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The 1997 F1 Season
The European GP at Jerez was the last race of the 1997 season, and Schumacher had not been part of a championship-winning pursuit as close as the current season. In fact, Schumacher led from Jacques Villeneuve by just one point going into Jerez, which was eerily similar to the 1994 season where Schumacher again led from Damon Hill by a point.
The closeness of the contest must have given Williams team some sleepless nights. After all, they were at the receiving end in 1994. Spokesperson after spokesperson from the Williams camp seemed to take potshots at Schumacher’s unsporting behaviour in 1994. It seemed like some sort of a mind game was in progress.
Schumacher and the Ferrari team chose to stay focused on the job, but the distractions were many. Media was in a frenzy discussing what would happen if a scenario arose where Villeneuve was to pass Schumacher. It was just a figment of people’s imagination of what could happen. The race had not even started, so where was the question of passing in the race. Or was there?
The discussions before the 1997 European GP could be considered prophetic, on hindsight. Why do I say that?
Let’s find out.
The 1997 European GP Qualifying
After winning the drivers’ title in the 1995 season, 1997 was the first time Michael was realistically looking at his third title and the first one for Ferrari. The championship had gone down to the wire, but Schumacher and the Ferrari team would have fancied their chances. The need of the hour was to qualify at P1 to get a clear track ahead.
Well, for one, to qualify at P1 was not only Schumacher’s briefing but also Villeneuve’s. Villeneuve was pushing, and the fight went down to the last minutes of qualifying. However, no one would have expected a historic qualifying session which would have amused even the drivers involved.
The qualifying ended in a three-way tie for the pole position. Here is a video of that historic moment.
Each of the drivers set a time of 1:21.072. In such a circumstance, which the F1 world would have never encountered for pole position, the driver setting the time first took the lead position, and then the others followed. So, Villeneuve was on pole, Schumacher on P2 while Frentzen on P3. It was a pace matching performance from the two Williams car and Schumacher’s Ferrari.
The question that everyone had was if the race would be so close too. It would be nerve-wracking for sure if it were.
Let’s find out what happened in the race.
The 1997 European GP – Race Day
Nobody, absolutely nobody, would have guessed what was going to happen in the race. Till that point, the talking point was the three drivers qualifying at the same pole time. Still, by the time the race ended, everyone was talking about a race incident which continued to dog Schumacher’s reputation even after his retirement. Well, what are we talking about?
Let’s get on with the race, and we will know soon enough.
The race started with Schumacher shooting ahead from P2 and getting ahead by few tenths-of-a-second around the first turn. Both the Williams had a bad start, and it was Frentzen behind Michael while Villeneuve was in the third place. Though Villeneuve did get into the second position, catching up and going ahead of Michael did not happen at all.
After the second round of pitstops, Michael was still ahead with Villeneuve and Frentzen in close second and third, respectively. Then came Villeneuve’s move, Schumacher’s response, and how F1 changed forever. Watch what happens as Villeneuve makes his only move on Schumacher in the 1997 European GP.
See that? We can hear one of the commentators already comparing the incident to the 1994 collision with Damon Hill. The 1994 season collision was still unclear as no one knew if Michael’s car was in a condition to continue or not. If it was then Michael was right in aggressively holding his line. However, Michael’s move in 1997 seemed to be quite deliberate, and Villeneuve couldn’t be faulted here.
So, Michael was accused of unsporting behaviour not only by the Williams camp but also in Germany, his home country, and Italy, Ferrari’s home country. This one incident caused Michael’s unsurmountable influence over F1 to be remembered with a tinge of resentment.
But all was well for Villeneuve as he raced to the finish and claimed his first and only world championship. Villeneuve allowed Mika and Coulthard in the McLarens to pass and thus finished the race in the third position, which was good enough for the title.
So, Villeneuve was the first and only Canadian F1 champion!
The Fallout of the Crash on Michael
Michael was mercilessly dogged by the media and FIA post the incident. The FIA which overlooked Prost-Senna collisions in Japan in 1989 and 1990 and the Schumacher-Hill accident in 1994, had second thoughts on the Schumacher-Villeneuve episode. Schumacher faced the strictest penalty meted out to an F1 driver till then.
Schumacher was stripped-off the season and disqualified. He, however, could keep his race wins and other achievements but no name of Schumacher would be associated with the 1997 season. As such, every driver after him got promoted by one spot for the season. The media in Germany and Italy were scathing about Schumacher’s approach while the British press, absolutely butchered Schumacher.
Years later, Villeneuve was asked about the Jerez race and here is his opinion. We have it from the horse’s mouth.
You can hear Villeneuve talk about the mind games at the beginning of the video to discourage Michael from a 1994 repeat. Ironically, that’s precisely what happened.
Two authors, James Allen (The Edge of Greatness) and Luc Domenjoz (Rise of a Genius), in their respective books on Schumacher’s F1 career, had an interesting view of this incident. According to both, Villeneuve’s last-minute attempt to overtake led him to carry too much speed into the corner. If not for Schumacher’s hit, he would have run aground. In a way, Schumacher unwittingly helped Villeneuve.
Now, go back and watch the video again. You will see before the impact that Villeneuve is smoking his tires to make the car stop, and then the collision turns him towards the track. Of course, that is not absolving Schumacher in any way, but acknowledging a new angle to the incident. Anyway, Villeneuve prevailed!
Back to the Pits
Michael’s reputation was in the doldrums, and there would have been a lot of psychological pressure on him. In Italy, fans called for terminating Schumacher’s contract with Ferrari while Germany wasn’t any easy on him either.
In the end, the 1997 season ended far from expectation for Schumacher and Ferrari while everybody forgot about the wonderful qualifying the same track witnessed. For now, die-hard Ferrari and Schumacher fans just wanted to move on and forget the season as fast as possible!
© 2020 S K