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#614 1997 European Grand Prix

2021-04-10 01:00

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#1997,

#614 1997 European Grand Prix

Un’ultima battaglia. Soltanto un’altra, ultima e appassionante battaglia e poi la Formula 1 incoronerà il Campione del Mondo del 1997. E sarà uno tra

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One last battle. Just one more, last and exciting battle and then Formula 1 will crown the 1997 World Champion. And it will be one between Michael Schumacher and Jacques Villeneuve, separated by only one point in the standings in favour of the Ferrari driver, who, however, counts five seasonal victories against the Quebec driver's seven; a figure that would allow the latter to win the World Championship in the event of a tie.

 

"I have a great desire to fight to the end. From this moment on, my destiny is in my hands. I'm going to start again, as if it was the first round of the championship, practically on a level playing field. I will have to attack and try to stay ahead of Schumacher. The match is open".

 

Jacques declared during the week-long break that separates the circus from the last race scheduled at the Jerez circuit, for the European Grand Prix.

 

The Formula Indy champion can count on the maximum support of Renault, supplier of engines to Williams who wants to leave Formula 1 in style. Bernand Dudot, responsible for engine design, says that Renault will make the maximum effort to offer Villeneuve the RS9B super engines for Jerez, to be able to use them in the race.

 

After two seasons in which the World Champion closed the accounts before the last race, the many fans from all over the world can once again witness a grand finale during which two drivers will compete until the very end for the championship crown. Recent precedents in similar circumstances, however, do not bode well for a final without controversy.

 

In 1994, on the Adelaide circuit for the final Grand Prix of the championship in Australia, Michael crashed, and at the next corner, to defend himself from the overtaking attempt of his direct rival for the title, he closed the trajectory abruptly, resulting in an inevitable contact, which led to the retirement of both drivers. Schumacher won the World Championship and justified himself by stating that his manoeuvre was caused by problems with his Benetton after he went into the wall.

 

Three battles fought point by point (recalling also the inflamed battles between Senna and Prost), three accidents. It was because of this disturbing trend that Bernie Ecclestone warned the two protagonists before they even took to the track:

 

"We will not tolerate voluntary misbehaviour on the track. The stewards will be very strict, we want a clean game to end a championship that has been one of the most spectacular in recent years. I don't care who wins the championship because both Villeneuve and Schumacher are worthy of it. They both had to deal with bad luck: Jacques lost two points for the yellow flag at Suzuka, Michael was penalised by ten seconds in Austria, and the next race he finished out of the race at the hands of his brother Ralf. I was afraid Villeneuve would close the deal by graduating as champion at Monza, taking the significance out of the last four Grands Prix. Now the perfect conclusion would be if they both started up front at Jerez, duelling fairly all the way to the finish".

 

In conclusion, though, the FOCA President is slightly unbalanced on what can be considered his preference:

 

"In the end there will have to be a World Champion and that's it. But I talked to a lot of people and asked: who would you like to see as World Champion? The answer was just one: Ferrari and Schumacher. I don't think it's an offence to either Williams or Villeneuve if Ferrari and Schumacher have a higher profile than they do. Williams has been World Champion a lot of times, but it's not a team that does a lot of promotion, unlike Ferrari, which hasn't won for eighteen years and a title from them would be welcome news for everyone".

 

The other big boss, Max Mosley, also hopes not to have to witness incidents like those of the past, and via the BBC radio channel states:

 

"This time we will explain well and to everyone that we want a fair and correct competition. Before the race we will tell the drivers that we don't want interference from anyone. It's not just Schumacher and Villeneuve, any driver could be involved. There are friends and anyone, in theory, who could try to interfere in the championship. That's what we want to avoid. We can take points off, disqualify or suspend, you're spoilt for choice".

 

Threatening the FIA President, who then announced some important news regarding the regulations:

 

"We have started a thorough study for changes to the sporting regulations to make them fairer. From next year, those who commit offences during practice will be penalised by a deduction of positions on the grid, while punishments during the race will be imposed immediately to avoid the possibility of appeals".

 

And on the withdrawal of the appeal by Williams regarding Villeneuve's disqualification at Suzuka he states:

 

"The Appeals Tribunal is composed of real judges, Villeneuve's disqualification was a concrete hypothesis. My concern was that the judges, with a tough decision, would deny him his chances. It would have been bad not to let him race at Jerez. The championship, instead of being decided on the track as it should be, would have been decided on the table. This won't happen: it will be the best championship finish we could have hoped for".

 

Some little inevitable sparks, however, are already there, and it is logically between the two teams supporting the duellists. The FIA, a few days before we arrive in Spain, flatly denies the news published in French newspapers regarding a letter sent by the Federation to Ferrari, regarding a front wing that was too flexible brought by the men from Maranello to Suzuka; a letter that suggested avoiding fitting it to the F310B at Jerez. Ferrari also denied the news, claiming that nothing had been delivered to Maranello. However, something has undoubtedly happened, given that the FIA cannot deny at the same time another letter, sent by Williams to Paris, through which the English team asks for clarification on the aileron, questioning its actual legality.

 

The Federation did not change its modus operandi and, as it had already done with the electronic accelerator, accepted the use of the aerodynamic appendage in question until the end of the year, only to make it illegal from 1998, since the new regulations would establish a degree of rigidity for certain parts of the single-seater that had to be respected.

 

In the meantime Schumacher allowed himself a few days' rest, spending his time between his home in Switzerland and his home town, Kerpen, where he paid a courtesy visit to the kart track where he took his first steps as a driver.

 

From Germany, precisely from the pages of the newspaper Der Spiegel, come worrying declarations from Schumacher, who on the eve of the decisive Grand Prix declares:

 

"If I don't win the championship this year, and if the Williams team manages to build the best car next year too, then I have already thought about the consequences: if I were responsible, then Ferrari would have to draw the consequences. But if no progress is made in the development of the car, then I would be the one who would have to look for another job. The car will have to be competitive and designed according to my needs. I was shocked by the simply antiquated state of affairs I found when I arrived. It was precisely my engagement that enabled Jean Todt to create new and efficient structures. Disorder is not part of my baggage and habits: I am a perfectionist, like Ayrton Senna or Alain Prost".

 

Ferrari's reaction was immediate and dry, with the following press release:

 

"One can only say that Schumacher's thoughts have been misinterpreted, if not mistranslated".

 

While Ferrari president Luca Cordero di Montezemolo underlines:

 

"We will certainly have some regret for not having won a world championship that at a certain point in the season had looked good for us. But we will also have a lot of serenity and, above all, the awareness of having had an excellent season, well above expectations. After so many years of work we have finally got on the right track and we are sure we can fight for the title next year. All this gives us confidence and serenity, and Sunday night's dinner will be the serene celebration of people who know they have worked hard and well".

 

Finally, he adds a sceptical comment on Schumacher's interview:

 

"It seems strange to me that Michael would say such things: he is always very correct in his behaviour".

 

Having ruled out the possibility that Schumacher might emigrate to the United States, as so many Formula 1 drivers have done ('It's too dangerous, the risks are too great; on those oval tracks and with the speeds they reach, there are no cars that are safe enough'), on 21 October the front page of the USA Today newspaper also ruled out the possibility that the German might leave Ferrari earlier than expected, given that Antonio Ghini, Ferrari's press office chief, declared:

 

"We must not give weight to the German press who have raised the possibility of a divorce between Michael and Ferrari at the end of this season if the world title is not won. Michael has a contract with us until the end of 1999 and he is happy with that.

 

The resounding declarations published by Der Spiegel are finally dampened by Schumacher himself, who arrives in reinforcement with a new authentic and official statement through an interview given to the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag:

 

"Why should I leave Ferrari? However things may end up, it is certain that this world championship has gone beyond our expectations. I am convinced that we will be as competitive at Jerez as we were at Suzuka".

 

Winning at all costs to shake off his father's cumbersome shadow, as well as to give a strong demonstration to those who attribute the major merits of the successes obtained only to his Williams, and much less to his talent.

 

How to do this? Simple, by beating the man who is considered by all to be the strongest on the grid. An arduous task that of Jacques Villeneuve, who, for example, does not have one of his greatest admirers in Niki Lauda. The Austrian sees Schumacher as the undisputed favourite for the final victory:

 

"Ferrari and Schumacher have all the cards to win, as they showed in Japan. Finally, thanks to some changes, the car is back to being as competitive as it was in the middle of the season. And with a top car Michael cannot be afraid of Villeneuve, who together with his team often makes mistakes. I'm not saying it will be easy, but I would bet on Michael. The only real unknown is inherent in the characteristics of our sport because anything can happen, even at the last kilometre. A car that spits oil on the track and there's a disaster. But even in this extreme case I am convinced that Schumacher would be better than his opponent".

 

Meanwhile, through an interview given to a German weekly, Villeneuve expresses his concern, not excluding that the duel of the last Grand Prix could be decided by an accident on the track, since:

 

"Already once Schumacher decided a world championship with an accident, but for me Eddie Irvine is much more dangerous. He doesn't have a career to play. Eddie only plays one role: he's Michael's puppet".

 

But from Maranello they preferred not to give weight to Villeneuve's declarations. In the city the preparations for the setting up of the maxi television screen that was installed in Piazza della Libertà were in full swing. However, there are only a few seats available, about a thousand, half of which are covered, but enough to induce the Municipality to implement a special traffic plan that envisages the pedestrianisation of the city centre.

 

On the other hand, Eddie Irvine's reply to the Canadian driver is not lacking. At the Roma Motor Show, besieged by requests for autographs from Ferrari fans, he declares:

 

"I have to respect my contract, in which it is written that I have to do everything the team asks me to do. If that means being Michael's little slave, that's fine, I'm fine with that. Only the international press wants the accident, but the bumper car doesn't exist".

 

And speaking of alleged car irregularities, Eddie replies:

 

"Tricks? There are none that I know of. No secret news either. We have what everyone else has. The car improved a lot before Suzuka, but there won't be anything new in Spain, so I'm sure we'll be very competitive".

 

The fight for the title risked making Gerhard Berger's farewell to racing go under the radar, which arrived punctually on 17 October 1997:

 

"I feel tired, exhausted, I want to quit sport for a while and dedicate myself to my family. Mine is an abandonment that might not even be definitive. If you look at the examples of Mansell, Lauda and Prost, you realise that it is not easy to leave. Maybe I will race again in the future, but only if they make me an interesting offer. I would have liked to give up this Grand Prix at Jerez as well, but I have contracts to fulfil and I also have a pride that pushes me to give my best. Never being able to win the world title is something I regret a lot, but everything has changed in this sport. Once upon a time you raced with more fun, you didn't take things as seriously as they do today, we had a lot of beautiful girls around us and we drivers would talk to each other, hang out with each other, even organise holidays together. Today all this no longer exists".

 

At Jerez the Spanish public did not respond with the enthusiasm that was expected. The numbers speak of a maximum of seventy thousand spectators expected for the weekend. A rather disappointing figure, if we consider that the MotoGP race at the beginning of the year had sold over a hundred thousand tickets, or that Formula 1 itself has recorded much higher numbers in countries where motor racing has probably made more inroads into the hearts of the population.

 

In Spain, Ferrari brings nine trucks against Williams' four, which arrive from Maranello in fifty-three hours, escorted by cars of fans, ninety people, that is, the entire racing team and the entire test team, not counting guests and VIPs, and four cars, three of the new type and one of the old type as an escort, as well as twelve engines.

 

So all the technical innovations have been studied over the last five months, including the Step 2 engine, the lightweight chassis, the new flexible wing, the new electronics with the active differential that on a twisty track like Jerez should give the cars all the traction they need.

 

In Jerez, Schumacher presents himself with an unusual outfit: a black T-shirt with Nike written on it and no cap, which does not make Ferrari happy. But the German driver justified himself by saying that he had arrived late with his plane and had not had time to change, before giving his opinion to the press on the eve of the decisive race:

 

"It's not the first time I've experienced this situation. I'm used to it, I know what it means. This is a match like all the others, of course there is more pressure but it doesn't affect me. Let's say it's a special week, but I've experienced this atmosphere before. Having already won two titles gives me a lot of extra motivation. And here I want to win the race and win the title and I think I can do it, I have a lot of confidence. If [Villeneuve] is referring to the incident with Hill in the '94 Australian Grand Prix, then I don't feel guilty about that episode at all. I hope something like that doesn't happen here which would be to my detriment. I hope to have a fair and correct meeting with Villeneuve on the track, just the two of us without interference, without problems at the first corner. Jerez is a circuit not very suitable for the Ferrari that came here in January but not for the Ferrari of now that has made immense progress. I won here three years ago but then there was no more racing at Jerez so things are the same for everyone".

 

Jacques Villeneuve, on the other hand, continues to fear being excluded from the fight following contact:

 

"Anything can happen here, it is useless to pretend nothing happened. But I don't even want to think about it, because in the end the truth never comes out. If it ends up in a fight, all I have to do is lose. I could have got Schumacher out at Suzuka, I could have used him there. Not now, now it wouldn't do me any good to get into a pile-up or an accident. I have to finish at the end and ahead of Schumacher, I don't need any more results. Of course, he knows how to win a world championship, he has more experience than me. But, in certain cases, pressure helps. In three days you play it all, practice and then the two-hour race. You have to give everything, but after that it's over, and it may have ended well. I like the idea, I feel ready".

 

Everything is ready for the final challenge. A battle that Max Mosley is looking forward to. Interviewed by journalists after he had been heavily criticised in the preceding days for his decision to disqualify Villeneuve from the Japanese Grand Prix, thus reopening the championship challenge, the FIA president replied to the question whether it is true that the Formula 1 business would be better served by a Ferrari victory:

 

"Not so much. Of course, Ferrari has a name that sounds good everywhere, but a Villeneuve success could open up the North American market to us, a possibility to which not even Ferrari would be insensitive".

 

On Thursday evening Ferrari's main sponsor organised a big guest dinner at which both Schumacher and Irvine were present, albeit briefly.

 

Michael, in particular, at the dinner at the Gaitan restaurant in Jerez, in the company of his manager Willi Weber, his wife Corinna and little Gina Maria, who at the tender age of eight months, as soon as she starts to cry forces the couple to jump up, grab the pram and run away, exclaiming:

 

"Willi, you take care of the bill".

 

And Willi Weber thought about it:

 

"It's becoming a habit: halfway through dinner Gina starts crying and they have to take her home, leaving me alone at the table".

 

On Friday October 24th, it was time to take to the track for the first two free practice sessions. Olivier Panis sets the best time of the day, ahead of Damon Hill, showing that the Bridgestone tyres have good confidence with this asphalt.

 

Villeneuve is third, Schumacher ninth. They were separated by six tenths of a second, which was more than fictitious given the sessions spent finding the right set-up. In fact, at the end of the day, despite his ninth place, Schumacher - who claims to have worked exclusively on the race pace and to be satisfied with the car, which is stable and has excellent traction - appears more serene than Villeneuve, who is the victim of a slight excursion caused by a heavy blockage during braking. At the end of the session Jacques returned to the track with a new set of tyres, thanks to which he climbed to third position in the total time count. Afterwards, his nose stuffed up with a cold, he summed up the day:

 

"There was no hundred-metre signal, I didn't have a precise reference point, nothing serious. On the contrary, this day went further than expected. On Fridays I usually don't do anything special, but this third time is what was needed to give me confidence, to boost me up. My car already seems to work well. Even after going off the track with the tyres buried it was still going well. There were just a few vibrations, minor set-up problems that we will easily solve".

 

"Also here, as in Suzuka, the tyres degrade quickly, they only hold well for one lap. In the slow corners the grip of the rear tyres leaves something to be desired, a bit like what happened a fortnight ago in Japan. But as I said, these are small problems. In any case, we will give up the latest version of the RS9B engine for the race; right now we can't risk reliability".

 

Finally, the Canadian driver says he doesn't trust his opponent's performance too much:

 

"It is always difficult to understand what Michael thinks and does. He's a man who doesn't put his cards on the table".

 

On the other front, Jean Todt conveys confidence:

 

"The objective is double. We have to prepare for a good qualifying, but we cannot forget the race. Today we worked on Sunday, testing all the equipment we have at our disposal: the active differential, which is fitted to all our cars, and the electronic accelerator with its three-dimensional mapping. Obviously it will be decisive to start on the front row, or in any case ahead of Villeneuve".

 

A bit like Suzuka, the Saturday morning free practice session offers interesting topics from which to draw various insights for the newspapers. Once again Villeneuve is the centre of attention, but not because of an offence committed by him.

 

While he was on a fast lap, from turn 9, named after Angel Nieto, to turn 11, the Senna chicane, Villeneuve was blocked by Eddie Irvine's Ferrari, which was slow to step aside, forcing him to abort the lap.

 

Jacques doesn't like it and Irvine doesn't like him at all. As soon as he gets back to the pits, he gets out of the car, throws away his helmet and gloves and goes furiously to the Ferrari pit, where Irvine is still inside the cockpit waiting for the mechanics to position the car inside the pit. Jacques rails at the Northern Irishman, shouting at him:

 

"You're a fucking idiot".

 

Only the intervention of a mechanic prevents him from going beyond words. Once he has regained some of his clarity, the Williams driver turns around and goes back to his mechanics.

 

"This is the fourth time in two days that Irvine has waited for me, always in the same place. He slows down, gets in my way, then accelerates again. It's clear he's doing it on purpose. Irvine is moronic enough to do what he did in practice in the race. It's just a question of how far he wants to go. He is a fool, a clown, a puppet. He's dangerous because he doesn't think like other drivers, you never know what he's going to do. Michael has said in recent days that he wants a clean race. Let's hope he really wants it".

 

Villeneuve snarls, also backed by his boss, Patrick Head, who states:

 

"Jacques was completing a fast lap, Irvine blocked him".

 

Irvine, who could give lessons on how not to blink in the face of this kind of attack, as expected rejects the accusations and almost mocks Villeneuve:

 

"I saw him on top of me like an obsessive, he said something like f***ing idiot. But what does he want? Do I have to throw myself off the track to let him pass? Would this be the fourth time I have obstructed him? He can't even count. I was on the line with a full tank, he was running lighter and therefore faster. It was his turn to overtake me, I shouldn't have been the one to step back".

 

Schumacher concludes:

 

"Eddie says he's been having problems with Jacques all year. And Jacques' reaction shows that he feels the pressure more than I do".

 

It was already clear that this was going to be a thrilling race weekend, so much so that a film script could be written about it, but in qualifying there was further confirmation: 1'21"072 is Villeneuve's angry reaction, who puts himself in front of everyone with his first run of fast laps; 1'21"072 is the time recorded shortly afterwards by Schumacher, who not only places himself next to his rival but also equals his time to the thousandth; 1'21"072 is also the fastest lap of Heinz-Harald Frentzen because in a similar scenario the third wheel who can mess up the cards cannot be missing.

 

At his last attempt, Jacques set another great time, but it was 45 thousandths slower. In fourth position, Damon Hill does his best, stopping 58 thousandths behind. Three drivers with exactly the same lap time.

 

A remote eventuality, to say the least, but nevertheless possible, for which the sporting regulations have taken precautions with an article. The starting grid is decided according to the chronological order in which the three lap times were set. Therefore, Villeneuve celebrates the pole position, but unfortunately for him he will not have his back covered by his squire Frentzen, who will start from the third position:

 

"Really surprising. But I am even more surprised to have done the time with the first set of tyres. I had maximum confidence, I knew I could set the best time. Normally, though, my first outing on the track is the slowest; this was also since the temperature went up afterwards. Funny, isn't it? It's hard to believe, I made a couple of mistakes and I didn't really think I'd set that time. It seems like it was made on purpose to end the season with a thriller. We will play it out on the track, at least I hope so. I wanted the pole and I did it. For me it is very important to start like this. It would have been better to start with Frentzen behind me but it's fine. What worries me is Irvine: during the race you end up with him in front and then anything can happen because you never know with him, he is unpredictable. Of course, if you pass first there, then everything is easier. But I am happy to have taken first place. For me it is fundamental to start in front, because only if I am in front of Schumacher can I win the world championship".

 

Leave nothing to chance. Do everything to try to get an advantage in any way possible, possibly legally. That's what Williams does after qualifying, as the English team complains to the FIA, accusing Schumacher of having set his time under yellow flags because his brother Ralf ran off the track.

 

The FIA replied in the negative, claiming that the flag was static and not agitated. A justification that does not convince Patrick Head:

 

"There was the crane on the track lifting the Jordan. You tell me".

 

After having seen the classification that sees them paired in the first row and, at the same time, Schumacher escapes with an amused and incredulous smile, shared with his men at the box. A surprise that he also confessed to the journalists:

 

"When I looked at the monitor I didn't want to believe it; then even from Frentzen comes an identical time, incredible. We are at the highest level of competitiveness, which symbolises the extreme balance of the season that is coming to an end. You can't get any closer than this. It's fine for me, it's not a problem not having taken pole, I just hope everything goes well at the first corner. I'm happy to be starting alongside him, I was hoping to be on the front row, so it will be a great battle".

 

Schumacher also holds on to the FIA's response to Williams regarding the yellow flags:

 

"They were fixed and when they are such the rules say to drive within your limits, as I did, even losing something in the final. Even in Japan, it would have been fairer to just display them rather than wave them".

 

Villeneuve and Schumacher, first and second, paired up on the front row. What more could you ask for in a season finale like that?

 

Perhaps, to make it even more cinematic, Jean Todt above all would have liked Eddie Irvine in fourth position next to Frentzen, to complete a perfect picture, calling it Ferrari vs Williams.

 

Irvine, however, was only seventh, with Hill and the McLarens in the way; with the competitiveness shown in this end of season, Hakkinen and Coulthard were not to be excluded from the top fight. Jacques and Michael are warned: the fight between the two is for the World Championship, but for the race it could be a different story. Invited on Saturday evening to the Finca de los Reburejos, where a Renault dinner is being held, Jacques renounces:

 

"I have a briefing with the engineers, I prefer to work with them on the last details".

 

At 22:00 Villeneuve is already in bed, Schumacher a few minutes later. The two sleep in the same hotel, in the middle of a golf course, among the crickets still singing in an almost summery climate.

 

On Sunday October 26th, 1997, another sixty-nine laps to be covered on the 4.428 km of the Jerez de la Frontera track, for a total of 305 km, and Formula 1 will decide who is the new champion. The lights go out.

 

Villeneuve tries the same manoeuvre as in Suzuka, tightening the trajectory towards Schumacher, but not even the time to move the steering wheel to the right that the Ferrari has already darted in front of him. Surprised by his rival's great sprint, at the first bend Villeneuve remained as if stunned, so much so that Frentzen could do nothing but pass him on the inside to avoid being overtaken by the McLarens.

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At the end of the first lap Schumacher was in the lead, he had already gained two seconds on Frentzen, while Villeneuve was third, ahead of Hakkinen, Coulthard and Hill.

 

The Canadian took four laps to settle down and increase his pace; his fast lap in 1'24"546 was the proof. Hakkinen began to lose metres, at the same time Frentzen saw his teammate's silhouette growing in the mirrors. Logically, once he has arrived, Frentzen does not offer the slightest resistance and lets him pass.

 

From here on, Frentzen's race as a squire officially begins. To avoid the intrusion of extraneous elements such as the two McLarens, he places himself in front of Hakkinen and Coulthard, running at high times to leave the two contenders for the title alone, without anyone disturbing them. But the gap between Schumacher and Villeneuve is a good 4.3 seconds after eight passes on the finish line.

 

The whole first part of the race is characterized by the gap between the two that goes a bit elastic: one lap the Ferrari moves away, the following one the Williams gets closer. What is certain is that both are on the limit. The fast laps follow each other, Villeneuve commits an imprecision that puts him back to five seconds after he had managed to go down under four seconds; at every lapping that comes their way, everyone holds their breath.

 

In the meantime, rumours filtered from the Ferrari box that Villeneuve was in crisis with his rear tyres. Indiscretion confirmed by the track, as the gap is now increasing.

 

The moment to stop at the pits arrives. The first move is made by Ferrari, which recalls the race leader on lap 22. Pit stop lasting 7.6 seconds, everything happens smoothly, and Schumacher re-enters the track between the two McLarens.

 

Villeneuve makes his pit stop on the next lap, and when he comes out of the pits he has to see that Coulthard's McLaren is between him and Schumacher.

 

Jacques does not despair, because in the lead there is now Frentzen, his guardian angel of the day, the one that, on the contrary, Schumacher is missing. Irvine is busy fighting for sixth place with Damon Hill, far from the positions that count. At this stage, Schumacher opens the radio and exclaims to Ross Brawn:

 

"Maybe now we have an idea of where Frentzen will block me".

 

Brawn's reply:

 

"OK, Michael, we should be careful. Michael, you have to push now to get away from Frentzen. You have to push in the next few laps".

 

Now more than ever Heinz lifts his foot, Hakkinen and Schumacher are right behind him, but Michael cannot risk going on the attack on the McLaren, it would be madness.

 

Frentzen's slowdown meant that the five seconds accumulated by Schumacher in the first phase of the race vanished in a few laps. And once both Hakkinen and Coulthard, and then Frentzen last, had stepped aside for their respective pit stops, Michael and Jacques were alone again, but this time attached, separated by a few tenths.

 

The sly Villeneuve of the very first stages has disappeared, now he is a furious driver, who slides out of the last bend with great wickedness, who shows himself at every braking, and who at Dry Sac bend tries for the first time to overtake. The two cars almost touched, but Schumacher was able to close the trajectory for nothing. In the meantime, Villeneuve's track engineer Jock Clear starts to incite his driver:

 

"Come on Jacques, push. You have to push. Come on, Jacques. Michael is slowing down".

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The tension is already sky-high, but it goes even higher as they approach back-to-back laps. Schumacher cannot afford the slightest indecision.

 

The other drivers, however, know that this is no time to lose focus, aware that behind them a duel for the World Champion title is taking place.

 

Katayama immediately steps aside, Verstappen almost stops to let them pass. Then came Norberto Fontana, the Argentinean driver who replaced Gianni Morbidelli, injured in Suzuka.

 

The Sauber lets Schumacher pass, but he gets in Villeneuve's way, who has to wait three interminable bends to get rid of him: now Villeneuve has lost three seconds.

 

However, Jacques is now in a competitive trance, he wouldn't stop in front of anything, so he doesn't take long to close the gap again. Michael feels the breath on his neck, repeatedly blocks the front right tyre in turn 2, pushes his Ferrari to the limit, but behind him there is a Villeneuve who, like a shark, smells blood. Other lapped cars: the two Jordans and Nakano's Prost.

 

In the meantime, Jean Todt is filmed while he is returning from the Jordan box; none of the three lapped drivers creates problems, neither for Schumacher, nor this time for Villeneuve. The second stint passes unscathed.

 

On lap 43 Schumacher returned to the pits for his second and final stop, and re-entered the race ahead of the two McLarens, exactly what he needed to lose as little time as possible against Villeneuve, who made his second pit-stop, like the first, on the lap after Michael.

 

While standing on his pit stop, Jacques hits a tyre gun belonging to the McLaren; it almost hits one of the Benetton mechanics, who are also waiting for one of their drivers. However, the Canadian's frenzy in entering the pit-lane is not enough: 8.3 seconds for petrol and tyre change.

 

Too many, because at the exit of the pit lane, Jacques, besides being still behind Schumacher, is also behind Coulthard. The Scot, however, stops immediately, so that Jacques' pursuit is not disturbed too much.

 

However, something doesn't work as it should for Schumacher, who laps in 1'25"6 and loses a beauty of 1.6 seconds in a single pass. At this point, Brawn turns to Schumacher in an excited tone:

 

"Villeneuve is behind you. Villeneuve is behind you. Michael, Michael. Villeneuve is now behind you".

 

Schumacher at first doesn't hear well, asks to repeat, then asks:

 

"What is the distance between him and me right now".

 

Brawn:

 

"About one second, Michael. He's right behind you. One second. He's following the same strategy as you".

 

And so Schumacher and Villeneuve are caught up again; behind them is Frentzen, who still has to stop. Jacques is chasing Michael like a madman, but compared to the previous laps he seems to be even faster than Schumacher. Lap number 48, the third and last crucial moment of the race and of the World Championship. Jacques takes the slipstream, approaches, smells the opportunity and throws himself inside the Dry Sac curve, as he had already tried before. But now he has more margin, Schumacher perhaps realizes it too late, because Villeneuve is already beside him.

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Then comes the desperate move, of who absolutely doesn't want to lose the World Championship: Michael closes his trajectory anyway, crashing against the side of the Williams. The impact sends the Ferrari into the gravel, from where it will never start again. Schumacher asks the commissioners to push him, but they signal him that there is nothing more to be done, the car is covered up.

 

Everyone sees the accident in Australia in 1994 as a sudden flashback before their eyes, but there is only one important difference with that misdeed, and that is the fate of the other accident victim. Although his heart is pounding with the fear that something may have broken on his car, Villeneuve continues for now. In the meantime Schumacher waits there, at the side of the track, waiting to see if the Williams he has just hit is continuing or not.

 

After making sure that his reckless move did not affect Villeneuve, he heads off and gets on the scooter that will take him back to the pits. Jacques is the new race leader, but he has lapped four seconds slower than Coulthard, who is in second place. Jock Clear, in an agitated voice, asks the Canadian driver:

 

"How's your car, Jacques? What's the damage?"

 

Villeneuve replies, but the signal is jammed and what he says is unintelligible.

 

"Keep going, Jacques. You just need to finish in the points".

 

Repeats Jock Clear, who in the meantime calculates the distance between Jacques and Irvine to evaluate a possible return to the pits, but desists the idea and communicates it to the Canadian driver:

 

"Irvine is too close to risk a stop. Ten seconds Coulthard and Hakkinen P2 and P3. Good, Jacques. Good. Irvine P4 at thirteen seconds. Jacques, if the car is all right and you keep about twenty-five (seconds) it will be fine to stay ahead of Irvine. Good pace. Good pace".

 

Twenty laps to go, Villeneuve manages the car, alternating average laps with very slow ones, and by doing so Coulthard and Hakkinen gradually reduce the distance.

 

Patrick Head, meanwhile, keeps going back and forth from the wall to the pits, where he nervously consults Frank Williams. At the Ferrari wall, Todt and Brawn sit close together, staring impassively at the screens without saying a word.

 

Schumacher went straight in front of the journalists and locked himself in his motorhome, joined by his brother Ralf, who had already retired earlier.

 

With less than ten laps to go, Patrick Head stops by the McLaren pit lane. He has something to say to Ron Dennis. Better not to leave anything to chance. Villeneuve meanwhile is so slow that Nakano's Prost behind him is pressing to split.

 

"What does he want? Split?"

 

Says Jacques to Jock Clear, who replies:

 

"Let him pass. Don't lose any pace to do it. Coulthard P2, five seconds. Let him pass in the straight. Jacques, it's Nakano, not Panis. Two McLarens P2, P3. Very close".

 

Not that Coulthard is going so fast, as he can't get close enough to Fisichella to make the Italian driver wave the blue flag.

 

The Williams mechanics, frightened by their driver's ups and downs, are also clinging to superstition. One of the men in blue and white stops James Allenn, the man in the pits, to ask him if by chance Murray Walker, Formula 1's historic commentator, has made the mistake of proclaiming Villeneuve the new World Champion in advance.

 

No, he didn't, Alan reassures. As said, it is better not to leave anything to chance, but nothing. Three laps to go.

 

Nakano has split, Coulthard is less than two seconds behind, but Fisichella is still in the way. At Ducados corner, before the main straight, Hakkinen tried a timid attack on Coulthard. Then, right on the straight, the Scotsman makes way for him, following a team order. Mika had more and showed it by lapping Fisichella after half a lap. Patrick Head, Williams' technical director, tells Clear in a firm voice:

 

"To be repeated, Jock. We're more interested in the championship than the position in the race".

 

So Clear turns back to Villeneuve:

 

"Stay focused, Jacques. Stay focused. Hakkinen goes to second position, 26.5 seconds Villeneuve. Hakkinen is very fast and very effective. Keep in mind that Hakkinen is now in second position. He probably wants to win. Very useful".

 

It's the last lap, Hakkinen is there at one second, and he reaches Villeneuve's exhausts only at the last sector. Jock Clear reopens the radio link and exclaims:

 

"David Coulthard is checking Irvine. Hakkinen right behind you, Jacques. Right behind you, Hakkinen. Stay focused, Jacques. Hakkinen is right behind you. Last lap. Last lap. Hakkinen was very effective, Jacques. Second position. Don't abandon me, Jacques. We talked about it".

 

Jacques doesn't think about it for a moment, after all he doesn't need the victory. At the Senna chicane the Canadian driver lifts his foot and lets himself be overtaken. At the very last bend he does the same with Coulthard.

 

Mika Hakkinen crosses the finish line first and after a long, exhausting wait wins his first race in his career. He does so ahead of Coulthard, who completes an unexpected one-two for McLaren.

 

And ahead of Jacques Villeneuve, who, at the young age of twenty-six, became Formula 1 World Champion. The Canadian finished in a sprint with Berger, who came fourth in what was his last race in his career. Then Irvine and Frentzen at the end of the points zone.

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Four points conquered, thanks to which he flew to 81 points, three more than Schumacher, who remained inexorably stuck at 78. Damon Hill, who stopped on the track on the 47th lap, as outgoing champion now watches his former teammate win the Formula 1 World Championship, one year after their rivalry.

 

Jacques remains calm as he gets out of the cockpit, congratulates Hakkkinen, shakes hands with his mechanics, nothing sensational. Perhaps he has not yet fully realised what is happening. On the podium, Hakkinen and Coulthard celebrated him by taking him on their shoulders. Jacques has won, and never before has he shown that he deserves the World Championship. In the press conference there was not only him but also those who, like Hakkinen, finally broke his taboo. Mika has unblocked himself, and he won't stop for a while.

 

"The whole race was really interesting in my opinion, from the first to the last lap. In the beginning I couldn't push as hard as I could, I was behind Jacques but attacking him would have been risky, he was fighting for the World Championship and it wouldn't have been right to jeopardise his race. The last few laps were very intense, everything happened very quickly. Jacques was there, not far away, and David was ahead of me. Up until that moment in all honesty I hadn't even remotely thought I could win the race. I don't know exactly what happened, I overtook David in a strange place, coming out of the last corner. In any case, I'm really happy to have won my first race, it's fantastic".

 

Afterwards, the Finnish driver explains more about the dynamics of overtaking David Coulthard:

 

"My goal for the day was really to get on the podium, so I can consider myself more than satisfied. I am also happy for the team, as we end the season with a one-two. Jacques undoubtedly made the task easier for us, I let Mika through because he was faster than me and, after lapping Fisichella's Jordan, he made it easier for both of us to rejoin Villeneuve".

 

And finally, as it should be, the focus shifts entirely to the newly crowned World Champion, Jacques Villeneuve:

 

"It has been a season full of ups and downs. We have been the most competitive team since the beginning of the season, but in many races we have not been able to exploit our full potential, both for my and the team's mistakes. To win here, after the disqualification suffered at Suzuka, is an indescribable emotion".

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After the brief introduction, Jacques focused on the course of the race, especially the final phase:

 

"I was a bit worried twenty laps from the end, after I had overtaken Michael. To be honest, I wasn't too surprised by his manoeuvre, I expected it, but it was a risk I had to take. It wasn't a correct manoeuvre, of course. But I don't think he wanted to take me out, he knew he had problems with the tyres after the second pit stop; even I could see that. He had more than two seconds on me before. After the stop, I made up almost all his advantage in one lap. The hit between us was quite strong. And right after that, I didn't see him anymore, Schumacher. At that moment I just thought about damage limitation. It was enough for me to finish sixth. And there were still twenty-one laps to go. When he hit me, I had the feeling that the car was damaged, the rear end was very unstable in the right-hand corners. I was still able to push, but then I decided to slow down drastically because the tyres were overheating abnormally. I spent the rest of the race like that, alternating between fast and very slow laps. By the end the McLarens were behind me, and it wasn't worth taking too many risks by constantly looking in the mirrors. It was a matter of pushing like crazy with the serious risk of going off the track, especially considering the condition of the car, or letting him pass if Mika tried. That's what happened and I didn't resist him or David".

 

It was inevitable to ask him for his thoughts on the incident, which will be a topic of discussion for weeks:

 

"I knew about Michael's retirement right away. The way he hit me was quite violent, and I'm surprised that I managed to continue. As for the accident, I couldn't have chosen an inside line, otherwise I would have gone on the grass, so either Michael had closed his eyes or his hands must have slipped".

 

Jacques comments diplomatically, not in the mood for controversy:

 

"He had three sets of new tyres, I only had two, so I started the race with used tyres. Anyway, my start wasn't so bad, I would say that Michael's was very good. It was frustrating at that point to have to give up my position. I let Heinz pass me without closing the door because he was on the inside. After that I pushed like hell, but I wasn't able to get any closer, and that's when I started to think I might not make it; then with the new set of tyres it was different, I was able to close the gap. We were close when a Sauber left the door open for Schumacher to get lapped, and he got in the way and lost me three seconds in half a lap. I think the fact that they have the same engine has something to do with it, but I don't want to get into that. It's a very different success to the one in Indycar. There I won and kept the lead until the end, but this year I took the lead just before Suzuka, only to lose it again. We fought until the end, this weekend we could even consider ourselves the underdogs, but we didn't give up. Tonight we are having a big party with the whole team".

 

In the next few minutes, Jacques was taken left and right, and he meekly did not fight back. He almost crashes into Bernie Ecclestone, who embraces him and says with emotion:

 

"Thank you, the show was great, your race fantastic, Michael made a mistake, it's a pity".

 

Then a mobile phone rings, it's handed to him, it's his mother Joanna.

 

"Excuse me".

 

He murmurs, then rushes towards the sponsors' rituals and obligations. In the Renault bus, president Louis Schweitzer is waiting for him, while Frank Williams glosses over the accident at Dry Sack corner.

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And while Todt tries to explain the causes of the defeat, at a distance of one metre round tables are set and bottles of champagne are opened; among beautiful women and smiles and a festive air, the same evening everyone is invited to the Pantalon-K in Puerto de Santa Maria, to celebrate the victory.

 

If the new Champion is praised to the skies, at the same time, the loser of the duel is put in the dock and harshly criticised by the entire Formula 1 world.

 

A desperate manoeuvre was enough to make half the world forget who Michael Schumacher is. A two-time World Champion driver, capable of making a difference like few others have done in the past; a driver who brought Ferrari back to fight for the title after years of absolute mediocrity.

 

But all this seems to have vanished, because now Schumacher, according to common thinking, is just an unfair driver, with no respect for his colleagues, dangerous, who wins by playing dirty. Among the harshest comments were those of Ecclestone:

 

"It seems to have ended up like in 1994 when Schumacher had that problem with Hill. In recent days there has been a lot of talk about this possibility and many times people have said: let's avoid accidents. Even during the meeting with the drivers, before the start of the race, we said to those involved: no stupidities, please. Instead Schumacher did something stupid. I honestly didn't expect him to do such a manoeuvre, because it was clear that he would have created problems for himself. He made a mistake, it's obvious. And it was stupid. Because he could have waited, he could have done anything else at any other time of the race. And he could have chosen to lose like a gentleman, not like that. An unnecessary mistake, I would say. Because if Schumacher lets Villeneuve pass, his opponent ends up off the track. He was very fast, perhaps too fast, and he braked late. But evidently Michael wanted to do him a favour. From my point of view what happened is not something you can dismiss in the usual way: it's just racing. It was a beautiful, uncertain world championship, full of twists and turns. First Williams ahead, then Ferrari, then Williams again. Finally the head-to-head in the last race, the ideal solution. But it went up in smoke because of an authentic stupidity".

 

Clay Regazzoni:

 

"If there were doubts with Hill in Adelaide, there are none at Jerez. The manoeuvre is also brutal, the way Schumacher ran into Villeneuve".

 

Or Flavio Briatore:

 

"Michael cannot expect to win all the World Titles in this way".

 

Former driver Jacques Laffite also commented harshly:

 

"What an embarrassment Schumacher was. He told us loud and clear that he had knocked Hill out at Adelaide three years ago, no doubt about it. He's not a sportsman and he doesn't know how to lose. His gesture has given Formula 1 a bad image".

 

Speaking of 1994, Damon Hill is also called into question:

 

"I believe in Karma. What goes around comes around. I feel the same way as everyone else, of course, here in the paddock: Jacques tried to overtake Schumacher cleanly and Michael tried to throw him out".

 

Then there are more mitigated opinions, such as that of Alain Prost, who knows a thing or two about accidents that decide world championships for or against:

 

"These things can happen. Of course, Schumacher is apparently to blame. But when drivers are in a tussle, they change. To be a driver you have to have a dual personality. Even the most gentlemanly driver becomes someone else when he lowers his visor".

 

Rubens Barrichello looks almost disappointed, as if he has just lost a myth:

 

"I have always cheered for Schumacher. Even publicly. I didn't expect an unsportsmanlike manoeuvre from him: he sought an accident. No tension, no result can justify anything like that".

 

Meanwhile, the FIA dismisses the whole thing as a simple racing incident (at least for the moment) through the following statement:

 

"Having received a report from the Clerk of the Course regarding the collision at position number 14 between cars no.3 (Villeneuve) and no.5 (Schumacher), the stewards have heard from the teams and drivers. Having heard testimony from Jean Todt, Stefano Domenicali and Michael Schumacher on one side and Dickie Stanford and Jacques Villeneuve on the other, the stewards carefully reviewed all available video evidence of the incident. The stewards unanimously decided that it was a racing accident and that no further action was necessary".

 

After the accident, Schumacher took refuge in Ferrari's motorhome and returned outside at 4.15 pm, avoiding a manhunt, before slipping into the building of the race director, who had summoned him there. A quick hearing, during which the film of the accident was examined.

 

Then out again, back to the assault and escape, back into the Ferrari motorhome. Frank Williams, Berger, Ecclestone and their daughter, who has received the German driver's helmet as a gift, come to see him.

 

Schumi did not appear in front of the journalists until late in the afternoon of the same Sunday, around 6 pm, wearing a cap without the gold embellishments that - at 12 pm, two hours before the start of the race - Willi Weber, manager of the announced 1997 world champion, had entrusted to the person in charge of the final prize-giving ceremony, feigning absolute indifference. A red cap, with laurel leaves embroidered on the visor and the words, in gold letters: Michael Schumacher World Champion 1997. Michael begins by saying:

 

"I have certainly had happier days than this in my life. Now I'm feeling very sad, but this is motor racing, this is racing. There are good days and bad days. My race was fantastic until the accident. My car was quite good, I was always in front of Villeneuve and I was able to keep him behind until the end. In the first laps after the second stop I slowed down a bit just to save the tyres; Jacques was faster at that moment, but I felt calm, I thought he would never be able to overtake me".

 

Much of the paddock pointed the finger at him, but Schumacher didn't take it lying down:

 

"He suddenly launched an attack that I could describe as very optimistic: unfortunately it went well for him and bad for me. Yes, he took me by surprise, but I don't think I made a mistake: I delayed braking to the maximum, but he braked after me and used my car to complete the braking. It's normal, I would have done the same in his situation. I couldn't do the same by following my line. Jacques was very good at surprising me at that hairpin, I suddenly found his car next to me and I tried to close in, but it was too late. So we touched each other. These are things that happen in racing and this time unfortunately it went badly for me. Maybe I was wrong, maybe he was wrong, but we are all human. I would do the same thing again as I did, I don't think I made a mistake and I don't think the stewards took any action against me. Anyway, I congratulate Villeneuve, because in the end he deserved the championship".

 

Schumacher gives himself a helping hand with the communiqué of the Federation that absolves him. This is followed by a hug and a kiss to Corinna, a joke with Willi Weber, a laugh with Irvine. And then follows Todt, decidedly distressed:

 

"Michael hasn't done anything naughty, on the contrary. He may have left the door open, but Villeneuve pushed it hard. No problem with the tyres, no: Michael's tactics were right, only the accident ruined them".

 

There are those, however, like Williams, who perhaps do not accept Mosley's magnanimity, especially after the many controversies that developed with Villeneuve during the year, culminating in the disqualification at Suzuka. Patrick Head makes an ironic comment on the decision, which reveals his disappointment:

 

"Now all we need is for the race judges to disqualify Jacques' car because Schumacher's hit made the aerodynamic components move, and therefore irregular. If that really happens, I'll drown myself with the last celebratory drink".

 

And concerning a new stirring controversy about Williams' alleged help to McLaren to win the race, the British team's DT thunders on:

 

"The race was ending. Villeneuve had Hakkinen and Coulthard, the two McLaren drivers, behind him. Well: he called me on the radio and said: Patrick, go to the McLaren pit and make sure Hakkinen and Coulthard don't bother me. In return, I promise to let them pass at the end of the race".

 

But Jean Todt comments saying:

 

"Nice present from Williams, eh?"

 

In the atmosphere of the Pantalan-K of Puerto Sherry, between Puerto Santa Maria and Jerez de la Frontera, Villeneuve ventures a few steps and is sucked in by Frentzen, Hill and Fiona, the blonde 'pierre' of Williams all dressed up, dressed in a black bolero and a skirt that enhances her beautiful legs. It is almost 2:00 a.m. when Villeneuve, intercepted, still declares:

 

"At the beginning of the championship I had such powerful engines that I thought I was going for a walk. Instead, I had to pull to the death until the last Grand Prix".

 

Before that, six girls in Renault T-shirts sprout up, throwing T-shirts into the room, on which you can read the ambiguous writing six world titles. The seventh is missing, Villeneuve's, but it doesn't matter: the French never throw anything away.

 

The next day, if the incident with Villeneuve can be considered closed, given that Schumacher and the Canadian driver were drinking together and talking from 5 pm to 8 pm on Monday 27 October after meeting by chance at the hotel, it seems more difficult for the German to regain the trust of those who witnessed the accident.

 

The German and English press are unanimous in writing that it was Schumacher who caused the accident. But Ferrari's president, Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, tries to extinguish the controversy, declaring:

 

"For Ferrari, this is a bitter day. Schumacher made a mistake, as all men do, and by doing what he did, he created, above all, damage to himself. On Sunday evening at Jerez Schumacher told me that after the last stop he had decided to freeze the race, saving car and tyres to get to the end without any problems. In short, he needs to come down to earth, go back to being the intelligent man he was, acknowledge his mistakes and apologise".

 

Furthermore, on Tuesday October 28th, Schumacher was summoned by the FIA to the Place de la Concorde in Paris, for an extraordinary meeting of the highest court of the World Motor Sport Council, on 11 November 1997 at 9:00 a.m., composed of twenty-three members of which only one was Italian and without Canadian or German components that might suggest favouritism, to evaluate and possibly decide whether to take measures against the German driver.

 

The members of the Council will examine Schumacher's personal file with his record and the reports that the various race judges drew up about him on those occasions. Then they will examine all available television footage and go into the boardroom to discuss and vote.

 

Among the twenty-three members there is also Jean Todt as a member of the Formula 1 Commission, but it is clear that the French manager, even if he was not part of Schumacher's defence panel, should abstain from the discussion and the vote.

 

While waiting for the trial to take place, the criticism levelled at the Ferrari driver has not abated, even from the same newspapers that until recently were singing his praises and extolling his achievements.

 

Dressed in an expensive dark suit, very fashionable in Kerpen, on Tuesday 28 October 1997 Michael Schumacher appeared in the Ferrari museum to face the media, which in just two days had turned against him, destroying the image of a champion that had been built up over four years.

 

"I knew they would attack me and I was ready to defend myself. In the team we looked at all possible scenarios. Here: I didn't imagine that he would try to overtake me on the inside. I made a mistake, I made an error in judgement, I underestimated the situation that was being created. I'm a human being like the others, even if I don't make many mistakes. But I do make some. In these two days I have thought about it and now I see things differently, and if in the future I were to find myself in a similar situation I would behave differently. I usually never read the newspapers, there are those who do it for me and tell me what is written. Today, however, I had a look at some newspapers and it seems to me that there has been an exaggerated reaction. There are many episodes like that in the racing world. Maybe the reaction this time was exaggerated because I race with Ferrari, which is something else, and so you end up playing the bad guy without being one. I always try to win, but never with the intention of hurting others. This time I made a mistake, I underestimated a situation, but I will go to the FIA to clarify my position and I am ready to accept all the consequences. After that I will continue to work as always, I will certainly not stop for something like this".

 

"There are those who see in that incident my desire to eliminate the opponent, and there are those who only see my desire to defend a position. I believe that a judgement should be made on an entire career, not on a single incident. My fans will remain my fans regardless of this incident. I didn't expect to have Villeneuve so close, I was surprised and reacted instinctively, perhaps excessively. In that fraction of a second that seemed to me the only possible manoeuvre. Every circumstance is different, they are never comparable. However, I'm unhappy with the situation that has now arisen and I'm sorry I didn't give the fans what they expected. And that doesn't make me happy. I have a very long reaction time and at the time I didn't understand what had happened. Then, watching television, talking and meditating, I understood. After all, on Sunday afternoon there were difficult moments for all of us, it wasn't easy to talk. But I went to congratulate Villeneuve. We talked and it didn't seem to me that he had a grudge against me. I said that his manoeuvre was a risky one, i.e. he was in danger of going off the track in his attempt to overtake me, and if he didn't go off it was only because he leaned on me. But first I was convinced that he would have gone off the track, not me."

 

But the media turned on him:

 

"It can be because I am quite inaccessible. It's difficult to stop with me for a chat. I live in isolation, but that's because I have so much work to do, so much success, and so for many I stay away. In the end I am misjudged. On the other hand, I'm a pilot, not a press officer. But I realise that maybe we should respect each other more, because of course I have some faults too".

 

Jean Todt also intervened, and strongly defended his star driver, declaring:

 

"I understand the importance that Formula 1 now has in the whole world, we expected certain reactions, but I was honestly a bit surprised by the very bad way that accompanied these reactions. What Michael has brought to Formula 1 from a technical and human point of view has been a lot, but it's easy to express opinions, judgements and criticisms, while it's more difficult to be a driver. In a moment of extreme tension he underestimated a situation and in a thousandth of a second he found himself reacting. I don't know if he would react like that today, but he did and he will explain why. Michael has competed in more than a hundred Grands Prix, so a driver should be judged on his overall career and not just on one episode to the contrary. What he has done in his career he has achieved remarkably and since he has been at Ferrari I have been able to appreciate him as a man. And so have those who work with him every day".

 

Niki Lauda, on the other hand, does not defend him. Although he is a consultant for Ferrari, on 4 November 1997 he made the following statement to journalist Philip Micallef of Sydney's Daily Telegraph:

 

"What Michael did to Villeneuve was premeditated, television has shown it and he could have avoided it. His case will be heard in Paris on November 11 and Schumacher could even be suspended for a few races. But who cares anyway? Villeneuve is World Champion. These things have always happened in racing, especially in key races like Jerez, only nowadays many cameras don't miss anything, so there is much more publicity about these episodes".

 

Subsequently, the Maranello company categorically denied that Lauda had made certain statements. The author of the interview, questioned by telephone, was surprised by the denial and claimed to own the recording of the entire interview, which must have been neither brief nor taken by deception. Since Lauda pauses to describe his past at Ferrari and also explains what the pressure is on drivers at Maranello:

 

"When I lost the 1976 World Championship by one point behind James Hunt and after my accident at the Nurburgring, Enzo Ferrari made me start the following year as second driver behind Carlos Reutemann. The pressure also depends on the great expectations of a nation and its press: the Italians all support Ferrari. That's the pressure: when you win you're a God, when you lose you're nobody. Unfortunately, when you drive for another team it's a party, but not with Ferrari".

 

A few days later, on November 7th 1997, Lauda returned to talk about the accident, stating:

 

"Yes, Schumacher had made a mistake and when he realised it he tried to make up for it, to take back the title that was slipping away from him. I would have done the same thing in a similar situation. Schumacher was slower in that moment because of the tyres. There are differences of up to three tenths of a second between one set of tyres and another, Villeneuve's was fast, Ferrari's was not".

 

In the meantime, Schumacher, while waiting for the FIA commission's judgement, spoke to a German TV, referring to the possibility of a disqualification in the first Grand Prix of the 1998 season:

 

"I hope the next championship will not be compromised".

 

But the German newspaper Bild publishes a statement by a senior FIA executive, who lets slip a sibylline phrase:

 

"In front of 800 million spectators, Schumacher has made Formula 1 lack credibility".

 

In the meantime, the British newspaper Times accused Williams and McLaren of collusion, talking about two tapes that would confirm the agreement between the two teams. Listening to the recording, phrases such as:

 

"Stay focused, Jacques, Hakkinen is behind. Last lap, last lap. Second position, Jacques, we've already talked about it".

 

Of course, in reality, already after the end of the last Grand Prix, Villeneuve had justified himself by saying that he had not wanted to risk a possible contact, leaving the victory to the McLaren.

 

When the contact between Schumacher and Villeneuve was only a few days away, the FIA decided to open an investigation into the alleged combine between McLaren and Williams in the crucial race at Jerez de la Frontera. After avidly reading the pages of the Times, Max Mosley has a soft but significant communiqué issued, which states:

 

"The FIA will be following the matter with close attention".

 

This is because there are no specific cases of this kind in the FIA's sporting code and therefore no precise sanctions. However, a senior FIA executive who wishes to remain anonymous says:

 

"There would be an article, 151, which talks about unfair behaviour that can harm the sincerity of the competition, but it is a generic and heavy diction difficult to apply in this case, provided the fact is incontrovertibly proven. If it is not possible to intervene for the past, new rules will probably have to be adopted for the future".

 

Jean Todt immediately retorts by saying:

 

"Unfortunately, Ferrari has always been a bit isolated and over time we have seen many British alliances against us. Unfortunately, Ferrari has always been a bit isolated and over time we have seen a lot of British alliances against us. But one thing is certain: all this shows that the tension at Jerez was very heavy and we have already paid hard. I was listening in my headphones too, and they all seem to be true and, on the other hand, in Formula 1 everyone intercepts everyone".

 

On the other hand, it's easy enough to listen to the conversations between the drivers and their teams. All you have to do is buy, for about fifty dollars, a small radio receiver capable of automatically searching for conversations in a range of radio frequencies, so much so that even some journalists are equipped with them in the pits.

 

The response was not long in coming, and on November 9th, 1997 the weekly Observer reported the remarks of Frank Williams, who openly attacked Ferrari.

 

According to the English manufacturer, it was Ferrari that provided the Times and other newspapers with the tapes of the radio conversations between the pits and the Williams drivers, in a blatant attempt to minimise Michael Schumacher's faults. Frank Williams explains through the Observer newspaper that he learned of Ferrari's involvement from Italian sources:

 

"We understand that the contents of the tapes were widely disseminated by Ferrari. I am very disappointed to discover that Ferrari listens to other teams during races. I am disappointed but actually not surprised. It is clear that they have done all this to distract attention from Tuesday's trial before the FIA World Council".

 

Both Williams and McLaren, however, reject the allegations of collusion and refer to what Villeneuve said immediately after the last race run in Spain:

 

"When Hakkinen was behind me in the last laps, my problem was whether to push like crazy and risk going off with a car that was behaving strangely or to let him pass. Coulthard was also very close and I didn't get in his way".

 

At the same time, the Sunday Telegraph also points to the fact that it was Ferrari who made the recordings public. The weekly also provided an interesting revelation in this story: Formula 1 boss Bernie Ecclestone had hurriedly interrupted a holiday and on 30 October, during an informal meeting of Formula 1 constructors organised by Ron Dennis, had put the scandalous tapes on the table, giving those present various insinuations.

 

On November 11th, 1997, in London, curiously enough, two trials were held. The first will have as its subject matter the incident between the two title contenders, the second will focus on the alleged McLaren-Williams cahoots.

 

The outcome of the first trial of the day is undoubtedly the one that causes the most discussion and gives the newspapers a further boost to continue their media campaign against Schumacher.

 

Contrary to initial assumptions, Schumacher's trial takes place at the headquarters of the Royal Automobil Club of Great Britain, in the countryside around London's Heathrow Airport, and begins at 9.30 am in a cube of brick and glass, with planes coming and going in a crazy roar. The powerful members of the FIA World Council arrive in large limousines, but no one knows them and they enter undisturbed.

 

The commotion comes to life when Michael Schumacher and his equally excellent defender, Jean Todt, arrive. In front of the siege of the cameras, dismayed with bruised faces, dark circles and tense nerves, the two struggle to get out of the Alfa 164.

 

Swallowed up mercilessly and without gorillas by the crowd of media, they are about to succumb to physical fear when the felling of a small tree, swept away by the angry crowd of cameramen, comes to their aid. Schumacher and Todt managed to get in safely, while outside there was a count of broken lenses and various damages.

 

At 10:00 a.m., the defendant and his lawyer are summoned to the courtroom where the judges have already seen the footage of the Jerez accident. Schumacher is a confessed criminal, he admits everything but rejects the idea of premeditation. At 10:30 a.m. the defendant is asked to leave.

 

At 10:45 a.m. he is called back and the sentence is read out to him. Afterwards, FIA president Max Mosley appeared in the press room to announce the verdict: the International Federation decided to exclude Michael Schumacher from the 1997 Formula 1 World Championship, but left the German driver with the results obtained in the various Grands Prix. His five victories will remain valid.

 

His place in the new classification is now taken by Frentzen, the Canadian's teammate. No financial sanctions, and above all no penalties or disqualification to be served in the next world championship, the hypothesis most feared by Ferrari. Schumacher will also have to participate in a road safety campaign, free of charge, promoted by the FIA, over the next two years.

 

The cancellation of the German driver's points has no consequences on the constructors' championship, in which Ferrari retains second place behind Williams. FIA and World Council President Max Mosley said:

 

"Schumacher could have overtaken Villeneuve again and still won the world championship. So he didn't do it on purpose. He was in a situation of enormous pressure and had a wrong but not premeditated reaction. The exclusion from the World Championship has great value because from next year any driver who commits such mistakes will be immediately excluded from the championship. This is the real lesson of this ruling: from now on those who make mistakes know that they will receive a severe punishment. As for Schumacher, he confessed to the mistake, we believed his defence".

 

It's 11:15 a.m., the second trial begins. Ron Dennis and Frank Williams, the owners of the respective teams, enter. Williams and McLaren are accused of violating paragraph C of Article 151 of the FIA's International Sporting Code, which prohibits fraudulent conduct contrary to the interests of motorsport in general. The two British teams are accused of agreeing to guarantee victory to Hakkinen in exchange for on-track help to Villeneuve, who in the final stages of the race had visibly left room for the McLaren drivers.

 

Recordings of the conversations between pit and driver had been submitted directly by Ferrari to the FIA as part of Schumacher's defence but the verdict says there was no understanding between Williams and McLaren during the European Grand Prix:

 

"It was Ferrari who gave us those recorded tapes but from their examination there is no evidence that any manoeuvre was put in place to alter the outcome of the race. In the future, however, the FIA has a plan to control all these recordings by making them public. The only concern of the team was that Villeneuve would finish the race. The team had already planned with the driver that, if there was a challenge with other cars in the final part of the race, his first thought should be about the world championship standings".

 

These are the statements made by Max Mosley at the end of the hearing. From one end of Europe to the other, the chorus of criticism against the FIA and Schumacher's sentence is unanimous: not even the German newspapers are soft on the Ferrari driver. An austere economic paper such as Handelsblatt writes under the driver's photo that the repentant racer remains in the race, while Damon Hill declares:

 

"As a punishment, exclusion from the annals of Formula 1 in 1997 is really hard to take seriously. But let's at least try to make a point: the instinctive reaction, as they called it, of a driver can never be to crash into someone. If you start from this basic concept, then the punishment that the FIA gave Schumacher is anything but a punishment, but it is precisely the punishment that Max Mosley had promised".

 

Johnny Herbert, who was Schumacher's team-mate at Benetton, adds:

 

"We expected much more. I can't believe that the Federation acted in this way because it ends up sending the wrong signal to the new drivers".

 

Three-time world champion Jackie Stewart is also unhappy with the decision:

 

"By doing so the effect of that incident becomes devastating on a global level. The punishment? I would say that Schumacher is a very, very lucky guy".

 

David Coulthard also joins the chorus of protest:

 

"Gosh, the loss of second place in the world championship sounds like the most severe part of the sentence but actually those seven days of safe driving campaign are much worse".

 

And Clay Regazzoni, who has always been very critical of those who run the sport, misses no opportunity to have his say:

 

"Only a federation like the FIA could come up with such an absurd decision. The FIA would have come out in a more dignified manner with a verbal reprimand to Schumacher, given that an accident like the one at Jerez cannot be justified in any way. But the farce lies in condemning him to become a testimonial. What will he do? Will he train young people to throw people out? Or will he teach them how to plan accidents?"

 

Giancarlo Fisichella also feels disappointed and expresses his thoughts by stating:

 

"There are rules, Formula 1 is not a bumper car. In the last ten years half of the titles awarded have been tainted by accidents. With a ruling of this kind the drivers feel a bit humiliated".

 

An early Christmas present, headlines the Gazzetta the next day, in Italy, while the British newspaper Times expresses itself in the following words:

 

"That given to Schumacher is not a punishment, Formula 1 is getting its hands dirty. It's a sport where there are too many vested interests. The FIA verdict makes no sense, or logic. It's like something out of Alice in Wonderland".

 

Sky TV, the British cable and satellite channel belonging to the Murdock group, which reaches seventy million viewers in forty countries, adds to the dose, apostrophising the investigation as:

 

"A masquerade, a scandal. The FIA was afraid to take sides against one of the main protagonists of Formula 1. Schumacher should have been suspended, even for the whole of next season".

 

In short, even the journalists would have liked a tougher stance from the FIA, as indeed Ecclestone and Mosley had threatened on the eve of the European Grand Prix, but Schumacher simply loses his vice World Champion title, which is why he will not attend the end-of-year awards ceremony.

 

"It's a very harsh verdict, which hits me in the heart but I have to accept it, I can't do otherwise. If we want to look at the positive side of things, I would say that now I have one less burden to carry. Because for me this whole thing that started in Jerez has been traumatic. At the beginning I couldn't even realise what a mistake I had made, then I finally understood but it was a very bad moment".

 

Says Schumacher, who then goes on to say:

 

"I didn't sleep at night, I had nightmares, I had remorse because with my mistake I hurt a lot of people who didn't deserve it, who deserved and expected more from me. Now it's over, I just want to think about the future. At least all this will serve as a lesson. I hope to be better from now on. I'm especially sorry for my fans and the team, but I have to say that in this bad moment everyone was there for me and helped me not to get down. I confessed my mistake and explained how and why I made it. I said that Jerez was definitely the worst moment of my career, but after all it's just one weekend in a life, in a story, and you have to take that into account. I said: I am a man, I can make mistakes, I have made mistakes. The judges believed me and ruled out premeditation. This is a great satisfaction. Being accused of having done it on purpose weighed heavily on me. Now it is clear that I did not do it on purpose. It was an error of reaction, an instinctive reaction".

 

Two days later, on November 13th, 1997, Marco Piccinini, vice-president of the FIA and the World Council, explained the reasons for these decisions:

 

"I think that probably the reasons that led to this ruling, which concerns a sport like motor racing and Formula 1 that are more complex than other disciplines, have not been well understood. Even within the World Council there were strong emotions and extensive discussion but we felt we had to assess all the circumstances well in order not to do effectual justicialism. I read that we had an eye for it. I reply that this is not the case. We examined the case carefully, starting from the principle that you cannot disrupt such a complex sport just to get the applause of the press. The ruling responds to this need and obviously to that of punishing a serious mistake by creating a future deterrent. We have examined six different TV footage in slow motion several times against the two that I believe were seen by the public, we have examined the telemetry data provided assessing the entry speeds and corner positions and in the end we found no evidence of intent. The point is here: if it's not intentional, the accident is only negligent. Hence a series of consequences. We started from a principle that will also be valid in the future: an accident, even if only negligent, must not pay, must not bring advantage to those who cause it. If Villeneuve or only Villeneuve had gone off the track in that accident, we would have given him the world title. But in any case, we have removed Schumacher from the world rankings because he caused it".

 

"It's a ruling that has great value for the future: those who cause accidents in similar circumstances now know that they can be removed from the world ranking. This is the deterrent. Otherwise we would have ended up punishing the organiser of the Grand Prix chosen for disqualification, who is completely unrelated to this matter. The first Grand Prix in 1998, the Australian Grand Prix, cost several tens of millions of dollars: why should we have punished Australia or any other city or country hosting a race? Whereas a fine, to be meaningful for someone with Schumacher's income, would have had to be of an almost embarrassing amount. Maybe you would have even written that the FIA wanted to enrich itself with a very large fine. What's the point of that? One writes the cheque and closes the game. With a penalty we would have had a distorted championship from the start. In fact, there would have been two rankings, with and without the penalty. We would have ended up discussing at length whether or not the guy who wins would have been champion without the penalty. No, that wasn't possible. Let's bear in mind the complexity of Formula 1, which involves large industries, countries and cities that take on major commitments, have management responsibilities that you can't interfere with just to satisfy a momentary thrill of public opinion. The real danger was exclusion from the whole of 1998 and it would have been an exorbitant and unfair punishment that would have crushed Ferrari's entire season and this as an Italian representative I could not allow. We also made a few jokes at that world council meeting, but then another choice prevailed that has valid reasons. Schumacher will have to face public conferences seven times, with eyes on him and each time he will remember the accident, his mistake, what it entailed and he will certainly speak with more conviction to his listeners. The campaign made by someone like Schumacher will be more effective and as a sanction it will be long-lasting for him too".

 

Even though the judges have practically acquitted him, Schumacher has admitted, albeit in a veiled manner, that he committed an impropriety. Did it cost him the World Championship?

 

Who knows, the race was still long and anything could have happened, but losing in this way is certainly not what befits a champion like him.

 

Michael may have reached the lowest point of his career as a Formula 1 driver, but he knew how to get up again, returning to the limelight in 1998.

Villeneuve is instead at the peak of his life as a driver: at twenty-six years old, champion in several car categories, and now also in the most prestigious one, Jacques seems to have everything on his side to open a winning cycle. Talent, car, personality and experience.

 

Formula 1, however, is also made of choices, and those taken by Villeneuve will not be the ones that will allow him to join the club of the strongest and most successful drivers in history.

 

However, the year 1997, so troubled, so intense, sometimes exciting and sometimes frustrating but ended in the best way, will not take it away from him. Jacques was the favourite thanks to his super-Williams, which in the long run proved to be a very fast car, but not two steps above the others as was believed. Jacques fought against criticism, against his own mistakes, against pressure, but above all he fought against the best of them all. And he beat him, even forcing him into a desperate manoeuvre in the final kilometres of the season to avoid defeat.

 

A rivalry, the one between Schumacher and Villeneuve, that did not blossom as many fans hoped, for the above-mentioned reasons that led the Canadian to slowly disappear from the top of the ranking.

 

Perhaps it is precisely because of this that 1997 retains its uniqueness, as the scene of one of the most intense battles in history, but which unfortunately did not have a follow-up.

 

Davide Scotto di Vetta

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