The 1997 Belgian GP: Michael Schumacher’s 26th Career Win
The 1997 F1 Season
After his back-to-back wins at Canada and France, Michael Schumacher went through three races without a win. Meanwhile his main rival for the title, Jacques Villeneuve, won two of those three races. Michael’s lead over the second-placed Villeneuve was shrinking. Ferrari and Michael had to find a way to win the next race at Spa.
The Belgian GP was a special place for Schumacher as he debuted at Spa, won his first race at Spa and, until 1997, had won the most number of times at Spa. Michael would have fancied his chances at Belgium. However, the practice sessions did not indicate anything even remotely close to Michael dominating the proceedings. The car appeared ill-suited for the circuit and Michael had to work extremely hard to keep things under control.
On the other hand, Jacques and the Williams team appeared in control. A win for Jacques was imminent unless Schumacher pulled a rabbit out of the hat. If Jacques did win, then he would go ahead of Schumacher by one point, assuming Schumi finished second. If Schumi finished lower than second, then the lead would proportionally increase.
Schumi and the Ferrari team would have been aware of the situation, but how would they handle it was of interest to everyone. As for Jacques’ fans, they could look forward to a relaxed Sunday.
Could Michael Schumacher defy all odds and win at Spa?
Let’s find out.
Did You Know?
Because of the rain, the 1997 Belgian GP started behind a safety car making it the first instance of such a start in the history of Formula 1.
The 1997 Belgium GP Qualifying
The Ferrari cars were struggling at the Spa circuit. Those familiar with the Spa circuit would know that the track was a combination of high-speed corners, hill slopes and the infamous Eau Rouge corner. Unless the car was a stable package, putting up a fast lap was left to the driver's courage. That's probably what the Ferrari team would have bet on - that Schumacher would compensate for the car's inadequacies.
Schumacher put some stunning laps, even taking provisional pole, only to concede to the crushing speed of the Williams. Jacques qualified nearly a second ahead of Schumacher at pole. Schumacher was at P3 with Jean Alesi in the Benetton completing the front row of the grid. Schumacher did put up some stunning laps and here is one of them:
Note: Video not in English. So, readers can mute and watch.
Schumi did improve his time but was still way-off Jacques' pace. To Schumi's credit, he did push the car to the limit to get to P3. In comparison, Eddie in the other Ferrari could manage only a P17. The question was whether P3 would be good enough to allow Schumi to take the lead and win the race.
Let's hop on to race day to find out.
The 1997 Belgian GP – Race Day
The run-up to the race was not so pleasant for Ferrari as Schumacher was fifteenth fastest in the proceedings before the race. The Ferrari cars were finding it hard to keep pace with not only the Williams but with the Benettons, McLarens and other front runners. The optimism in the camp was lacking.
However, half an hour before the race, a new situation emerged. It started pouring around the track leading to a familiar condition for Michael Schumacher, the Rainman. By now, Michael had earned a reputation for handling rain-soaked tracks. The 1996 Spanish GP, the 1997 Monaco GP and the 1997 French GP had all witnessed Schumacher magic, and he was victorious in each of those races, well ahead of the others.
Before the race started, all the teams had the luxury of deciding the tyres based on how wet they perceived the track to become. While most went for wet-weather tyres, signifying a pouring condition, Michael braved intermediate tyres. That was a call that could backfire if the conditions deteriorated.
Let’s look at the track condition before the race and a summary of the GP:
So, Michael stayed behind Alesi for a couple of laps and then went past him. His pursuit of Villeneuve and overtake was completed within the same lap, much to everyone’s surprise. After that, Michael was in a league of his own. He once again lapped nearly three to ten seconds faster than the rest of the cars on track.
The choice of intermediates worked well for Schumacher as he kept extending his lead with no other car even attempting to catch-up. By the fourteenth lap, Schumacher was a minute ahead of the rest of the field. On the other hand, the Williams team were visibly struggling at the beginning but did well near the end of the race as the track started to dry up. Still, Villeneuve could only manage a fifth position while his teammate, Frentzen, took the podium with Michael and Fisichella ahead of him.
The win took Schumacher eleven points clear of Villeneuve and cemented his reputation as the Rainman of Formula 1!
Did You Know?
Experiencing rain even before the race (1997 Belgian GP), Michael Schumacher did some track evaluation before joining the grid.
He did not proceed straight to take his position on the grid instead kept going out on the track, into the pits, and back on track, to gauge the condition and car setup. He checked both his racing car and the spare car (should there be an incident).
Talk about planning!
Back to the Pits
With only five races left, Schumacher had to push to keep the lead in the drivers’ championship. After a long time, it did appear that Schumacher would soon win his third world drivers’ title. Five races were a lot with just eleven points lead, but then Ferrari would have found reasons to believe that they could win.
Questions & Answers
© 2020 S K