Written by: Tom Jensen
Harrisburg, NC – 1/19/2006
Editor’s Note: SPEEDTV.com is counting down SPEED’s Top 10 Motor Sports Moments online, as part of the network’s 2006 celebration of its first 10 years on the air.
No. 8 on our countdown is the 1997 European Grand Prix in Jerez, Spain, when Michael Schumacher collided with Jacques Villeneuve in what most observers believe was a deliberate attempt to wreck Villeneuve and knock him out of the race.
Michael Schumacher’s phenomenal success at Ferrari has assured his legacy as one of, if not the, greatest drivers in Formula 1 history. But in the mid-1990s, Schumacher’s aggressive driving created great controversy within the Formula 1 community.
With the World Driving Championship on the line in the final race of 1994 at Adelaide, Australia, Schumacher and Damon Hill collided in midrace, putting both cars out of the race and handing the German driver his first title. Some pundits insisted Schumacher acted deliberately, while others dismissed it as a racing incident.
What happened at Jerez, Spain, on Oct. 26, 1997, in the season-ending 1997 European Grand Prix, was a wholly different matter, however.
At the time, Schumacher was in his second season driving for Ferrari. The Scuderia had been in disrepair in recent years, having not produced a World Champion since Jody Scheckter in 1979, and Schuey was brought in to return the team to its former glory.
After a dodgy 1996 season, Schumacher won five races in ’97 and headed to Jerez for the final race of the season just a single point ahead of his closest rival, Canadian Jacques Villeneuve, the former CART champ and Indy 500 winner.
Villeneuve started from the pole at Jerez, but Schumacher took the lead into the first corner. On Lap 16 of the 69-lap event, Schumacher turned in the fastest lap of the race to that point and stretched his lead over Villeneuve to 5.422 seconds.
Following a round of pit stops, Villeneuve managed to put his Williams on the tail of the Ferrari, but couldn’t take the point. Schumacher then began to pull away again and had a 3.239-second margin on Lap 32.
Villeneuve dogged Schumacher for the lead before making an "optimistic" attempt at the lead.
But from that point on, Villeneuve began to gain ground, as speculation began that there might be a mechanical issue with the Ferrari.
Schumacher made his second pit stop on Lap 43, with the Canadian following suit on the next circuit.
On Lap 48, Villeneuve attempted to pass Schumacher when the German simply turned hard right, putting his right-front tire into the left sidepod of Villeneuve’s Williams.
But it was Schumacher who got the worst of it, as his Ferrari bounced off the Williams and into a gravel trap, ending his race and his title hopes. Villeneuve went on to finish third in the race and take the championship by three points.
“I was a little bit worried when I overtook Michael,” Villeneuve said. “I knew I was taking a big risk and was really surprised when he decided to turn in on me, although it was a little bit expected.”
"I knew Michael was capable of just trying to take me off and that is what he tried to do. When I made the move my chances were less than 50 per cent but there was no point finishing second. It was better to try and perhaps find myself in the gravel than finish second and have heavy shoulders,” said Villeneuve.
Concerned that his car might be damaged, Villeneuve eased up and on the last lap let the McLaren-Mercedes entries of Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard past him. “I thought my car was broken as it felt very strange,” Villeneuve said. “I could push for a few laps but had to slow down as the tires were eating up on the straight.”
The "clout" that Schumacher's delivered nearly disabled Villeneuve's car, but Schumacher ended up in the gravel trap while Villeneuve went on to take the 1997 driving championship.
Little did he know at the time how much damage he had, as it was only after the race when it became obvious that Schumacher’s wheel nearly hit one of the sensitive electronic engine control boxes mounted in the sidepod of the Williams.
“The clout from Schumacher’s Ferrari had broken the (control box) mounting tray and the retaining strap, leaving the delicate box merely dangling in the breeze, swinging on its wiring loom connector,” said Steve Matchett, who worked with Schumacher at Benetton in the mid-1990s and has been an analyst for SPEED since 1999. “Schumacher had come within one inch of taking Villeneuve’s car out of the race.”
While Villeneuve won the title, Schumacher earned a firestorm of criticism.
Michael Schumacher was "slagged" by the press after taking Jacques Villeneuve out of the European Grand Prix at Jerez in 1997.
“That incident showed how ruthless Schumacher was at that particular time,” said former racer and SPEED analyst Derek Daly. “That was one of the most disgraceful moves I think I’ve ever seen in Formula 1.
What Schumacher did to Villeneuve, his only intention was to put both cars off the road, if necessary, and therefore end up as champion, just like he did with Damon Hill (in 1994).”
Of course, not everyone saw it the same way. SPEED analyst David Hobbs, a former racer like Daly, said he thought Villeneuve’s attempt to pass Schumacher where and when he did was optimistic. Hobbs suggested that had there not been contact between the two cars, Villeneuve might well have gone off the road by himself trying to make an ill-fated pass.
“Obviously, Schumacher got slagged badly (in the press),” said Hobbs, “But Jacques Villeneuve made a bold move and if he hadn’t been run into by Schumacher, he probably wouldn’t have pulled it off. I still think it was really more of a racing accident than some maniacal, Machiavellian move by Schumacher.”
Although track stewards initially ruled the collision a “racing incident,” Formula 1’s governing body, the FIA, thought otherwise and disqualified Schumacher’s results, not merely from Jerez, but from the entire season, removing him from second in the championship.
And that’s why the 1997 European Grand Prix is No. 8 on SPEED’s Top 10 Motor Sports Moments
Edited by narain fan, 22 January 2006 - 06:49 PM.