It was October 1997 and the entire racing world was looking down on Curcuito Permanente de Jerez to see who would take the driver’s cup. Would Michael Schumacher win it all in his Ferrari, or would Jacques Villeneuve make up the single point that separated him from the series win?
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With those two greats wrestling for the drivers’ championship to the very end, the 1997 European Grand Prix was bound to be filled with competitive spirit. A world-class seat of drivers was competing that day, with many drivers in the Aside from Schumacher and Villeneuve, Damon Hill, David Coulthard, and Mikka Häkkinen were all out on the grid that October day, with Häkkinen pulling out the race win.
The entire race was exciting with a lot of dogfighting between Schuey and Villeneuve at the front of the pack from the beginning on, but the big action came during lap 48 (about an hour and fifteen minutes into the race) when contact was finally made.
Schumacher, worried about losing his lead (and his chance at the drivers’ championship) to Villeneuve who was passing him on the inside of turn six of the track, known as Curva Dry Sack (really), Schumacher dug in to try and box the Canadian and his Williams-Renault out. The result was catastrophic for Michael, though.
An FIA investigation found Schumacher responsible for the collision (his actions were regarded as “intentional but not premeditated”) and disqualified him from the 1997 drivers’ championship, even after the collision had retired Schumacher from the race. Many called for him to be fired at Ferrari, seeing his actions as dishonorable and unsportsmanlike.
The result of the collision, which didn’t hinder Villeneuve other than a loss of pace in lap 48, was an outright win for Häkkinen 22 laps later, with Coulthard in second and a third-place race finish for Villeneuve. Though he didn’t win the race, that third-place finish was enough to secure him the drivers’ championship despite the run-in with Schumacher.
The win would be Villeneuve’s only Formula One title while Schumacher would go on to win five more for Ferrari. The collision, and an earlier one with Damon Hill in 1994 that caused a lot more damage to his competitor, would remain blemishes on Schumacher’s record despite his absolute domination of the sport in the decade to follow.
Still, it’s a lot of fun to sit down in front of a race from another era of Formula One, when the cigarette ad-festooned cars were powered by screaming V10s and the drama of a late-race collision could keep us all on our toes. I think we all deserve it right about now.