It was the last race of the 1997 season, Michael Schumacher of Ferrari and Jacque Villeneuve of Williams were fighting for the championship. Few would have guessed how the weekend would unfold…
The 1997 Season
The 1997 season began in Melbourne at the start of March. Jacques Villeneuve would put his Williams on pole position with his teammate Heinz-Harold Frentzen in second, Michael Schumacher would complete the top three in his Ferrari.
The race would end for Jacques at the first corner as he would be involved in an accident also involving Eddie Irvine and Johnny Herbert.
Michael Schumacher would take advantage of this, finishing in second behind the McLaren of David Coulthard.
As the season reached its climax at Jerez for the European Grand Prix, Jacque Villeneuve would have won 7 Grand Prix, with Michael Schumacher winning 5 races, however due to Michael’s other finishes and Jacque’s disqualification from the Japanese Grand prix, Michael Schumacher would head to the final round one point ahead of his Canadian rival.
The climax of the 1997 season was held at Jerez in Spain, in a change to the schedule due to financial issues at the Estoril circuit.
Williams had already wrapped up the Constructors championship, all that remains was the Drivers.
Only two were in with a chance of winning the title, Michael Schumacher and Jacque Villeneuve.
All eyes were on Michael Schumacher, the German driver already had two Drivers Championships to his name, however his first championship win in 1994 was won in contentious circumstances.
Flashback: Adelaide 1994
Heading into the final race of the season of ’94, both the constructors and the driver’s titles were still to be settled.
Nigel Mansell took pole ahead of Schumacher, Hill, Hakkinen and Barrichello. As the race started Mansell dropped down the order allowing Schumacher and Hill to race away from the rest of the field.
The race continued with Schumacher in front of Hill, however on lap 35 Michael would run wide in his Benetton at the East Terrace Corner, brushing the wall. It was not clear if the Benetton had received any damage, what was clear was Damon Hill was now right behind the German, Hill took his chance at the next corner, Damon would head down the inside of the Benetton and then Schumacher would appear to turn in aggressively hitting the Williams car. The contact would send the Benetton into the air and straight into the barrier ending Michael Schumacher’s race.
Damon Hill would carry on and enter the pits, the car was checked over and forced to retire due to bent suspension. This meant that Michael Schumacher claimed his first World Title by one point.
With the end of the 1994 season fresh in the memory of the F1 world, discussions were rife that if Michael Schumacher was in the same position, that he would do something similar.
Qualifying on the Saturday set the tone for the race, qualifying in 1997 was one hour long with each driver allowed 12 timed laps. Usually this would be around 4 fast laps as the in lap and out lap were part of the allocated 12.
1:21.072 appeared first on the timing screens after a lap by Villeneuve, 14 minutes into the session, another 14 minutes later saw 1:21.072, this time set by Michael Schumacher in the Ferrari. Then with 9 minutes remaining of the session Heinz-Harold Frentzen crossed the line in 1:21.072!
(1997 European Grand Prix | Race Result & Stats | GP Racing Stats)
This had never happened in Formula 1 history, regulations stated that in the event of drivers posting the identical times the driver that posted the time first would take the place. Grid order for the race was Villeneuve, Schumacher and Frentzen.
With the frenzy of the top three, it was easy to miss who ended up in fourth on the grid, this honour went to Damon Hill, who had posted a time of 1:21.130 a mere 0.058 seconds behind the top three. An amazing achievement for Damon Hill, who was in an Arrows Yamaha, a car that almost failed to qualify at the opening race of the season in Australia.
The stage was set for the climax of the 1997 season. Michael Schumacher took the first win of the race, getting a better start and leading his Canadian rival heading into the first corner.
Jacque’s Williams teammate also passed him at the start, however he was ordered by the team to let Jacque passed on lap 8.
Michael Schumacher would lead 40 of the first 47 laps. After the first pitstops for the championship contenders (laps 43 and 44) the positions would remain the same with Michael leading and Jacques behind, however the gap was a lot closer.
“I dived down the inside and I was surprised that he didn’t close the door immediately. I came from a long way back and when he realised t was happening, he closed the door. But it was too late: I was alongside him and he bounced of my sidepod. It was an amazing moment. I remember driving past the next lap and seeing him on the wall, just watching. I can still see his face and I can still see the sweat on it. He never sweated, but seeing that sweat is a vivid, vivid energy”.Jacque Villeneuve, “How I beat Schumacher to the title at Jerez ’97”
On lap 48, Jacques was less than a second behind Michael Schumacher, it was now or never! Villeneuve knew that heading into the Dry-sac corner, he was able to break later than the Ferrari in front.
He went for it and dived down the inside of the Ferrari, catching Michael out in the process. Michael would turn slightly left then sharply right, hitting the side pod of the Williams FW19.
Michael Schumacher’s car bounced into the gravel and ended his race. Jacques Villeneuve carried on.
The Williams car had survived, it didn’t work, Michael would stand on the wall at the entry to the dry-sac corner, waiting for the Williams to return, it did.
It was over for Michael; he was losing the title.
For Williams, the victory was not important, they just needed finish in the points. Jacques decided to back off and take it easy for the rest of the race. Unbeknown to Williams or Villeneuve, the collision with Schumacher had dislodged the battery from the mounts, it was being held on only by its connectors.
With the Williams car backing off the McLaren duo of Hakkinen and Coulthard headed to the front for a one – two finish.
Mika Hakkinen would claim his first Formula 1 victory, with Jacques Villeneuve crossing the line in third, he would claim the Drivers Championship by 3 points.
The post-race discussions were all about the collision, at the time of the incident that race stewards decided that it was a racing incident, however Michael Schumacher was summoned to an FIA Disciplinary Hearing on 11th November 1997. It was announced that Michael Schumacher was disqualified from the 1997 Drivers championship, handing second in the standings to Williams’ driver Heinz-Harold Frentzen.
The FIA announced that, although Michael was excluded from the final standings, he would not lose any of his race results. There would be no financial penalties or racing penalties in the following season.
Max Mosley stated that the panel “concluded that although the actions were deliberate, they were not premeditated”
Michael Schumacher faced criticism from the media, the German newspaper Bild printed “he played for high stakes and lost everything – the World Championship and his reputation for fair play. There is no doubt that he wanted to take out Villeneuve out”
In Italy, the criticism was far stronger. The fiercely passionate fans condemned his actions, with calls for him to be sacked for brining shame to Italian sport.
I’Unita, called for his sacking also called for him to face charges in Spanish court, Gazzetta dello Sport stated that it would rather wait for Ferrari to win a title in circumstances which wouldn’t render it a “title to hide”.
Even a paper that was owned by the Agnelli Family, who also had control of Ferrari didn’t not hide its criticism of the German. La Stampa printed “His image as a champion was shattered”
In the End
Michael Schumacher is one of the greatest drivers in both Ferrari and Formula 1’s history, his records stood for a long time, only recently being broken.
His fiercely competitive nature and competitiveness gained respect and criticism in equal measure. There is no denying that sometimes Michael would stray over the line, equally there is no denying that Michael Schumacher deserves to be remembered fondly for his talent, his race craft and his sheer determination to win.
Stay Strong Michael