This is part 3 of the European Grand Prix mini history series – years 1996 and 1997.
In 1996 European Grand Prix returned to Nurburgring for the second year in a row. Yet again it turned out to be a significant race – the future champion won his first race here.
Williams were the team to beat those days and so it came as no suprise that Damon Hill and the new arrival from American racing Jacques Villeneuve booked themselves the front row on the grid. Behind them lined up Schumacher (Ferrari), Alesi (Benetton), Barrichello (Jordan) and Coulthard (McLaren). Confident Hill however made mess of his start and Villeneuve took the lead. Coulthard came out of nowhere in struggling McLaren and found himself 2nd challenging for the lead. Barrichello moved up to third ahead of Schumacher, Hill and Hakkinen.
Coulthard soon turned into a mobile chicane (the craft later mastered by Jarno Trulli ) and Villeneuve started to pull away (7 secs in 10 laps). On lap five Hill overtook Schumacher but got stuck behind Barrichello creating some breathing space for DC ahead of them. Just before first pit stops Hill experienced some problems with his car, pitted for checks and rejoined the race in the midfield. When the pit stops were over, all of a sudden Schumacher was 2nd only 8 seconds behind Villeneuve. Coulthard dropped to third. Villeneuve was not too happy with his car at this stage of the race and Schumi closed in. Things improved for Villeneuve after the next pit stop. Schumacher was still able to get right behind Villeneuve but with his Ferrari lacking the straight line speed needed to actually overtake the Williams car all he could hope for was Villeneuve’s mistake.
That mistake never came and so Jacques Villeneuve could celebrate his first Formula 1 victory in only his 6th race. It took 12 years for another rookie, Lewis Hamilton, to match that. Schumacher was happy with second, Coulthard’s 3rd could not come at better place than in Mercedes’ home race.
In 1997 Nurburgring race was run as Luxemburg GP, European GP returned to Jerez. It was the final, title deciding race. It is also one of those races that left a blemish on Michael Schumacher’s F1 legacy and still manages to spark heated debates …
It was a perfect set up for the season finale, similar to what we had in 2007. Going to the race top 2 drivers, Michael Schumacher and Jacques Villeneuve were separated only by a point. Schumacher was leading the championship, but Villeneuve won one more race. In the event of a tie Villeneuve would claim the title. There were different combinations but two things were simple, the driver finishing ahead of the other would become the champion, if both finished outside points Schumacher would win the title.
The title race was tight and the bizzare qualifying only highlighted this – three drivers – Villeneuve, Schumacher and Frentzen – set identical qualifying times, first time ever this had happened in Formula 1. As Villeneuve set that time first he got the pole, P2 went to Schumacher, P3 to Frentzen. One can hardly imagine better set up for the title deciding season finale.
Villeneuve did not start very well and lost position to both Schumacher and Villeneuve. Team orders (still legal those days) meant Frentzen stepped aside and Villeneuve was free to chase Schumacher. First pit stops did not change that order and nor did the second. The difference after second pit stops however was that Villeneuve was getting closer to Schumacher. On lap 48 he was right on his tail.
At the Dry Sac corner Villeneuve attempted to overtake Schumacher and was about to make it when Schumacher apparently turned his car and crashed into Villeneuve (video). Whatever was on Schumacher’s mind had not worked out. He retired, Villeneuve had not and claimed the title. But not before another bizzare event. Williams and McLaren made a deal that McLarens would stay clear of clearly hurt Villeneuve’s Williams if he would simply let them pass. That’s what had happened and so Mika Hakkinen, already in the lead thanks to team orders, won the race ahead of his team mate David Coulthard. Jacques Villeneuve won his first (and only) F1 title in only his second season in Formula 1, Michael Schumacher was later disqualified from the whole 1997 F1 season. This was also so far the last F1 title for Williams team.