A fifth place finish for Sebastian Vettel this weekend would secure the 26-year-old a fourth consecutive title, so in the spirit of championship deciders we have chosen to look back at one of the most close fought title battles in Formula One’s history, to a time when a very different German was the sports leading figure and when the idea of an Indian Grand Prix was simply a pipe dream.
Welcome to the Circuito de Jerez, the venue for the 1997 European Grand Prix, the seventeenth and final round of the 1997 season and what was destined to be the location for one of Formula One’s most memorable championship deciders as Michael Schumacher and Jacques Villeneuve took their battle to the very limits.
The Formula One circus headed to the remote Jerez circuit, located in the south of Spain, straight off the back of a controversial Japanese Grand Prix, which had seen Williams’ French-Canadian star Jacques Villeneuve disqualified, while his championship rival Michael Schumacher took a crucial win for Ferrari. Villeneuve had come home a cautious fifth, after running the race under appeal, having been excluded for ignoring the waved yellow flags during the Saturday morning practice session. Villeneuve entered that weekend’s race with a suspended eight race ban for his fragrant ignorance of yellow flags throughout the season, so it was unsurprising when his appeal was rejected by the FIA, losing the two points that he had gained at Suzuka and handing the lead in the drivers’ championship to Schumacher.
What was to occur on Saturday afternoon at Jerez during qualifying will go down as one of the most remarkable moments in Formula One history, as three drivers all set the exact same lap time during the hour long session. For something like that to happen at any time during the season would have been extraordinary, regardless of who the three drivers involved had been, but for it to be the two championship challengers, Villeneuve and Schumacher, plus Heinz-Harald Frentzen in the second Williams, and to be the time that settled the fight for pole position, well that was simply incredible.
Pole for the race went to Villeneuve, as he was the first man to set the shared lap time of 1:27.072, with 14 minutes of the session gone. Schumacher would line-up alongside his rival on the front row of the grid, while Frentzen would qualify third, joined somewhat surprisingly by the outgoing world champion Damon Hill in fourth. Hill, in his final race for Arrows, had been on for pole position, before his final lap was scuppered by the spinning Minardi of Ukyo Katayama.
The two McLaren’s would occupy the third row, Mika Hakkinen a tenth up on his team-mate David Coulthard, with Eddie Irvine just behind in seventh in the second Ferrari. Gerhard Berger, participating in the final Grand Prix of his career, would start eight for Benetton.
After the bizarre events of Saturday, Sunday was set to produce even more excitement, with the battle for the 1997 world championship poised to go down to the wire between Schumacher and Villeneuve. However, whatever happened come race day Max Mosley, the President of the FIA, made clear that there would be severe penalties dished out to anyone who attempted to influence the outcome of the championship battle, with memories of the way the title was decided in 1994, 1990 and 1989 ever present.
As the lights went out to signal the start of the final grand prix of the season it was Michael Schumacher who had the best getaway, taking the lead almost instantaneously from Villeneuve, who slipped down to third behind Frentzen. Hill, starting fourth in the unfancied Arrows, found himself swamped by the two McLaren’s into turn one, falling to sixth.
Schumacher, on fresh Goodyear rubber, set the early pace in what would be a 69 lap race and it was not until lap eight that Williams switched their two cars, Frentzen sensibly allowing his team-mate through. It was at this stage that Schumacher set the fastest lap of the race thus far, an honour that he and Villeneuve would trade throughout the race.
While Hill remained an impressive sixth on the road for Arrows, clutching to the coattails of the two McLaren’s, his team-mate Pedro Diniz was having a less than stellar afternoon, as he ended his disappointing season with a spin on lap 12.
Schumacher would be the first of the leaders to pit, coming in for the first of two scheduled stops on lap 22, which saw him re-join the track between the two McLaren’s. Villeneuve, who was shadowing Schumacher’s strategy came in the following lap to promote Frentzen into the lead. The French-Canadian would come out in fifth, behind Coulthard who was yet to stop.
Following the completion of the first round of stops it was still Schumacher who led the race, but he now had Villeneuve glued to the rear wing of his Ferrari, having lost time after being blocked by Frentzen. In third was Coulthard, who had managed to leapfrog both Hakkinen and Frentzen during the stops, while Eddie Irvine had moved into sixth in the second Ferrari, unable to assist his team-mate as he had done two weeks earlier in Suzuka.
Backmarkers were set to play a key role at the short Jerez circuit, and it is perhaps Norberto Fontana who is best remembered for his escapades on lap 31 of the race, when the Argentine driver, in only his fourth race, was accused of deliberately blocking Jacques Villeneuve. Many pointed to the Petronas badged Ferrari engine in the rear of his Sauber as proof that he had been asked to do so.
Lap 43 signalled the start of the second round of stops, with Schumacher once again the first front-runner in. As with the first stop, Villeneuve shadowed his championship rival, pitting a lap later, but found himself behind Coulthard’s McLaren as he re-joined the track. Villeneuve was promoted to second once the Scot headed to the pits, and immediately began to reel in Schumacher, as the German struggled with his new set of Goodyear tyres.
As the pair crossed the line to begin the 48th lap of the race, the Canadian was less than a second behind the Ferrari, with Schumacher clearly in trouble. As they approached Dry Sack (turn six) the Williams was clearly quicker than the Ferrari and Villeneuve threw his FW19 down the right hand side of Schumacher’s car, the French-Canadian edging ahead of the Ferrari under braking. With the Williams alongside the Ferrari, Schumacher turned in on Villeneuve, striking the left sidepod of the Canadian’s car with his right front tyre with some force, before the Ferrari slid helplessly into the gravel.
Michael Schumacher was out of the race and passed the lead in the championship to Jacques Villeneuve. However, the question was whether the Williams would be able to make it to the end of the race, with 22 laps still to complete the Canadian seemed noticeably slower, his car having suffered that heavy hit from Schumacher’s Ferrari.
As Michael Schumacher stood at the edge of the track to observe whether Villeneuve would come through on the next lap, outgoing champion Damon Hill’s race came to a ceremonious end as the gearbox in his Arrows spluttered and died. It had been a terrible year for the 1996 champion, with a point at home at Silverstone and the surprise second place finish at Hungary, which could have so nearly been a win the only comforts. Hill joined his team-mate Diniz, the Stewart of Rubens Barrichello and the two Schumacher brothers as retirements.
As the remaining laps ticked by Villeneuve began to haemorrhage time to the chasing McLaren pair of Coulthard and Hakkinen, a situation that warranted a short trip down the pitlane for a word with the McLaren teamboss Ron Dennis for Williams’ Engineering Director Patrick Head. Rumour has it that the two teams struck an agreement before the race to ensure the two McLaren’s did not trouble Villeneuve’s attempts to win the championship and what was to follow was simply pay back.
Whatever the case was, with just three laps of the race remaining Coulthard slowed to let Hakkinen pass. Fans across the world held their breath as the tightly packed top six crossed the start-finish line to begin the final lap of the 1997 season. Villeneuve needed to finish just third to take the championship, but he was being rapidly caught. Into the Senna Chicane, named in honour of the great Brazilian who Hakkinen had partnered in 1993, the Finn pounced. Villeneuve left plenty of space for the McLaren to sail past, before also submitting to Coulthard into the final corner, obviously not willing to risk any chances of an accident so close to home.
Hakkinen crossed the line to take an emotional first win, followed home by Coulthard to secure a 1-2 finish for the resurgent McLaren team. Villeneuve scampered across the line in third to take the title which had eluded his great father Gilles, while Gerhard Berger ended his career on a high-note with a fine drive to fourth. Eddie Irvine and Heinz-Harald Frentzen, who had played second fiddle to their team-mates all season long, rounded out the points finishers in fifth and six respectively.
The 1997 European Grand Prix at Jerez would ultimately stand as a turning point for Formula One, as a swathe of technical changes introduced for the following season would drastically change the look and performance of the cars for 1998, changes which were not universally popular and were to an extent reversed by the major aero shake up in 2009.
The cars were narrowed, while grooved tyres become standard in place of slicks and Bridgestone, after a slow start in 1997, would go on to dominate the tyre war in 1998.
Williams, who had dominated the sport during the 1990′s, would lose their works Renault engines after 1997 and would fall down the pecking order, never winning a championship again.
Mika Hakkinen and McLaren on the other hand, with Adrian Newey’s design impetus, would go on to take both world championships in 1998 and cemented themselves as Ferrari’s major rival over the next few seasons.
Schumacher, having lost the title to Villeneuve at Jerez, would find himself excluded from the 1997 world championship by the FIA for his move on the Williams man at Dry Sack, but the German would bounce back in 1998 to chase Hakkinen down to the wire at Suzuka, before a puncture cruelly denied him a chance of a first title with the Scuderia for a second consecutive year.
Perhaps most notable would be the fate of the champion crowned that weekend at Jerez. Jacques Villeneuve’s rise to the top may have been meteoric, taking 11 wins and securing his first world championship in just two short seasons in Formula One, but post Jerez, the Canadian would never again win a grand prix. Something which must of seemed unimaginable at the time.
Images courtesy of Williams F1 and Getty Images