My personal reminisces of bygone seasons has reached 1997 and the second time in four years that the Championship was decided at the final round by some very dubious and controversial driving.
Williams had dispensed with the services of their reigning World Champion Damon Hill in favour of the ‘new Schumacher’ – Heinz-Harald Frentzen. I am not sure what more they could not have asked of Damon. In his four seasons he won 21 Grands Prix, finished 3rd, then runner-up twice to Michael Schumacher and eventually won the title having already been told that he was being shown the door. And when his team needed him the most Following the death of Ayrton Senna, he did not let them down. Still it works both ways, having previously only started two Grands Prix at Brabham and at the age of 31 he was offered the best seat in the house, and made full use his of his opportunity.
His World Champion’s number 1 would be appearing on the side of the Arrows for the coming year, a choice that was unlikely to let him defend his Championship, nor add to his tally of wins and was apparently more to do with money according to those in the know.
By the time I attended my first race of the season, the Spanish Grand Prix at Barcelona, the Championship was already shaping up to be a two-way fight between Jacques Villeneuve at Williams and Michael Schumacher in his second season at Ferrari. Villeneuve was edging it on victories but Schumacher was edging it on points.
May is a great time of year to spend a week in Barcelona. Parts of the city, particularly around the port area, had been ‘regenerated’ for the Olympic Games since my last visit and had lost some of its rustic charm in the process. Whereas at the circuit the spectator areas were now complete and less like a construction site. The track was not yet surrounded by grandstands as it is now so a general admission ticket allowed access with a view from virtually the whole perimeter, which is how I spent Friday practice. For the race I sat on the grassy hill on the infield overlooking turns 1 and 2, where there is now a towering grandstand.
Jacques Villeneuve won, but Schumacher maintained his Championship lead.
For Silverstone, i received my annual BRDC Guest Pass, courtesy of my friend Dave Morgan. As Dave was in the States engineering in Indycars I could not access the BRDC facilities only general admission including the infield plus pits and paddock before and after the days’ events.
My plan was to drive up each day from London as usual but in view of the large crowd I decided to sleep in my car in the car park on the Saturday night which was not quite as bad as I thought it might be. I was accompanied by the distant sound and lights from the fairground in one of the official campsites and at some point during the night I went back into the circuit to wander up the pit lane and peer into the garages. Mika Hakkinen’s McLaren and Damon Hill’s Arrows were still being worked on and whatever they did paid off for Damon as he scored Arrows’ first points of the season later that day.
Jacques Villeneuve won again, that made it 4 out of the previous 5 races I had attended, but Schumacher was still leading the Championship.
After the race with my car well and truly blocked in the car park I killed a couple of hours wandering around the paddock and watching Damon Hill and Eddie Jordan jamming with Chris de Burgh.
I did not see any of the Hungarian Grand Prix as I was working, so I missed Damon Hill nearly taking Arrows’, Yamaha’s and Bridgestone’s first Grand Prix victory. He was leading Villeneuve by 35 seconds until 3 laps from the end when a hydraulic problem slowed him down (apparently caused by a washer costing 50p), but he did finish second. Despite Villeneuve’s ‘lucky’ win he still trailed Schumacher but now only by 3 points.
My final race of the season was my customary overnight drive to Spa for race day only. It was warm and sunny but after a heavy downpour an hour or so before the start the wet track was deemed too dangerous for a standing start. Therefore, for the first time in Grand Prix history there was a rolling start behind the safety car, another step in the sanitising of Grand Prix racing and setting the prcedent for the future.
The start is usually the most (and sometimes only) exciting part of the race. Circuits, including Spa, charge exhorbitant ticket prices for a vantage point offering such a view so I felt for those who were so tempted only to have the the experience arbitrarily taken away. But, if you are sensitive to such things then F1 is not the sport to follow.
Michael Schumacher won and with Villeneuve only fifth extended his Championship lead to 11 points. Giancarlo Fisichella in a Jordan finished second, gaining his best result in doing so.
The European Grand Prix at Jerez stepped in to replace Estoril as the 17th and final race of the season. Schumacher lead Villeneuve in the Championship by one point. Quite simply, Jacques had to score one more point than Michael to take the title as he lead on victories 7 to 5. I could not go to the race, nor see it on television as I was working but I subsequently saw what would become the defining moment of the season replayed on the news repeatedly.
On lap 48 of 69 the Ferrari was leading the second placed and faster Williams. Jacques made his move at a right hand bend getting ahead on the inside line and ‘bang’ the Ferrari moved across making heavy contact, similar to the incident between Schumacher and Damon Hill in 1994. If the manouevre was made intentionally it misfired as the Ferrari was eliminated on the spot and Villeneuve continued to take third behind the McLarens and the Championship by 3 points.
Subsequently, the FIA deemed the move to be intentional and stripped Schumacher and Ferrari of their 2nd place in the Championship but allowed Michael to keep his tally of points and wins. So I am not quite sure what the actual penalty was supposed to be. Heinz-Harald Frentzen with just 0ne win and only half the points of Villeneuve was promoted to Championship runner-up.
Up until that point, Schumacher had done a brilliant job, almost emulating Niki Lauda more than 20 years before, by turning an ailing Ferrari into a winning car within one year and a Championship contender in two.
This would also be the last Championships (drivers and constructors) and the end of an era for the Williams team.
Note: Many of these images are taken from original prints, negatives and slides that are nearly 40 years old and are therefore not reproduced to the same standard as current day digital images. All reasonable attempts have been made to ensure these images are reproduced to the best possible standard, however, in some instances colour casts and blemishes may be present.