By its very nature the final chicane at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve is a tough corner. It follows the longest straight on the circuit and leads on to another fairly long straight. By carrying good speed through it drivers can gain a huge amount of time, but with a couple of massive kerbs and a wall right on the outside the slightest mistake can often lead to disaster.
There were a couple of incidents in 1997. Alex Wurz dropped it in qualifying, and Jacques Villeneuve hit the wall on lap two of the race when trying to chase down Michael Schumacher. But it didn’t get it’s “Wall of Champions” moniker until 1999, where there must have been some magnets in the barrier or something, because five drivers – all of whom champions of some kind – found themselves in the barriers there during the weekend.
Ralf Schumacher (1996 Formula Nippon champion) got the ball rolling in qualifying when he dropped his Williams on the entry to the chicane and slid into the wall.
Then in the race it only took three laps for someone to hit the wall. Formula 3000 and FIA GT champion Ricardo Zonta just grazed the barriers with the rear wheel of his BAR, but it was enough to break the suspension and put the Brazilian out of the race.
But that was just a drop in the ocean, as during the race three more drivers would fall victim to the wall – all of them F1 World Champions.
Next to go was 1996 world champion Damon Hill on lap 15. He did pretty much the same thing as Zonta in that he lost the back end on the exit and clipped the wall, damaging his rear suspension.
Next up was the big one. Michael Schumacher was in the lead and trying to build up a lead over the pursuing Mika Hakkinen before he made his pit stop. He was getting greedy with the kerbs at the final chicane and he knew it, but such was his desire to push on that he continued to attack.
On lap 30 however he went just a touch over the limit, and that’s all that’s needed for a driver to make a date with the wall. The then-two-time champion was also out.
Clearly feeling left out, just a few laps later the 1997 world champion Jacques Villeneuve decided to get in on the act and repeat his failure from two years previous, and he crashed out at the chicane as well! Also check out the classic case of Murray Walker dishing out a good old fashioned dose of the commentator’s curse.
That left just one world champion in the race – Mika Hakkinen. But unlike his fellow high-achievers he managed to stay away from the wall and win the race, with Giancarlo Fisichella second and Eddie Irvine in third. Ralf Schumacher’s clever strategy of getting his last-corner-crash out of the way in qualifying had paid off, as he came home in fourth.
Seeing so many cars crash out in one race at the same corner in completely separate incidents would be unusual enough, but the fact that all of them were world champions was utterly bizarre. It was then that the wall was christened “The Wall of Champions”.
Since then the wall has claimed plenty more victims, including the likes of Carlos Sainz Jr., Sebastian Vettel and Jenson Button. But in no year was its appetite for champions quite so insatiable as it was in 1999.