1997 European Grand Prix: A Page from a Father's Book
April 8, 2014 by Jeremy McMullen
Twenty-two laps from the end of the European Grand Prix and everything was held in the balance. Then, suddenly, Jacques Villeneuve would draw from a page of his father's book and would help to produce a truly memorable moment in Formula One's history.
The 1997 Formula One season was to be Jacques Villeneuve's opportunity to finally add the family name to the annals of Formula One champions. Jacques had come to Formula One and Williams in 1996. He would join another son of a Formula One driver in Damon Hill. It would be an extremely dominant season for both Williams drivers as they would secure 12 victories out of 16 races. Villeneuve, though a rookie, would challenge Hill all the way to the final round of the championship that year. Therefore, it seemed a foregone conclusion that 1997 would be the year a Villeneuve became World Champion.
Villeneuve would score back-to-back victories in the 2nd and 3rd races of the season but would only add three more over the next ten rounds. And, in spite of two-straight victories in the Austrian and Luxembourg grand prix, a victory by Michael Schumacher in the Japanese Grand Prix meant the World Championship headed into the final round with Schumacher ahead by a single point.
Back in 1979, Gilles Villeneuve would be at the wheel of the Ferrari 312T4 and would often put on some of the greatest demonstrations of pure, raw speed that they will forever live in Formula One history. It would be this aggressive and absolute on the edge driving that would not only make the Canadian famous and a fan favorite, it would also make him prone to mistakes. Throughout the 1979 season Villeneuve would put on some truly memorable displays. However, it would be his teammate that would be the most consistent. As a result, Villeneuve would lose out to Jody Scheckter at the end of the season. There would be no forgetting the epic duel with Rene Arnoux at Dijon in the French Grand Prix. The two would often be side-by-side, wheel-to-wheel and wheel-to-sidepod. The two drivers would never give up, but each would show the other great respect. The result would be an incredible handful of laps that serve as the 'ideal' of what Formula One should be.
The similarities would be tremendous as Gilles' son Jacques arrived on the Formula One scene. Taking pole in his very first race, Jacques would be impressive throughout his first season in Formula One taking more than a few victories over the course of the season. He would stand up against the pressure of some of the best in the series, just as his dad had when he made his appearance in Formula One. Unfortunately, Villeneuve would have to give way to Damon Hill at the end of the 1996 season.
Much like his father, Jacques was already perceived the heir-apparent to Hill as Formula One's World Champion. He would start out the season in a position of strength but, like his father, would suffer in the middle part of the season throwing away some races and losing the points advantage he had enjoyed earlier in the season. However, like his father, the tough situation only seemed to bring Jacques to life.
The site for the final round of the 1997 Formula One World Championship would be Circuito de Jerez in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain. The Jerez circuit had only opened in December of 1985 but it would quickly become a site for some truly memorable moments in Formula One lore.
Jerez would host the Spanish Grand Prix for the first time just four months after being established. And, right from that very first race Jerez's place in Formula One history would be set as Aryton Senna, then with Lotus, would be caught up with a titanic battle with Nigel Mansell in his Williams, which would end with Senna beating Mansell by a mere .014 seconds! Then, of course, there would be those in-car images of Aryton Senna in 1990. Immediately, following Martin Donnelly's terrible accident that left him lying in the middle of the circuit unconscious, Senna would strap into his McLaren and would go out and perform an absolutely manic lap that would firmly resolve the Senna legend.
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Qualifying would give an indication of just what everyone expected. There was going to be a fight for the championship and it was going to go down to the very end because neither of the two principles in the fight would give way. Villeneuve would make this point evident when he would quickly go out and set a lap time of 1:21.072. Not to be outdone, Michael Schumacher would take his Ferrari to the circuit and would post a lap of 1:21.072 as well. Heinz-Harald Frentzen would complete the trifecta by posting the very same time in his Williams! It would be stupefying seeing three cars set the same exact same time. A decision had to be made concerning the grid.
The regulations would set the grid. Because Villeneuve set his time first, he would start from the pole. Schumacher would line up 2nd, while Frentzen would be handed the greatest snub having to start from the second row in 3rd. In spite of Frentzen's efforts, everyone figured it was only right the two combatants would start from the front row of the grid.
Located midway between the Mediterranean and the mountains of southern Spain, the weather around Jerez was predominantly dry and sunny suffering from only about 50 rainy days over the course of a year. Not surprisingly, the day of the European Grand Prix on the 26th of October would be sunny with ideal conditions for a truly memorable championship fight.
After the morning warmup, the cars would begin to take their places on the grid in front of a very expectant crowd. The Villeneuve name had never ended a season in Formula One with World Champion as its title. It was going to be a sad day if another fell short of the mark as well. The intrigue, therefore, would be unbearable. To hold back Schumacher in his Ferrari and to, therefore, give himself the best shot at the championship, Villeneuve needed to be the first away from the grid. He needed to lead and control the race. But then again, he is a Villeneuve, and attacking courses through his veins.
As the lights turned green to start the race, the blood of a hunter would need to course through Jacques' veins as he would make a poor start. Schumacher would not only be in the lead heading into the first corner, but Frentzen would also get by for 2nd place. Mired down in 3rd place from the very first corner on, Villeneuve would have to go on the attack straight-away.
Schumacher would lead Frentzen at the end of the first lap while Villeneuve sat still in 3rd. Schumacher was beginning to stretch out an advantage over Frentzen and Jacques. If the Williams driver was going to fight for the championship he needed to make a move, and soon. Villeneuve would turn up the pace. He would turn in the fastest lap on the 6th lap and would be all over Frentzen's car. Passing would be difficult and this would result in the Williams team ordering Frentzen to let Jacques past.
By the 9th lap of the race Villeneuve would be in 2nd place about 4 seconds behind Schumacher. The Canadian was within striking distance of the Ferrari with plenty of time in hand, but Schumacher was not going to go down without a fight. Both drivers would pick up the pace even more. Schumacher would set the fastest lap of the race on lap 16 and would be bettered by Villeneuve the very next lap of the race. The two began to stretch out their advantage over Frentzen in 3rd. The two combatants would firmly take center-stage.
The first round of pitstops would see the order change, but for a brief moment. Schumacher would be back in the lead of the race approaching the halfway mark of the race. Villeneuve remained in 2nd place but needed to make an impression on the Ferrari if he had any allusions of taking the title.
Schumacher would take his second stop while Villeneuve headed into the lead. Unfortunately, Jacques would have to follow-suit making his stop and falling back to 2nd place as all of the stops cycled through.
Returning to the circuit, Villeneuve would need to mount a charge as there were only about 25 of the 69 laps remaining. Jacques would therefore channel the lifeblood flowing through his veins. Suddenly, it would appear as though Gilles Villeneuve had been reborn. With each successive lap the Canadian would begin to reel in the German. All of a sudden, Michael would appear to be in an underpowered car as Villeneuve drew Schumacher in at will.
It seemed only a matter of time as Villeneuve pulled within three tenths of the Ferrari, but it was Schumacher at the wheel of the Ferrari. There would be no easy pass coming. Jacques needed to pull a page from his father's book and be willing to go to the ragged edge.
Twenty-two laps remaining in the race, Villeneuve would be all over the backside of the Ferrari. It was shades of Villeneuve and Arnoux, but much more was riding on this race than in that great moment back in the French Grand Prix in 1979.
Laying back through the fast right-hander, the Curva Sito Pons, Villeneuve would put the power down hard coming out of the corner to et a good run down the straight toward the right right-hand Curva Dry Sac hairpin. This would set the stage for the most memorable moment in the race and, perhaps, in Jerez's Formula One history.
Slip-streaming behind Schumacher down the straight, Jacques would pull out at the last minute and would take a risk diving down to the inside of the Ferrari. Perhaps not expecting the move, Michael would turn in like normal and would seem slow to reach the apex. Villeneuve had channeled his father and was already there. Michael would find the Canadian already with his wing ahead of the Ferrari. He was in risk of losing the lead. Villeneuve had certainly gone into the corner hot, but Schumacher would turn down on the Williams striking the car in the sidepod. Both would slide to the outside of the track. Michael would end up in the gravel while Villeneuve would keep it on the circuit in the lead.
Schumacher was out. Villeneuve had the lead. Seemingly unconcerned about the potential for damage, Villeneuve would continue in the lead. The laps would continue to go away with Jacques holding onto the lead. To finish in the lead would be a perfect way to end the season and the championship, but it was not necessary.
Villeneuve would continue in the lead, but the McLaren teammates of David Coulthard and Mika Hakkinen would be gaining ground. Lost in the controversy of the contact between Schumacher and Villeneuve would be the controversy surrounding the two McLaren teammates. Coulthard would be leading his teammate. Then, with a couple of laps remaining in the race, Coulthard would inexplicably slow going down the front straight. Hakkinen would pass through into 2nd place. David would pick up the pace and would follow along in what had been obvious team orders.
McLarens charging to the front would prevent Villeneuve from taking the victory as both would come through to take the top-two positions. But Jacques would not care. His concern was making it to the finish with enough points in hand to take the title.
Channeling his father, Jacques would ease his way to a 3rd place finish and a long-awaited World Championship for a Villeneuve. Villeneuve would take his place on the third step of the podium, but he would end the season at the top step. At just 26 years of age, Jacques would become one of the youngest World Champions in Formula One history. Furthermore, the Villeneuve name finally ended a season above the rest. It had been a long time coming, and it took drawing from a page of a father's book to do it, but it had finally come to pass. Many Villeneuve fans finally had their World Championship title and Formula One had yet another dramatic racing moment involving a Villeneuve.
Jerez, therefore, had a reputation for close finishes and fantastic performances. It was the perfect setting for the European Grand Prix in 1997, the final round of the World Championship for that year.
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