Round 17, 1997 European Grand Prix
DOWN TO THE WIRE…
1 Mika Hakkinen McLaren Mercedes
2 David Coulthard McLaren Mercedes
3 Jacques Villeneuve Williams Renault
4 Gerhard Berger Benetton Renault
5 Eddie Irvine Ferrari
6 Heinz-Harald Frentzen Williams Renault
THE 1997 grand prix season full of drama, intrigue and surprises came right down to the wire in southern Spain. Following the failure of changes to Portugal’s Estoril track to be completed in time, Jerez stepped in to host the 17th and final round of the 1997 FIA Formula 1 World Championship. It certainly didn’t disappoint, with talking points on both qualifying and raceday that will certainly be remembered for years to come.
Michael Schumacher was bidding to end Ferrari’s 18 year drought without a driver’s world title and the double world champion was heading into this crucial event a single point clear of many people’s pre-season favourite, Canadian Jacques Villeneuve. Villeneuve’s weekend started badly when he felt he had been baulked by Schumacher’s team-mate Eddie Irvine, during Saturday morning practice. The Maranello management would have been delighted to see Villeneuve storm down the pitlane to confront Eddie, clearly showing to the public eye the scrutiny that Jacques was under. During 1997, Williams Renault had generally carried the edge on a Saturday afternoon and Villeneuve underlined his pole ambitions by being the first driver to set a 1.21.072. Around ten minutes later, championship rival Schumacher set the same time by as proved on the 1997 season review by matching JV’s actual steering movements around the track! Remarkably, with nine minutes remaining, the sister Williams of Heinz-Harald Frentzen set the same exact time as Villeneuve & Schumacher, leaving everyone smirking in amazement and Murray Walker in the ITV commentary box to say ‘THIS IS AMAZING! I CANNOT BELIEVE THIS!’ As Villeneuve set the time first, he earned the pole position.
On Sunday, nerves were frayed around the paddock. Could Villeneuve achieve something his father was denied? Or would Schumacher produce another stellar performance as he had on so many occasions in 1997? At the start, Villeneuve made another slow getaway and Schumacher eased past his wheel spinning challenger. Surprisingly, Frentzen slipped past his team leader too, though it looked possibly part of a Williams plan should Jacques lose his lead. Damon Hill had qualified a great fourth in his swansong drive for Arrows, but was instantly relegated to sixth by the feisty McLaren’s of Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard. From the outset, Schumi was on a mission and hammered home his advantage at the front of the field. After nine painful slow laps, Patrick Head finally gave Frentzen the expected instruction to wave Villeneuve past. HHF’s job now was to protect the Canadian from the McLaren drivers who looked like serious challengers to spoil the party for the Williams and Ferrari teams. Slowly but surely, Villeneuve nibbled away at Schumacher’s lead as the first round of stops approached. The status quo was retained, but a lead of 5.0 seconds was wiped out in Michael’s favour to virtually nothing as Frentzen came into play. He held up Schumacher legitimately to allow Villeneuve to eat into the lead. After the stops: Schumacher led Villeneuve, Coulthard, Hakkinen, Frentzen and Irvine who was not in a position to help Schumacher in his quest for title success.
Backmarkers were now coming into play and the hopeless Argentine stand-in, Nolberto Fontana in a Ferrari-powered Sauber blatantly held up Villeneuve at half-distance, costing him nearly three seconds. Most of the traffic stayed out of the fight however and that included the Jordan team. Having qualified in a disastrous 16th and 17th, their race performance was just as bad. Ralf Schumacher’s Peugeot engine ran out of water, forcing him onto the sidelines, whilst Giancarlo Fisichella finished a distant 11th. Another traditional frontrunner in trouble was Jean Alesi, who went off the circuit whilst trying to overtake a much-improved Jan Magnussen. A slip from ninth to 14th was the final outcome. Having dropped back to a more traditional 8th place, Hill’s Arrows Yamaha cooked itself and forced him to pull off, ending his world championship defensive year on a sorry note.
Back at the front and the second round of pitstops were dawning. The Ferrari team pitted Schumacher first, whilst Villeneuve had an extra lap of fuel to press home his advantage. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough, and he had to deal with Coulthard’s McLaren being infront as he exited the pits. When DC pitted, it allowed Jacques through for another clear run at the Ferrari. However, it looked like game, set & match as with just over twenty laps to run and overtaking being very difficult on the twisty Jerez track, the odds were against the Williams. Dramatically, he reeled in his rival as Schumacher’s Ferrari struggled with his final set of tyres.
On lap 47, heading down towards Dry Sac, Villeneuve attempted a brave lunge down the inside from a long way back under braking. However, he was alongside and actually infront going into the corner. Just as in Adelaide three years earlier with Hill, Michael Schumacher turned in on the Williams. This time, he came off worse, as the Ferrari ended up beached in the gravel trap on the outside of the corner. The Scuderia’s long drought would carry on, as long as Villeneuve could keep his car pointing in the right direction. For a while, there was concern from the telemetry of the Williams car as radiator temperatures took a significant rise from the clash. Luckily, they cooled down and JV coasted to the finish. However, there was another twist to the tail.
At the beginning of the event, Ron Dennis and Patrick Head had agreed a deal for the McLaren drivers not to attack Villeneuve while the title was up for grabs. When it had been settled, the Grove team would return the favour, maybe sooner than expected. With three laps to go, a disgruntled Coulthard was given a team order to allow his team-mate Hakkinen through. Rapidly, the silver cars caught Villeneuve at an alarming rate and with three bends to go, Hakkinen dived inside Villeneuve with so much ease, it sort of gave away the secret agreement. Into the last bend, Jacques blended out of the throttle to give Coulthard second place too; his business was not to win the race, just the title.
So at his 96th attempt, Mika Hakkinen got his long overdue and hugely popular first grand prix victory. He should have won at Silverstone and the Nurburgring, but now he had achieved his moment, although in slightly odd circumstances. Coulthard was a rueful second and Villeneuve collected the four points he needed to win the championship. Gerhard Berger was an excellent fourth in his 210th and last F1 start, with Irvine and Frentzen completing the top six.
Jacques Villeneuve was a popular world champion and at the peak of his powers, threatened to dominate F1 in the late 1990s. Instead, a new legacy involving the McLaren cars was about to take over at the top of Grand Prix racing. Schumacher was vilified by the sport for his actions, fined and stripped of his second place in the world championship. We had a new world champion in the form of a Canadian who carried the same steel, courage and passion that his father did, the late Gilles Villeneuve.