Jacques Villeneuve was happy to cultivate an image as F1’s anti-hero during his early Grand Prix career. Cocky, quick and unconventional during that time, he fulfilled the promise of his first season with seven wins during 1997. He entered the season finale at Jerez just one point behind Michael Schumacher’s increasingly competitive Ferrari.
Schumacher may be the leading driver of his generation but his actions at Jerez drew condemnation from all corners of the sport. On lap 48 of the title-deciding race, Villeneuve passed him for the lead. An FIA hearing later ruled that Schumacher responded by deliberately driving into the Williams-Renault in an attempt to eliminate his rival and protect his points lead. He was stripped of all of his season’s points and second position in the championship for driving outside the rules. Meanwhile, Villeneuve finished third in the race to clinch the title.
Villeneuve outperformed his Williams team-mate Heinz-Harald Frentzen, who despite a victory at Imola and podium finishes in six other races, experienced a season hampered by mistakes and incorrect strategy calls. Defending champion Damon Hill moved to the Tom Walkinshaw-owned Arrows-Yamaha team but the combination struggled until Hungary. Suddenly his Bridgestone tyres was the correct rubber that day and Hill led convincingly until mechanical failure on the last lap robbed him of Arrows’s first victory.
McLaren returned to the winners’ circle after 49 unsuccessful races when David Coulthard won in Australia, the first race for new sponsor West. He logged another victory at Monza, while team-mate Mika Hakkinen won for the first time at Jerez when both Villeneuve and Coulthard (who was obeying team orders) let him through in the closing laps.
At Jordan, youth took precedence over experience in 1997. The team hired Giancarlo Fisichella and Ralf Schumacher, two drivers with a total of eight previous GPs between them. They collided during the Argentine GP, but the 21-year-old German recovered to become the youngest podium finisher so far. Technical gurus Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne left Benetton to join Ferrari, but Gerhard Berger did score Benetton’s final GP victory in Germany.
Olivier Panis impressed in the Bridgestone-shod Prost (formerly Ligier) before his season was cut short by injuries sustained in Montreal. Replacement Jarno Trulli confirmed the car’s potential by finishing fourth in Germany and leading a week later in Austria. Rubens Barrichello finished second in Monte Carlo for Jackie Stewart’s new Ford-backed team, but despite good qualifying performances, the team was hampered by poor reliability.