a long way off:
"We will see what Ferrari will do. The option is theirs, they can exercise it or not. If they give it up, it must be clear that they are the ones who lose me, not me who loses them. On the other hand, I'm very happy with Schumacher, but I can't continue to be number two all my life. So I want to look around and see if there is an opportunity to become the number one elsewhere".
The total time tally at the end of the test days will see Mika Hakkinen ahead of his two title rivals; could the Finn have his say at the upcoming Silverstone Grand Prix? The following week Hakkinen confirmed himself as the fastest of all in free practice, while Schumacher sailed in seventh position and began to tell the press that the weekend was going to be complicated and that he had little hope of fighting for the top positions:
"We can't understand why we went badly today, or at least we went worse than last week. Maybe it's because of the heat, maybe the tyres are degrading, maybe we went slow because we only used one set of tyres, we need to save them if things get worse. All the changes we made to the car were fine until a few days ago, but now it seems not. The car is no longer well balanced".
However, Irvine also talks about the problem with the tyres:
"The track is not the same as last week. It's hot and that probably creates difficulties with the tyres. We did well here in testing when it was cool, we did well at Magny Cours and it was cool there too. Now it is hot. We couldn't have set great times today because we started out intending to use as few tyres as possible. Some riders had a new set of tyres at the end of practice and they were faster than us. But that's the essence of things: everyone went slower today than they did a week ago, maybe we went a little slower. I don't know what to say, I don't know whether to be worried, optimistic or pessimistic. I'd be more inclined to respond with a historic phrase by Bob Dylan. Do you remember it? Times are changing. Times are changing, my friends, and changing fast. You never know what to say".
During Friday's practice, it is curious that ten drivers - one for each team, except Arrows and Ferrari - are summoned for doping control through urine analysis. This is not the first time this has happened, given that the checks have been in place for some time, but it is a rare event, which certainly doesn't happen at every Grand Prix. And it usually happens suddenly, when the drivers least expect it.
Villeneuve, for example, has already got out of his Williams and, as always, he has rushed to the bathroom, but when he comes out he is told to go to the control; the Canadian will be detained for a long time, having swallowed an entire bottle of mineral water. Considering the similarities with the French Grand Prix, a Schumacher pole position on Saturday would not be such a surprise. Aside from the German's tactics, the great balance and very close times between the drivers should be highlighted.
Attention, however, because two races without a pole position for a team that had previously taken ten in a row were far too many, and therefore, apart from the difficulties and the much talked about internal disagreements, Jacques Villeneuve posted a 1'21''596 and set a new track record, which also corresponded to his sixth pole in the season.
Frentzen stops at one tenth from his box mate completing the first row all Williams, while Hakkinen and Schumacher complete the second row, not far from the time of the Canadian, respectively at two and three tenths. Impressive as from the fifth place occupied by Ralf Schumacher to the eleventh occupied by Jean Alesi, they are all enclosed in just two tenths. A figure that bodes well for an exciting and hard-fought race. A qualifying session that had seen Hakkinen on provisional pole for most of the time, thanks also to the new Mercedes engine, after which first Frentzen and then Villeneuve relegated him to third position. The Canadian commented on his performance as follows:
"Seeing Frentzen in front of everyone gave me the push I needed to take pole".
Schumacher, on the other hand, did not talk explicitly about aiming for victory tomorrow, but limited himself to talking about the podium:
"Honestly I couldn't do better. I went better than on Friday, the car was more balanced, all in all, I didn't start from a bad position. I'm a bit worried about Villeneuve in pole position because this could mean that he takes off and then who sees him anymore? We can forget about overtaking here. Just in the pit stops you can hope to overtake someone. It's all about strategy. The only thing I have to try to do is to stay as close as possible to Villeneuve, he will certainly take more points than me, but if I don't fall back too much I will score points that will always be useful to stay at the top of the championship. At least I would like to arrive in Germany still in the lead. Then we'll see. We're planning more news on Ferrari, but there are five or six teams capable of competing by now. The ideal for me would be for Hakkinen to win, while we are aiming to be on the podium at least".
A little more optimism came from Jean Todt, who commented on Ferrari's performance in qualifying saying:
"I'm always a bit cautious because it's not in my character to promise things I'm not sure I can keep. But there's one thing I think I can say: we're always more of a contender in the race than in qualifying, and we shouldn't do too badly. We've finally got the reliability that we've enjoyed since the start of the year, we've made progress and the car is now running better. More changes are coming and we'll be testing them over the next few days at Monza and Fiorano, so I'm cautiously optimistic. Scoring points is important, we're not at Williams' level yet, but the podium is within our reach".
With the humid heat looming over Silverstone, the tyres could once again be a major player. For that, both Ferrari and Williams choose hard tyres:
"As far as I understand it, McLaren should have chosen soft tyres and that could be an advantage for us in the sixty lap race. But all it takes is the slightest change in temperature and weather to blow the forecast".
But on Ferrari's progress we also have to report the opinion of John Barnard, now at Arrows, who, when asked about it, did not hesitate to say:
"The progress made by Ferrari was already foreseen in my project and this is the proof that I have made a good car for them. There's only one thing left for Schumacher to do: think about winning".
And who knows if Irvine, seventh on the grid and with the life of a poor hare on his conscience, who crossed the track at the least opportune moment possible, will also have his say; Eddie, launched at full speed, could do nothing to avoid it and hit it full on. As in France two weeks earlier, in England too the riders had to try their hand at driving on a wet track during the warm-up, with the difference that the risk of rain in view of the race was reduced almost to zero, so that, barring surprises from the always unpredictable British weather, there would be a dry race. In the morning the fastest was Damon Hill, twelfth on the grid and also at his home Grand Prix condemned to a difficult race with little chance of finally succeeding in moving up his classification. However, there is no shortage of fervent fans to make him feel like the idol of the house.
Charlie Whiting was forced to abort the start of the race because a car had cut its engine and therefore had to do everything all over again, reducing the race distance by one lap, carrying out a new reconnaissance lap and allowing the car in question to move into last position as required by the regulations. The big surprise for everyone is that the driver in question is Heinz-Harald Frentzen, who finds himself starting from the back of the grid, leaving Schumacher free to start, a detail that may allow him to be more aggressive at the start.
At the second start, Villeneuve is not intimidated and starts well, as well as Schumacher, who surprises Hakkinen and gets the second position. Johnny Herbert also makes a great sprint and goes from ninth to fifth. On the contrary, Ukyo Katayama's race ended immediately, who crashed against the barriers ambiguously delimiting the pits, without anyone touching him, but above all Frentzen was already retired after a few bends.
Hit in the rear by Jos Verstappen at Becketts corner, the German driver suffered irreparable damage that forced him to park his Williams on the grass. So it was not a good day for Frentzen, while Williams is already certain of failing to score points for both drivers for the eighth time in nine races. Katayama's car was stationary on the main straight, so the race direction sent the Safety-Car onto the track to remove the Minardi. The positions are frozen and the points zone is occupied by Villeneuve, Michael Schumacher, Coulthard, Hakkinen, Herbert and Ralf Schumacher.
When the Safety-Car left the scene and racing resumed, the first two started to run away quickly, thanks above all to Coulthard, who held back the platoon of drivers behind him. Schumacher remained constantly at a second's distance from Villeneuve, and both lapped at times between 1'25" high and 1'26" low, about one and a half second faster per lap than Coulthard, who lapped at the same times as Hill, twelfth, but still managed to keep behind Hakkinen, who never tried to overtake, but only limited himself to being seen in the mirrors. On the contrary, Giancarlo Fisichella recovers from tenth to eighth, passing the two Benettons, for now only fleeting appearances of the British weekend.
On lap 20 Ferrari made its first move, recalling Schumacher to the pits for a 7.1 second stop; the attempt to undercut Villeneuve was in place, in addition Michael re-entered the track quietly maintaining his position on the McLarens, and therefore had a free track on his exit lap. The Williams reacted immediately, and Villeneuve pitted on the following lap, disturbed at this juncture of the race by Verstappen's lapping, which caused him to leave a few crucial tenths on the road, only stepping aside at the last corner.
However, it was in the pits where the Canadian saw his Grand Prix lead disappear due to a problem with his left front tyre, which the mechanics were unable to get out. The stop lasts a good 33.6 seconds, which means that Villeneuve not only leaves the way clear for Schumacher to win but also finds himself in seventh position, although there are drivers ahead of him who still have to stop.
While almost everyone made the first of the two planned stops, the two McLarens lengthened their stint by being on a one-stopper, a more than realistic possibility thinking back to the race in Canada where the Mp4/12 had proved to be very gentle in its handling of the tyres. The same applies to the two Benettons, who start in the middle of the grid and try something different to get back into the points.
Coulthard's problems reached their climax on lap 28 when he heavily blocked the front wheels and finished wide allowing Hakkinen to overtake him and take the second place. The Scotsman also had to watch out for the Benetton's attack, all the while Hakkinen had already created a substantial gap to him in a few corners, which gave an idea of how he was slowing down his teammate.
The slowdown caused by Coulthard allowed Villeneuve to rejoin the trio formed by McLaren, Alesi and Wurz, but the layout of the track, which did not favour overtaking, did not make the Canadian's task any easier. He remained stuck behind Wurz, even though the latter was driving on very worn tyres, unlike him.
Around lap 30, first Coulthard and then Hakkinen went into the pits for their only stop. In the meantime, Villeneuve should take advantage of this to gain precious seconds on them and stay ahead once he has made his stop, but he continues to lose time behind Wurz, without putting any serious pressure on him.
A further victory of Schumacher at the same time as his placing outside the podium would complicate Villeneuve's plans in terms of the championship, and not a little, with enormous regrets also for this race, considering that before the problem in the pits he was leading the race.
But after setting the fastest lap time of 1'24"475, Schumacher had to deal with some problems on his Ferrari. The German first went off the track, but then had to deal with white smoke coming out of his left rear tyre. It is the 37th lap on the finish line and Michael goes to the pits for an early stop; when he restarts it seems that the problem has been solved, but unfortunately a few metres later the Ferrari slows down noticeably, and the leader of the World Championship can only sadly return to the pits and record for the first time in the season a reliability problem on the F310B. A failure that arrived with terrible timing, given that Schumacher seemed to be unassailable in the race towards the third consecutive victory. After the race, it was revealed that a broken bearing had caused the retirement.
Once both Benettons were back for their respective stops, Jacques Villeneuve incredibly found himself in the lead of the race, aware, however, that there was still work to be done to bring home the victory. Behind him, there is Eddie Irvine, six seconds away and at the same level of strategies with the Williams driver, but above all, there is Hakkinen, who will go until the end without making other pit stops.
Villeneuve pushes to the maximum increasing the advantage on Irvine, then at the 45th of the 59 laps all the two drivers go to the pits: 8.3 seconds for the Williams and 6.9 for the Ferrari. Just in this juncture, however, the disaster for the Ferrari takes place: just out of the pit lane, after having removed the limiter, Irvine pulls over and stops on the grass. A broken axle shaft and retirement for him too.
Ferrari leaves the United Kingdom with a heavy double zero both for the championship and for the moral of the team, on the wave of enthusiasm until the middle of this same race. Villeneuve, who seemed defeated while he was following Wurz helplessly, is now second and with a good chance to race for the win. There is only one obstacle between success and Villeneuve, and that is Mika Hakkinen.
The Finnish driver has been in Formula 1 since 1993, when in Portugal on the Estoril circuit he debuted for McLaren alongside Senna and stunned everyone, including Ayrton, with his sensational performance in qualifying, finishing third ahead of the Brazilian. Years of great difficulty followed for the Woking team, and Hakkinen is still waiting for his consecration as a top driver with a success, his first in his career. A wait that became even more frustrating after the race in Australia, where Coulthard won, bringing McLaren back to success after three seasons of fasting.
Now, with just a few laps to go, Mika's first career success is slowly taking shape. Villeneuve is obviously of a different opinion and gains second after second with disarming ease, rejuvenated by the withdrawal of his rival and by the new tyres mounted on his car. The six-second gap was quickly erased ten laps from the chequered flag. Hakkinen began to suffer from blistering on his rear tyres, but the Finn knew that overtaking at Silverstone was by no means a foregone conclusion. But seven laps from the end, the Mercedes engine betrayed Hakkinen again and broke down, shattering the dream of the Finn and the McLaren, deprived of the joy of celebrating a success on their home track.
Once out of the cockpit, Hakkinen was philosophical, and a bit like Mansell did on the same circuit in 1990 after retiring, he greeted the fans in the stands and threw them his gloves. An heirloom to be jealously preserved for those lucky enough to have collected them. Villeneuve does not have to face many difficulties in the remaining laps and passes calmly under the chequered flag, which decrees him the winner of the British Grand Prix at Silverstone. Joining him on the podium were Alesi and Wurz, at his first podium in Formula 1.
Coulthard and Ralf Schumacher followed while the assignment of the last available point was quite interesting, until a few laps from the end in the hands of Fisichella. Fisichella had to pull into the pits due to excessive tyre wear, leaving sixth place to Shinji Nakano who, in turn, retired with two laps to go due to engine problems. Thus, to the delight of the tens of thousands of English fans who came for the event, it was Damon Hill who took sixth place and the point that finally allowed him to move away from the zero that had been lingering for too long in the general classification.
His joy was so evident that the reigning champion, who at this time last year retired but was still firmly at the top of the championship, raised his fist to the sky and greeted the celebrating crowd even before crossing the finishing line. After all, perhaps Damon had foreseen this sixth place, since shortly before the start he had confided to Murray Walker that to be able at least to finish sixth here in front of his fans would have been wonderful.
Williams can celebrate its historic 100th victory in Formula 1. And whether it's a success that has come about due to the misfortunes of others or not, it helps, in any case, to seriously reopen the games in both classifications, if they could ever be considered closed.
"I had some difficulties in the first part of the race - Villeneuve asserted in the press conference - when the front left tyre seemed to be loose. This made it much more difficult to drive the car, the steering wheel had become very hard and there was little grip. After that, when they went to the pits, that tyre got stuck and it took a while to replace it, we lost a lot of time and I dropped to seventh position. The car however was very fast, I caught up to the two Benettons who were both on one stop and maybe spent a few too many laps behind them. When I had a free track I was able to push hard, but after the second pit-stop I was still behind Hakkinen, who, from what I could see from being close to him, was dealing with blistering on his rear tyres, so he was in big trouble. I was waiting for the last two laps to make my move and try to overtake him, but then he retired. It's a good result for us, we needed it. It was a surprise to see the two Ferraris retired. Last year it happened quite often, but this season it hasn't happened yet. It's heartening to know that they are having these kinds of problems, as we have had more than one so far. This makes the championship even more balanced".
Second, already in 1994 and 1995, Jean Alesi comments satisfied with his third podium at Silverstone:
"It's an excellent result for us. We've had a few problems in qualifying recently, we can't always guarantee a good starting position, so sometimes we have to take risks on strategy. Making just one stop was a good choice. Starting eleventh and ending up on the podium is definitely a pleasant surprise. The team is pushing hard to be as competitive as possible, there will be updates in the next few races and hopefully they will work well".
The same goes for Alexander Wurz, on his first podium in Formula 1, but paradoxically in his last race of the season, as Gerhard Berger will be back in Germany:
"I'm used to watching these press conferences on TV, and every time I thought: what would I say if I were there? I have often thought about it but now I don't remember anything, I am speechless! First of all, I want to thank the team for the good strategy they adopted. At the beginning of the race I had some problems with oversteer, due to a large amount of fuel onboard the car, and I immediately thought it would be a very tough race. Then, as the laps went by, I gained more and more confidence. I don't know if I could have overtaken Jean, but especially at the end, considering the positions we were in, it wouldn't have made sense to try dangerous manoeuvres and jeopardise such an important result for us. These things happen in racing, today it happened to us. So it wasn't a day to forget, but if anything a day to remember how well we were doing. For a few laps I could sense that something wasn't right back there, so I came into the pits and radioed them about it. They changed my tyres, looked down there and there was smoke but I don't think anything could be done. So I restarted and then the bearing got stuck. But again, it's no big deal. You just have to understand why as soon as the cars are back in Maranello. We were competitive, more than I expected. It's true, we lost precious points and our rivals came back, but I'm optimistic about the future. You mustn't let yourself down because of a missed result, that's what racing is like. I'm not angry, but obviously a bit disappointed. At the end of the day, however, I am still first in the drivers' championship and Ferrari in the constructors' championship. Of course, it would have been much better to win, but I remind you that for the first time this season we had a technical problem while the others have already experienced several. We continue to make progress and this gives us strength and confidence for the future. Before the forced retirement I had a considerable advantage, and I believe that the problems we had today will be solved before the next race at Hockenheim. I bitterly regret having spoken so much about our great reliability right on the eve of the race. It would have been better to keep quiet. Anyway, it's not the end of the world. We had two mechanical problems that affected our reliability and prevented us from scoring points. Now we will take everything apart to understand how two things like that happened. Of course, the disappointment is strong but we are not at all desperate. We are going ahead with our plans, which include three intense days of testing at Monza, while at the same time working at home to find out why these two failures happened. The only consolation can be that the Ferrari has been up to scratch. Going strong at Silverstone means having a good chance of repeating on the other tracks. We have to understand why we had these problems. The truth is that we must never stop working".
Eddie Irvine is also taking his retirement very philosophically:
"Already before returning to the second pit stop I felt that something wasn't right and I warned them, but as soon as I restarted the axle shaft broke on the right side where I had felt something. This is the first time this year that a mechanical failure has stopped me. It's a shame because I was in a good position in the classification. It was a bad day but I am sure it will be the last. In any case, amid these troubles, there are also some very positive things. Until yesterday I didn't think I could be so competitive. And it's a very good thing, that in race conditions we are equal and maybe even slightly better than the Williams. In practice we're still not".
Escorted by the British police, the Maranello team left immediately for Luton airport, skipping all the chaotic post-Grand Prix road traffic. At Luton, on the charter flight to Bologna, technicians and mechanics managed to load some of the damaged material that had forced Schumacher and Irvine to retire. Irvine's broken axle shaft was immediately checked in the workshop the following morning.
In the meantime, the usual post-race meeting was not held in Maranello, also because Jean Todt flew to Austria to attend the funeral of Gerhard Berger's father, who had died in a plane crash the week before, while President Montezemolo had to spend the whole day with Ferrari importers in the Far East.
A few days later, a few days of testing begin at Monza, where Ferrari will test a new front end geometry to further reduce the residual understeer that the drivers have complained about. In Maranello, there is no reason to despair, after all Ferrari is still leading both championships despite the first real false step of this car, which has never retired for technical problems. The desire for redemption is what is needed to approach the next Grand Prix, in Germany, the home race of the world leader, in the best way.
Davide Scotto di Vetta