French Grand Prix 1997 – Race
The fact that both Williams cars finished in the points will be of no consolation to anyone at the team – especially to drivers Jacques Villeneuve and Heinz-Harald Frentzen or, more significantly, to Frank Williams and Patrick Head. Only Frentzen could come away feeling that he had done a reasonable job, finishing second to Schumacher. Villeneuve meanwhile had a miserable weekend starting with a crash on Saturday and finishing with a lack-lustre race, a performance that more recently would have been associated with Frentzen.
Quiet, shy and retiring Jacques Villeneuve arrived at Magny-Cours sporting a new blond hair style and accusing his fellow drivers of being dispassionate about Oliver Panis’ accident. Understandably this went down like a lead balloon and consequently very few tears would have been shed when Villeneuve shunted his car into the barriers Saturday morning, for the second year running, giving his mechanics plenty of work before qualifying. This was to be the undoing of him as his race car wasn’t ready until 15 minutes before the end of the qualifying session. Sod’s Law dictated that the spare car was Frentzen’s this weekend and Villeneuve never looked comfortable in it. Frentzen meanwhile was quietly chipping away at an early time set by Schumacher but in the end second was the best he could achieve.
Things looked bad for Williams from the warm-up lap when Frentzen was slow away and passed by a number of cars. Fortunately he didn’t repeat the trick at the start but was not able to pass Schumacher who pulled away into the distance from lap one, with Villeneuve maintaining his station in fourth.
The lead Schumacher was pulling out could have indicated that he was going to make more stops than Frentzen but it was not to be.
The gap between Frentzen and Schumacher was a big one, never more than 30 seconds and down to 23 seconds by the flag. Villeneuve however was another matter – there was one point when it looked likely that he would be lapped – rain saved his day.
As the rain came down Frentzen and Schumacher played a cat and mouse game knowing that whoever pitted first the other would have to follow. Neither did and it was much to the credit of Frentzen that he stayed on the island while others, including Schumacher, went off.
Last lap dramas for Villeneuve as he tried a manoeuvre that was never really on and spun into the pit lane entrance. He rejoined just in front of Alesi but retained his place. This will be a weekend he’ll want to forget others too will be hoping that it will be forgotten – with a 100th win at Silverstone in two weeks time.