Jacques Villeneuve

1997 World Driving Champion

Cdn Flag WavedThat certainly was a "barnstorming" finish to an exciting season!  It doesn't get much better than that!

If Villeneuve had romped away to an uncontested win, we would never have heard the end of all the criticisms that he's an undeserving Champion, winning only due to the superiority of his car.  Or had Villeneuve lost to Schumacher, there would have been grumbling over how the FIA had influenced the outcome of the Championship with the disciplinary actions imposed on Villeneuve.

PodiumInstead we saw the top three drivers turn in identical qualifying times!!!  How bizarre.  And the two title contenders lined up together on the front row.  There were some questions over why Schumacher wasn't disqualified for turning his fastest qualifying lap while his brother's Jordan car was still being removed from the gravel trap.  Michael Schumacher was one of the drivers currently running under a one race suspended ban for not slowing for a yellow flag at Suzuka.  Although the yellow flag was clearly still being displayed at this corner, it was "only" a steady yellow and not a waved yellow.  This subtle distinction in the flagging rules allowed Schumacher's run to be considered legal.

At the start, in the crucial drag race off the start line, Villeneuve had way too much wheel spin, Schumacher and Frentzen beat him into the first corner, and it looked like it was all over for Jacques.  I was convinced Schumacher would win.  I even started thinking how it might be a more fitting end to the season.  How it would be good for the sport if a Ferrari driver finally won another World Championship.  The last Ferrari Driver's Championship was won 18 years ago at the hands of Jody Sheckter.  Gilles Villeneuve was second that year.  Now Schumacher's great driving skills had again transformed the Ferrari team into a winning combination.  Schumacher was a better driver and thus more deserving of the title.  Villeneuve and the Williams team had simply frittered away far too many points and now Villeneuve had again wasted his pole position with another poor start.

But NO!  After the second set of pit stops, something was clearly wrong with Schumacher's car.  A bad set of tires maybe?  Villeneuve could still win this!  Villeneuve quickly caught up with Schumacher.  But he would need to be very careful when attempting a pass.

FIA officials had issued stern warnings that they would deal harshly with anyone causing a deliberate collision in an attempt to influence the outcome of the Championship.  In a pre-race interview with Gerald Donaldson, Villeneuve recounted how Schumacher had previously been involved in two Championship-deciding crashes.  Once in a Formula-3 race in Macau when he took out his main competitor Mika Hakkinen, and again in 1994 when he collided with Damon Hill in Adelaide.  In both cases it was strongly suspected, but never proven, that Schumacher had caused the collisions deliberately.  Villeneuve pointed out that he had passed up several opportunities to take Schumacher off the track in Suzuka, which would have allowed Villeneuve to enter the final race with a 9-point lead in the driver's standings.  But he wisely declined the opportunity claiming that he couldn't live with himself if he won a championship in that manner.  "It's not sport".

When the opportunity to pass Schumacher presented itself, Villeneuve went for it.  But there was not even an attempt at sublety from Schumacher.  He left the door wide open to allow Villeneuve into the trap, then squeezed him toward the grass, forcing Villeneuve to drop one wheel off the pavement.  Villeneuve was already ahead by that point and had the line into the corner.  Had Schumacher simply tucked in behind him, he might have retaken the lead if Villeneuve slid wide at the apex.  Instead, seeing his Championship slip away, Schumacher turned hard into the side of Villeneuve's car. 

External Andrew Rigby <andy@merrydew.demon.co.uk> has provided MPEG videos of the incident.  The external view is 849KB, and the onboard shot from Schumacher's car is 1,465KB.  The UK Telegraph shows more photos and a good overhead diagram.  Also be sure to see the hilarious '97 year-end archived edition of The Stunned Mullet! Schu In-car

With that blatant move Michael Schumacher lost not only his Championship, but did serious damage to his reputation.  Had he moved aside and let Villeneuve through cleanly, Schumacher would still have been a worthy runner-up.  He would have been remembered for his entire season of brilliant drives which enabled him to mount a challenge for the title in a car that was ultimately inferior to the Williams.  His fans and supporters could have comforted themselves in believing that he was beaten, not by a better driver, but only by a better car.  Instead his season's accomplishments are now forever overshadowed by this one last desperate and decidedly unsporting move.  Critics who questioned his previous Championship titles now have all the ammunition they need to knock Schumacher down.  It was a sad display, unfitting of a World Champion.  What could he have been thinking?  How would he ever have justified that move, had he succeeded in knocking Villeneuve off the track?

Damon Hill, who is a true gentleman and has always shown remarkable restraint when discussing his '94 collision involving Schumacher, had this to say, "He showed his true colours today and he got what he deserved.  I said before the race I didn't think that he'd try anything like that again because it would spoil his image.  But I was wrong.  At least he is consistent."

From around the world the press are unanimously critical of Schumacher's move.  And the strongest condemnation seems to be coming from the Italian press (as reported on www.Nando.net):

"To see a world title vanish after waiting 18 years is sad enough.  But to see it go up in smoke by that 'prank' from Michael Schumacher is...unfortunately much worse.  It's shameful," La Repubblica newspaper said.

Even La Stampa newspaper, owned by the Agnelli family, which also controls Ferrari, said Schumacher was at fault.  "(Schumacher's) image as a champion was shattered, like a glass hit by a stone," the paper said in a front page article.

"For Ferrari, after 18 years, it would have been a title to hide," Gazzetta dello Sport added.

"Villeneuve...son of the adored Gilles, emerges in a magnificent light as a man who knows how to fight and as a champion who knows how to win," Gazzetta said.

Jacques and Michael were called before the stewards after the event.  It was decided by the stewards to say it was a "racing incident".  Unfortunately for Michael, the FIA did not think this was a "racing incident" and has called Michael for a special meeting on Nov. 11 to determine if and what the penalty for that type of behaviour should be.

JacquesJacques Villeneuve fought back under severe pressure to win a richly deserved World Championship title in only his second year driving in Formula One.  Jacques has succeeded like no other Canadian before him.  And more importantly, Jacques has succeeded like no other Villeneuve before him.  His father Gilles Villeneuve was the first Canadian to score points in an F1 race, and the first Canadian to ever win an F1 race.  Uncle Jacques was the first Canadian to win an Indycar race.  But young Jacques Villeneuve joins a very select list of people who have won the IndyCar Championship (Jacques was the youngest ever to achieve that), the Indy 500, and the F1 World Driving Championship.  Only Mario Andretti and Emerson Fittipaldi accomplished that before Jacques.  But Jacques is the first to have done it within such a short time span.

Jacques Villeneuve can certainly be proud of his accomplishments.  Moreover, Jacques can hold his head up and be proud of the style in which he achieved these titles.  He is indeed a worthy World Champion. 

For many, many more links to Villeneuve sites, visit the website of the Gilles Villeneuve Museum

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