Inspired Schumacher takes ’11-point win’ at Magny-Cours

1997 French Grand Prix flashback

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Twenty years ago today, in the middle of one of the most frantic final laps a Formula One race has ever seen, a cool-headed Michael Schumacher found the time to help out his little brother.

He did it while winning the race for himself, inflicting another surprising defeat on Williams and Jacques Villeneuve.

1997 French Grand Prix qualifying

Two weeks on from his humiliating defeat at home, Villeneuve arrived in France trailing Schumacher in the championship. But the home race for engine builder Renault, who had won the last two races on the French track, promised to be a strong venue for Williams.

His weekend got off to a troubled start, however. Villeneuve crashed ahead of qualifying, meaning he had to begin the session in his spare car. He eventually switched to his regular race chassis but was held up by Mika Hakkinen spun at the Lycee chicane.

Three German driver locked out the top three places
While Villeneuve struggled to fourth on the grid, the top three places were taken by German drivers. They were led by Schumacher, who said his second pole position in a row was a “surprise” and suggested Ferrari’s new, untested front wing may have played a role.

“We just stuck it on the car and I honestly don’t know how much time it is worth,” he said. “It will give something, but I don’t know how much.”

“All the testing we did here was done under the same circumstances as now and I was so far off the pace that I was struggling to do a 1m 15.6s. Now I have done a 1m 14.6s – a whole second
faster – and I have no explanation for it.”

Heinz-Harald Frentzen in the other Williams almost pipped his former Mercedes team mate to pole. On his final flying run Frentzen was ahead after the first sector, but errors at the Nurburgring and Chateau d’Eau corners left him second.

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He was only six-thousandths of a second faster than Ralf Schumacher, who impressed with an excellent run to third in his Jordan.

Trulli stepped into the seat Panis vacated at Prost
For once Eddie Irvine was close to Schumacher’s pace. Just three-tenths of a second separated the two Ferraris, and Irvine took his place on the third row of the grid.

Alongside him was a driver who’d been handed a big opportunity. Alain Prost’s team had been hit hard by the loss of Olivier Panis due to injury ahead of their home race. But the four-times world champion brushed off suggestions he might drive his own car at their home race.

Instead the inexperienced Jarno Trulli was hired from Minardi and he rose to the occasion. Despite a slight error at Lycee on his final lap Trulli took sixth on the grid for his seventh Formula 1 start.

Alexander Wurz continued to deputise for Gerhard Berger at Benetton and he raised eyebrows by out-qualifying team mate Jean Alesi. The McLarens of David Coulthard and Mika Hakkinen shared the fifth row.

Another change in the driver line-up came at Sauber. Gianni Morbidelli, who had taken over from Nicola Larini two races earlier, had broken an arm in a testing crash. German Formula Three champion Norberto Fontana was therefore promoted to the race squad. This was a big step up, and he qualified a second and a half off team mate Johnny Herbert.

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1997 French Grand Prix grid

Row 1 1. Michael Schumacher 1’14.548
2. Heinz-Harald Frentzen 1’14.749
Row 2 3. Ralf Schumacher 1’14.755
4. Jacques Villeneuve 1’14.800
Row 3 5. Eddie Irvine 1’14.860
6. Jarno Trulli 1’14.957
Row 4 7. Alexander Wurz 1’14.986
8. Jean Alesi 1’15.228
Row 5 9. David Coulthard 1’15.270
10. Mika Hakkinen 1’15.339
Row 6 11. Giancarlo Fisichella 1’15.453
12. Shinji Nakano 1’15.857
Row 7 13. Rubens Barrichello 1’15.876
14. Johnny Herbert 1’16.018
Row 8 15. Jan Magnussen 1’16.149
16. Pedro Diniz 1’16.536
Row 9 17. Damon Hill 1’16.729
18. Jos Verstappen 1’16.941
Row 10 19. Mika Salo 1’17.256
20. Norberto Fontana 1’17.538
Row 11 21. Ukyo Katayama 1’17.563
22. Tarso Marques 1’18.280

1997 French Grand Prix

Schumacher held his lead at the start
As well as planting his Ferrari on pole position, Schumacher had managed to save a fresh set of tyres for the race as well. But it seemed he might not need them when rain fell on the morning warm-up session. The two Ferraris headed the times on the wet track.

The threat of rain hung over the race but by the start time the track was dry. On the very short run to the first corner Schumacher easily kept his lead from Frentzen, while the fast-starting Irvine took third ahead of Villeneuve.

Schumacher forced a rapid pace and was already four seconds clear of Frentzen after five laps. The gap opened up more steadily after then, but Williams’ hopes Schumacher was fuelled light and running a three-stop strategy were dashed as he continued to stay out.

He finally appeared in the pits on lap 22 – just one lap before Frentzen. Irvine came in at the same time as the Williams driver, while Villeneuve stayed out two laps longer. After the quartet had refuelled the race order remained unchanged.

Villeneuve rejoined the track just ahead of Trulli. Were Prost planning to try another one-stopper on Bridgestone’s durable rubber? That seemed to be the plan as he hung on until lap 30 of 72 before pitting. But the threat of rain from the gradually darkening skies was beginning to grow.

The Jordan pair, led by the younger Schumacher, took up fifth and sixth after Trulli came in. They were followed by the sole remaining McLaren of Coulthard, a blown Mercedes having accounted for Hakkinen, and the two Benettons ahead of Trulli.

The early laps saw the likes of Tarso Marques, Trulli’s replacement at Minardi, drop out with an engine fire. Shinji Nakano in the other Prost was out by lap seven having spun. Jos Verstappen also crashed out before the leaders began their pit stops.

Schumacher continued to force a pace Frentzen couldn’t live with through their second stint. As his final planned pit stop approached the gap was up to 20 seconds. But now the skies were leaden and rain was clearly imminent.

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Even so when Schumacher appeared in the pits on lap 46 Ferrari had little option other than to fit him with more slicks. The rain hadn’t arrived yet, and one by one the rest of the two-stoppers came in and went out on slick tyres.

There was a dozen laps remaining when the serious rainfall began. Sensing an opportunity for a big points pay-off, Coulthard and Ralf Schumacher pitted from fifth and sixth for intermediate tyres.

Frentzen bagged second place for Williams
The rain intensified, and on lap 62 Schumacher skidded off at the exit of Estoril. The Ferrari bounced through the run-off and rejoined the track, his lead cut from 36 seconds to 31. But he’d been lapping several seconds quicker than either of the Williams drivers prior to that.

Coulthard was going quicker still and now Williams belatedly considered following his lead. With just five laps to go Villeneuve, who had set his car up more in anticipation of wet conditions than his team mate, came in for his own set of intermediate tyres.

He rejoined the track in sixth place and was quickly up to speed. But the track was already beginning to dry. The most advantageous time to put on intermediates had been missed. As in Monaco, Williams had made a crucial strategic error.

The final moments of the race were pure drama. The penultimate lap began with four cars battling over fourth place separated by three seconds: Coulthard ahead of Villeneuve, who’d just passed Ralf Schumacher, pursued by Alesi. Villeneuve picked off Coulthard, whose tyres were now beginning to fade, and the younger Schumacher did likewise.

However the Jordan skidded off the track at 180, seemingly ending his chance of points. That changed when his race-leading brother had a brainwave. Moments after lapping the Jordan, and with the chequered flag in sight, Michael waved Ralf back onto the lead lap.

This would prove crucial. Alesi mounted a last-lap attack on Coulthard which left the McLaren in a gravel trap. He would have been classified sixth had Schumacher not put his brother back on the lead lap. The Jordan driver motored past to collect the final point.

Coulthard was not impressed with either of his rivals.

“Ralf took a silly dive down my inside at the hairpin,” complained Coulthard afterwards. “He could have taken us both out, I gave him the room because I want to finish, and then he spins in front of me.”

Despite skidding off in the rain, Schumacher won again
“And then I have Alesi once again he rammed the back of me. We’ve seen so many times from Jean, he’s not a new driver, I just don’t think it’s acceptable.

There was yet more drama as the flying Villeneuve arrived on Irvine’s tail at the final corner. The Ferrari driver had also put intermediates on but blistered his rears and straight-lined one of the chicanes.

Irvine covered the inside line for the last corner and the Williams pirouetted into the pit lane. Villeneuve floored the throttle and rejoined the track just in time to beat Alesi to fourth.

Trulli finished his first race for Prost in tenth place having made a second pit stop late in the race. The only driver behind him in the classification was Damon Hill, whose race was ruined at the start when contact removed his front wing.

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1997 French Grand Prix result

Pos. No. Drivers Team Laps Time / gap / reason
1 5 Michael Schumacher Ferrari 72 1hr 38’50.492
2 4 Heinz-Harald Frentzen Williams-Renault 72 23.537
3 6 Eddie Irvine Ferrari 72 1’14.801
4 3 Jacques Villeneuve Williams-Renault 72 1’21.784
5 7 Jean Alesi Benetton-Renault 72 1’22.735
6 11 Ralf Schumacher Jordan-Peugeot 72 1’29.871
7 10 David Coulthard McLaren-Mercedes 71 Accident
8 16 Johnny Herbert Sauber-Petronas 71 1 lap
9 12 Giancarlo Fisichella Jordan-Peugeot 71 1 lap
10 14 Jarno Trulli Prost-Mugen-Honda 70 2 laps
11 20 Ukyo Katayama Minardi-Hart 70 2 laps
12 1 Damon Hill Arrows-Yamaha 69 3 laps
19 Mika Salo Tyrrell-Ford 61 Electrical
8 Alexander Wurz Benetton-Renault 60 Accident
2 Pedro Diniz Arrows-Yamaha 58 Accident
17 Norberto Fontana Sauber-Petronas 40 Accident
22 Rubens Barrichello Stewart-Ford 36 Engine
23 Jan Magnussen Stewart-Ford 33 Brakes
9 Mika Hakkinen McLaren-Mercedes 18 Engine
18 Jos Verstappen Tyrrell-Ford 72 Accident
15 Shinji Nakano Prost-Mugen-Honda 7 Accident
21 Tarso Marques Minardi-Hart 5 Engine

Schumacher and Ferrari had begun the season doubting they had the car to be championship contenders. But after his third win in four races at mid-season he had to admit he underestimated how competitive they would be.

Schumcher pulled out at 14-point lead
“Obviously my predictions about the weekend were totally wrong.=,” said Schumacher. “But I am happy to take it as it is: to get pole position and then the victory is the best you can do.”

“The way we did it was perfect, too, because we made no mistakes in either the setup or the strategy.”

The same clearly couldn’t be said for his main championship rival, over whom Schumacher how held a 14-point lead. Villeneuve’s season was unravelling. His only consolation from another sub-par weekend was that the stewards’ investigation into his last-lap antics resulted in no action begin taken.

To the ten points for his win Schumacher also deserved some measure of the credit for his brother’s point for sixth place. The cool judgement he showed on the final lap of a tense race contrasted sharply with his main rival’s struggles. This was one of Schumacher’s less-heralded great drives.

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1997 French Grand Prix championship standings

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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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19 comments on “Inspired Schumacher takes ’11-point win’ at Magny-Cours”

  1. great season

    from memory, this was the first race where Villeneuve turned up with blond hair, which was interpreted as a distraction by some

    1. If Lewis Hamilton dyes his hair blonde (like in 2015), that would be yet another parallel with 1997 :) :)

  2. This was the best challenge on F1 grand prix on N64…..

    1. Fukobayashi (@)
      29th June 2017, 15:36

      YES! +1

  3. Wasn’t this the season when the German WDC contender was disqualified from the championship for causing an avoidable accident.

    Oops sorry, should not have mentioned that ;)

    1. Careful! :-)

    2. It has to do with personality and not with nationality. We shouldn’t mix these things.
      Here is a historic context regarding how dirty Schumacher really was, before even his first F1 appearance. It involves both top 2 finishers of the race on this article.

      German Formula 3 Championship 1989
      At the time, there was a big push by Bernie Ecclestone to have a German driver in the Formula One World Championship, so the ONS (the German National Motorsports committee) decided to support both Frentzen and Schumacher. The ONS put up the reward of a Formula One test to the driver who first would take a victory in a Formula 3 race. This ultimately ended up being Schumacher, in a controversial race at Zeltweg, Austria in which Frentzen claimed Schumacher had forced him off the track. However, Schumacher did not get the Formula One test drive anyway.

      1. There are lots of stories about Schumi’s pre-F1 antics. Derek Warwick’s run in with him after a qualifying incident in the 1991 world sportscar championship is legendary.

      2. I think you’re taking my comment(s) a tad too seriously ;)

        1. @f1-liners Just a tad! Because a post like this can throw new oil and further maintain the fire here. You know what I mean sir.
          @geemac Yep, that too. I really wanted to see the footage of an outraged Derek chasing down Schumacher at the pitlane to punch him. It must have been epic!

    3. spoilers!

  4. I was at the race. Hoping for good results for Finns, it didn’t happen. Häkkinen retired on the sight. Once at home, eagerly waiting how the situation was handled by Finnish commentators – result was that it happened during the ads. I was also able to see Mika Salo walking back to the pits – his car stopped near the 180-degree left-hander.

  5. Keith, this series on the 1997 season is proving to be an awesome backdrop to the ongoing 2017 season. Especially because of the parallels between now and then.
    1) Ferrari have won Monaco for the first time after 16 years (as they did in 1997).
    2) Ferrari wasn’t expected to be in the title fight (as in 1997).
    3) The dominant team of the previous years is no longer winning everything
    4) The lead driver of the erstwhile dominant team has a new teammate who is upstaging him sometimes
    5) The Ferrari driver has no problems dispatching off his teammate
    6) The Ferrari driver has intentionally rammed into his main title rival

    1. @sumedhvidwans

      +1 Let’s hope for another decider in the last race.

    2. Fukobayashi (@)
      29th June 2017, 15:40

      Lets hope Ferrari are denied again!

  6. An apt reminder that, contrary to recent popular belief, a cool head in a red car can conquer chaos.
    Love these flashbacks (albeit with a twisted sense of déjà vu this time, considering the current F1 climate), though we know what happened at the end of that championship – one driver full of glee, heroised; the other the opposite, disgraced and demonised. Sense of timing with this one, Keith.

  7. I actually loved the Magny Cours track. It was in the middle of nowhere and therefore wasn’t popular with drivers and journo’s, but it had a great flow to it.

    Paul Ricard’s layout looks narrow, stop-go and just dull and is basically a big parking lot with painted lines on it. When F1 goes there next year it will give the bring-back-classic-tracks sentiment a bad name.

  8. Schumacher did the same thing to his team mate Jos Verstappen at the 1994 Hungarian GP, and as luck would have it it promoted Jos to the podium as Martin Brundle had to retire in the last lap due to electrical problems.

  9. I have to say I’m a bit disappointed by the lack of pictures in these 97 season reviews :( I love what is being written about it, but boy, I want to see more nice cars!

    We hardly had any picture of the F310B :(

Comments are closed.