The 1997 European Grand Prix is famous for more than one reason. It was the 17th and final race of the ’97 F1 season held at Circuito Permanente de Jerez, Spain. It was a 69 lap race and was destined to be the championship decider as Michael Schumacher headed to the race with a single point lead in the championship over Jacques Villeneuve.
It was a thrilling race, right from the very beginning of the weekend. The closeness between Schumacher and Villeneuve in terms of racing skills was further displayed in the Qualifying session.
Fourteen minutes into the hour long Qualifying session, Villeneuve set a lap time of 1:21.072, which put him on provisional pole. Fourteen minutes post this, Schumacher set an exact similar time of 1:21.072. Nine minutes to the end of the session, the second Williams driver, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, crossed the finish line with the same time as 1:21.072! This was for the first time that three drivers set a similar time! It was a magnificent start to the 1997 F1 European Grand Prix! Villeneuve started on pole, Schumacher second and Frentzen third, classified on the basis of when they set up the time.
The stage for an amazing F1 championship decider was set. The start had Schumacher passing Villeneuve for the lead and Frentzen also passed his team mate. Villeneuve was third and closely behind were Hakkinen and Coulthard of McLaren.
Frentzen let his team mate pass due to team orders on lap 8, and then followed was a frantic battle between Schumi and Villeneuve for the lead up until lap 20 when the first round of pit stops began. Villeneuve was 5s adrift of Schumacher when the German took his pit stop. Villeneuve did it on the next lap, thus maintaining the 5s gap to Schumi. Frentzen was now in the lead, yet to pit, and held Schumacher as Villeneuve tried to catch up to him.
The two were putting up a great show and with the F1 Drivers Championship at stake, both were giving their 100%. The gap between the two remained between 1.5-3s, both lapping very closely to each other. With the stakes so high, even a little mistake would have meant a disaster.
Schumacher pitted on lap 43 again and Villeneuve followed on the next lap. Schumacher was now in the lead, and Villeneuve behind the two McLarens of Hakkinen and Coulthard. When the two McLarens boxed, Villeneuve was 2.5s adrift Schumacher. Within a lap the gap was a mere second.
It was on lap 48, that Jacques Villeneuve attempted his bold move. He broke very late into Turn 6 diving into the inside of the Ferrari ahead. Schumacher didn’t expect this move and wasn’t even defending. It came as a shock to him and as a result he steered right into the chassis of the Williams!
The Williams was still running, but the Ferrari was into the gravel and out of the race! Michael Schumacher was out of the race and out of the F1 championship battle. Villeneuve was still running albeit a damaged chassis. Schumacher stayed on the circuit watching helplessly as Villeneuve zoomed past him. He knew he had blown away his chances of a third world championship. It was over for Ferrari and for Schumacher.
Eddie Irvine, fellow Ferrari driver commented, “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 lap 67, Hakkinen passed his team mate Coulthard thanks to backmarkers coming into play. Villeneuve had taken enough damage on his Williams to give away the lead to Hakkinen on the last lap. Coulthard also went past him rather easily, as Villeneuve acted mature enough to not fight for the place and ruin his championship victory.
Hakkinen took his maiden Formula One victory.Apart from the amazing battle between the two champions, this race also marked the beginning of Hakkinen’s era who went on to win the next two championships-’98 and ’99 taking a total of 20 race victories.
Villeneuve took the championship and Schumacher earned a lot of flak. FIA blamed Schumacher for deliberately trying to change the outcome of the championship and was disqualified from the championship. He was allowed to take his race victories but not the second place in the World Championship. He received a lot of insult from the media, especially from the Italian media houses which demanded an immediate ousting of the German for spoiling the integrity of the sport. Throughout his much celebrated career, this remains one of the darkest and most controversial moments for Schumacher.