After confirming both Villeneuve and Frentzen for next season, team manager Frank Williams invites his men not to lower their guard in view of the last two races of the season:
"History has taught us that what you least expect often happens. That's why we don't want to sing victory, even though we are in a very good position".
Villeneuve only needs to gain one point to be mathematically certain of becoming World Champion, while Williams, with its 26-point lead over Ferrari, can win a historic Constructors' Championship, the ninth in its glorious history, with a second place, regardless of what Schumacher and Irvine do. But while the founder of the eponymous team is optimistic, Jacques misses no opportunity to shed some of his team-related dissatisfaction and exclaims:
"Schumacher enjoys greater credibility, in his team they talk to him, they support him. Sometimes the opposite has happened to me, sometimes choices have been imposed on me that I didn't agree with. The work should be better organised, if the pits need a person who follows the race on television and always knows where Schumacher is and what he's doing, to keep me informed, well, there are no Christians: that person must be there and follow the race on television. You have to be smart, clever. If you want to know what the weather will be like at Monte Carlo during the Grand Prix weekend, the weather expert isn't necessarily the right person to ask; better, perhaps, a fisherman. At a certain point in the season I thought: we'll end up separating. But that was when things weren't going well".
In addition to the favourable classifications, it is the crisis of results in which the Rossa has sunk that gives hope to the English team, as well as the rediscovered competitiveness of the McLaren. At the end of the Luxembourg Grand Prix, however, Jean Todt goes on the attack:
"It has to be said, however, that McLaren and other cars are going fast because they use an electronic throttle control system that is contrary to the regulations: an interpretation that we consider unacceptable".
Ferrari is asking the FIA for clarification and wants to get to the bottom of this story, which will not have the epilogue that Maranello might have hoped for. Back in June, the FIA had already given McLaren the green light for this innovation, without, however, fully assessing what the opening of the engine throttles and the speed of rotation beyond the pedal angle might have meant. Lending credence to this theory was the fact that he decided to ban it for the 1998 season.
With these implications, Ferrari has to roll up its sleeves and get to work to introduce this technical novelty on the F310B, to reduce the technical gap between Williams and McLaren as much as possible. At Fiorano, Schumacher immediately starts working on the electronic throttle, and at the end of an intense test session he is satisfied:
"Everything proceeded without the slightest problem, we did a massive amount of work on the set-up and special adjustments on the car I will use in Suzuka. It will be tough but we don't despair, we have to have faith until the very end".
On the other hand, Jean Todt, who when questioned about his chances of winning the championship, lashed out at the journalists, saying:
"You've all got it into your heads about the world championship. I replied: calm down, let's not talk about the world championship. Another victory arrived and everyone said: Williams is finished, Ferrari has overtaken it. It wasn't true: Williams isn't finished, Ferrari doesn't have a winning car yet, let's take it easy. And so many things have happened, that Williams has recovered, that other teams have come to the top. I don't think Ferrari wanted to create illusions and feed dreams. We've been down to earth since the first win. We didn't expect it either. In January we said: we want to do better than 1996. Of course, I have no difficulty in saying this: at a certain point we too began to entertain the idea of the world championship, but we kept our feet on the ground because we knew we couldn't give the drivers a winning car. We have the best driver and we can't get him on pole, and that's the reality. We did well for one reason: the mistakes of our direct opponents, but we were able to make the most of them. It wasn't luck, because if we count up our own and other people's luck and misfortune, well, it's endless".
And on the car that will compete in 1998 he says:
"Next year's Ferrari will be ready in December but perhaps we will present it later because this time we don't want to be like in January when we discovered certain things when the car was already on the track at Jerez. It will be a Ferrari made in Maranello and we expect many things. 1998 will be tough but important for us".
The technical director of the Italian team, Ross Brawn, does not hide a veil of disappointment, admitting:
"The F310B was designed by John Barnard, so it's neither mine nor Rory Byrne's. It's a car we haven't had the chance to test. It's a car we didn't fully understand: it was difficult to set up the development programme. It's a bit of a frustrating end to the championship for us because we haven't made as much progress over the last three months as we would have liked. But we still have a strong chance of making it".
That said, Ferrari's technical director is keen to emphasise the great progress his team has made:
"Schumacher is experienced and knows how to control tension, especially when he smells a world championship. The fight with Villeneuve will be tough, but no different from how it was in other years with Hill. It is stimulating for the whole of Ferrari to be here. In Melbourne, at the debut, we were two seconds slower than Williams. Then we got closer. But after three or four races, when they realised we were a danger, they reacted strongly. But we still have a chance. We've been working on the electronic throttle mapping, and the fruits of our hard work should be seen in Japan. It will be a good fight with Williams".
In the meantime, Williams hasn't been idle and before leaving for Japan, Villeneuve has been testing on the Magny Cours circuit, experimenting with numerous new features on the FW19 for the penultimate Grand Prix of the championship: the car's wheelbase has been lengthened by five centimetres to have greater traction, move the front suspension arms forward, a novelty that had already been introduced from the Austrian Grand Prix but in a gradual manner, and new flow deviators behind the front tyres. Perhaps that is also why, in the press conference, the Canadian is highly motivated:
"Williams has always done well here and I love the track. But nine points are not enough. They favour me, yes, but I could also lose them suddenly. It's not over yet. I hope to end it now, but you never know, Michael is a great driver. A lot will depend on qualifying, if I'm in the lead I can make a race to win, but if I'm behind, I'll take measures against Schumacher, it seems obvious".
Schumacher no longer has the fate of the championship completely in his hands. Two victories in Japan and Spain might not be enough to give the German the World Championship, should Villeneuve finish second on both occasions. However, there is one statistic that may give the Ferrari driver some hope. It is an unusual and interesting statistic: since the beginning of the championship, Schumacher and Villeneuve have never finished on the same podium together.
"It will be very hard, a lot will depend on the competitiveness of the car, but I express myself in every race to the maximum of my possibilities. The commitment is total as always. I don't think I have any problems from a psychological point of view, I'll try everything".
Schumacher, flanked by Villeneuve in the press conference, said bluntly.
"We will probably lose the title, but maybe we can prolong the battle. The fact remains that we have grown compared to the past. There is still a chance, we will see if we can take advantage of it".
And on the new electronic accelerator:
"Maybe in Monte Carlo it could be worth a second a lap, but now it seems that almost everyone uses this innovation, so in any case the values are equalized. It's going to be a very interesting finish anyway".
Friday's free practice held on the historic Suzuka track, the scene of many memorable battles over the years, offered one big surprise, namely Eddie Irvine. The second Ferrari driver reminded everyone of his presence by setting the best time of the day ahead of Ralf Schumacher, Panis and Frentzen.
Eddie likes this track, it is one of his favourites, not forgetting that he made his debut here with Jordan in 1993. In that race, partly conditioned by the rain, he was the author of an excellent performance that unfortunately was overshadowed by the quarrel with Ayrton Senna in the paddock at the end of the race, culminating with a punch in the face received by the Brazilian phenomenon, who didn't like young Eddie's behaviour on the track and the impudence with which he faced him face to face without admitting his evident faults. The duellists for the title marked each other closely: Schumacher was tenth, Villeneuve eleventh.
It was the next day, during the morning session, that we witnessed the first major twist of the weekend, or to be more precise, the antecedent that served as a premise. Jos Verstappen breaks the engine of his Tyrrell, and parks on the grass at the edge of the track. The marshals waved yellow flags but Schumacher, Coulthard, Frentzen, Katayama, Herbert and above all Villeneuve did not lift their foot, contravening the rules.
Nine hours later, at around 18:00, the FIA cautioned the first five and handed Villeneuve a one-race disqualification, as he had already been given an eight-race conditional disqualification after the Canadian had been cautioned for the third time by the stewards at Monza. The other two occasions in which he had gone against the rules were in Buenos Aires and Imola.
Villeneuve defended himself by saying he had not seen the yellow flags, but then changed his version and admitted that when they were waved he was on the straight where slowing down would have been useless.
"It's the worst thing that's happened to me since I've been racing. And it's hard to accept it at this point in the championship. Six drivers out of the eight who were on the track at the time acted in the same way, so we believe there is a case for appeal. I hope it will be accepted because I am here to win the championship and I want to win it on the track".
In this regard, Schumacher expresses understanding for what happened to his opponent, stating:
"Villeneuve has all my understanding because it happened to me too to find myself in similar situations and having to pay hard for them".
Jean Todt also took note of Villeneuve's misfortune:
"On Friday we had a 10% chance of winning the world championship, now we're up to 30%. But it is not a gift. We had similar problems and they cost us dearly, now it's the turn of others. Of course, now we have an opportunity that we didn't expect and didn't want to have, so we'll try to make the most of it just as others have made the most of the opportunities we've had on other similar occasions. From the bottom of my heart, I can say that we would have preferred to compete on an equal footing, but reason dictates that regulations, whether right or wrong, hard or soft, must be respected by all".
At this point, the Williams team has no choice but to appeal to the FIA, at least to allow the Canadian driver to take part in the race sub judice, as happened to Hakkinen in Belgium, with the Finn being officially disqualified a week later, rendering in vain his efforts that led him to celebrate on the third step of the podium.
A choice that is nevertheless controversial, because in this way Villeneuve would still condition the outcome of the race. Even Irvine is in solidarity with his colleague, although he is a direct opponent for the race:
"Maybe the decision was too harsh, but let's not forget that it was the same for Michael two Grands Prix ago, and it cost him five points. Only in Austria he couldn't see the cars, while here Villeneuve ignored them twice. The truth is that we drivers sometimes have little respect for these flags, but it is also important that the FIA finally adopts a more adequate system".
Not only that, but Alain Prost is also on his side:
"It is not fair to decide a World Championship in this way. I don't see the seriousness of Villeneuve's guilt. Unlike Schumacher in Austria, he didn't take any advantage".
The same applies to Damon Hill, who speaks of an exaggerated punishment, while David Coulthard asks the Federation for clearer rules. The former Ferrari driver Patrick Tambay, who does not exonerate Villeneuve, thinks differently, declaring:
"Jacques is a friend, but this time he made a mistake".
The person directly concerned comments on the disqualification:
"It was a difficult decision to accept. It will have a negative effect on the championship, especially as we are now fighting for the title. It has been a very difficult season and this disqualification becomes the blackest moment since I have been racing. Other drivers who were on the track at the time were punished for the same behaviour as me. This gave us the reason to appeal. We are here to race, to fight: I want to win the World Championship on the track. Let's hope this appeal serves some purpose because this was a very important race, the one that might have decided the season".
In the meantime, in the early afternoon, Jacques decisively took pole position, number nine in the championship, beating Schumacher by just 62 thousandths. However, Ferrari proved to be very competitive, as Irvine maintained the same line as on Friday and gained the third position, preceding Mika Hakkinen: for Eddie it was the best qualification as a Ferrari driver.
A qualification to forget for Gianni Morbidelli from Pesaro, who crashes at a speed of 250 km/h at the Dunlop corner. Nothing serious for the Sauber driver, but he will miss the race and will not take part in the final round of the season in Jerez. With a disqualification that in all likelihood will be confirmed by the Paris Appeals Tribunal, Villeneuve decided to approach the race uniquely, in the only possible way to try to limit the damages.
A bizarre peculiarity that characterizes the pre-race is the last moment in which Schumacher and Villeneuve meet before the start of the Grand Prix, that is the public toilet of the circuit, from which Jacques comes out with his helmet on his head and his hands busy with the zip of his overalls, while Michael enters wearing the red cap on his head. The two greeted each other almost distractedly. The two contenders for the title will meet again on the track to contest the Grand Prix.
At the start, Jacques immediately closes the door to Schumacher, who does not take any risks and queues up; behind, Hakkinen gets the better of Irvine and climbs to third position. Villeneuve's objective, however, is not only to keep the first place at the start. The Canadian imposed a very slow race pace, keeping the whole group of drivers very compact, to make the task more difficult for his rival, who had to think about defending himself from the attacks of the drivers behind him rather than taking unnecessary risks by attacking his title rival.
Eddie Irvine benefited from this, who at the end of the S turns made a double overtaking move on Schumacher and Hakkinen, with the kind collaboration of Michael who seemed to slow down on purpose on the run to disturb the McLaren. A courageous and spectacular manoeuvre, however, necessary to give the Ferrari number two the push to attack Villeneuve at the end of the second lap, with an overtaking move on the outside of the last chicane before the finish line.
On the first lap launched without Villeneuve's obstruction, Irvine set the fastest lap in 1'40"9, even five seconds faster than the Williams driver, who did not go beyond 1'45"5, demonstrating that despite the overtaking, the Canadian driver did not want to change tactics; on the other hand, he was only interested in Schumacher.
Only after about ten laps the times of the first four drivers stabilized and remained equivalent to 1'40, a race pace that could not be matched by Frentzen, fifth and slightly behind Hakkinen. Irvine, however, managed to put about eleven seconds between himself and his pursuers.
The first series of pit stops is inaugurated by the two McLarens and the two Benettons, who entered the pits in succession between the fourteenth and the fifteenth lap. Curiously, Hakkinen and Coulthard set the same time of 6.9 seconds, just as Berger and Alesi both took 4.9 seconds to change tyres and refuel. A far too short time for the drivers of the Italian team, an indication of the fact that they opted for a three-stop strategy. The outrider Irvine returned on lap 17, giving the lead back to Villeneuve, who continue to travel with Schumacher clinging to his rear axle; the Northern Irishman in the meantime was momentarily in fourth position, not far from Frentzen.
One of the crucial moments of the race comes when Schumacher is called back to the pits by the Ferrari wall. The stop lasted 7.1 seconds, a more than acceptable time. But now Michael has to push hard to gain the position on Villeneuve, who is extending his stint. On lap 20, Jacques enters the pit lane and locks up the front right. Schumacher crosses the finishing line recording the fastest lap of the race, 1'39"745.
At the entrance of the first bend Williams is in front but he has not yet acquired the necessary speed to stay ahead of the Ferrari of the German driver. Villeneuve tries to close the trajectory to Schumacher as he did at the start, but the German driver is quick to change direction and jump inside. Overtaking accomplished, Villeneuve is behind. After the pit stop of the second Willams, the one driven by Frentzen, the two Ferraris set the pace, and it was only a matter of time before they exchanged positions, completing a masterful teamwork.
After twenty-one laps, the Ferraris lead the race ahead of the Williams, after which Hakkinen and Alesi complete the points zone. Jean Todt and Ross Brawn wasted no time and ordered Irvine and Schumacher to change positions. In one lap, the Northern Irish driver loses two seconds, in the next eight, then, once he has been caught up, he lets Schumacher pass him on the Ss, immediately blocking Villeneuve's way.
Schumacher is now in the lead with Irvine following him, while Villeneuve is third with a disqualification hanging over his head, and Frentzen is only fourth. With such a scenario, Williams should also postpone the celebration for the victory of the Constructors' Championship, a title that Frank Williams and Patrick Head are particularly fond of. Or rather, to which they have always given priority.
A preference that they have never tried to keep hidden, just think that on one occasion, Frank compared the drivers' championship title to the goalscorers' classification in a football league. To add more would be superfluous. But Villeneuve does not want to give up and chases Eddie Irvine, while Schumacher starts to build a reassuring gap to avoid bad surprises at the second stop.
This time, however, it was the Williams mechanics who were the first to prepare to welcome back the Canadian driver on the thirtieth of the planned fifty-three laps. However, due to a problem with the fuel filler, which slowed down the flow of fuel into the tank, the stop lasted 13.4 seconds, during which the Canadian driver shook his head in surrender. Back on the track, Villeneuve is only seventh.
At this stage, all the leading drivers returned for their respective pit stops, except for Frentzen, who tried to shake up his race with something different. The German set an excellent race pace, constantly gaining on Schumacher and Irvine, even though the problematic lapping of Diniz made him lose a couple of seconds on his return lap, the thirty-eighth. His efforts were rewarded as Frentzen returned to the track ahead of Irvine, holding second place which would make it mathematical for Williams to win the Constructors' Championship. Mission accomplished also thanks to an all too sly Irvine.
However, Frentzen had no intention of limiting himself to manage the newly gained position: Schumacher was not far away and he was only five seconds away, therefore Heinz threw himself into the pursuit of the Ferrari driver, maybe to do a favour to his teammate, taking away points from his direct rival.
As for Villeneuve, the Canadian seemed to be dazed by the events of the race. Although he climbed up to fifth position thanks to the pit stops of the others, he runs with high times, without any pretension, aware of not having completed his task of the day, which consisted in making life difficult for Schumacher to prevent him from winning the race, something that the German is about to do thanks to a gigantic team performance of Ferrari, both in strategic terms and in terms of pure performance of its drivers.
It was a final race to be spent all on the defensive for Schumacher and Irvine, as the former was put under pressure by Frentzen, the latter by Hakkinen, who smelled a podium. Frentzen's rejoining was also facilitated by Damon Hill, who took a whole lap to be lapped by Schumacher, who, once he was alongside the Arrows of his old rival, made a nervous gesture of disappointment with his hand. Three laps from the end there was only one second separating the first two, and only seven tenths between Irvine and Hakkinen.
The two Ferrari drivers defend themselves very well, without any mistake, so, at the end of the 53rd and last lap, Schumacher can celebrate under the checkered flag the fifth victory in the championship, the 27th of his career, Irvine finishes third, and Villeneuve finishes fifth, scoring two points that will never be assigned to him.
Despite the defeat on the track, Williams celebrated its ninth Constructors' Championship, thanks to Frentzen's second place, which brought the Grove-based team to 118 points. Ferrari, with its 100 points, can no longer aspire to catch up. Defeat in the team championship did not seem to be on Schumacher's mind in the press conference. The new World Championship leader, while waiting for Villeneuve's disqualification to be made official, first expresses his joy, describing this as probably the best race of his life, because he has won and because he is back in the World Championship, and then starts talking about his approach to the race:
"The plan was to mark Villeneuve closely, to overtake him. He planned to slow everyone down in the first part of the race to make life difficult for me, as he knew he wouldn't have gained any points today anyway because of the disqualification. He wanted to make me lose points and positions hoping that those behind would overtake me. Luckily it didn't work out, Eddie took his chance and took the lead, after which we adopted our strategy".
And on the close duel, crucial for his victory, the German Ferrari driver admits, with a hint of venom:
"I didn't like it when he came out of the pits and cut me off: he was going 140km/h, I was going 300km/h, it was a very dangerous manoeuvre. Luckily I was able to correct my line and get in front. I think I'll have to go and say something to him".
On a day like that, there is no shortage of honeyed words for Irvine, who has come back to the team after races of total loss:
"It's not the first time I've said it, but I'll say it again: Eddie is a great driver and a great team-mate, and today I can only thank him for his teamwork. If anyone had any doubts about him, I think they've already taken them back".
While on Villeneuve's disqualification, he declares:
"I don't see a sentence that can be different from the one that had Hakkinen as protagonist: he did the race in Belgium, then they took away the points he got. So, I consider myself one point ahead of Villeneuve".
Speaking of Ferrari, Michael admits:
"My future is in the hands of Ferrari. We are finally working in one direction, the same for everyone. An example? A team game like ours today, a fantastic thing, it had been years since we had seen something similar on an F1 circuit. The car is going very well, it's at Williams' level".
Finally a look at the last race of the year, the decisive one:
"I have a great memory of Jerez, I won in 1994 with Benetton, beating Williams thanks to an apt race strategy. It is a similar track to Suzuka, so I don't see any reason why our car shouldn't do well. Besides, we still have something to try that could help us".
In a different mood is the day's big loser, Jacques Villeneuve:
"My Williams was going very well and at the start I took off without the usual problems. The long training to which I dedicated myself is starting to give results. Does someone say that my pace wasn't overwhelming? Maybe so, but I aimed to set the race all on Schumacher. And I kept up with him without any problems. On the other hand, it doesn't seem to me that, after Irvine's double overtaking, other drivers managed to overtake Michael. When I stopped for the first refuelling, I came out of the pit lane with a small advantage over Schumacher, but he still managed to pass me thanks to his momentum. And now I have to admit that right there we lost our battle. From that moment on, Ferrari's teamwork kicked in and night fell for me. On the other hand, when you have a driver like Irvine throwing away the chance of his first career victory to favour his team-mate, there is little you can do. Yes, it was a bit of an unpleasant conclusion to accept, but that's the way it went. I can't ask Frentzen to do what Irvine does for Schumacher. Eddie is ready for anything, and we saw that today. I say it as a driver, I say it as a man: it's incredible how someone can give up his first career victory like that. Unbelievable".
Frank Williams, on the other hand, seems to think differently about Jacques:
"I feel sorry for Jacques today, but Irvine's play on Villeneuve is normal race strategy. And also Jacques did something to Schumacher at the start".
Villeneuve then continued his analysis of the Grand Prix, stating:
"When you race knowing that you can be disqualified the following week, well, it's not easy for you to stay calm. And I feel I was beaten by Saturday's episode because if I had been free to race as I wanted I would have fought with Irvine, he would not have passed me so easily. I would have stayed in front. But that's not why I was going to knock Schumacher off the track. It was an accident, I don't do things like that. Of course, I hope the disqualification will be lifted, because if I finish one point behind him at Jerez, then it's easy for him to throw me off".
In conclusion, talking about Ferrari, the Canadian driver throws a dig at them:
"Ferrari has made progress, yes. They say it depends on the front wing, which is very soft, it bends a lot. It seems to work, that's why they're doing so well. But for me, this sudden growth is surprising, to say the least".
A factor that is also underlined by Patrick Head, co-owner of Williams:
"Ferrari's progress is interesting. And sudden. How can I explain it? In a very simple way, but one that I can't say in public".
And speaking of the disqualification imposed on Jacques Villeneuve, Williams' technical director says:
"When you are one point ahead at the last race you can afford to act deliberately, Hill remembers well. This is why we hope that the disqualification on Villeneuve will not be confirmed".
And in conclusion, still talking about the Canadian driver:
"I didn't understand what Jacques did after the start when he was going slowly. We had studied another tactic, but then he did his own thing".
Eddie Irvine is not very satisfied, because he missed an incredible opportunity to win his first Grand Prix in Formula One, but the Northern Irish driver does not despair, on the contrary:
"Villeneuve was blocking Michael. So I took off, passed Michael and then Jacques and ran away. Then the phone call came from the pits, that's how it ended. I was waiting for it because we had agreed that after Michael's stop they would have warned me, I would have slowed down and let him pass and then blocked Villeneuve. I am very sorry not to have won. But the world championship is at stake, they call it teamwork and that's exactly what it is: one of the two drivers sacrifices himself for the other one".
Maybe, after all, as Jean Todt says:
"Morally, he won the Grand Prix".
And if Schumacher already has his mind on Jerez, Villeneuve must instead think about the appeal scheduled for 21 October:
"In Paris I will say that all the other drivers with me on the track at that moment considered to behave in the same way, to slow down but not too much, as the more prudent approach to the situation that was created at that moment along the track also advised. I too lifted my foot off the accelerator, as they said and I know others did. But nothing more".
Subsequently, Max Mosley, who does not want to risk for anything in the world an early closure of the games, from Munich warns Williams inviting it to withdraw the appeal - which is expected on Tuesday 21 October from the FIA tribunal composed by three magistrates of different nationality from Villeneuve and Williams - to avoid the hypothesis of a disqualification of the Canadian driver also for the European Grand Prix:
"Villeneuve risks not only losing the two points he won in Japan but also being suspended from the Jerez race. I can imagine, instead, that if Williams withdraws the appeal, everything will be reduced to the loss of the points of Suzuka".
Mosley's statements are, however, radically revised in a statement released in the evening by the FIA itself:
"What Mosley said at the Sports Congress in Monaco was aimed at explaining that the FIA's International Court of Appeal is an independent body. It is not possible to predict the outcome of the Williams appeal. This court is made up of jurists from the major motorsport bodies who have no connection with motorsport".
In Maranello, the news of the FIA president's threat to Williams arrived mid-afternoon on October 15, 1997. Schumacher had just broken an engine, bringing down the curtain on his first day of testing at Fiorano, but no one despaired, because if Villeneuve could not run at Jerez, Ferrari had already won the world championship. Jean Todt asserts:
"It would be nice, but it is useless to make certain speeches before a judgement has been made. It would be unfair to the court. It's not our business and I prefer not to comment on it at the moment. There is a regulation, the same for everyone. It cost us dearly in Austria. In addition, Michael was also punished in Japan, he had a race suspended with probation, which means increasing the pressure at Jerez, because he will not be able to make mistakes. He is also at risk in the immediate future. We have faith in the Federation and we are waiting with serenity for the decision of Paris".
The Ferrari team principal adds:
"Rather I would have expected a punishment also for Hill, who at Suzuka first obstructed Schumacher in the lapping phase, making him lose at least three seconds, and then, when Frentzen arrived, he immediately got out of the way. However, there's no point in arguing. I'd rather talk about Ferrari. Head fears that Schumacher will throw Villeneuve out? He can say what he wants. And the same goes for Frank Williams. If they think they can condition us, make our heads spin, they're wasting their time. My task is easier now than after Monza, Zeltweg and Nurburgring. At that time we were demoralised, even though we never gave up, for having dissipated a huge lead in three races. Now we are puffed up, even if our feet remain on the ground".
On the two title contenders he says:
"Schumacher doesn't need advice, he's confident, he's already won two world titles. Before Suzuka he was tense, now I have seen him calm, in splendid form. Villeneuve is very strong in the head, he has already won world championships, in karts, in Formula Indy. At Suzuka he didn't go crazy in the last laps, he just tried to play his game. And he didn't succeed".
Schumacher's day of testing ends with a game of football with the mechanics, before having dinner in a restaurant near the circuit, surrounded by people, demonstrating that he really likes ricotta tortelloni with butter and sage. Only one day passes.
On October 16, 1997, Williams asked the FIA's appeal tribunal to desist from its appeal lodged on Saturday 11 October at Suzuka. The FIA did not object and the appeal tribunal judges granted the request. There will no longer be a trial scheduled for next Tuesday as this is the end of the matter.
The choice of the English team is justified by the fact that, besides having no new elements to present in favour of its driver, going to court would have risked a further disqualification of Villeneuve, with the risk of not taking part in the final race.
Consequently, it was better to resign oneself to handing the championship lead back to Schumacher, 78 points for the Ferrari driver against Villeneuve's 77, but with the possibility of taking it back in a fortnight.
Frank Williams has no choice but to take note of this situation and act accordingly:
"After reviewing the cards we have decided to take this step as it is the only one that gives us the certainty of racing in Jerez".
Schumacher is still on track at Fiorano, testing the car on the circuit purposely wetted by eleven tankers and 120.000 litres of water, the simulated rain is used to verify the functionality of the set-ups, of the hydraulic differential, and the advantages that the three-dimensional accelerator can bring on the wet track, making a total of eighty-four laps, of which twenty-seven with a wet track, when in a few minutes everybody already knows that the appeal has been withdrawn and that Villeneuve is therefore back in the classification:
"We take note of the Williams decision and respect it as such. It's something that concerned them and they had the power to behave as they saw fit. It certainly wasn't in Ferrari's interest to win the title on the table. We prefer to win it on the track".
Says Jean Todt, while Schumacher is warned of the news by his press agent, Buchinger:
"I didn't want to be number one because of Villeneuve's disqualification, I wouldn't have liked Jacques not being able to take part in the Jerez race and the FIA, if they had disqualified him, would have done a stupid thing. I love to excel on the track and that's where I want to compete". I already knew after Suzuka that I was ahead of Villeneuve in the standings, so the news did not surprise me, I was expecting it".
After the withdrawal of the appeal, Jacques Villeneuve admits he fears that Schumacher may seek contact on the track to win the world championship. But the German driver dismisses such an idea:
"It's something that doesn't exist and I would have said it even if the roles were reversed if it was him who had an extra point. A driver cannot have such fears. It will be an exciting but fair challenge, where Saturday, qualifying, is fundamental. You have to start in front, so you can manage the situation better".
On the contrary, Irvine's comment is lapidary and he doesn't hesitate to throw venom towards Villeneuve:
"He does not deserve to win the world championship, he has made too many mistakes. I will help Schumacher with all the legal means at my disposal. I won't throw Villeneuve out, but as soon as I can, I will try to put my car in his way".
For his part, Jacques Villeneuve broke the silence he had imposed on himself in the previous days, and to the journalists who met him in Paris on 17 October, he showed himself to be combative and very motivated:
"Now it is at least all clear, I lost those two points but I can go on track in Jerez and I have a great desire to fight. Schumacher and I will meet there with no questions asked and no doubts. The fate is now in our hands, the match is all open and as far as I'm concerned I know very well that I have to attack and stay ahead of him until the finish line of this last race".
A wait of another two weeks to get to October 26th, 1997, when the exciting battle between Michael Schumacher and Jacques Villeneuve came to an end. With only one winner.
Davide Scotto di Vetta