Inside stories from F1's last title-deciding scandal - The Race
Formula 1

Inside stories from F1’s last title-deciding scandal

Dec 12 2021

The destiny of the Formula 1 world championship hasn’t been decided by a collision between the two title protagonists since 1997. Of all the seasons that have followed since never has it felt more likely than in 2021 that this long clean streak might come to an end.

Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen have packed in more wheel-to-wheel controversies this year than the famous rivalries between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, or Michael Schumacher and Damon Hill, ever managed.

In 1997, when Schumacher and Jaques Villeneuve collided at the final race at Jerez, it meant the championship had been decided with an accident for the fourth time in nine seasons.

Firm action by the FIA – which famously threw Schumacher out of the championship standings for his failed attempt to eliminate Villeneuve, was believed to be partially motivated by wanting to stamp out this worrying trend.

The fact it hasn’t happened again since would suggest that it worked.

As tension builds before Verstappen and Hamilton head into their showdown tied on points, we’re revisiting the final weekend of that 1997 season, which was highly charged on and off track.

Jerez 97

Schumacher and Villeneuve weren’t level on points like the contenders are in 2021, but they were separated by a point. Schumacher was ahead, but Villeneuve had more wins, so in the event of a tie the title was the Canadian’s. It was just as much of a winner-takes-all finale as Verstappen vs Hamilton will be.

The Race looked back at this race in great detail in our Bring Back V10s classic F1 podcast series, where we were joined by Sky Sports F1 expert Karun Chandhok and Jonathan Williams, son of late Williams team founder Frank.

Mar 04 : S3 E9: Jerez 1997 - Villeneuve vs Schumacher

PRE-EVENT TENSION

While the contenders didn’t arrive off the back of a collision in the penultimate race of the season as we’ve seen this year, there had still been plenty of controversy from the event prior to the decider.

Villeneuve was initially banned from the Japanese Grand Prix when a yellow flag infringement in practice triggered a suspended ban he had hanging over him. He raced under appeal, slumping to fifth as Schumacher romped to victory.

That wasn’t the end of the drama from Japan, as Williams eventually dropped that appeal after pressure from FIA president Max Mosley. The FIA took a dim view of what it believed were frivolous appeals in the 1990s, and Mosley threatened Williams with the prospect of Villeneuve being banned from the Jerez finale as well if it went through with the process.

Given only two points were on the line, it made no sense for Williams to pursue it. The appeal was dropped, and Villeneuve went from being one point ahead to one behind. While on the face of it that changed very little, it opened up the possibility of Schumacher being able to risk a collision that took both drivers out in the final race, as he would walk away with the championship.

Williams knew this, having felt that it was exactly what happened in 1994 when Schumacher became champion after a clash with Damon Hill, moments after the German’s Benetton had slid into one of Adelaide’s concrete walls and then scrambled back onto the track.

May 14 : S1 E9: Schumacher v Hill - 1994's controversial ending

Schumacher didn’t face any sanctions for that, but Williams and Villeneuve were wary of a repeat. Led by Villeneuve, who got plenty of media attention in the run-up to the showdown, there was a clear strategy to “remind people that Michael was good at taking people off to win championships”.

FERRARI’S MIND GAMES

In 2021, much of the off-track tension between the two teams going at it for the championship has been played out through a war of words between team bosses Toto Wolff and Christian Horner.

Frank Williams and Jean Todt didn’t play the game like that nearly 25 years ago, but Ferrari had other ways of retaliating to Williams’s attempts to get under Schumacher’s skin.

In free practice at Jerez Schumacher’s team-mate Eddie Irvine made a habit of ending up on the same piece of track as Villeneuve to disrupt his laps.

Villeneuve eventually decided enough was enough. He returned to the pits at the same time as Irvine, jumped out of his car before it was pushed back into the garage and stormed down to the Ferrari pit to remonstrate with Irvine in the most public way possible.

“I told him to stop being an idiot,” Villeneuve said at the time, adding that Irvine was “a clown”.

Irvine laughed it off at the time, and the feeling was that Ferrari had got to Villeneuve.

Villeneuve claims otherwise, saying his overreaction was intentional. Knowing how many cameras were on him as he marched over to the Ferrari pit, he felt it was another way of “bringing the attention again on what games Ferrari could play”.

In qualifying, Villeneuve, Schumacher and the second Williams of Heinz-Harald Frentzen set exactly the same time, with the order being set based on who set the time first. Frentzen dryly suggested, “next year we need four numbers after the dot” on the timing system, but spare a thought for outgoing champion Damon Hill, who was just 0.058s in his Arrows, which left him fourth on the grid.

EARLY SPARRING

European Grand Prix Jerez Se La Frontera (esp) 24 26 10 1997

Villeneuve fluffed his start from pole, allowing Schumacher to rocket into the lead. Behind the Ferrari, the two Williams drivers found themselves side by side, seemingly unsure who should lead the chase.

Years later Villeneuve explained the confusion, saying Williams had discussed “millions” of scenarios pre-race, but – oddly – Schumacher taking the lead off the line and Frentzen being alongside Villeneuve into Turn 1 wasn’t one of them.

Jonathan Williams, speaking on the Bring Back V10s podcast: “It takes us 15, 20, 30 seconds to talk about it, and Jacques has got to make a decision in a fraction of a second. Had it been a car he wasn’t aligned with I’m sure he would have been more aggressive, but you’re looking at a guy with whom you’ve got a free pass. You know that any time you want to get past that car, you make the call and you’re gone.”

The Williams drivers were at a slight disadvantage in the opening stint, with Schumacher on brand new tyres while Villeneuve and Frentzen had to start on slightly used sets. So even once Frentzen let Villeneuve through, he couldn’t make inroads into Schumacher’s lead.

PLAYING GAMES

Japanese Grand Prix Suzuka (jpn) 10 12 10 1997

Schumacher made his first pitstop one lap before Villeneuve, and the Ferrari rejoined just behind Frentzen and the leading McLaren of Mika Hakkinen. Villeneuve rejoined just behind the second McLaren of David Coulthard, who was immediately pulled into the pits by his team.

Frentzen’s pace suddenly dropped off at this point, even more so once Hakkinen pitted, allowing Villeneuve to close up on Schumacher.

Ross Brawn admits Frentzen “screwed” Schumacher during this part of the race, although he also accepted “Williams were giving us back some of what we’d given them”, as Ferrari had so often been the master of second-car interference with Irvine.

Jonathan Williams, speaking on Bring Back V10s: “It was a little bit un-Williams-like, but I think we’d been schooled by Ferrari and we felt more of that would be coming.

“It was certainly something that wasn’t in my father and Patrick Head’s way of going racing, but one thing this game teaches us is you have to do everything to win.

“It was a little bit unusual, but in those circumstances, I think you’d be more surprised if it was a tactic we hadn’t adopted.”

Ferrari got some payback of its own a few laps later, when Schumacher and Villeneuve came to lap the Ferrari-powered Sauber of Norberto Fontana. The Argentinian revealed nine years later that he’d been ordered before the race by Ferrari team boss Jean Todt to hold up Villeneuve, which he did a very good job of.

When Fontana came clean in an interview in 2006, Sauber and Ferrari denied the allegation. But a source who was at Sauber at the time confirmed to The Race that the instruction was given.

Williams took that one on the chin, perhaps because ultimately it didn’t cost Villeneuve the championship. His engineer Jock Clear even admitted Williams would have done the same if it had close links to a team likely to get lapped during the race.

THE SHOWDOWN

Jerez 1997

Villeneuve spent the rest of the middle stint of the race clawing back the few seconds he’d lost behind Fontana. At the second stops, Schumacher again came in a lap earlier, and when Villeneuve emerged from his own stop still behind, he decided it was time to give it everything.

“After the second stop, I was hard after Michael. I knew I had to make my move because soon my tyres would start to go off a bit. And I didn’t want to give him time to settle, so I just went for it.”

Villeneuve turned a 2.5-second deficit into nothing in just a couple of laps. He was giving it everything at the same time Schumacher was trying to bring his tyres in gently, aware that Ferrari had often suffered more problems with blistering in 1997 than the superior Williams chassis did. Ferrari’s fear was that Schumacher would come under attack from Villeneuve at the end of the final stint, not the beginning…

Having chased Schumacher for the whole race, Villeneuve had worked out where he was quicker than the Ferrari. He knew he was much stronger than Schumacher on the brakes into the Dry Sack hairpin.

“I knew I had to surprise him.”

European Grand Prix Jerez De La Frontera (esp) 24 26 10 1997

Villeneuve started the 48th lap 0.3s behind Schumacher. He took a risk in the long right-hander that led onto the back straight, carrying more speed and almost running wide, but he’d got the slingshot he needed.

He was closer to Schumacher than he’d been on any other lap. Desperate to retain the element of surprise, he waited until Schumacher hit the brakes to jink to the inside.

“I was surprised he left the door open,” Villeneuve said after the race. “But once I was inside it was just a matter of time before he decided to turn in on me.”

When the Williams’s blue nose first appeared to the inside, Schumacher’s natural reaction was to turn away from the corner.

But a split second later the uncompromising edge that had brought him so much success in his career kicked in, and he turned back towards Villeneuve.

Martin Brundle famously declared in his live commentary for ITV: “That didn’t work Michael, you hit the wrong part of him, my friend.”

Villeneuve uttered similar words in the post-race press conference. After joking that “maybe Michael had his eyes closed, or somehow his hands slipped on the steering wheel”, he followed up with “I knew Michael was capable of taking me off. He didn’t do it well enough.”

Schumacher was adamant afterwards that he was not to blame. He called Villeneuve’s move “optimistic”, although conceded he would have made the same attempt if he’d been the chasing car.

But he also accused Villeneuve of using him “a little bit as a brake”, suggesting the Williams would have ended up in the gravel if the Ferrari hadn’t been there.

Jerez 1997 A

Schumacher famously stood on the wall at the outside of the track for a couple of laps to see if Villeneuve came back around again. It had echoes of 1994 in Adelaide, when he was watching from behind the fence and Hill never came back around. But this time there was to be no joyous realisation from trackside that he was champion again.

When he returned to the Ferrari garage he was furious, believing he’d been taken out, and demanding that his team got Villeneuve excluded. When he was shown the footage of the accident in the privacy of Ferrari’s pit, insiders say he was “genuinely shocked” to see what had actually happened.

THE FALLOUT

The backlash was instant. Frank Williams called it “Adelaide revisited”, and Hill, the victim from 1994, said “Michael showed his true colours” before adding, “At least he is consistent”.

Schumacher came under unexpected fire in Italy too, leading to him holding a press conference at Maranello where he revised his position. He still pointed out that “more serious things have happened in motor racing than what happened on Sunday”, but he went on to admit that he’d “miscalculated Villeneuve’s attack”, that he had indeed made a mistake, and he would handle the situation differently if it happened again.

Even after that he came under fire, with Fiat president Gianni Agnelli critical of the fact it took 48 hours for Schumacher to hold his hands up. Agnelli was unimpressed with Schumacher’s initial claim that he would do the same again, and he called the move “hideous”.

The drama wasn’t over. While the stewards of the meeting declared the collision a racing incident, the FIA later intervened. Schumacher was summoned to a hearing, where he was stripped of his second place in the championship.

Rivals were not impressed. Hill said FIA president Max Mosley had promised a “heavy sanction” in the drivers’ briefing if anything like that happened, while Villeneuve said he was expecting something more severe, adding “his punishment doesn’t mean anything”.

European Grand Prix Jerez Se La Frontera (esp) 24 26 10 1997

The FIA had been expected to ban Schumacher for at least a race or two at the start of 1998, but Mosley felt that wasn’t a strong enough deterrent. He believed that, in the heat of the moment, a driver would sacrifice as many races as necessary from the following season to become world champion in that moment.

The punishment also took into account that Schumacher’s actions were considered instinctive rather than premeditated. Hill also took issue with that, saying that an instinctive reaction would be to avoid a collision.

Those close to Schumacher believe Jerez ’97 is the one thing he did in his F1 career that he would take back if he could. He said at the time he had trouble sleeping in the days after the race because of how he felt about what he did.

The key thing about his punishment was that the FIA insisted it would have thrown him out even if he’d won the title. As Villeneuve said at the time: “We have to believe that.”

In the years since F1 hasn’t had to find out if that would be true. Yet.

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