Jacques Villeneuve won the world championship 20 years ago today after surviving a controversial attack from rival Michael Schumacher in the 1997 European Grand Prix.Gilles Villeneuve. And the race saw a breakthrough win for Mika Hakkinen, who Villeneuve waved through as he collected the points he needed to take the title.
But after the collision Schumacher faced the wrath of the FIA and received an unprecedented penalty.
The road to Jerez
The scene was set for an epic conclusion to the 1997 F1 season. Against expectations, Schumacher and Ferrari had capitalised on mistakes and misfortune by Villeneuve and Williams. Schumacher had led the standings for much of the year as his rival had a series win-or-bust races. The writing seemed to be on the wall for the years of Williams-Renault supremacy: Star designer Adrian Newey was long gone and the 1997 finale was to be Renault’s last race.
Then Schumacher hit a late-season slump. He took just two points from three races while Villeneuve won twice in eight days, flipping the championship on its head. But the Williams driver fluffed his chance to lock up the title in Japan by collecting his latest in a series of penalties for failing to observe waved yellow flags. Schumacher won and when an FIA hearing upheld Villeneuve’s disqualification, that meant the Ferrari driver headed to Jerez with a one-point lead.
Ferrari headed to the final race in confident mood. A front wing upgrade at Suzuka had boosted the F310B’s performance and the tight, slow Spanish circuit was a venue where they could expect to challenge Williams. Schumacher’s manager Willi Weber brought a stash of merchandise bearing the slogans ‘Michael Schumacher, three times world champion”.
Villeneuve, still smarting from his exclusion in Japan, was trying to apply pressure to his rival in the media. “I was aware, like everyone else, how he had won other championships, mainly against Damon by putting Damon in the wall,” he explained last year.
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“We must have spent the last two or three weeks just mentioning, remembering, reminding people that those accidents and Michael was good at taking people off to win championships.”
Villeneuve wasn’t the only Williams team member pushing this line. Williams’ Patrick Head, who had the memory of Hill’s 1994 title defeat to Schumacher still fresh in his mind, reminded the media: “The man who goes into Jerez in the lead is in a position where, as we’ve seen a number of years previously, he can be very aggressive with the person behind and if both don’t finish [will win the title].”
The season had already begun when the decision to switch the season finale from Estoril in Portugal to Jerez was announced. The second Spanish race of the year was dubbed the European Grand Prix, and was the first season finale held in Europe for 13 years. The return to Europe came at the instigation of Renault, due to their impending exit from F1, and hasn’t been repeated in the 20 years since.
Renault CEO Louis Schweitzer was behind the decision to leave. He told Patrick Faure, who had masterminded the Williams tie-up, they had nothing left to prove in the sport.
“We went there having won everything,” said Renault’s managing director Jean-Francois Caubet at the time. “Around 75% of the races had been won by a Renault engine between 1995 and 1997 and we’d had five consecutive titles.”
Now Renault intended to leave on a high. They plastered the Jerez circuit with their logos ready for a big send-off. “We had asked Bernie to have the last race in Europe for a large television audience, and we wanted to win and leave in front.”
The drama of qualifying ensured many would tune in.
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1997 European Grand Prix qualifying
Lap times in Formula One had been officially recorded to three decimal places since 1981. But around the 4.4-kilometre Jerez circuit it proved insufficient.
Throughout practice the track ‘ramped up’ quickly as the racing line cleaned up. The steadily-improving McLarens headed the final practice session and had either of them been able to replicate their sub-1’21.0 lap times in qualifying the sharp end of the grid would have looked very different.
The championship tension was telling. Schumacher’s team mate Eddie Irvine held Villeneuve up twice around the narrow course. Penalties for impeding weren’t an issue 20 years ago. Villeneuve made sure the world remained alert to the possibility of Ferrari tricks by storming up the pit lane to remonstrate with Irvine while the Ferrari mechanics tried to push his car away.
Soon after qualifying started, Villeneuve put his car on top, rounding the circuit in one minute, 21.072 seconds. This was soon to become the most famous lap time in F1 history.
Schumacher tried to beat it, but came across a tractor recovering his brother’s spun car at the Senna chicane. Crucially the scene was covered by stationary yellow flags, rather than waving ones, which meant Schumacher did not have to back off to the extent Villeneuve should have in Japan. It was a close call, but that was nothing compared to what happened when Schumacher crossed the line and matched Villeneuve’s 1’21.072.
This was bizarre enough, but the conspiracy theorists’ day was complete when Villeneuve’s team mate Heinz-Harald Frentzen set another 1’21.072. “Shit!” exclaimed Schumacher, watching in his car. “Exactly the same time…”
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McLaren’s claim to pole position was thwarted by traffic. David Coulthard also went off at the gravel trap as neither driver got within half a second of their practice times.
Outgoing world champion Damon Hill nearly produced another shock in his Arrows. As in Hungary the combination of a slow track and Bridgestone’s durable tyres had put him in contention. But approaching the final corner Ukyo Katayama, driving his last grand prix for Minardi, spun in front of him. Hill crossed the line five-hundredths of a second off pole position.
That bumped the McLarens back to the third row. Irvine was next, six-tenths off Schumacher following a problem with his brakes, which ruled out the prospect of him being able to help his team mate as he had in Japan.
Gerhard Berger, heading for retirement, was the first of the Benettons in eighth. He hadn’t endeared himself to his team by failing to get out of Jean Alesi’s during one of his team mate’s flying laps.
Alesi’s final weekend in a Benetton before his move to Sauber was not going well. He crashed in practice, switched to the spare car and spun twice in qualifying before encountering his team mate. It drove team principal David Richards to despair. “They’re like kids,” he commented on the pit wall. “That’s the last time they drive one of our cars,” he added jokingly.
1997 European Grand Prix grid
|Row 1||1. Jacques Villeneuve 1’21.072|
|2. Michael Schumacher 1’21.072|
|Row 2||3. Heinz-Harald Frentzen 1’21.072|
|4. Damon Hill 1’21.130|
|Row 3||5. Mika Hakkinen 1’21.369|
|6. David Coulthard 1’21.476|
|Row 4||7. Eddie Irvine 1’21.610|
|8. Gerhard Berger 1’21.656|
|Row 5||9. Olivier Panis 1’21.735|
|10. Jean Alesi 1’22.011|
|Row 6||11. Jan Magnussen 1’22.167|
|12. Rubens Barrichello 1’22.222|
|Row 7||13. Pedro Diniz 1’22.234|
|14. Johnny Herbert 1’22.263|
|Row 8||15. Shinji Nakano 1’22.351|
|16. Ralf Schumacher 1’22.740|
|Row 9||17. Giancarlo Fisichella 1’22.804|
|18. Norberto Fontana 1’23.281|
|Row 10||19. Ukyo Katayama 1’23.409|
|20. Tarso Marques 1’23.854|
|Row 11||21. Mika Salo 1’24.222|
|22. Jos Verstappen 1’24.301|
On the evening before the race Renault threw a farewell party in the paddock, inviting all of the drivers. After that, there was just one act left in the 1997 season.
1997 European Grand Prix
To win the championship, Villeneuve needed to keep Schumacher behind him. But the instant the lights went out the Ferrari shot into the lead and Villeneuve was on the back foot. Frentzen drew alongside him into turn one and Villeneuve, not prepared for that eventuality, hesitantly let his team mate by. Six laps later they swapped places and the chase was on.
Schumacher and Villeneuve’s championship fight had been a proxy war for much of the season, in that they had seldom faced each other on track. They hadn’t even appeared on the podium together in the preceding 15 races. Now Villeneuve was on the hunt and the pair swapped fastest laps.
Schumacher was the first of the pair to pit for tyres and fuel. His pace was slightly quicker over the first stint, eking out a lead of 5.2 seconds by lap 20. However he was delayed briefly by the Minardi of Tarso Marques as he came in.
Williams were waiting for Villeneuve on the same lap but he stayed out a lap longer, also catching Marques on his way in. He rejoined the track with Schumacher in sight. Frentzen, however, ran longer, and by backing off his pace held up Schumacher enough for Villeneuve to get within striking distance.
Irvine was too far back to help Schumacher in the same way but Ferrari had other ideas. After Frentzen pitted the title contenders, separated by less than a second, began to pick their way through traffic. Katayama and Jos Verstappen pulled smartly aside for both drivers on lap 29. Next was Norberto Fontana’s Sauber.
Earlier in the year Ferrari had used their engine customers to their advantage by having Johnny Herbert let Schumacher through at Spa. On the morning of the European Grand Prix, according to Fontana, Ferrari team boss Jean Todt appeared in the Sauber motorhome and issued an edict: “Villeneuve must be held up if you come across him on the track.”
Villeneuve fought back. He chipped away relentlessly at Schumacher’s advantage, so that by lap 38 there was just 1.4 seconds between them. This was crucial, as Schumacher caught a fresh batch of traffic, which they could now progress through as one. Giancarlo Fisichella and Shinji Nakano moved aside. So did Ralf Schumacher, making no obvious concession to his brother’s title charge.
Once they were out of that queue Schumacher got the hammer down. His next stop was fast approaching, and in one lap he took half a second off Villeneuve. He was due in sooner, however, and appeared to be carrying less fuel, as he was stationary for a second longer than his rival. Nonetheless, Schumacher made it out in front of Coulthard whereas Villeneuve dropped behind the McLaren after his pit stop one lap later.
It made little difference as Coulthard came in the next time around. Now Villeneuve had a clear run at Schumacher and the Ferrari driver was struggling. on lap 46 Villeneuve took one-and-a-half seconds out of him. The next time around they were separated by just three-tenths of a second.
Lap 48 was Villeneuve’s opportunity. “I knew that the two laps after my pit stop, when I had fresh rubber, that’s when I would have to make my move,” he said. “And on the lap I actually went for it I knew that was the last lap I could.”
The longest straight on the track ran from turn five, Sito Pons, to the Curva Dry Sac hairpin. It was the only realistic passing point on the track. “I was just a metre or two closer to him than I had been on any previous lap,” said Villeneuve. “I knew I could go for it. And I knew that I had to surprise him which means pull out at the last minute possible, then he wasn’t looking in his mirrors.”
Villeneuve didn’t give the slightest indication he was about to make a move until the last possible moment. Then he dived for the inside of the corner, braking desperately late. Schumacher squeezed him, Villeneuve put a wheel across the dirt. Then the Ferrari turned into the Williams.
“When I got next to him and he hadn’t turned in on me yet I couldn’t believe it,” Villeneuve remembered. “I thought ‘wow, he didn’t actually run into me’. And then half a second later I felt a big jolt and I thought ‘OK, no, he did run into me’.”
Schumacher slithered wide into a gravel trap, from which he strangely failed to emerge. He climbed out of the cockpit and stood beside the barrier, staring down the oncoming track. A few moments later, Villeneuve reappeared on his 49th lap.
“You got him, you bastard, you beauty,” erupted a voice in Villeneuve’s ear. “Michael is out.” Now he only needed to take the chequered flag inside the top six to win the championship.
But having felt the hit, Villeneuve was concerned his car was damaged. Fearing a suspension problem he backed his pace off by five seconds a lap at one point. In fact it was not his suspension which had borne the brunt of Schumacher’s attack but his left sidepod. The contact had wrenched the battery from its mountings, its only connection to the car now the electrical cables which fed power to it.
The McLarens were closing in on him. Head, anxious to avoid any trouble, paid Ron Dennis a visit. Villeneuve would offer no resistance to the silver cars. Meanwhile McLaren had a plan of their own and told Coulthard, who had jumped his team mate at the first round of pit stops, to let Hakkinen back through again.
As the final lap began a coasting Villeneuve was passed by Hakkinen. Coulthard went up the inside of him at the final corner but this put both drivers in two minds.
“I think David slowed down after the last corner because he wasn’t sure if I would win the championship or not,” said Villeneuve. “When I saw him slow down I slowed down as well.” The slowing pair were both nearly passed by Berger as the leading quartet crossed the line covered by less than two seconds. Villeneuve later said had he realised Berger was so close he would have let the Benetton driver by as well to finish his F1 career on the podium.
Hakkinen therefore took a completely unexpected breakthrough victory. Coulthard had good reason to feel frustrated about the outcome. “There was no discussion before the race that it might be a possibility,” he said afterwards. But few denied Hakkinen was overdue a win following his near-misses earlier in the year at Silverstone and the Nurburgring. He and Coulthard raised new champion Villeneuve aloft on the podium.
Villeneuve’s engineer Jock Clear (now at Ferrari) felt the result was a vindication. “you saw today that Michael’s car was just as good as ours. The driver, I’m afraid, made the difference on the day.”
“How many times have we heard Michael praised? I hope there’s enough praise for the way Jacques drove today because he out-drove Michael. And Michael cracked. Exactly the same as he did in ’94.”
Another double championship triumph gave Renault pause for thought. Having decided to leave, would they be better off to remain? On the flight back to Paris, Schweitzer turned to Faure and said: “So, when are we coming back to F1 then?”
1997 European Grand Prix result
|Pos.||No.||Driver||Team||Laps||Time / gap / reason|
|1||9||Mika Hakkinen||McLaren-Mercedes||69||1hr 38’57.771|
|11||12||Giancarlo Fisichella||Jordan-Peugeot||68||1 lap|
|12||19||Mika Salo||Tyrrell-Ford||68||1 lap|
|13||7||Jean Alesi||Benetton-Renault||68||1 lap|
|14||17||Norberto Fontana||Sauber-Petronas||68||1 lap|
|15||21||Tarso Marques||Minardi-Hart||68||1 lap|
|16||18||Jos Verstappen||Tyrrell-Ford||68||1 lap|
|17||20||Ukyo Katayama||Minardi-Hart||68||1 lap|
|11||Ralf Schumacher||Jordan-Peugeot||44||Water leak|
Schumacher is excluded
The manner in which Schumacher had tried to have Villeneuve off sparked a seismic reaction. Parallels between it and Adelaide 1994 were widely drawn.
At first Schumacher stood his ground, pointing the finger at Villeneuve. “I braked on the maximum. He braked even later. With this braking point I wouldn’t make the corner and he wouldn’t make the corner. So he used me a little bit as braking. I probably wouldn’t have done anything different.”
That changed when he came face-to-face with Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo. “I really thought that Jacques Villeneuve had not been in front of me and that I had the right to defend my position,” said Schumacher. “But in the evening I was not so sure any more. I remember exactly that I was flabbergasted when our president Luca di Montezemolo said to me something like: Man, what were you thinking – and I thought: What? Why am I the idiot now?”
At a press conference two days after the race Schumacher softened his stance, though he complained about an “exaggerated reaction” to the crash. “I miscalculated Villeneuve’s attack and I was out of the race. Jacques won and that took so much away from the Tifosi and the team. I am a human being, sometimes I make mistakes too. Not very often, but this was a big one.”
In the Formula One world and beyond, Schumacher’s move prompted howls of disapproval. “Disgusting,” said Jody Scheckter, then the most recent driver to have won the world championship in a Ferrari.
Reaction came from the very top of the Ferrari hierarchy. Gianni Agnelli, president of owners Fiat, didn’t spare his driver’s blushes. “Schumacher makes no more than a mistake a year,” he said. “But when he falls for that, all the world will know.”
“What happened in Jerez is just hideous, and all the consequent turmoil can be explained. But it was a mistake, period. Only thing is he was so stubborn as to take 48 hours before admitting he had made a mistake. And there was also something he should not have said right after the race, like ‘I would do the same again’. Anyway it’s all over now.”
Much later, Schumacher admitted “if I could undo one thing during my Formula One career, I would choose Jerez.”
By then the sport’s governing body had taken action. Eight years earlier FIA president Jean-Marie Balestre had been criticised for intervening after Alain Prost drove into Ayrton Senna during the 1989 Japanese Grand Prix.
By 1997 Max Mosley was in charge of the FIA, and race director Charlie Whiting made it clear he did not intervene in the same way directly. “The closest I’ve seen Max come to saying anything was after Jerez 1997 when Michael Schumacher drove into the side of Jacques Villeneuve’s Williams as they disputed the final round of the championship,” said Whiting in 2011.
“Max was in the control tower, not in the stewards’ room or race control, and he said to the chief steward something along the lines of, ‘So, a small investigation now?’ And the steward said, ‘No, it was a racing incident.’ Max left it at that. It had been a question, not an instruction. And nothing did happen at that race.”
But after the race the FIA was moved to investigate – and not just the Schumacher-Villeneuve incident. McLaren and Williams were hauled before the court on charges of colluding to rig the outcome of the race. This was swiftly dismissed as the WMSC ruled “there was no arrangement to fix the results”.
FIA World Motor Sports Council verdict on Schumacher
The World Council found that Michael Schumacher’s manoeuvre was an instinctive reaction and although deliberate not made with malice or premeditation. It was a serious error. The World Council decided to exclude Michael Schumacher from the results of the 1997 FIA Formula One World Championship for drivers. The final results of the FIA Formula One World Championship have been modified accordingly. The results of the Constructors’ Championship remain unchanged. Michael Schumacher retains his points and victories recorded during the 1997 season.
In lieu of any further penalty or fine, Michael Schumacher agreed to participate in the FIA European road safety campaign for a total of seven days in 1998
Villeneuve’s analysis of the clash was that Schumacher had initially made way for him, then realised his only hope was to try to take the Williams out. “His immediate first reaction was to turn to the left,” he said. “You can see he makes a little kink to the left and then a split second later he turns hard right, straight into me.”
“I think his immediate instinct was ‘make room for him’ and then I think he thought ‘I’m going to lose the championship’ and he turned into him. And this was all in a tenth of a second.”
Following a hearing 16 days after the race, the FIA World Motor Sports Council judged that Schumacher made a “serious error” which “was an instinctive reaction and although deliberate not made with malice or premeditation”. He agreed to take part in an FIA road safety initiative and was excluded from the championship standings.
Schumacher said the verdict was “quite a tough decision”. It was an unprecedented verdict: No driver before or since has been individually excluded from the world championship. But a widespread view in the media and among fans was that the FIA had been too lenient.
Mosley justified the penalty saying it set a precedent for similar incidents in the future. “The important thing in the Schumacher case was to make sure that drivers were left under no illusion that if you tried to win the championship by taking the other bloke off the track and out of the race as had happened several times in the past, it was just not going to work,” he said.
“You will not succeed because we will take the title off you. That was the chief message.”
Mosley insisted the FIA would not have allowed Schumacher to win the championship by taking Villeneuve out. “Schumacher might well have won the title in 1997 and that would have been Ferrari’s dream after such a long spell without it but we would still have cancelled it out,” he said.
“As it was, he was runner-up, but we took that away and his results, brilliant as some of them were, count for nothing for that year.”
Between 1989 and 1997 four crashes occurred between championship contenders in title-deciding races: Prost and Senna in 1989, the same two again in 1990, Schumacher and Hill in 1994 and Schumacher and Villeneuve in 1997.
In the 20 years since there have been none. Whether or not Schumacher’s punishment was too lenient, the precedent seems to have been set.
1997 European Grand Prix championship standings
1997 drivers championship standings
NB. Michael Schumacher, 78 points, was excluded.
1997 constructors championship standings
Grand Prix flashback
- Schumacher seals record-breaking 10th constructors championship for Ferrari
- Strategic superiority clinches Schumacher’s first Ferrari title
- Disaster for Hakkinen brings title within Schumacher’s grasp
- Schumacher turns the tide against McLaren on tragic day at Monza
- Hakkinen stuns Schumacher with three-wide pass for fourth win
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- How F1’s last female racer stood little chance in a once-great team close to collapse
- Sir Frank Williams, 1942-2021