Jacques Villeneuve, Michael Schumacher, Suzuka, 1997

Remembering F1’s last great leap forward and an explosive title battle

1997 F1 season

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Formula One’s grand plan to slash lap times by five seconds will be put to the test when the 2017 cars hit the track in a few weeks.

Major revisions to the aerodynamics and tyres have been signed off in order for F1 to achieve this target. But 20 years ago teams found a similar leap forward in performance without such dramatic changes being necessary.

The 1997 season saw lap times plummet across the board by multiple seconds. It was also the year of the tense championship showdown between Jacques Villeneuve and Michael Schumacher, and the most recent championship successes for the Williams team.

This memorable F1 season will be featured in a series of articles throughout the coming year on F1 Fanatic.

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Tyre war slashes lap times

1996: Jos Verstappen with the Bridgestone test team
Bridgestone conducted an extensive testing programme
Goodyear had Formula One to themselves between 1992 and 1996. With no rival manufacturer on the scene, the American giant had no incentive to push F1 tyre manufacturer to the limit.

That all changed when Japanese rivals Bridgestone announced their intention to enter F1 in 1997. After lengthy tests throughout 1996 they were well-prepared for their arrival, and testing showed their wet weather technology in particular had raised the bar.

But Goodyear responded and a new tyre war began. Compounds became ever softer and throughout testing it was clear the new cars were going to be vastly quicker.

At the Circuit de Catalunya the pole position time fell by a massive four seconds compared to the previous season. Formula One hasnt seen anything like it since:

Alarmed by the increase in speeds, the FIA swiftly introduced regulations cutting the car widths from 2,000mm to 1,800mm for 1998 in order to make wing sizes smaller. That change is now being reversed for 2017.

Williams under pressure

Damon Hill, Williams, Suzuka, 1996
Hill was shown the door after winning the 1996 title
Heading into 1997 one team was expected to lead the championship charge. But Williams, the standard-setting team of more or less the past five seasons, faced growing threats to their superiority.

Renault, the manufacturer whose engines had powered Williams to their victories, were poised to withdraw at the end of the year. Williams’ days as a manufacturer engine partner were numbered.

For now at least they had one year left of full works support. And in Adrian Newey’s FW19 the engine had a chassis worthy of its potential. But as the year began the man behind the car was no longer showing up to work at the factory.

Newey had grown unhappy with his lack of authority over some areas of the team, including driver choices. He had been particularly unhappy with the the decision to eject Damon Hill at the end of what turned out to be his championship-winning 1996 campaign. Newey’s contract ran until 1999, but he and the team were heading for divorce.

The decision to drop Hill, who had taken eight of the team’s dozen victories the season before, meant for the fifth year running Williams began the season with a change in the line-up. Villeneuve had impressed in his rookie campaign and stayed within reach of Hill until the final round. He was joined by Heinz-Harald Frentzen, whom many believed had the potential to rival Schumacher as Germany’s top driver.

The team also faced a serious and potentially disruptive distraction from the business of racing. On February 20th a court in Imola convened to try six people on accusations of causing the death of Ayrton Senna in his crash during the San Marino Grand Prix three years earlier. Williams, Head and Newey were among those on trial.

Healthy rivalry

Olivier Panis, Prost JS45, Interlagos, 1997
Ligier metamorphosed into Prost
Williams also knew their rivals would be stronger in 1997. “If Ferrari gets on top of its reliability problems over the winter, which it will, then Michael could disappear next season,” Frank Williams reflected in mid-1996.

Of the four races Williams failed to win that year Schumacher won three. Heading into 1997 the arrival of Ross Brawn at Maranello alongside Schumacher and designer Rory Byrne gave the impression the team was turning into a ‘red Benetton’ with the title-winning potential to match.

With Marlboro’s money gone to pay Schumacher’s retainer, McLaren appeared in silver West colours for the first time, though not before the MP4-12 made its test debut in striking McLaren papaya orange. They and Mercedes went into their third year together still looking for their first joint victory.

Benetton had gone from champions with Schumacher in 1995 to non-winners the following season with Gerhard Berger and Jean Alesi at the wheel. However the Renault-powered B197 had posted competitive lap times in testing.

While these front-runners remained with Goodyear, the other race-winners of 1996 had gambled on a switch to Bridgestone. Ligier had also been bought and rebranded by four-times world champion Alain Prost during the off-season. Olivier Panis, the shock winner of a chaotic 1996 Monaco Grand Prix, remained their lead driver.

For the second time since Jordan’s debut season six years earlier a Schumacher was at the wheel of one of their cars. The expectation was that Ralf, the reigning Formula Nippon champion, would at least do more than just one race. Eddie Jordan had opted for a largely untried line-up by pairing him with Giancarlo Fisichella, who arrived from Minardi with just a handful of starts under his belt.

That left Martin Brundle reluctantly confined to a role in the commentary box alongside Murray Walker. For British television viewers, F1’s move from the BBC to ITV meant one more innovation for 1997, and not a welcome one: in-race advert breaks.

A tale of two newcomers

Rubens Barrichello, Stewart-Ford SF1, Melbourne, 1997
Stewart: The team which became Red Bull
Prost wasn’t the only multiple champion starting afresh as a team owner. Jackie Stewart was too, and he was doing it the hard way, having formed the all-new Stewart team with his son Paul.

Joining them on the grid for the first time – in theory at least – was a new entry from Lola. But while Stewart attracted factory backing from Ford, Lola had to make do with dated customer units based on the models which had taken Schumacher to his first championship three years ago.

As far as the powers-that-be were concerned, both new entries were afforded the standard F1 welcome. Which is to say, neither were entitled to a share of the prize money or travel concessions afforded to their rival teams.

The Lola project proved short-lived but through a few changes of hands Stewart ultimately became one of today’s powerhouse teams. That lay well in the future as the teams headed to Melbourne for the first race of 1997.

The 1997 Formula One season retrospective will continue on March 9th. Until then why not review our 1994 F1 season retrospective.

1997 F1 season

Browse all 1997 F1 season articles

Author information

Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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  • 41 comments on “Remembering F1’s last great leap forward and an explosive title battle”

    1. This was the greatest season i can remember, From 93 onward. The tyre war is a huge variable that i think the sport underestimated. The more equal the cars are forced, the less room for innovation leads to stale designs and cars that would go great at certain tracks, like Stewart at Austria i seem to recall

    2. YAY! thank you so much ! the 1997 season was by far my favourite F1 season ever. Partly because it was the first year I fully followed F1, and partly because it had great battles, lovely distinctive cars (the last properly good looking cars IMO), great drivers, multiple winners and a superb title fight.

      1. +100

        Stunning looking. Before grooved tires and fiddly wing bits took over. Oh..and the big V10s were pretty good too.

      2. “it had great battles”
        WHAT?! 1997 was the season when the lack of overtaking became the big subject of debate, because it was at its worst in that year.
        Don’t you remember Monza 1997 – first 37 laps – 0 (zero!) overtaking manoevers. It was Formula 1’s all time low. At Monza! Not Monaco, Monza!
        Exactly this triggered the technical changes for 1998 – they were desperately looking for ways to fix the processional Formula 1 that the sport had become.

    3. 1997 was a crazy season. Wasn’t this the one where 3 cars had the exact same qualy time in the final race?

      We used to watch the races with a group of guys, great memories

      1. yeah. And Damon Hill with the ARROWS was 4th, missing pole position for a very little margin.

        Now, imagine that, last race of the season, the great decison, Schumacher vs JV.

        And on pole ahead of them, an ARROWS.

        That would be something to see.

        1. Let’s not forget Hungary. I remember watching that as an 8 year old cheering on Hill after his 96 title, only to see his race-leading Arrows falter on the last lap. Oh the heartbreak!

    4. Being a massive JV fan, this of course was a milestone season for me.

      1. Yep… I was a huge JV fan, and the last race of the season was the high point of his career. 1997 was the first complete season of F1 that I saw, and I thought it was an absolute cracker.

    5. 1997 was my first year in F1 working for the newly launched F1 digital+ service.

      I remember been blown away by how different F1 was to the CART/IRL/Nascar/IMSA stuff I had been used to over the previous years. Everything was way more professional, polished & organized & everything related to the TV broadcast was a lot more advanced with way larger budgets than what I’d been used to. And as the year went on even though I was working less than I had been when I was doing stuff for multiple categories the previous years I found that the travel of the F1 circus was way more tiring & by far the toughest thing i’d ever done until that point. Going all around the world & visiting country’s I’d not been to before was fun & it’s something I do miss to an extent, But the travel was brutal. Been in different beds every other week, Having to adjust to different time zones & working to get all the TV equipment setup even though you were still feeling the effects of travel was hard & while you do get used to it over time it never got any easier.

      Speaking of the F1 digital+ service. What a great idea that was, It really was something that was way ahead of its time when you think about it. That level & quality of coverage hadn’t been seen before & wouldn’t be seen again for a few years after the service shut down at the end of 2002.
      And many things which we came up with on that service have ended up becoming common place in motor sports broadcasting. Things like ground based pickup points for the in-car cameras that eliminated the break-up under trees, bridges & tunnels & some of the software stuff we were using to electronically track cars via timing sectors & get the system to bring up warnings for the director if a driver was about to run wide or was looking to line up an overtake & for the camera operators the push to live button that would automatically switch the live feed to there camera if they pushed it (Which is why we were able to catch so much stuff live back then).

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hcqTb8Kzpq8&list=PLhCh0fz_rbe68-hsEK4sWEr7c0yzHPaEi

      1. I was only young, I briefly remember it but why did they stop it. What happened?

        1. It closed as it wasn’t financially sustainable. It was costing us a fortune just to ship all the equipment out to each race let alone all the investment that was been put into it to come up with some of the new ideas & new technology that we were using.
          We were also unable to launch in as many regions as we had hoped to which limited how many people could get access to it & additionally when we launched in the UK for 2002 we never got the viewer count that was hoped.

          When FOM began producing the world-feed for some races in 2004 some of the equipment & talent that was used on the F1 digital+ service ended up been used for the world-feed which is why you started to see things like live telemetry & team radio appear on the broadcast from 2004.

          1. Thanks for the explanation man. Looking at it on YouTube shows how it was light years ahead of the normal feed like the 1 ITV got. We’re lucky have all the info and radio and details and things like that now. I find it hard to watch old races because you feel as if theres a lack of information.

          2. Fascinating, thanks. I always thought the screen went to white noise when the G in the car was beyond the electronics ability to send a signal.

      2. Really impressive insight. Thanks for that.

    6. When I think of a recent F1 tyre war I immediately think of the 2001-2005(I might be out by a year or two?!) Michelin-Bridgestone slugfest, but I think the short-lived Goodyear-Bridgestone battle tend to be forgotten about. Bridgestone were the newcomers without a major team on their books so they had to rely on the likes of Prost, Arrows and Stewart to spring some surprises, which as we’ll find out in this retrospective we shall see if they did or not…. Can’t wait for the future articles.

    7. Name Those Corners.
      – The Villeneuve & Schumacher one I’m going for the last chicane (Casio Triangle) at Suzuka.
      – The Panis one I’m going for…. Mergulho at Interlagos. Could be wrong.
      – The Barrichello & Fisichella one is…. the curve along the lake? Before turn 11/12 chicane.

      1. @unicron2002 I think the Barrichello and Fisichella one is turn 2 at Melbourne. Here’s another picture, with a wider shot, adn you can see grandstands on the outside, which would rule out the curve along the lake http://www.f1fanatic.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/1997.jpg

        1. Good call @fer-no65 that’s the one, I wasn’t confident on my answer. Long live Albert Park.

      2. I would have said the Panis picture was at Pinheirinho at Interlagos @unicron2002.

        1. @geemac I agree, Mergulho isnt at tight as pictured. Oh well, I got 1 out of 3 right! I think…

    8. This is AMAZING Keith! Thank you so much, I can’t wait to relive my earliest racing memories. This season, CART and BTCC, I was only a child but I could recognize so many brands and teams. And though I was a Tifoso all my life, man did that Stewart SF1 look awesome. If this is anything like the 1994 recap, we are in for THE treat.
      Keep it up Keith, the website keeps getting better to the point I never dare enter the official F1 website, this is a way better source of news and specials.

    9. Bridgestone made 1997 interesting indeed. Fortunately Bridgestone was arguably ahead of Goodyear very early on this is important considering that Bridgestone only managed to sign lower end teams which meant the pack was much tighter and that was great for f1, the same effect occurred in 01 when Michelin came in, unfortunately after 01 most teams knew they had something to gain with Michelin rubber and that was to the detriment of the lower end teams who become disadvantaged by that and fell even more behind.

      1. @peartree, This is why F1 needs a PRICE-cap (not budget) to allow small budget teams to purchase the best components such as PUs, gearboxes, brakes, wheels and tyres. This would allow the manufacturer to spend as much money as they wanted to for research and development to highlight and test their products, but they would be required to supply any team at a price compatible with the target budget set by the FIA.
        This would require some refinements, such as the STR/Ferrari engine supply, would Minnow racing get the latest PU from MB/F/R, or have to settle for last years with mid season updates ?

        1. @hohum That’s essentially what Ferrari vetoed. Ferrari vetoed the 14 million engine cap because such practice would mean the end of manufacturers in f1. Manufacturers and suppliers want to make money, they would leave otherwise. You can’t expect Carbone Industries or O.Z. to keep making f1 components if they had to pay to supply rather than earn something in return. I think Brembo might have the money to do it but many f1 suppliers don’t earn anything but what they do from selling racing parts.

          1. @peartree, yes, I understand the problems, and the FIA would have to be realistic about the actual cost of manufacture.

    10. Thanks Keith, really looking forward to reliving my first full season of Formula One through this series.

    11. Alarmed by the increase in speeds, the FIA swiftly introduced regulations cutting the car widths from 2,000mm to 1,800mm for 1998 in order to make wing sizes smaller.

      1998 also saw the implementation of grooved tires to help slow them down.

      I know everyone is loving of this idea of making the cars go faster(this is not a new idea!), but with increased weight and increased cornering speeds, the results are going to be scarier when something goes wrong.

      I predict 1994 more than 1997. I hope that I am wrong for the sake and safety of our drivers.

      1. @reg

        I predict 1994 more than 1997. I hope that I am wrong for the sake and safety of our drivers.

        I know exactly what you mean. I think the increase in car width will catch many out. I know it shouldn’t take long to relearn reference points, but at speed in combat, it will be easy to forget that extra 10cm either side.

        I can see a crash on the run down to turn one at Monaco and Spa with interlocking wheels, plus a proper road block in Baku (turns 8/9/10).

        I hope I’m wrong!

    12. To me 1997 echoes 2012 closest – a medicore driver being able to challenge for a championship thanks to Newey’s genius, with an all time great pulling things extremely close in a sub-standard Ferrari.

      1. The last thing JV was was mediocre. And he was up against an opponent that F1 itself was backing to end the Ferrari WDC drought. And the season ended with one of F1’s all time greats showing his true colours, not for the first time nor the last. How that relates to 2012 is beyond me.

        1. Sorry Robbie, gotta agree with Anonymous here. Not so much with the comparison of 2012 but rather stating that JV was a mediocre driver. Of all the champions in the last 25 years of F1, I firmly put JV at the bottom of the pile.

          1. To be honest, after Mansell and Senna retired, the entire grid was rather mediocre. At that point in time JV was among the top 3 or 4 drivers on the grid.. but I do agree that JV would have been just another mediocre driver if we was driving pre 1994. Post 2002, JV was definitely mediocre.

            1. To each their own. Drivers are coloured by their cars. With JV’s CART Championship, his Indy 500 win, and his F1 Championship, not to mention his second overall at Lemans, he has the stuff on his resume only shared by Mario Andretti and Emerson Fittipaldi in the history of Motorsport. Mediocre simply does not belong in the vocabulary here and shows only a skimming over of his career, not an in depth look let alone a close following.

            2. Schumacher mediocre?

            3. have to agree with robbie, but also add Graham Hill to the list of Mario and Emerson that achieved great things in all the classes mentioned

            4. @q85 I mean no slight against Hill or any other multi-discipline racers in history, but only JV, MA, and EF have the actual Championship trophies from CART, Indy 500, and F1 amongst their other rides in other series’.

    13. I look forward to the next articles. Like many others, 1997 is special for me — it was first time I attended a race, in Montreal, third row of grandstand 24 (which is the outside of the hairpin). The atmosphere was incredible.
      There’s lots of talk of engine noise, but I remember my ears hurting and needing ear plugs… and the thumping in my chest… and bits tire rubber dotting the beer foam. Ah the memories!

      1. Yep I was in Montreal that year too. Talked a bunch of my buddies to make the trek with me to watch and cheer JV. The race will be crazy with all of the Canadian flags waving, I told them…..oh well. We still laugh about it to this day.

        97 was awesome all the way through. So many huge performances from the midfield, maybe that one really stood out was Jarno Trulli leading from the start in Austria for some 30 laps in the Prost. That was sweet.

    14. Somehow those cars look skinny compared to the narrow track cars 1998 onwards

    15. Like many others who have commented here, 1997 holds a special place in my heart. It was the first year that I got deeply into formula one – I think I started buying Autosport magazine in the off season having begun to suffer withdrawal! I shared a house with a bunch of guys equally into motorsport back then (although one would lose interest every time Eddie Irvine DNFed!) & we played a lot of F1’97 on the PlayStation… That season is ingrained in my memory & I’m really looking forward to this series of articles…. Thanks @Keithcollantine!

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