F1 1997 Championship (European GP)

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Like 1996, the title was again decided at the final round of the season, this time, at the European Grand Prix in Jerez de la Frontrera.
Michael Schumacher was leading the drivers' championship having 78 points to Villeneuve's 77. In order to become champion, Villeneuve had just to finish the race in a points-scoring position and ahead of Schumacher. Having won 3 more races than the German, he had the advantage in case of a points tie. On the other hand, Schumacher would had been world champion only if he had finished ahead of Villeneuve, or if the Canadian had failed to score any points by finishing lower than 6th or by not completing the race.

During the free practice session, Villeneuve attacked Schumacher's teammate Eddie Irvine and accused him for blocking him while he was running his setup laps.

Before the race, FIA officials had already announced strong warnings that they would issue strict penalty to anyone trying to influence the outcome of the Championship. In the pre-race interview, Villeneuve remembered how Schumacher had previously been involved in a Championship-deciding crash in 1994 when he collided with his ex-teammate Damon Hill at the Australian Grand Prix in Adelaide. In that incident it was strongly suspected, but never proved, that Schumacher had caused the collision on purpose.

The Grand Prix seemed to be exciting, when 3 drivers set identical pole position timing by 1:21.072, "...to one-thousandth of a second" as the legendary Murray Walker quoted. Jacques Villeneuve was first to set his fastest time, 2nd was Michael Schumacher and finally Heinz-Harald Frentzen was 3rd. According FIA's regulations, "In the event of drivers setting equal times in qualifying, the first driver to set the time is given precedence". Thus, Villeneuve was awarded with the pole position and he was followed by Schumacher and Frenzen.
Yet, there were still questions over why Schumacher wasn't disqualified for turning his fastest qualifying lap while his brother's Jordan car was still being removed from the gravel trap. Although the corresponding to session's condition yellow flag was clearly still being displayed at the corner, it was "only" a steady yellow and not a waved yellow. This subtle distinction in the flagging rules allowed Schumacher's lap to be considered legal.

At the start of the race, Villeneuve had again too much starting spin and so Schumacher managed to take the lead, followed by Frenzen. Soon, under the instruction of Patrick Head, Villeneuve overtook his teammate in order to chase Schumacher.

Even though Villeneuve was in a 4sec distance behind Schumacher, he wasn't about to concede easily and was determined to pursue his competitor till the wavering of the checkered flag.

On lap 30, Villeneuve was deliberately blocked by Norberto Fontana's Sauber for 3 consecutive corners, costing him around 3 valuable seconds.
As well as the television footage, the incident is also backed up by a sequence of remarks between Murray Walker and Martin Brundle, the ITV commentators. The exchange went like this:
Murray Walker:"Case of champagne from Ferrari to Sauber Norberto Fontana...Because the Argentinian newcomer, up from Formula 3, really, really, helped Michael Schumacher on his way there."
Martin Brundle:"What engine have they got in that Sauber, Murray?...Isnt' it a Ferrari?.
Murray Walker:"Well, it is, yes,... Martin you are a cynical chap.
Despite Walker and Brundle didn't know exactly what might had happened, by their comments its clear that they've been suspected that Fontana's blocking was provoked by Ferrari's influence.

Norberto Fontana was a talented young driver who had won the German Formula 3 Championship two years before, but the Argentinian's career stalled and he finally got an opportunity in Formula One after replacing the injured Gianni Morbidelli at the Sauber Petronas team, which was powered by Ferrari, for the 4 last races of 1997 season.
In September 2006, just after Schumacher's retirement announcement, in an interview with the Argentinian Magazine Ole, Fontana claimed that a few hours before the race, the Ferrari team director Jean Todt visited Sauber's motorhome and demanded to block Villeneuve if they were in a position to do so in order to help Michael Schumacher win the World Championship. The order was given to Sauber Petronas' drivers, Norberto Fontana and Johnny Herbert, who in fact had already a collision with Villeneuve in the very first corner of the 1997 season, during the Australian Grand Prix.
Fontana said: "We were in Peter Sauber's motorhome with the masseur and Johnny Herbert, softening the muscles. It was two or three hours until the race started. Jean Todt entered and went straight to the point: "...By strict order of Ferrari, Villeneuve must be held up if you come across him on the track ... To whoever this applies." And this applied to me"
Fontana contunued; "... Todt realised I was an actual backmarker, qualified in 18th position for the race, and I might have more chance to block Villeneuve than Herbert would."
According to Fontana, Peter Sauber told him that whatever the morality he had little choice but to comply.
Nevertheless, in an interview with his close friend, the famous journalist Roger Benoit published in Blick, the Swiss daily newspaper, Peter Sauber strongly refuted Fontana's claim and accused him as a liar. Sauber stated that in the nine years Ferrari and Sauber worked together, the Italians never asked his team to block other drivers. He told Benoit: "Ferrari never expressed the desire that we should obstruct an opponent of Schumacher on the track."

Still, Villeneuve soon managed to reduce to a less than a second the distance from his rival. On 48th lap he attempted to passed Schumacher at the Dry Sac corner.

In fact, it seems that Schumacher deliberately left the door wide open to Villeneuve in order to "squeeze" him toward the corner, forcing him to drop one wheel off the track and to spin off into the nearby grass.
Yet, Villeneuve succeeded in braking later than his competitor, held the inside line and when Schumacher turned into the Canadian's car he was already ahead of him on the track. During the resulted collision the right-front wheel of Schumacher's Ferrari hit the left radiator pod of Villeneuve's Williams. In the end, Schumacher exited to the gravel causing him to retire while Villeneuve continued the race but having his sidepod damaged.

It is also believed that if Schumacher had simply stayed behind Villeneuve leaving him to pass, he might have retaken the lead as Villeneuve was about to slid wide at the apex, because of his speed, exiting into the nearby gravel. Instead, feeling that his Championship was slipping away, Schumacher turned hard into the side of Villeneuve's car and retained him in that way on the track.

Onboard view of Michael Schumacher during the collision
Its clearly demonstrated how Schumacher twitched his steering wheel left before turning right into Villeneuve

In the remainig 20 laps Villeneuve had to slow down his pace and in the very last lap he allowed to Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard, to overtake him in order to secure both a finish and the title

Jacques Villeneuve discussed the collision with Michael Schumacher at the press conference after the race, "The car felt very strange. The hit was very hard. It was not a small thing."
About the overtaking by the McLaren cars, he also stated, "I did not fight then. It was better to let them through and win the World Championship. It is a good exchange."

A virtual demonstration of the accident at F1C 1997

After the race Villeneuve and Schumacher were called before the stewards who later announced in a statement that"unanimously concluded it was a racing accident and no further action is necessary" as was issued in a statement.
Michael Schumacher admitted, in another press conference that he had made a mistake but insisted that it was a misjudgement rather than a deliberate attempt to take out Villeneuve.
"I am human like everyone else and unfortunately I made a mistake," he said. "I don't make many but I did this time."
But, FIA didn't have the same view. After a disciplinary hearing, Michael Schumacher was penalised by disqualification from the entire 1997 World Championship, and removed all his points. Moreover, Michael Schumacher did serious damage to his reputation too, as the whole racing world and even the German and the Italian press, condemned his infamous manoeuvre.

In just his second season in F1, Jacques Villeneuve fulfilled his father - Gilles Villeneuve dream of becoming Formula 1 World Champion. He also joined another unique club with only 3 other members, Mario Andretti, Emerson Fittipaldi and Nigel Mansell, as the only drivers to win both the F1 and CART championships.