Villeneuve slip-up hands title lead back to Schumacher after Panis crash

1997 Canadian Grand Prix flashback

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Championship favourite Jacques Villeneuve was feeling the pressure ahead of his home race.

He’d wrested the points lead back from Michael Schumacher by winning in Spain. But his forthright words to the media had earned the wrath of the sport’s governing body.

On the Wednesday before the Canadian Grand Prix, Villeneuve was summoned to Paris where he was given a formal reprimand. Villeneuve had described FIA present Max Mosley’s plan to introduce narrower cars and grooved tyres as “shit” in an interview with German publication Der Spiegel.

The following day he arrived at the track named after his late father. But his hopes of emulating Gilles Villeneuve’s 1978 Canadian Grand Prix win were to be dashed.

Villeneuve’s sanction paled in comparison to the other off-track political intrigues. The same month truck racing promoter Wolfgang Eisele took the FIA to court over its Formula 1 broadcasting contracts, setting in motion a series of events which would lead to an investigation of the sport by the European Union and major structural changes to its administration.

The vexed question of who was entitled to F1’s royalties was also in the news. Bernie Ecclestone’s efforts to float the sport on the stock market were compromised as three teams – Williams, McLaren and Tyrrell – held out for better terms on the sport’s all-encompassing Concorde Agreement. A crunch meeting of the Formula 1 Constructors’ Association on June 6th ended after five minutes, Ecclestone departing in a rage.

Meanwhile despite the championship being three months old the calendar remained in a state of flux. Ahead of the Canadian race the sport’s governing body announced Jerez would host the season finale in place of Estoril. Rumours persisted the Portuguese race might be retained somehow, but it wasn’t to be.

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1997 Canadian Grand Prix qualifying

When the real action began there was no mistaking the result the locals had come to see. A great cheer went up as the thrillingly close qualifying sessions neared its climax and Villeneuve planted his car on pole position by just five hundredths of a second.

But on a track where overall downforce mattered little and engine power counted most, Michael Schumacher’s revised Ferrari was a genuine threat. Villeneuve had one final chance to secure the top spot but he blew it from the beginning. Having run wide coming on to start/finish straight he locked a wheel at turn one. Struggling to adjust his brake bias, Villeneuve said he “braked too early for the next few corners”.

Schumacher, running next on the road, pinched pole by 13 thousandths of a second. For the first time in 1997 Williams would not start race from pole position.

The next car behind them was a surprise. Rubens Barrichello, running a daringly thin rear wing on his Stewart, planted his Cosworth-powered, Bridgestone-shod car in third place. The Japanese rubber which had helped Olivier Panis to second in Spain promised to be his strong suit for the race.

Heinz-Harald Frentzen joined him on the second row ahead of David Coulthard, despite the McLaren driver suffering a Mercedes engine failure late in the session.

The Jordans were next, revelling in the potency of their Peugeots. Jean Alesi was the first of the Benettons in eighth, and for this weekend he had a new team mate.

Having suffered for weeks, Gerhard Berger finally underwent an operation to cure a sinus infection. Test driver Alexander Wurz was therefore pressed into action, despite the difficulties of fitting his lanky frame into the B197’s cockpit. Wurz was quickly up to speed, but contact with the wall opposite the pits ended his qualifying session.

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Eddie Irvine once again started well behind his team mate in 12th. Jos Verstappen dragged his underpowered Tyrrell to 14th, one place ahead of Damon Hill.

The reigning world champion had endured a disrupted build-up to the race. First his new D-spec Yamaha engine expired during Friday’s running. He resorted to the old engine for qualifying but spun on his first run, delaying Villeneuve. Nonetheless he narrowly beat his team mate, who used the new engine.

“My fault completely,” said Hill of his spin. “Thankfully I got a time in because that was the only time I got the rest of the session. The spare car had a brake problem and we had to come in and change that. The rest of the time we just got traffic.”

At the rear of the field Jarno Trulli managed to put a car between him and team mate Ukyo Katayama. It was the Stewart of Jan Magnussen, who in a stark contrast to his high-flying team mate lined up on the back row.

1997 Canadian Grand Prix grid

Row 1 1. Michael Schumacher 1’18.095
2. Jacques Villeneuve 1’18.108
Row 2 3. Rubens Barrichello 1’18.388
4. Heinz-Harald Frentzen 1’18.464
Row 3 5. David Coulthard 1’18.466
6. Giancarlo Fisichella 1’18.750
Row 4 7. Ralf Schumacher 1’18.869
8. Jean Alesi 1’18.899
Row 5 9. Mika Hakkinen 1’18.916
10. Olivier Panis 1’19.034
Row 6 11. Alexander Wurz 1’19.286
12. Eddie Irvine 1’19.503
Row 7 13. Johnny Herbert 1’19.622
14. Jos Verstappen 1’20.102
Row 8 15. Damon Hill 1’20.129
16. Pedro Diniz 1’20.175
Row 9 17. Mika Salo 1’20.336
18. Gianni Morbidelli 1’20.357
Row 10 19. Shinji Nakano 1’20.370
20. Jarno Trulli 1’20.370
Row 11 21. Jan Magnussen 1’20.491
22. Ukyo Katayama 1’21.034

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1997 Canadian Grand Prix

Schumacher kept his lead at the start while a wheel-spinning Villeneuve was fortunate to hold on to second. Barrichello was swamped and the fastest-starting Giancarlo Fisichella and Jean Alesi took up the chase of the championship leader.

They didn’t have to wait long to pounce. At the end of lap two Villeneuve lost the rear of his car and nosed into the barrier at the beginning of the pit straight. His win-or-lose season had registered another ‘zero’.

“I made a big mistake,” he confessed afterwards. Two years later a spate of crashes at the same corner led to it being dubbed the ‘Wall of Champions’. For now Schumacher was leading, and seemingly on course to retake the championship lead.

Fisichella therefore inherited second. Alesi had Coulthard’s McLaren in pursuit followed by Frentzen, though the Williams driver soon lost a place to Ralf Schumacher.

Around the same time Katayama stuffed his Minardi into the barrier after turn nine. The Safety Car was needed to recover his wrecked M197, but as the race was just five laps old no one was tempted to take advantage of the opportunity to pit.

However Williams, showing they still hadn’t mastered refuelling strategy four years after it had been reintroduced, chose to pit Frentzen shortly after the race went green again. That left their sole remaining car well out of contention.

The Safety Car was good news for Panis, who had been forced to pit at the end of the first lap after running into Mika Hakkinen. The first-lap tangle also eliminated Irvine and Magnussen.

The disruption to the early part of the race was a problem for Schumacher. Running a two-stop strategy meant he needed more time to build a gap, and when he eventually pitted on lap 28 he hadn’t had enough time to build the margin he needed.

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Fisichella and Alesi had already stopped by this point, the pair switching places, so it was Coulthard who assumed the lead of the race. As his Goodyears were last well McLaren were only planning to pit him once and a repeat of his Australia win was in the offing.

Panis made his third visit to the pits on the race’s 43rd lap. That cemented his hold on seventh place with the promise of more to come thanks to his durable Bridgestones.

Once again the Goodyear drivers were suffering. Panis unlapped himself from Schumacher, who was suffering from tyre graining. Schumacher headed for the pits, sacrificing his lead, but Coulthard was unable to capitalise as he too was forced to pit for fresh tyres. Making matters worse, Coulthard stalled the car, and Schumacher had his lead back.

But just as the race seemed to be turning in favour of Panis, it all went wrong. Rounding turn five for the 52nd time his rear suspension gave way, possibly due to early contact, and he made head-on contact with a tyre barrier. The front of the Prost was badly damaged, and the Safety Car was immediately pressed into action while the Medical Car was sent to the scene of the crash.

As medical delegate Sid Watkins recalled in his memoirs, this came as something of a shock to the inexperienced Medical Car driver. “Let’s go,” said Watkins. “In the middle of the race?” his man protested. “But we don’t know where the accident is.”

“If we drive around the circuit we’re sure to find it,” responded an unimpressed Watkins. Moments later he was tending to Panis, whose injuries fortunately involved no more than broken legs. But the crash shook a sport still traumatised by the events of three years earlier, and the race was not restarted after it was stopped.

Schumacher was therefore declared the winner in sombre circumstances. Alesi and Fisichella completed the podium, the latter making a first visit to the rostrum. Frentzen and Herbert were next while Shinji Nakano brought modest consolation for Prost with a point for sixth. But now the French team had to make a quick decision on how to replace their star driver.

Coulthard was classified an unlucky seventh – had the race been red-flagged when Panis had crashed he’d have won. Both Arrows completed the curtailed race, the delayed Hill behind his team mate, and Gianni Morbidelli was the only other driver running at the finish.

A visibly concerned Schumacher took the winner’s trophy and the championship lead along with it. But Villeneuve was unmoved by the crash and later criticised his rivals for, in his view, seeming unduly concerned about the seriousness of Panis’s injuries.

His views proved controversial, but he was not the only person who held them. When Schumacher voiced his concern that an accident of that magnitude had been sufficient to break Panis’s legs, Watkins thought that reaction was “a bit off”. The row over Villeneuve’s words continued into the next race weekend, but his costly slip-up at the wheel was a greater concern for his championship chances.

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1997 Canadian Grand Prix result

Pos. No. Driver Team Laps Time / gap / reason
1 5 Michael Schumacher Ferrari 54 1:17’40.646
2 7 Jean Alesi Benetton-Renault 54 2.565
3 12 Giancarlo Fisichella Jordan-Peugeot 54 3.219
4 4 Heinz-Harald Frentzen Williams-Renault 54 3.768
5 16 Johnny Herbert Sauber-Petronas 54 4.716
6 15 Shinji Nakano Prost-Mugen-Honda 54 36.701
7 10 David Coulthard McLaren-Mercedes 54 37.753
8 2 Pedro Diniz Arrows-Yamaha 53 1 lap
9 1 Damon Hill Arrows-Yamaha 53 1 lap
10 17 Gianni Morbidelli Sauber-Petronas 53 1 lap
11 14 Olivier Panis Prost-Mugen-Honda 51 Accident
19 Mika Salo Tyrrell-Ford 46 Engine
18 Jos Verstappen Tyrrell-Ford 42 Gearbox
8 Alexander Wurz Benetton-Renault 35 Transmission
22 Rubens Barrichello Stewart-Ford 33 Gearbox
21 Jarno Trulli Minardi-Hart 32 Engine
11 Ralf Schumacher Jordan-Peugeot 14 Accident
20 Ukyo Katayama Minardi-Hart 5 Accident
3 Jacques Villeneuve Williams-Renault 1 Accident
9 Mika Hakkinen McLaren-Mercedes 0 Accident
6 Eddie Irvine Ferrari 0 Accident
23 Jan Magnussen Stewart-Ford 0 Accident

1997 Canadian Grand Prix championship standings

Schumacher’s victory put him back on top in the championship fight

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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25 comments on “Villeneuve slip-up hands title lead back to Schumacher after Panis crash”

  1. I attended this race having convinced my buddies to make the road trip to help cheer on a likely Canadian winner. We watched him come by once and then he was missing after that. We heard on the loud speaker some excited French banter about the wall – and that was that!

    He should have won the 98 race too but had a silly crash then as well.

    We all went back and cheered him on again with BAR but the magic day never came for him there.

    97 was his best chance

    1. That was my first and LAST splurge on gold seats. Traveled halfway across Canada to watch JV do one lap and then a truncated race to boot. Racing!!!

  2. A few months after the Panis crash I started a work placement with Jordan, and sat next to a finite element stress engineer analysing the chassis on his computer. He had joined them from the Ligier team, who had recently been bought out by Prost. He had been frustrated at Ligier by a lack of design freedom, having been told to basically copy the Benetton chassis designs, as Flavio Briatore had previously owned the Ligier team.

    In particular, the stress engineer was unhappy with crashworthiness of the Benetton/Ligier chassis due to the method of manufacturing it. The conventional approach in F1 design is to lay up and bake the composite chassis in two separate parts – the lower half, and the upper half. They are then glued together with the glue lines running longitudinally from the car’s front to rear.

    However, the Benetton/Ligier team had taken a more unconventional approach of instead making the chassis from a front half and a rear half, with the glue line between them running transversely. This glue line formed a ring… around the driver’s legs. Sure enough, when Panis gave it a severe crash test, the chassis failed about this glue line, breaking both his legs. Nasty.

    Incidentally, nobody spotted quite a scary moment in this weekend’s GP when Vettel had a nasty surprise in Panis’s corner on the first restart, as it was only then he properly appreciated how much downforce he’d lost from his wing failure. Thankfully at that point there weren’t many marbles, so he managed to heavily back off and hold it together after he started badly understeering. I saw it on the on-board camera channel.

    1. That’s brilliant, thanks @alesici.

    2. Benjamin Richardson
      15th June 2017, 13:41

      A wonderful insight, thank you.

    3. @alesici thanks for that, very interesting!

    4. Thank you very much for sharing, @alesici. Fascinating stuff.

    5. @alesici I’ve never heard that explanation to the nature of the crash, thanks. I remember well seeing the front part of the car had snapped and was at angle to the rest of the car. That explains it then. Poor old Panis, he was robbed of a great year in that moment.

  3. Love these flashbacks, thanks Keith – always fascinating, and here Schumacher’s concern for Panis and his injuries feels almost like a foreshadowing of his own crash in Silverstone 1999.

  4. If his legs were broken, how was he able to get out of the car on his own without any help?

    1. He wasn’t, He was lifted out by the Marshall’s.

      He had initially tried to get out himself not fully realizing his injuries but in doing so caused himself to be in a severe amount of pain which is why he directed track workers to get him out as soon as possible. I seem to recall Sid Watkins been rather unimpressed by that as track workers were told not to lift injured drivers out of cars as doing so without the medical team first assessing the driver & then directing the extraction could cause further damage.

  5. i like these flashback reports but the last two paragraphs of this are very confusing and need re-writing. who was ‘seemingly unduly concerned’? and whose reaction was a bit off according to the prof? schumacher’s? surely not, given that the crash was bad enough to break panis’s legs. it’s hardly an extreme view. perhaps it needs better explaining and/or some context.

    i often confuse this race with 1999 race, which finished behind the safety car.

    1. @frood19, the context seems to come from Watkins’s autobiography – having discussed how he treated Panis and then how he broke the news to Prost about Panis’s injuries, he then goes on to say:
      “The race was stopped 15 laps before the full distance; 75% of which had been covered. Schumacher won, and I heard later that he had expressed sorrow at Panis’s injuries and also complained bitterly that it should have occurred at all.

      I thought that this was a bit off – and so, apparently, did Jacques Villeneuve, who said that people frequently broke their legs skiing and implied that it wasn’t much to get emotional about. I agreed with this. Panis had had a major accident – the car chassis had snapped across the front of the cockpit in line with the leg fractures – and had had a miraculous escape. I thought that we would get some helpful data from this crash, but a few weeks later I was disappointed to be told that the accident data recorder had not been working.”

      Still, I expect that it might come across as a bit of an odd thing to hear somebody chastise Schumacher for showing too much concern for the welfare of another driver.

      1. thanks for this. it seems that it was confusing at the time too. i love sid watkins’ ‘life at the limit’ (i have the one published ~1996), but there are numerous contradictions in his outlook i.e. pushing for safety above all but at the same time deriding some drivers for being scared.

        villeneuve’s comments are obviously provocative – clearly the chassis breaking around the driver is massively concerning – but he’s shown over the years that he’s not to be taken seriously. someone as consistently contrary (if that’s possible!) as villeneuve is easy to ignore.

        1. @frood19 ‘Shown over the years that he’s not to be taken seriously’…that’s ridiculous, just as your remark ‘consistently contrary’ is. JV is usually spot on with his opinions, of which he is entitled, and frequently asked.

  6. A terrible driver who could not even beat Damon Hill over the season only won because they got rid of Hill. Oh and stop with the Indy 500 winner guess who else won Indy 500? Alexander Rossi as a rookie. JV made Jenson look one of the best drivers the sport has seen.

    1. You don’t have a clue. And btw JV won the 500 when it was CART and a much more enthralling series. The same year he won the Championship there. He’s also a F1 Champion and came 2nd at Lemans. JV has the wins in his racing career than only two other drivers in history have…Mario Andretti and Emerson Fittipaldi. Have some respect or at least do some research. Were you watching him going back to the early 90’s?

    2. What a bizarre thing to say. You have no clue.

      JV put the Williams on pole for his first ever Formula 1 race in Australia.

      Not the most likable guy, but not lacking in courage. He was a lot less passive than Damon.

  7. Pero (@peronakov)
    16th June 2017, 7:47

    This qualifying session showed how much progress 1997 cars had made compared to 1996. Last placed driver on the grid Ukyo Katayama driving Minardi-Hart had a time of 1:21.034, which was faster than 1996 Damon Hill pole position 1:21.059. Now we know why Damon was so persuaded that Arrows were making huge leap in performances for 1997 season.

    1. @peronakov A lot of the performance increase for 1997 was down to the tyre war.

      The 1997 spec GoodYear’s were on average as much as 1.5 seconds a lap faster than the 1996 spec tyres. That is a big part of why the FIA were concerned about speeds going forward & why they took the decision to slow the cars for 1998 & why they introduced the grooved tyres.

  8. coefficient
    16th June 2017, 12:41

    So many great names on that grid. A brilliant era!

  9. Just a point regarding Villeneuve’s comments as he said a lot over the early part of his career that went against the big safety push F1 was in the middle of at that time & I wanted to add a bit of context.

    Unlike most other’s in/around F1 at that time Jacques hadn’t been around during that weekend at Imola in 1994 & at the time a lot of the things been done were been done based off that weekend & just how badly F1 had been traumatized by it & the outside reaction to it. It was still raw in everybody’s mind & something which many in the paddock didn’t even like to talk about.

    It’s easily forgotten now, Or maybe younger/newer fans simply weren’t around at the time but that weekend in 1994 was traumatic for those in F1, It was the 1st time for many dealing with the death of a driver & to have 2 in that weekend including the one many considered the best & who some of the younger drivers saw as a leader, A lot of those around didn’t know how to react.
    And again easily forgotten now but F1 took a hammering through that period from the media, From people outside the sport. For most of the 1st week after Imola the news reports & newspaper’s were full of replays & images of Senna’s crash, Talking about how F1 was too dangerous, How it needed to be looked at maybe even regulated at a government level & those cries got louder after the additional accidents to Karl Wendlinger, Perdo Lamy & Andrea Montermini.

    Looking back the haste of which decisions were taken seems stupid & some of those decisions themselves also seem unwise & in the case of some of the changes directly led to Pedro Lamy’s accident at Silverstone.
    However again easy to forget the pressure F1 was under, The FIA almost had to be seen to be doing something just to stop the beating that F1 was getting & slowing the cars & Changing circuits in the way they did seemed like the fastest way of doing it & when you look back it actually worked to some extent.

    JV wasn’t around for any of that, He saw that safety push F1 was in the middle of from an outside perspective & came at it in an almost uncaring way because he hadn’t been through the trauma that many of the other’s had… It was still a very open wound for other’s & I think that is important to remember.

    1. @gt-racer Great stuff as always from you. A couple of others things about JV. He’s always been a bit of a daredevil, and he also knows from death by F1 car, via his Dad. He would likely have thought the fact that Panis only broke his legs as a sign that the cars were quite safe, and he has always warned against F1 dumbing itself down until it is not enthralling nor with any mystique. Now that is not to say he has been flippant about safety, but he is just not a fan of so much safety that it isn’t an enthralling product anymore.

      Another thing is that JV has always been an excellent skier and I’ve read that if he hadn’t become a car racer he could have been a top notch skier, and we all know that many more people die or sustain terrible head injuries and broken limbs from skiing than do from car racing. If he’s brave enough to ski at the top levels, why wouldn’t he also be brave in F1 cars and find them quite safe compared to something like skiing, and hence not needing to be made safer and less exciting for the drivers and the fans.

  10. Once again the Goodyear drivers were suffering. Panis unlapped himself from Schumacher, whose Ferrari was suffering from tyre graining. Schumacher headed for the pits, sacrificing his lead, but Coulthard was unable to capitalise as he too was forced to pit for fresh tyres. Making matters worse, Coulthard stalled the car, and Schumacher had his lead back.

    This is not completely accurate. Schumacher completely wrecked his tires in the second part of the race. He was already behind Coulthard after his second stop. After his third stop (just a tire stop) Coulthard was leading by over half a minute, but then he too pitted for tires only. He then stalled the engine and dropped back out of the points. Moments later Panis crashed, effectively finishing the race. Such a sad ending.

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