“No violence, gentlemen — no violence, I beg of you!
Consider the furniture!”
~Arthur Conan Doyle – The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone~
Twenty years ago the European Grand Prix bought the 1997 season to a breathtaking finish. It would be the last Formula One race to be held at Jerez. The battle for supremacy had been tightly fought with the leading contenders for the title, Jacques Villeneuve driving for Williams and Michael Schumacher in a Ferrari, separated by a single point. The closeness between the two protagonists was further accentuated during qualifying when Villeneuve, Schumacher and Heinz Harold Frentzen in the second Williams, all put in identical qualifying laps of 1:21.072. Villeneuve had done it on his first run so was on pole, Schumacher on his second run, and Frentzen on his fourth and last attempt, so close, yet so far from achieving a pole position. Less than a second separated the top ten on the grid.
Schumacher had already acquired a reputation for pushing the boundaries of fair play if a championship, or even a race, was slipping out of his grasp. He was willing to discard any resemblance of gentlemanly behaviour if it could jeopardize a potential win. Prior to the race Max Mosely warned of dire consequences for any unsportsmanlike conduct, keen to nip in the bud any contemplation Schumacher may have had of trying to swing the odds in his favour.
An electric start catapulted Schumacher into the lead and he had already established a gap by the time the pack arrived at the first corner. Villeneuve spun his wheels on the start and was passed on the inside of the first corner by teammate Frentzen. Closely behind were the McLaren pair and the five cars seemed to be in a different league to the remainder of the field.
Once the chaos of the first corner subsided the first 20 laps settled into a prosaic procession, with Michael rapidly gaining five seconds on those trailing him. Frentzen sensibly let Villeneuve past on lap eight who then set his sights on the Ferrari ahead of him. Schumacher managed to maintain his advantage but over the next few laps Villeneuve pulled out four seconds on his teammate. Both Schumacher and Villeneuve appeared to be driving close to the limit…Villeneuve in attempting to catch Schumacher, and Schumacher trying to conserve his tenuous margin. The drivers behind them disappeared rapidly into the distance, Frentzen perhaps assisting by holding the McLarens in his wake to prevent Villeneuve being threatened by chasers from behind.
Schumacher boxed on Lap 20, and Villeneuve covered him by pitting the following lap. Suddenly the Williams strategy started to become clear. Frentzen had yet to pit and now Schumacher was stuck behind him. Schumacher could go faster but he couldn’t get past and Villeneuve had the opportunity he desperately needed to try to trim down the five second gap between them.
By lap 26 there was only fresh air separating the two rivals. Coming around the final corner onto the main straight Villeneuve’s rear wheels twitched sideways in his eagerness to get on the power, hoping for either the possibility of a pass or perhaps to entice an error from Schumacher. Finally there was a battle worth watching!
Schumacher had to bide his time behind Frentzen for what must have seemed like eternity before Frentzen eventually pitted on Lap 28 and with clear air in front on him Michael had the chance to try to reestablish his gap to Villeneuve. It was now that the back-markers started to come into play. All at once Jacques was three seconds behind. Had he pushed too hard and make a mistake or had he been held up by back-markers? It wasn’t until later that I found out that Norberto Fontana had been sluggish in getting out of the path of the flying Villeneuve. As his Sauber was Ferrari powered there were accusations bandied about that Ferrari had intimated to their engine customers that some subtle aid might be looked at favourably when the time came for renewal of contracts…or maybe it was just sour grapes as it was only the Argentine driver’s fourth race.
Lap after lap flashed by, Villeneuve always there, always on the limit, the gap between the two challengers varying between 1.5 and 3 seconds. Would Schumacher remain cool and collected? Would Jacques push too hard and throw it all away? The cars behind them dropped further and further behind, no-one else able to match the pace the two leaders were setting.
Schumacher pitted for the second time on lap 43, revving impatiently while waiting for fuel and re-joining the race in second in front of the two McLarens. Villeneuve again followed a lap later, driving fast down pit lane. What was the speed limit? It looked so much faster than it is today. While returning to the track he crossed onto the large yellow crosshatched area to the right of pit lane, his foot planted flat, but despite this David Coulthard managed to just sneak ahead of him going into turn one. Is this going to give Schumacher the chance he has been hoping for to pull out some time on Villeneuve?
Villeneuve desperately tried to find a way past but Coulthard had a light fuel load as he had yet to pit. Villeneuve knows that every lap stuck behind is time lost that he will have to make up later. Fortunately for Jacques, Coulthard boxed the following lap. Despite being 2.5 seconds in arrears, within a lap Villeneuve had whittled this down to less than a second. Shortly afterwards his Williams appeared be attached to the rear of Schumacher’s Ferrari. They had both made their last pit stop and there was nothing but a couple of meters of air between them.
It was on Lap 48 that Villeneuve mounted his attack. While going down the back straight towards turn six, he moved to the right and broke late, very late. Schumacher wasn’t expecting it and hadn’t been defending. Villeneuve now had the tighter inside line, his right front wheel bouncing on the curbing. Half way through the turn Schumacher suddenly veered right and hit Villeneuve mid chassis. Villeneuve kept going but Schumacher’s car speared off to the left, coming to rest in the gravel. Despite spinning his wheels his car remained stationary. No degree of mental willpower would be enough to make it budge.
Villeneuve was still running but slowed to assess the amount of damage done to his car. Schumacher removed his steering wheel and clambered out of his car, standing on the track wall until Villeneuve came past on the following lap. He was out of the race and Villeneuve was still circulating. He must have known he had thrown all chance of becoming World Champion away. Frank Williams stared blank faced at his monitor, his thoughts indiscernible. Commentator Martin Brundle, noting the deliberateness of the action said, “That didn’t work Michael, you hit the wrong part of him, my friend”.
Schumacher’s teammate Eddie Irvine commented that “Michael really screwed up because he got overconfident. He did his final pit stop, he thought “I’m there”. So he backed off, partly also because he was scared of blistering his tyres, but he let Jacques get too close. If there is one driver you don’t want to allow to get too close it’s Jacques…That move also for me deserved the world championship. There is not another driver on the grid who would have come from that far back to make that move. Because one thing Jacques did have was big balls.”
On the next lap Villeneuve did a slow 1:29.4, while David Coulthard in second was circulating in the 1:25’s. There was a difference of 11 seconds between them and 19 laps to the finish. Lap by lap the gap diminished. Nine seconds, eight seconds, seven seconds… second by second Coulthard was reeling Villeneuve in. And then the haemorrhaging of time abated, hovering at around six seconds for several laps.
With only five laps to go the back-markers came into play once again. Once more Villeneuve lost three seconds in a single lap and both McLarens were now hunting him down, their prey clearly in sight. On lap 67 Hakkinen passed Coulthard going down the main straight. On the final lap of the race Hakkinen was right on Villeneuve’s tail, and going through the Senna Chicane Villeneuve locked his rear wheels while Hakkinen passed him on the outside. Villeneuve then let Coulthard past on the last turn onto the main straight, not willing to risk the championship by fighting for a place.
Mika Hakkinen took the chequered flag for his inaugural win in Formula One after 96 races. He would go on to win the next two World Championships for McLaren. Villeneuve became the newly crowned World Champion, three points separating him and Schumacher. Despite spending another nine years in Formula One, he would never win another Grand Prix. To this day Williams has never won another championship title.
While watching the race, I assumed that Schumacher had got his just deserts for trying to force Villeneuve off the track while attempting to attain his 3rd World Championship title. No points for the race, no championship title, enough said. I was surprised when reading about the race later than the punishment would be much harsher. He was stripped of all his championship points, though the team still retained them and so came second in the Constructor’s Championship.
It was then I realized that there was a bigger picture that I had missed. Michael Schumacher hadn’t had a single occasion of attempting to win races and championships by any means at his disposal. He already had a reputation for being willing to win by fair means or foul. Schumacher came back from the ignominy of being called for cheating and would go on to win another five world championships. I am not well versed enough in F1 lore to know if his pushing the limits continued…but I suspect they did…if he thought there was a possibility he could get away with it.
That wasn’t the initial decision though. Immediately after the race the stewards concluded that that it had been a “racing incident”! It was enough to make you wonder about the backroom power that Ferrari was capable of wielding. Were the stewards actually capable of doing the job they were given or were they too susceptible to pressure, subtle or otherwise, from Ferrari? Max Mosely took the matter into his own hands. He had given the threat and he was going to carry it through and not even the displeasure of Ferrari was going to stop him. They had lost the World Championship anyway. After all, as Damon Hill once said, “Winning is everything. The only ones who remember you when you come second are your wife and your dog.”
Jackie Stewart summed it all up for me when he said, “I don’t believe that what Michael did in Spain was acceptable, nor that it should be tolerated. Even in the late ‘90s, there is room in motor racing for morals, for a sense of ethics. If we don’t have that, I don’t believe we have a sport anymore.”