The 1997 French GP: Michael Schumacher’s 25th Career Win
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 set-up 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 Michael Schumacher having a psychological advantage after the Canadian GP win, the Williams challenge couldn’t be taken lightly. 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 Michael’s and Ferrari’s way?
Time to find out.
Did You Know?
Performance and reliability issues dogged the Ferraris in the 1996 and the 1997 season. They were far from their world-dominating stint between 2000-2004.
It was a surprise that Michael could still win in 1996 and 1997. In fact, Michael came close to taking the 1997 title against a superior Williams.
The 1997 French GP Qualifying
Michael wasn’t optimistic of 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. Michael believed that the high throttle circuits suited the Ferrari package better. However, that did not mean that Michael would compromise his pursuit to win the French race. I felt that Michael would have surprised himself in the qualifying.
In the free practice, Michael 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 were able to better the pole time. Of course, Villeneuve crashing out early helped the cause as Michael’s real challenger was out of the session.
So, Michael 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.
The 1997 French GP – Race Day
Michael Schumacher had one of the 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 Michael 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:
The start was a great one for the Ferraris, as even Eddie Irvine shot to the third position from P5. Michael was piling up hot laps after hot laps as he was ahead of Frentzen by more than seven-seconds by the end of the fourteenth lap. Barring the first pitstop, Michael hardly lost the first position. Michael 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 Michael who continued on slicks.
The advantage of nearly a minute played into Michael’s hands. The Ferrari team used logic and strategy perfectly over here. If Michael and the Willaims 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 too Michael would win, as the pitstop would put them far behind to able to catch up with Michael in the remaining laps.
That strategy was a sound one, and all that Michael had to do was to keep the car on the track. Michael 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 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 leading from Frentzen, Irvine, Villeneuve, Alesi and Ralf Schumacher.
And, of course, podium celebrations followed:
Despite Michael's doubt on Ferrari's package working well on the French circuit, he managed to win the Grand Prix. Michael was now ahead of Jacques by fourteen points in the drivers' championship, and he had to keep the winning momentum going.
It was Ferrari's third win of the season allowing Michael to equal Jacques' three wins till then. It was turning out to be a great contest, reminiscent of the 1994 battle between Micheal and Damon Hill. But this season, the cars were different, and so were the drivers. How things would pan out, only time would tell!
Did You Know?
Before finishing the race, Michael Schumacher slowed down to allow Ralf Schumacher to unlap himself. Though Ralf was outside the points scoring place, the unlapping helped.
It turned out that Jean Alesi had collided with David on the last lap, taking David out and thus allowing Ralf to take the final points-earning position P6.
Back to the Pits
Michael managed a back-to-back win at the Canadian and French GP. While he continued to be sceptical of the British GP, scheduled next, Michael would have loved to cement his lead in the drivers' standing.
At the moment though, Ferrari's two podium finishes and Michael's victory were good enough reasons for a celebration!
Questions & Answers
© 2020 S K