The 1997 Japanese GP: Michael Schumacher’s 27th Career Win

Updated on April 20, 2020
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The 1997 F1 Season

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Jacques Villeneuve had a good run, after the Belgian GP where Schumacher won. Of the three races that followed the Spa race, Villeneuve won two, while Schumacher could only earn a total of two points from those three races. This mixed fortune meant that Jacques was leading the championship by nine points over Schumacher.

There was quite a buzz in the Williams and Ferrari camps as they arrived in Japan. To ensure the world title, all that Villeneuve had to do was keep Schumacher behind him, so that he could take an unassailable lead in points. Schumacher and the Ferrari team had expected that and had to build a strategy of avoiding such a pile-up behind Villeneuve.

Williams had one more issue on their mind, and that was winning the constructors championship. Even one of the Williams in the top three would seal the championship in Williams’ favour. So, the idea was to attempt to get Villeneuve in front of Michael and hope they all stick in the top three. That way the drivers’ and constructors’ championship could be wound up in the Japanese GP. From the looks of it, it wasn’t an impossible plan.

But to add to the drama, Villeneuve risked being disqualified as he did not lift while driving under yellow flags. If he was indeed going to be disqualified after the race, then the Williams team might try to interrupt Schumi’s run to the chequered flag by using both Villeneuve and Frentzen.

Those who remember the 1997 season and the way it ended may want to consider that it was not Ferrari alone which was on the wrong side of fair play. There was a lot of suspense about the way the Japanese GP would unfold, starting with the qualifying session.

The Ferrari and Williams teams would have been on their toes. Could Michael win in such uncertain circumstances?

Let’s find out.

Did You Know?

Jacques Villeneuve was penalised for not slowing down for yellow flags during practice and was about to lose his pole position at the Japanese GP. Williams appealed, and because of the appeal pending, he was allowed to start from pole.

However, after the race, Williams lost the appeal, which meant that Jacques stood disqualified and therefore lost the two points that he earned in the race.

So, instead of the 2 points lead, Jacques got 1 point behind Schumacher in the championship standing.

The 1997 Japanese GP Qualifying

Despite the Ferrari and Williams team planning their respective strategies, the instructions to the drivers were plain and simple – go out and get the pole. Both the Ferraris were lightning-fast, but Jacques was even quicker. Interestingly, Eddie Irvine’s car set-up was something Michael’s engineers emulated for his car. Eddie was supposed to know the Suzuka circuit in and out, and that worked in the team’s favour.

The Suzuka circuit is supposedly one of the fastest track around and here’s Mika Hakkinen putting on his best time for the qualifying:

Mika Hakkinen qualified at fourth place and was just three-thousandths of a second behind Eddie Irvine. The first four cars were separated by just four-tenth of a second. Take a look at the qualifying times of the top four

  • Jacques Villeneuve – 1:36.071
  • Michael Schumacher – 1:36.133
  • Eddie Irvine – 1:36.466
  • Mika Hakkinen – 1:36.469

See how close that was? Would the race be so tight too?

Let’s find out.

Did You Know?

The 1997 Japanese GP was Michael Schumacher’s 100th career race.

It was also Schumacher’s 27th career victory equaling Jacky Stewart’s 27 career wins.

The 1997 Japanese GP – Race Day

The race started with Villeneuve staying in the lead and purposely holding back Schumacher in second place and the rest of the field. Just when the Williams strategy appeared to be working, Eddie Irvine in a rocket went past Mika and Michael into second place. Another lap later, he had overtaken Villeneuve and stormed to first place. The car appeared low on fuel as Eddie pulled away almost four-seconds a lap ahead of Villeneuve.

In the process of setting the jet pace on a Formula 1 circuit, Eddie Irvine became the first F1 driver to do sub 1:40 minutes lap on the Suzuka circuit. True, after about ten laps Michael Schumacher, Frentzen, Jean Alesi and others did it too, but the first one would always be Eddie Irvine. Take a look at the race summary:

Note: The video loops between 15:40 and 23:40. So, after 15:40 minutes, you can start watching from 23:40 minutes.

The race turned out as expected with Villeneuve slowing down Schumacher, but the Irvine angle worked well for Ferrari. After the first round of pitstops, Villeneuve almost came ahead of Michael but for Michael’s attacking run-around that took him ahead. A couple of laps later, Irvine in front started to slow down almost five-seconds a lap to allow Michael to storm past, while he held back Villeneuve. Now, that move is not going to win Eddie or Ferrari a sporting moment award, but then again, Williams would have done the same thing; in fact, Williams were already doing it by delaying Michael before Ferrari responded.

Take a look at Eddie allowing Micheal through and slowing down Villeneuve:

Note: The video is not in English. Readers can mute and watch.

So what goes around comes around. Villeneuve was third behind Eddie, but through the race, he further dropped positions owing to a lousy pitstop which lasted over 13-seconds. However, all was not lost for Williams, as Frentzen came out of the pits ahead of Eddie. Incidentally, after the first round of pitstops, Villeneuve and Michael had a similar duel where Schumi reigned. But that was not the case with Frentzen, who firmly stood his ground ahead of Eddie. Thus, Frentzen was second and Eddie third. If they finished in the same positions, then Williams would have the constructors’ championship.

While all expected the race to wind-up with Michael leading from Frentzen and Eddie, there were some more episodes still left to play out. Damon Hill in the Yamaha held back Michael leading to his lead over Frentzen shrinking to just one second.

The funny part was that Damon let Frentzen go through in a whisker. The incident notwithstanding, Michael won the race while Williams took the constructors’ championship!

Did You Know?

Michael Schumacher’s disqualification from the entire 1997 season was the strictest action taken against any F1 driver until then.

However, Michael was allowed to keep his wins and other metrics from the season for his career records.

So, how did the 1997 Season Conclude?

The last race of the season was the European GP at Jerez. Michael leading the championship by one point from Jacques Villeneuve was a déjà vu of the 1994 season. Well, the déjà vu did not end there.

The season ended with a collision between Michael and Villeneuve when Villeneuve tried overtaking Michael. The FIA ruled that the accident was entirely Michael's fault, and he was subsequently, stripped of his 1997 standing.

Take a look at the crash:

Note: The video is not in English. Readers can mute and watch.

Want to know more about the 1997 European GP? You can read the full article here:

The 1997 European GP: Michael Schumacher’s Infamous Crash with Villeneuve

Back to the Pits

Michael’s Japanese GP win promised a nail-biting finish to the 1997 F1 season at Jerez. Little did people know what they would witness in the ultimate race. It was a heartbreaking moment for Schumacher and Ferrari fans. What followed the race was even worse than the incident itself.

The 1997 season ended with a lesson for all drivers to resist track incidents for personal advantage. Despite the Senna-Prost saga and Schumacher-Hill episode, Michael and the F1 world woke up to a new threshold of what would be tolerated and what would not!

Questions & Answers

    © 2020 S K

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