Questionable tactics fail to derail Villeneuve title bid
Champion in 1994 and 1995, Schumacher came close to a third title in 1997, but he failed to land the one Ferrari craved by clashing with Jacques Villeneuve at the final round.
Ferrari spent the bulk of the 1990s chasing the World Championship, frequently being coy pre-season about its chances of achieving its holy grail. Few believed the team when they said their plan was to win races then go for the crown the following year. Surely, insiders said, if you couldn't win with Michael Schumacher aboard, then you were never going to win. So 1997 was definitely a year in which they were going for gold.
But, between Schumacher and the crown lay Williams with its Renault engines and Jacques Villeneuve, joined by Heinz-Harald Frentzen.
So, it was a mighty shock at the opening race in Melbourne when David Coulthard took McLaren back to the winner's circle for the first time since Ayrton Senna won at Adelaide at the end of 1993. However, the speed Villeneuve had shown when he qualified on pole by over over a second from Frentzen with Schumacher a further third of a second back was a pointer. Shame then that he was tipped off by Schumacher's team-mate Eddie Irvine at the first corner, as was Sauber's Johnny Herbert. Frentzen was catching Coulthard in the closing laps but a brake disc exploded. And so Schumacher salvaged second ahead of Hakkinen despite having to make an extra stop as his car hadn't taken on enough fuel.
Villeneuve won the next two races in Brazil and Argentina, the first ahead of Gerhard Berger's Benetton and Olivier Panis's Prost. His win in Buenos Aires was hard-fought as he battled both with an upset stomach and with a fired-up Irvine. With Frentzen not having scored, the pressure was on his shoulders when they visited Imola. And he came good to win ahead of the Ferraris. Villeneuve led early on but lost out at the first stops and lost third when his gearbox failed.
Monaco was next and on past form this ought to mean victory for Michael Schumacher. And so it was to prove as he got the jump on polesitter Frentzen and led all the way in the wet. The Williams drivers made the wrong tyre choice and Rubens Barrichello claimed an emotional second place for the new Stewart team.
Tyres were again crucial in Spain. But not because it rained, rather because the Catalunya track ate them. And here Villeneuve showed his guile while Frentzen struggled, winning ahead of Panis and Benetton's Jean Alesi.
The Canadian Grand Prix will be recalled for two events: firstly Panis breaking his legs in a high-speed collision with the barriers, and secondly for Coulthard dominating until his engine fluffed at a pit stop when leading on the very same lap, handing the race to Michael Schumacher and leaving the Scot seventh.
Schumacher won again at Magny-Cours. There were just over six laps to go at Silverstone and Hakkinen was heading for his first win, but his engine failed and so Villeneuve collected a lucky 10 points.
Berger returned at Hockenheim. And what a return! He not only claimed pole, but also set fastest lap and led almost every lap to win... His chief challenger was Fisichella, who led after Berger pitted, but retired when a puncture damaged a radiator.
The Hungarian Grand Prix very nearly produced the oddest result of the year, if not of all-time, as Damon Hill not only qualified the previously unimpressive Arrows third, but he passed Michael Schumacher for the lead and then led until halfway around the final lap when Villeneuve swept past his ailing Arrows to win. His gearbox barely working, Hill limped home a still astonishing second, with Herbert third.
Spa-Francorchamps, like Monaco, is a drivers' track. And thus Michael Schumacher was tipped to win. And he didn't disappoint, winning by almost half a minute in the wet after overcoming early leader Villeneuve and Alesi once the safety car peeled off after controlling the field for the first four laps. Having also fitted intermediates, Fisichella was second ahead of Frentzen, while Villeneuve was frustrated by having pitted too early for his tyre change.
The Italian Grand Prix was won in the pits, as Coulthard used his only stop to find a way past long-time leader Alesi, with Frentzen falling from second to third in the scramble. Jarno Trulli started the season with one and a half year's Formula Three experience to his name since starring in karting. After starting the season with Minardi, he stepped up to Prost when Panis was injured. He rocked the boat when he led the first 37 laps of the Austrian Grand Prix before being passed by eventual winner Villeneuve, with his engine blowing 13 laps from the flag. The Stewarts also showed well, but Coulthard and Frentzen completed the podium.
The sight of the Jordans clashing at the first corner of the Luxembourg Grand Prix at the Nurburgring was shocking, but when Ralf Schumacher cannoned into his brother and took him out of the race the championship battle was truly opened up. But the McLaren's were dominant on the home ground of engine supplier Mercedes until first Coulthard blew up when second and then Hakkinen was again denied while leading. And so Villeneuve won from Alesi and Frentzen to open a nine-point lead over Schumacher.
Ferrari had to fight back at the penultimate race, and Schumacher and Irvine duly qualified second and third behind Villeneuve at Suzuka. But Villeneuve (along with several others) was punished for not slowing past yellow flags. With a suspended ban hanging over him, he was able to start the race only under appeal. Irvine soon demoted him and then Schumacher hit the front to win from Frentzen and Irvine, with Villeneuve fifth. Williams then decided to drop its appeal and start the final race a point behind Schumacher.
And it was at Jerez that Schumacher famously pulled across on Villeneuve, with the collision leaving him both in the gravel trap and in disgrace, while Villeneuve was able to bring his lightly damaged car home, ceding the lead only on the final lap when he let Hakkinen and Coulthard through, as third place gave him the points needed for the title.
And thus the Finn finally scored a long overdue first win. The FIA didn't bow to pressure to ban Schumacher from the first two races of 1998, instead removing him from second place in the 1997 rankings.
Reproduced from The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Formula One published by Carlton Books