No, it's not now. It's fifteen years ago: the year of 1997.
When classic seasons in F1 history are discussed I often think that 1997 is curiously rarely-mentioned. It was an underrated classic. While much of F1 in the 1990s was characterised by only a small number of likely winners at any given moment, and often one team dominating, 1997 represented something of a renaissance. Perhaps part of the season's not getting the credit it deserves owes something to its being poorly served by statistics. For all of its competitiveness, it can only claim to six different winners (from four teams) in 17 races. But with cards falling the other way it could easily have boasted anything up to double those numbers.
some years later
Credit: Rick Dikeman / CC
And further was the variable brought in by the Bridgestone tyres. For the first time since 1991 Goodyear had opposition in supplying F1 teams, and it could be argued that for the first time since 1984 (when Michelin left the sport) Goodyear had a serious threat to its pedestal position. If anything the Bridgestone was the superior tyre, certainly the more durable. And in this its debut season it could only count midfield runners at best among its customers: Prost (née Ligier, just bought by Alain), Stewart (also in its debut season) and the like; but the Bridgestones could, on occasion, bring these guys right to the sharp end. Heck, even Arrows nearly won a race on them. And Goodyear in response sometimes got its sums wrong, the resultant gumball rubber meant that 'blistering' and subsequent pace variation returned to the F1 parlance with a vengeance.
A few stats that do the 1997 year's competitiveness justice is that in eight of the 17 rounds the top 10 qualified within a second of each other, and in Austria no fewer than 14 cars made it within this mark. And the year's qualifying sessions were as nature intended: four sets of tyres each to use within an hour's session on low fuel. No 'saving tyres for the race' entered into it.
And if we take all those drivers who qualified on pole during the year, their lowest qualifying slots of the season read thus: Heinz-Harald Frentzen 8th, Jacques Villeneuve 9th, Michael Schumacher 9th, Jean Alesi 15th, Mika Hakkinen 17th, Gerhard Berger 18th. And in none of those cases did they have a technical problem, or face an ill-timed rain shower, or anything else like that. In each case they simply were not quick enough.
|Michael Schumacher was an|
unexpected championship contender
Credit: Cord Rodefield / CC
It was a season of incredible ebb and flow between the two, with neither being on top for long, and as soon as it seemed one had a decisive advantage there would be an astonishing switch of fortunes. But, strangely even with the year's competitiveness, rarely were the two in direct battle with each other on track during a race that season. Indeed, never in 1997 did Villeneuve and Schumacher share a podium.
Not that anyone expected it to be that way at the season outset. Most had grown well-used to single-team domination, usually by Williams, and following on from the Grove team's clean sweep in 1996 few expected 1997 to be much different. Further, Jacques Villeneuve was most onlookers' clear championship favourite. He impressed most in his debut F1 season the previous year (entering as Indycar champion) by winning four times and taking the title battle down to the final race, all the while becoming stronger as the year progressed. He was highly-rated in this period, much more than the diminished driver towards the end of his career was to become. And the guy who'd beaten him to the 1996 title, his team mate Damon Hill, had been shown the door by Williams for 1997 somewhat surprisingly (and even more surprisingly surfaced at the middling Arrows team). Some said that the decision by Sir Frank to get rid had been made as long ago as 1995, when Hill was enduring a particularly deep performance trough. The guy selected to replace him was young German Heinz-Harald Frentzen, someone with a big reputation, and many at this point were repeating (what turned out to be a myth) that Frentzen was quicker than Schumacher when they were sportscar team mates at Mercedes, almost by rote. If 1997 taught us anything it was that Frentzen's reputation outstripped his abilities somewhat, and he was never in title contention.
And as the year kicked off in Melbourne it indeed looked like 1997 would be a Williams, and in particular a Villeneuve, benefit. Around the Albert Park track he looked spectacular and his best qualifying time was some 1.7 seconds under anyone else's quickest, which just so happened to be provided by his team mate. The quickest non-Williams was not within two seconds of Jacques's best. But, within a few metres of the Melbourne race start we received our first indication that 1997 was going to be a season very different from those we had grown used to.
Villeneuve didn't get the best of starts, but then Eddie Irvine, Schumacher's Ferrari team mate, for reasons best known to himself sought to outbrake the entire field it seemed down the inside of turn one. He only succeeded in wiping Villeneuve, Johnny Herbert and himself out of the race. Thus scratch the guy who'd been expected to win at ease. Frentzen took up the lead and for most of the way looked perfectly capable of stepping in to win in Villeneuve's absence, even though he was on a two-stop strategy and most behind intended to stop just once; on strategy Williams' hand was forced by marginal brakes. But Frentzen's second stop was botched which left him in third place behind David Coulthard's McLaren - now thrust into the lead - and Schumacher's Ferrari. Schumi got out of the way with a late 'splash and dash' fuel stop (it was a design flaw on that year's Ferrari that its fuel tank was on the small side, making it close to running dry when on a one-stopper), but then Frentzen's marginal brake discs bit him, a front disc exploded late on and pitched Frentzen out. This all left Coulthard to canter to the win unchallenged, thus ending McLaren's win drought which had extended all the way back to Ayrton Senna's final race triumph in 1993. Schumi salvaged second.
|The Prost JS45, a consistent challenger|
in Oliver Panis's hands
Credit: MPW57 / CC
But then the challenge emerged, and it came from Maranello. Schumacher finished second at Imola (behind Frentzen) on a day that Villeneuve's gearbox halted him, and then Schumi won brilliantly by routing the field on a day that the rain came down at Monaco (with Rubens Barrichello's Stewart a scarcely believable second). In that race both Williams, unfathomably, started on slick tyres and with full dry chassis settings. And both ended up in the barriers. All of a sudden, Schumi was leading the drivers' table.
Next up was the Spanish round, in Barcelona, and it was witness to probably Villeneuve's best drive of the season. As mentioned, 1997 was a year of a tyre war, Bridgestone's product seemed superior to Goodyear's, and in Barcelona Goodyear seriously got its sums wrong in trying to react. Without careful handling the Goodyear tyres on offer in Spain would blister rapidly, and on race day possibly only Villeneuve of those running those tyres understood what was required of them. He treated the first few laps of every stint as a sort of 'go slow', putting an initial gentle heat cycle through the rubber, and as a consequence got life out of them for much longer than most of the other Goodyear runners who dived in out of the pitlane for new tyres like they thought it was the object of the exercise. Villeneuve won with a fine drive of considerable restraint. In second place was the Bridgestone-booted Panis who'd climbed from 12th on the grid as the Goodyear runners faltered. Indeed, he again may have won, but lost a lot of time behind Mika Salo's Tyrrell early on and then lost more time late on when Irvine didn't want to be lapped. There was much muttering that this was Ferrari employing team tactics to help Schumi (who was not far behind Panis in fourth) but if that was its intention then it backfired as it only served to deny Panis an opportunity to take points from Villeneuve.
So, Jacques led the championship once more. And if anyone thought that he and Williams were now going to reassert themselves they were rapidly dissuaded of the notion. There was yet another decisive pro-Schumi swing. In Canada, the next race, Villeneuve started the 'wall of champions' fable by clouting it on lap two, putting him out, and Schumi won for the second time that year. Though he did have a large slice of good luck as Coulthard lost the win by making a precautionary late stop for new tyres, only to fall victim to a clutch problem that didn't let him re-join, just as a red flag for an accident for Panis ended the race early. Sadly, Panis broke both legs in the smash, which put him out for most of the remainder of the year and thus deprived us all of a consistent leading challenger (indeed, Panis was third in the drivers' table at this point).
Schumacher therefore led Villeneuve in the table by seven points, and after the next round in Magny-Cours in France this lead astonishingly was extended to 14. Schumi won from pole, Villeneuve qualified and finished fourth, and rarely figured.
At this point there was a lot of head scratching in the F1 firmament. Just what was going on? How could Villeneuve and Williams be missing out so badly? Particularly to Schumacher and Ferrari who nobody, least of all themslves, reckoned would be equipped for a championship battle this year? Well, a lot of it was that the Williams team and its drivers were making mistakes, not finishing as many races as it should, and the Schumi, Brawn et al collective was perfectly capable of taking advantage as well as of making up some of the performance gap to the Adrian Newey-penned Williams car. Indeed, Brawn concurs that the team's mid-season form owed more to the failings of others than to them per se: 'The mid-season purple patch did take us a little by surprise and, looking back, I think that was because it was that Williams were getting something wrong...There was definitely progress made by default of others rather than our own major steps forward.'
|The McLaren MP4-12 was the pace-setter |
in much of the second half of the year
Credit: Petr Kadlec / CC
Next up was Hockenheim, then a curious track made up essentially of long straights separated by chicanes. And this weekend the championship front-runners stepped aside somewhat, as Gerhard Berger in the Benetton and Fischella's Jordan set the pace. The race was resolved in Berger's favour, a popular win for the veteran who was just back from an enforced lay off with a sinus problem and it was also only three weeks since the death of his father. Schumacher claimed second after Fisichella was stopped by a cruel late puncture. But Villeneuve again didn't finish, and indeed he didn't figure much on the quick track and eventually was scared off the road when Jarno Trulli (Panis's Prost replacement) threatened to pass. Schumi's lead was thus back up to ten.
|Damon Hill so nearly won in Hungary|
Credit: All Glory To The Hypnotoad / CC
There then followed a concerted period in which Williams had the upper hand on the Scuderia. The 'lightweight' Ferrari never seemed quite as effective as the previous spec (though the team maintained that the spec-change was mere coincidence) and often found itself with a few cars, in the tight field, between it and the front-running Villeneuve. Jacques took pole in Spa and looked unstoppable, but on race day Spa's famously volatile weather saved Schumi. It rained hard for a short period just before the start, and Schumi, having started on intermediates when nearly everyone else went for full wets, routed the field early on when the track was perfidious and established a lead of close to a minute that never looked like being usurped. Villeneuve, again getting it wrong in the wet, trailed in fifth, behind Fisichella, Frentzen and Herbert.
Next was Ferrari's home round at Monza. The long straights didn't suit the Ferrari whose engine was a little behind on the grunt stakes, and when Schumi started in ninth compared with Villeneuve's fourth it looked like Jacques could count on pulling back some of the 11 point deficit to Schumi. He did, but only by one: Villeneuve finished fifth and Schumi sixth. It was an extraordinary race which was certainly close but at no point did anyone look remotely likely to make a pass (the problems of 'dirty air' in F1 were really beginning to make themselves felt). The onlooking Nigel Roebuck commented that it was like watching 'a high speed metronome'. Position therefore was dictated by the start and how much fuel you had on board, and come the end of lap one the result was pretty much pre-ordained aside from any unreliability. Coulthard won eventually, from Alesi and Frentzen.
But in the nick of time Villeneuve's season clicked into gear. He won the next two rounds and even better for him Schumacher scored just a single point in the same period. Firstly in Austria Jacques faced down 1997's latest amazing interloper performance, this time from Jarno Trulli in the Prost, who took the lead early on and took command of the race like he was born to do it. Villeneuve eventually usurped him (and Trulli dropped out before the end with a cruel engine failure), and Schumi could only manage sixth after incurring a penalty for passing Frentzen under yellows. Then in the curiously-titled Luxembourg Grand Prix at the Nurburgring in Germany Villeneuve won again, though helped by a massive slab of luck when the McLarens who had disappeared out ahead with Hakkinen first both stopped within a lap of each other with engine failures. Schumi, meanwhile, didn't last beyond lap two having been clouted by his flying brother Ralf at the first corner.
So, with two rounds left Villeneuve led Schumi by nine points, and with Ferrari beleaguered most assumed that the destination of the drivers' title was set. But we should have known better; a couple more twists awaited.
Everyone pitched up at Suzuka in Japan and found quickly that Ferrari hadn't given up on the title, as the team appeared with a revised machine, which seemed to stretch the wording of chassis flexing rules (some things never change). In any case, the red cars were bang on the pace and, moreover, Villeneuve then blasted a hole in his own foot in practice. In Imola and Monza earlier in the year Villeneuve had neglected to slow for yellow flags in practice sessions, and thus was on a suspended one-race ban (his final warning in other words). And in Suzuka he somehow contrived to do exactly the same again, thus the outcome was inevitable and Villeneuve it seemed couldn't count on any points from the Japanese round. Williams appealed the decision, primarily it seemed so Villeneuve could race pending appeal and thus influence the race however he could.
So it came to pass in the race that Villeneuve, having led from pole from Schumi in second, sought to back up the field hoping that with cars around Schumi anything could happen. But his plans were foiled, first by Eddie Irvine, a Suzuka specialist, who managed to sail past Villeneuve and disappear into the distance. Then Schumacher got ahead of Villeneuve at the first stops, and Irvine was given the 'phone call', letting Schumi past then slowing to 'back up' Villeneuve disastrously. Schumi won, Villeneuve only got fifth and he had to discount the points for it as Williams as expected withdrew his race ban appeal after the chequered flag.
Thus Schumi and Jacques went to the final round only a point apart, and with Schumi ahead. The showdown was at the curious location of Jerez in Spain (that Alonso-mania had yet to happen ensured a sparse crowd); Renault was about to pull out of the sport and thus requested a European round for its send-off and Jerez was a late replacement after Estoril in Portugal was deemed unsuitable on safety grounds. And in qualifying the tight, unbelievable 1997 season reached its crescendo. Villeneuve, Schumacher and Frentzen set exactly the same best qualifying time at the front, and thus their starting slots (in that order) were dictated by the order in which they set their mark.
Therefore Villeneuve and Schumi were perfectly poised, starting on the front row and the winner taking it all. And when Schumi got the much better start and quickly led by a few seconds many thought that would be that. Villeneuve however got back on Schumi's tail helped by Frentzen staying out longer before his first pit stop and backing Schumi into Villeneuve. But then the gap stretched out again when Norberto Fontana's Sauber took a while to get out of Villeneuve's way when being lapped (Sauber used Ferrari engines and Fontana later was to claim that Ferrari team principal Jean Todt had ordered him to impede Villeneuve). Thus, Schumi remained ahead after the final stops and it seemed little could stop him.
But then Villeneuve scampered quickly onto Schumacher's tail once again. And almost immediately he targeted his car for the inside of Schumacher at the Dry Sack hairpin, outbraking him from what seemed a mile back. It looked like he had him clean, but then Schumi it appeared simply aimed his car at Villeneuve on the way through, seemingly in a moment of panic. But the biter got bitten, and Schumi found himself beached in a gravel trap with Villeneuve, his car damaged, able to continue.
It wasn't clear why Villeneuve had got so close in the first place. Brawn said Schumi was simply taking it easy on new tyres so not to suffer blistering towards the end, and hadn't expected Villeneuve's attack to come so soon. Schumi's team mate Eddie Irvine typically was more blunt: 'Michael really screwed up because he got overconfident. He did his final pit stop, he thought "I'm there". So he backed off, partly also because he was scared of blistering his tyres, but he let Jacques get too close. If there is one driver you don't want to allow to get too close it's Jacques...That move also for me deserved the world championship. There is not another driver on the grid who would have come from that far back to make that move. Because one thing Jacques did have was big balls.' It emerged years later too that Schumi wouldn't have made it to the end anyway due to a terminal water leak, so may have been minded not to let Villeneuve finish either.
Whatever the case, Villeneuve now only needed to finish sixth to be world champion, and he struggled on with hobbled machinery to come third in the end, with Mika Hakkinen taking his first ever win in what looked an arranged outcome between Williams and McLaren.
As one journalist noted, the story was just like that of a spaghetti western - the guy who we all thought was the baddie had it fact shown himself at the last to be the good guy after all (and vice versa). And the move was doubly-bad for Schumacher as it shed new light on the clash with Damon Hill at Adelaide that had settled the title in his favour three years earlier. Many had given him the benefit of the doubt then but in light of the Jerez evidence did not any longer.
But the closing of the 1997 season meant the end of an era in many ways. For one, Williams, the sport's standard bearers for many a year, was never quite the same again. Adrian Newey had left the team before the season start to join McLaren after a spell of 'gardening leave', and its engine supplier Renault pulled out of the sport at the season end. Particularly due to the first part, Williams was never again the sport's dominant force: some wins followed, but no titles, nor even much of a threat of them, and indeed there was no wins at all for the team in the next three seasons. And for Villeneuve there was no more victories: he stayed at Williams for another year before making the disastrous career move of joining BAR, where his fortunes entered a downward spiral. Don't let anyone tell you that F1 is predictable.
And for 1998 things returned to as we'd got used to. Much of 1997's close order could be explained by relative rule stability, going back to the raft of technical changes which followed Ayrton Senna's death in 1994. In that situation teams behind can over time learn the lessons of what is making the front runners quick, and adapt accordingly, and of course the front runners' learning curves are shallower. But in 1998 there awaited fundamental changes forcing everyone back to base camp, with the introduction of a narrower track and grooved tyres (for reasons I've never fully understood). This succeeded only in splitting the field apart once more.
Thus 1997 stands rather alone in this era, something of an oasis in a desert if you will. It was a close, unpredictable and exciting season, and refreshing especially because such a high proportion of the field were credible competitors for strong results and even for wins. And it's credible competitors that make a sport healthy. The 1997 year was indeed a classic.