The 1997 European Grand Prix was the last of 17 races of the championship held at Jerez. Actually, the last race shoud have been the Portuguese Grand Prix at Estoril, but due to financial problems race was canceled and held at Jerez.
Michael Schumacher was leading the championship with 78 points, and Villeneuve was second with 77. Williams led the constructors’ championship with 118 points and has already celebrated the title, the second in a row. Ferrari had 100 points, which means that they couldn’t catch Williams even if Maranello team scored maximum 16 points and British team failed to scoree. It was the ninth and last constructors’ championship for Williams F1 team.
Villeneuve had two wins more than Michael Schumacher (7 versus 5), which means that in case of equal points Canadian would become a champion.
INCREDIBLE THREE-WAY TIE IN QUALIFYING
After four practice sessions, drivers had an hour and 12 laps to set the fastest time in qualifying sessions.
For the first time in the history of Formula 1 three drivers set an identical time of 1: 21.072. First to set that time was Jacques Villeneuve, 14 minutes after the start of qualifying. After another 14 minutes Michael Schumacher set an identical time and nine minutes before the end Heinz-Harald Frentzen also set identical time.
Fourth was Damon Hill in Yamaha (1:21.130), just 0.058 slower than the fastest time. Hill was on course to set the fastest lap, but had to slow down because of yellow flags that caused Japan’s Ukyo Katayama in the Minardi.
The starting order is decided on the fact who set the time first and pole position went to Villeneuve which was his tenth of the season and 13th of his career. It was also the last pole position of his career, all of them recorded in Williams – three in his debut season in 1996. and ten in 1997. Only five of them were converted into a victory, with three additional podium.
CONTROVERSIAL CLASH OF TITLE CONTENDERS AND FIRST WIN FOR HAKKINEN
Schumacher started better and beat Villeneuve ahead of the first corner, just like his team-mate Frentzen. Williams ordered Frentzen to let Villeneuve pass which happened in the eighth lap of the race.
After the first ppit stops Schumacher was still leading ahead of Villeneuve, followed by Hakkinen, Coulthard and Frentzen. After the second round of pit stops order remained the same, but the Villeneuve was closer to Schumacher.
Canadian reduced the gap in lap 48 to less than one second and tried to pass Schumacher in the Dry Sack corner. Villeneuve braked later on the inside, but the German turns into him and retired after damaging his Ferrari.
Martin Brundle, then commentator with Murray Walker, immediately noticed that Michael was deliberately turned into Villeneuve and said: “It did not work, Michael. You hit him in the wrong part of the car, my friend.” The front right wheel hit the left sidepod of Williams, unlike the last race in 1994. when Schumacher hit Hill in the suspension linkand they both retired.
Villeneuve said after the race he said that the car behaved very strangely, despite damage being small. Canadian continued the race, but at a slower pace than the cars behind him.
Canadian decided not to fight for the win and let the two McLarens – “I did not fight. It is better to let them go and win the World Championship. It is a good trade.”
Gerhard Berger, in his last F1 race, also caught Villeneuve but he didn’t pass him before the finish line. In the end he finished 0.116 seconds behind the Canadian .
Michael Schumacher was disqualified from the 1997. championship although he kept his points (78) which will later be added to hiy career tally..
German newspapers had, among other European new, sharply criticized Schumacher for deliberately hitting Villeneuve.
“Schumacher was to blame for the crash”, “He risked and lost everything – championship and a reputation for fair play. No doubt he wanted to force Villeneuve out”, were just some of the titles.
Frankfurter Allgemeine called him “kamikaze without honor”, and one German TV station asked fans whether would they continue to support Schumacher. From 63 081 people, 28% stated that they would no longer support him.
Italian newspaper La Repubblica said “that not winning the title after 18 years is painful enough, but to see the title disappear in smoke after Schumacher’s move is even worse. It’s a shame.”
Gazzetta dello Sport says that even if they had won the title, that would be”a title that should hide” and would rather wait for the day “when our passion for Ferrari would have a happy ending.”
Even La Stampa, the newspaper owned by the Agnelli family which controls Ferrari, was critical of Michael: “His image as a champion is destroyed, like a glass hit by a stone.”
The Daily Mail claimed that Schumacher lost “the last bit of his sporting reputation”, and The Times reported that Michael “sacrificed his reputation with his cynical move which denies him the right for any sympathy.”
WILLIAMS/McLAREN AND SAUBER/FERRARI CONTROVERSY
The Times published an article (8.11.1997.) accusing Williams and McLaren for cooperation and deciding the outcome of the race. The charges were based on radio communication between drivers and teams. FIA has rejected the accusations, a former FIA president Max Mosley said:
“It is quite clear that the results are not fixed. There was not an agreement between McLaren and Williams that Mika Hakkinen would win. It was clearly demonstrated to us that this was not the case.”
David Coulthard in 2014. gave an interview to Charles Bradley where he said that the agreement was actually there.
“Ron made a deal with Frank that if we help Williams to beat Ferrari they will not hesitate to help us. We drivers had no clue about it. Ron would probably still deny it, but it happened.”
Norberto Fontana said in an interview with the Argentine newspaper Ole in 2006. said that several hours before the European Grand Prix in 1997. Jean Todt visited Sauber motorhome and told thir drivers to block Villeneuve if they can to help Michael Schumacher winning the world championship. Sauber used Ferrari engines those years.
Peter Sauber rejected such accusations: “Ferrari never expressed the desire that we should obstruct Schumacher’s opponents on the track.”