This season has seen some pretty amazing races, but the 1997 European Grand Prix was expected to be that little bit special and it certainly lived up to that expectation.
Jacques Villeneuve came to the race needing to score at least one point and finish ahead of Michael Schumacher to win the championship. He came away champion.
The unbelievable weekend started with qualifying. Villeneuve was the first of the front runners to go out and he must have been glad that he was. Villeneuve posted a time of 1 minute 21.072. Then Schumacher was out and on a flyer – he crossed the line in a time of … 1 minute 21.072! That the two championship protagonists should post exactly the same time to the nearest 1000th was coincidence enough but then Frentzen came out and posted exactly the same time too. Obviously that was the best time anyone could hope to get from the track today.
Qualifying set the scene for a thrilling show-down and that’s exactly what we got. Villeneuve had to make a good get away but got bogged down with too much wheel spin and was passed by Schumacher before the first corner. Frentzen slowed and held back the approaching pack but was forced to pass Villeneuve to prevent himself from been taken. So the order at the end of the first lap was Schumacher, Frentzen, Villeneuve, Hakkinen, Coulthard and Hill. That the McLarens didn’t swallow Villeneuve up in the first few laps was to prove significant later on in the race…
By lap eight Schumacher was 2 seconds down the road and Villeneuve had now sufficiently recovered his composure enough to take the chase to the Ferrari. Frentzen duly moved aside and Villeneuve took the second spot, but the gap increased slightly and by the first pit stops was a shade over 5 seconds.
Schumacher pitted on lap 22, Villeneuve a lap later, rejoining 3rd and 5th respectively. Frentzen was now in the front and in a position to help out his team-mate. As the McLarens went in for their first pit stops the order was Frentzen, Schumacher, Villeneuve. Frentzen deliberately slowed up Schumacher allowing Villeneuve to close the gap, his job done Frentzen pitted leaving it to Schumacher and Villeneuve to battle it out alone.
The gap remained around the 2 seconds mark until around lap 40 when Schumacher appeared to have problems with his tyres. Villeneuve closed up and by lap 47 the gap was only 0.385 seconds. A lap later Villeneuve braked late and dived inside the Ferrari – the inevitable happened – there was contact. A carbon copy of Australia 1994, just replace Villeneuve for Hill. This time, however, the result was not the same and Schumacher, who could clearly be seen deliberately turn in on the Williams, was the looser as his car slew off into the gravel trap.
Millions of people around the globe and quite a few in both the Williams and Ferrari pits held their breath as they waited to see what would happen to Villeneuve who had continued on his way. The next few laps he took it easy checking out his car making sure that everything was in order and then began to pick up the pace once more. It was not enough, the McLarens behind sensed a win in the offing and began to close the gap. From lap 50 to lap 57 the gap fell from 9 seconds to just over 5 seconds.
The last 10 laps were the most unbelievable of any race yet and the end result can only be described as manufactured. On lap 57 Patrick Head was seen entering the McLaren garage and talking to Ron Dennis. From that lap on the McLarens made no further progress on Villeneuve’s ailing Williams. Then on lap 65 Coulthard let Hakkinen past down the pit straight. The Fin quickly caught Villeneuve but remained behind until the last lap when Villeneuve slowed to let him and Coulthard past, giving Hakkinen his first race win and Villeneuve the championship.
In this day and age it is unusual to see team-mates helping each other, so to see two teams looking out for each other in this way is something of a miracle. Reading behind the lines one can only assume that Patrick Head and Ron Dennis struck a deal, by not pushing Villeneuve in the last few laps they ensured that his car was not over-stretched or over-heated. In return the victory was handed to the McLarens. A further twist came from McLaren themselves who asked Coulthard to pull over to allow Hakkinen his first and long overdue, first victory.
It was a shame that Renault could not go out with a victory but they have taken two championships this year (5 in total with Williams including the BTCC!) and have gone out with a bang!
After the race Villeneuve was diplomatic about the events saying only that “Either Michael had his eyes closed or his hands slipped on the steering wheel.”. Both Villeneuve and Schumacher were called before the stewards but, with yet another twist, came to the conclusion that it was just a “racing incident”. For Schumacher it is not yet over however as he has been called before the FIA to answer for his actions.
The final words go to Williams Technical Director, Patrick Head, who correctly identified that: “Jacques has learned an enormous amount this year about how to win a championship. I think that next year he will try not to have such an up-and-down year, so variable, and he will be stronger. He has really shown himself to be a fighter and a very good sportsman.”