The 1997 European Grand Prix: Round 17 of 17 in the 1997 Formula One World Championship. Heading into the race, Ferrari driver Michael Schumacher led the Drivers’ Championship with 78 points, ahead of Williams driver Jacques Villeneuve one point behind in second place with 77 points and Heinz-Harald Frentzen in third on 41 points.
The European Grand Prix was originally scheduled as the Grand Prix of Portugal at the Estoril circuit but it was moved to Jerez when Estoril’s management had financial difficulties.
At the end of the qualifying session on Saturday, the three fastest drivers had all set the same lap time, the first time this had happened in the history of the World Championship. Jacques Villeneuve was first to set a time of 1:21.072, fourteen minutes into the one hour session.
A further fourteen minutes later, Michael Schumacher posted an identical time. With nine minutes of the session remaining, Heinz-Harald Frenzten crossed the line, again with a time of 1:21.072. Under the regulations, in the event of drivers setting equal times in qualifying, the order in which the times were set is considered, with the first driver to set the time given precedence.
Villeneuve was awarded pole position on the starting grid for the race, with Schumacher second and Frentzen third. Fourth place on the grid went to the reigning World Champion, Damon Hill in his Arrows, with a time of 1:21.130 and was 0.058 seconds behind the time of the leading three. Hill had been on course to get pole position but had to slow towards the end of the lap because of yellow flags due to an incident involving Ukyo Katayama’s Minardi.
The race took place in the afternoon from 14:00 local time, in dry and sunny weather. Villeneuve started the race in pole position, with Schumacher in second. Just a few moments before the start of the race, a blue liquid came out of Villeneuve’s Williams. However, this did not influence his car during the race. Schumacher’s getaway at the start was better than Villeneuve’s and he had taken the lead by the time they reached the first corner.
Schumacher would lead 40 of the first 47 laps of the race. Frentzen also got a better start than Villeneuve and overtook him. Under the orders of the Williams team, on lap eight Frentzen let teammate Villeneuve past. Schumacher made his first pit-stop on Lap 22 and Villeneuve made his first stop the following lap. Both retained their positions.
During the first round of pit stops the McLarens swapped places with David Coulthard leading Mika Hakkinen and Frentzen dropped to fifth position behind both of them. The order of the leaders after the second round of pit stops on Lap 43 and Lap 44 remained the same but with Villeneuve closer to Schumacher.
Villeneuve went into Lap 48 less than a second behind Schumacher. Partway through the lap he attempted to overtake Schumacher at the Dry Sack corner. Braking later than Schumacher, Villeneuve held the inside line and was ahead on the track when Schumacher turned in on him resulting in a collision.
ITV’s then pit lane reporter James Allen has noted that onboard footage shows Schumacher twitching his steering wheel left before turning right into Villeneuve. Martin Brundle who was in the commentary box alongside Murray Walker, immediately saw that Schumacher’s move had been deliberate, saying, “That didn’t work Michael, you hit the wrong part of him, my friend”.
The right-front wheel of Schumacher’s Ferrari hit the left radiator pod of Villeneuve’s Williams – unlike the 1994 collision with Hill where Schumacher inflicted damage on Hill’s suspension – and caused Schumacher to retire. Villeneuve described the incident after the race “The car felt very strange. The hit was very hard. It was not a small thing.” He continued but the damage to his car meant he was slower than the cars behind him.
At the time of the incident there were 22 laps of the race remaining. The slower pace of Villeneuve’s car meant that on the last lap, he had been caught by both McLarens, Häkkinen having regained second place from Coulthard under team orders. Häkkinen’s victory at Jerez was the first of his career.
Gerhard Berger in fourth place (in what turned out to be his final Grand Prix) was also catching Villeneuve but he did not pass before crossing the finish line. The final margin between Villeneuve and Berger was 0.116 seconds.
Third place meant Villeneuve finished ahead of Schumacher in the Drivers’ Championship by 3 points, and was World Champion of 1997. After the race Villeneuve stated “I did not fight then. It was better to let them through and win the World Championship. It is a good exchange.”
The 1997 European Grand Prix will be remembered as Hakkinen’s first win in Formula One after his 96th attempt. This race is also very special for me personally as this is the Grand Prix that sparked my passion and love for all things Formula One when I was seven years old and I am more in love with the sport now than I have ever been.
This race will also be remembered with the incident between Michael Schumacher and Jacques Villeneuve that is still about and debated by many fans and pundits today. After the race, the blame for the incident was later attributed to Schumacher by the sport’s governing body, the FIA and he was stripped of his second place finish in the championship. Schumacher’s tactics were widely criticised by the media, including publications based in his home country of Germany, and in Ferrari’s home country of Italy.
Following the race, both Williams and McLaren were accused of colluding to decide the finishing order. Villeneuve stated that “It was better to let them through and win the World Championship.” The FIA determined there was no evidence to support the claims, and dismissed the accusations.
As of 2014, these are Williams’s last Drivers’ and Constructors’ World Championships in Formula One. And I should also point out that Hakkinen’s first win in the sport at Jerez in 1997 may have been masked with other incidents that happened in the race, but this would be the start of Hakkinen entering the prime of his career in Formula One and going on to winning the 1998 and 1998 Drivers’ Championships
And as the 1997 World Championship concluded, Villeneuve was crowned world champion of 1997 by 81 points ahead of Schumacher three points behind with 78 points and Heinz-Harald Frentzen in third with 42 points.
[Please Note Schumacher was disqualifed from his second place in the championship]