The 1997 is a year that effectively closes an era for Williams: at the end of the season, in fact, after nine years of partnership, the English team will stop using the very powerful Renault engine, which the manufacturer had supplied since 1989. The imperative therefore it is to close with a flourish by taking home the drivers 'and constructors' titles again after the triumphant 1996 season, which brought both titles with the standard bearers Damon Hill and Jaques Villeneuve.
Exactly as it had already happened in 1992 and 1993, after the title victory in Williams the reigning champion greets the team: Damon Hill's financial demands are too many towards Frank Williams, who prefers to bet everything on the talent of his son of art Canadian. The son of Gilles Villeneuve, in fact, although beaten by his team-mate, had already shown great competitiveness in the year preceding his overall debut, competing for the title against the much more experienced teammate until the last race.
The German Heinz-Harald Frentzen is hired instead of the British, after two years of apprenticeship at Sauber. Hill switches instead to Arrows-Yamaha, alongside the Brazilian Pedro Diniz.
The 1997 is not a year of major regulatory changes from a technical point of view, and even less from a sporting point of view. The main technical innovation is the introduction of the black box: it was an electronic data recording device (already widely used in the aeronautical field) which aims to facilitate investigations after an accident. The data collected are in fact preserved in this device to be analyzed, and to trace the exact causes and dynamics of each accident. This is one of the many measures that the Federation is putting on single-seaters every year to improve the safety of Formula 1 cars more and more.
The new tire provisions make thirty-six sets of dry tires and twenty-eight wet sets available for the entire weekend. Of these, then, it is the riders who choose the tires with wet specifications for the qualifying, warm-up and race sessions.
The Federation also requires a further strengthening of the body, which must be able to absorb side impacts even better without suffering dangerous damage near the passenger compartment. Finally, any type of angular surface near the front wheels is eliminated on the front wing, since with even minimal damage they could lead to dangerous punctures for themselves and for the opposing cars.
As anticipated, it is the last year of the Williams-Renault duo, so a car not to be missed so as not to miss out on the opportunity to win the title again. The dominant Williams FW18 therefore represents the rationale on which to build that of 1997, the year in which there are no important changes in the technical regulation. The Williams FW19 is unveiled to the press in Grove on January 31, 1997.
This year the designers are Patrick Head and Adrian Newey, with the latter who, having completed the FW19 project, leaves the team already in the current year to join McLaren-Mercedes at Ron Dennis’s court.
The main changes compared to the previous car once again concern aerodynamics: the most evident is the detachment of the car's upper air intake, which this time has a slight hollow between it and the headrest. The mirrors, for aerodynamic function, are lowered until they are almost fixed directly on the frame. Finally, the two upper cascade (cascade flaps) present on the FW18 are eliminated, which had the function of better channeling the flows on the terminal part of the car just before the rear wing, making the rear end more exhausted overall.
The car is fitted with a 3000 cm³ Renault RS9, 71° V10 engine, which produces a maximum power of 750 horsepower, supervised by the French engineer Jean-Jacques His. The Williams/Komatsu gearbox is six-speed sequential semi-automatic plus reverse, and the car is fitted with Goodyear tires.
The Williams-Renault, the last scratch of a winning combination
Before the start of the season, Williams presents themselves as the absolute favorite, and it is difficult to identify a direct opponent team. This will turn out to be Ferrari, which thanks to the major renewal of the previous year, with the arrival of the two times world champion Michael Schumacher, made the most of the transition year 1996, to finally present itself with the credentials to play for the title. world as it hasn't happened since 1990.
In the debut race in Australia, Williams placed in the front row with Villeneuve ahead of Frentzen, but at the start the Canadian was involved in a carom triggered by Eddie Irvine's Ferrari, which forced him to retire. The race was won by David Coulthard's McLaren in front of Schumacher, but the episode immediately caused the climate between the two title challengers to become hot, with Jacques who from now on will never spare his red rival digs.
In Brazil the pole still goes to Villeneuve, but this time the Canadian made no mistake and took home the victory, relaunching himself for the title. The same scenario occurs in the Argentine Grand Prix, where Schumacher is involved in an accident with Barrichello on the first lap, retiring. After three races Villeneuve is leading with twenty points, with Schumacher chasing away to eight points. In between, the excellent drivers McLaren Hakkinen and Coulthard with ten points each.
Another victory for Williams arrives in the San Marino Grand Prix, but this time with the German Frentzen, who rules Schumacher to the finish while protecting his teammate's leadership in the championship. Villeneuve retires due to reliability problems. The ranking now sees Villeneuve in the lead with twenty points, and Schumacher following with fourteen.
The Monaco Grand Prix is to be forgotten for the British team: the variable rain conditions on the track reward the teams that chose the intermediates, while the two Williams with dry tires both closed the race against the principality's barriers. Schumacher's victory and the consequent ten to zero brings the German for the first time to the top of the championship with twenty-four points against only twenty of the Canadian.
The redemption comes instead in Spain, with Villeneuve's third success taking back the lead of the world championship. Schumacher is only fourth. Jacques' advantage over Michael is increased to three points.
The home Grand Prix is bitter and reserves another retirement due to an accident for Jacques Villeneuve, while Schumacher wins starting from pole position. Again, the German repeats himself at Magny-Course in the French Grand Prix, with Villeneuve fourth. Now Schumacher, for the first time, has a substantial advantage of forty-seven to thirty-three over the Williams bishop.
The British Grand Prix calls everything into question: Villeneuve wins starting from pole, while Schumacher retires due to a broken bearing. Forty-seven to forty-three, a head-to-head that shows no sign of taking a precise direction.
Gerhard Berger's Benetton dominates the German Grand Prix, where Villeneuve's fifth retirement of the season arrives and Williams's second double retirement of the season, while Schumacher collects six precious points with second place, bringing his points advantage in the championship.
The alternation of the two in their respective high notes is exciting: Villeneuve's victory in Hungary, with Schumacher fourth; Schumacher's victory in Belgium, with Villeneuve fifth. Only in Monza, for the fourth time in the season, is the victory left to another driver: David Coulthard on McLaren. The two challengers collect fifth and sixth place and the classification, four races to go, says Schumacher sixty-seven and Villeneuve fifty-seven.
The Canadian gives the decisive break: two consecutive victories in Austria and at the Nurburgring, in the Grand Prix of Luxembourg, while the German collects only a sixth place and a retirement in the Eifel woods. The leap in the standings is remarkable, and Villeneuve now leads by seventy-seven to sixty-eight.
In the Japanese Grand Prix, Gilles' son might just need to finish ahead of Schumacher, provided he is in the points, to secure the title. Instead, Villeneuve gets into trouble during free practice on Saturday morning, as he does not slow down under the yellow flag and, being the third offense of the year, is disqualified. The fifth place obtained on Sunday is therefore useless, while Schumacher wins his fifth race of the season and takes the lead by one point in the world championship: seventy-eight to seventy-seven. However, Suzuka brings a gift to Williams: thanks to the second place of Frentzen, in fact, the English team is confirmed as World Constructors Champion for the ninth time in its history.
For the world championship, the calculations to be made before the European Grand Prix in Jerez de la Frontera are very simple: who comes ahead wins the title, but Schumacher should earn at least two points in order not to be beaten for the least number of wins.
What happens in qualifying is incredible: not two, but three drivers get the exact same time: Villeneuve, Schumacher and Frenztzen stop the clock, in that order, in 1'21 "072. The pole goes to the Canadian because he is the first to get it, and the race promises to be hot.
At the start, the Canadian driver is uncertain, and the two Germans parade it. For a good part of the race between Villeneuve and Schumacher it is a continuous elastic, with the Ferrari driver who, however, seems to have less pace. At the forty-seventh lap the crime: at the Dry Sac Villeneuve bend Schumacher slips who rams the Canadian, irremediably silting up the escape route. The impact slightly damages Villeneuve, who on the last lap, without taking any risks, lets the two McLarens of Hakkinen and Coulthard slip by, winning third place and his first and only Drivers' World Championship.
The Williams FW19 closes the season with eight wins (seven from Villeneuve, one from Frentzen), eleven pole positions (ten from Villeneuve, one from Frentzen), nine fastest laps and both drivers 'and constructors' titles, finishing in the best possible way it was registered Williams-Renault.