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The 1997 French GP: Michael Schumacher’s 25th Career Win

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The 1997 F1 Season

Michael Schumacher’s convincing win in the Canadian GP led fans to believe that Ferrari had indeed turned the corner and was competing head-to-head with the Williams team. However, that was not a sound conclusion as some tracks suited the Ferrari’s setup whereas the Williams seemed to be at home at every circuit. So, the challenge for the Ferrari team was to put in that extra bit to ensure that their car was competitive, if not better than the Williams team.

Despite Schumacher having a psychological advantage after the Canadian GP win, the Williams challenge couldn’t be taken lightly. Jacques Villeneuve had already shown his mettle in the 1996 season and had more victories than Schumacher until then in the 1997 season. So, it would be one more engaging race for sure.

Ferrari mounting such a challenge would be the dream of the Tifosi since Gilles Villeneuve in the 1980s and Alain Prost in 1991. But would the French GP go Schumacher's and Ferrari’s way?

Time to find out.

The 1997 French GP Qualifying

Schumacher wasn’t optimistic about the French GP nor the following British GP. He wanted to get to the German GP where the track offered longer straight lines with lesser chicanes. Schumacher believed that the high throttle circuits suited the Ferrari package better. However, that did not mean that he would compromise his pursuit to win the French race. I felt that he would have surprised himself in the qualifying.

In the free practice, Schumacher was off the pace by seven-tenth of a second from the lead car. Now, F1 fans would know that despite the practice outcome, the qualifying is usually very different in many cases. That’s what was in store for the fans as Schumacher stormed to the pole.

Such was his domination of the qualifying session that the hot lap he put at the beginning of the session became the eventual pole time. In other words, no other driver nor himself was able to better the pole time. Of course, Villeneuve crashing out early helped the cause as Schumacher’s real challenger was out of the session.

So, Schumacher sat smug at the pole while his competitors had to figure out their plan for the race. An envious position for sure, but would that translate to a win?

Let’s find out.

Race Day

Schumacher had one of the most outstanding starts to the race, pulling away from the other cars. Frentzen and the cars behind seemed to have had a bad start or completely misjudged the lights. The fiery launch itself gave Schumacher some breathing space after the first corner. From there, his job was easy—to pull away as quickly as possible.

Take a look at the start of the race:

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The start was a great one for the Ferraris, as even Eddie Irvine shot to the third position from P5. Schumacher was piling up hot laps after hot laps as he was ahead of Heinz-Harald Frentzen by more than seven seconds by the end of the 14th lap. Barring the first pitstop, Schumacher hardly lost the first position. He went ahead to lap till the fifth position, with only Frentzen, Irvine and Villeneuve in the same lap as himself.

When all looked set, there was rain with just eight to ten laps remaining. Some of the teams immediately rushed to change to wets including Irvine in the Ferrari. The need for wets became evident when the cars on slicks were lapping nearly ten seconds slower than those on wets. Few of the cars unlapped themselves from Schumacher, who continued on slicks.

The advantage of nearly a minute played into Schumacher’s hands. The Ferrari team used logic and strategy perfectly over here. If he and the Williams team continued on slicks, then he would end up winning, as both sides would be lapping around the same time. However, if the Williams went for a change of tires, then Schumacher would also win, as the pitstop would put them too far behind to be able to catch up with him in the remaining laps.

That strategy was a sound one, and all Schumacher had to do was to keep the car on the track. He drove immaculately to complete on slicks and go on to win the race! There was some entertainment in the last lap, as Jean in sixth place pushed out David Coulthard to take the fifth spot, and just meters ahead Villeneuve spun off while trying to take the third position from Eddie Irvine. Jean saw an opportunity to steal the fourth position from Villeneuve, but Villeneuve defended his spot and took the last chicane to the chequered flag. So, it was Michael Schumacher leading from Frentzen, Irvine, Villeneuve, Alesi and Ralf Schumacher.

And, of course, podium celebrations followed:

Despite Schumacher's doubt about Ferrari's package working well on the French circuit, he managed to win the Grand Prix. He was now ahead of Jacques by 14 points in the drivers' championship, and he had to keep the winning momentum going.

It was Ferrari's third win of the season allowing Schumacher to equal Jacques' three wins till then. It was turning out to be a great contest, reminiscent of the 1994 battle between Schumacher and Damon Hill. But this season, the cars were different, and so were the drivers. How things would pan out, only time would tell!

Back to the Pits

Schumacher managed a back-to-back win at the Canadian and French GP. While he continued to be sceptical of the British GP, scheduled next, he would have loved to cement his lead in the drivers' standing.

At the moment though, Ferrari's two podium finishes and his victory were good enough reasons for a celebration!

The Next Win...

Want to know the story of Michael Schumacher's 26th win? Click here to find out:

"The 1997 Belgian GP: Michael Schumacher's 26th Career Win"

© 2020 S K

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