Classic Races – 1997 European Grand Prix

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There have been many nail-biting championship deciders in Formula 1 history, yet few have been as tense, cynical or controversial as the 1997 European Grand Prix. A race which started off the back of the first three qualifiers setting identical lap times and ending with a new winner, a new champion and a former champion in disgrace.

The final round of 1997 was initially not supposed to be held in Jerez at all, the venue was scheduled to be the Portuguese Grand Prix, however incomplete modifications to Estoril prevented the race from going ahead and the location was switched to the Spanish circuit.

Going into the race Michael Schumacher had a one point lead over his chief rival Jacques Villeneuve, the former having won the Japanese Grand Prix and Villeneuve with it all to do after being disqualified in Suzuka following to a yellow flag infringement.

The Canadian drew first blood in qualifying setting a time of 1:21.072, but incredibly Schumacher matched his time. Onlookers could hardly believe their eyes when in the closing stages of the session, the other Williams of Heinz-Harald Frentzen set yet another identical time. As Villeneuve had recorded the time first, he started on pole position.

Schumacher may have lost out in qualifying but the German made a perfect start, seeing a wheel-spinning Villeneuve drop to third behind the Ferrari and Frentzen, though his team mate complied to team orders before Schumacher pulled out too much of an advantage.

The Canadian began to close before the pit stops, but the Ferrari maintained the lead. During Villeneuve’s pursuit came the first moment of controversy. As the pair came up to lap the Sauber of Norberto Fontana, the Argentine driver let Schumacher through but was not so gracious to Villeneuve, holding the Williams up for the next three corners.

One notable observation from commentator Martin Brundle was the fact that Sauber were running Ferrari engines. Indeed, nine years later Fontana revealed to the Argentine media that Jean Todt had told Peter Sauber that his cars must help Schumacher in the race, though the Swiss vehemently denied this.

Despite losing time in the incident Villeneuve was quick to catch up with the Ferrari again, but after the final pit stops the German maintained the lead. Then it started to unravel, the Ferrari’s pace began to drop with the Williams getting ever closer.

The attempt to get past came on lap 48. Villeneuve dived down the inside to the Dry Sac corner but Schumacher turned in on him. The two collided and Schumacher went off into the gravel trap, his race was over. Replays showed that the manoeuvre appeared to be deliberate, with the onboard camera on the Ferrari showing Schumacher twitching his steering wheel before turning into the Canadian. Schumacher could only watch from the side of the track as Villeneuve raced on.

Even though his race was not over, Villeneuve had not escaped unscathed as the radiator was damaged and his pace suffered. Behind him there was more hair-raising moments as David Coulthard in the McLaren surprisingly moved over to let his team mate Mika Hakkinen through as both closed on the slowing Villenueve.

As the Canadian started his final lap he was still in the lead but Hakkinen had the Williams in his grasp. Going into the chicane Villenueve moved over to let the Finn through to take his first career victory. In the final corner Villenueve also let Coulthard through, giving McLaren their first one-two for six years. The Canadian cared only for the title and not the race as four points was enough to clinch the coveted prize.

To some the formation finish was too perfect and accusations of collusion soon followed. The FIA World Council concluded that the result was not a fix but in 2014 Coulthard claimed that an agreement between McLaren and Williams had taken place.

It seems the greatest legacy from Jerez 1997 was the Schumacher-Villeneuve collision. Two weeks after the race the FIA reached a verdict that the German had purposely tried to take Villeneuve out of the race. Schumacher was disqualified from the results of the championship.

His reputation was damaged but some flawless performances in 1998 quickly restored it. For Villeneuve, he was the World Champion in just his second season of Grand Prix racing. He remains the most recent non-European driver to win a championship to this day, and the last driving a Williams.

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