It was a year that had everything - a great title battle, close racing, and a whole heap of unpredictability.
Ok, I’ll admit it, I’m a little biased here - although I have a few memories of watching F1 before then, 1997 was the first season I really paid attention to and as a result I have very fond memories of it.
Even so, I feel 1997 often gets unfairly overlooked when it comes down to classic seasons. Maybe it’s because Villeneuve (not exactly an all-time great) won the title, maybe it’s because Schumacher put a bit of a downer on the decider, or maybe it’s just because the statistics don’t make it look that exciting.
But look a little closer and you’ll see that 1997 was one of the closest seasons for years, thanks in part to a few years of rule stability - as well as a few other factors which I’ll get on to later. No wonder it got me hooked on the sport!
After qualifying for the first race of the year things looked ominous. Jacques Villeneuve was on pole by a truly whopping 1.7 seconds - from his team mate Frentzen! Schumacher in third was 2.1 seconds away from pole. It looked like it was going to be another Williams year, but in the race things didn’t quite pan out that way.
At the first corner Eddie Irvine speared Villeneuve out of the race and took Johnny Herbert with him, putting all three out instantly. But hey, at least they got to the first corner - reigning champion Damon Hill didn’t even get to the grid as his Arrows gave up on the formation lap.
In all the chaos Frentzen snatched the lead on his Williams debut and pulled away. He was on a two-stop strategy, those following him were on a one-stop. Meanwhile Jean Alesi amusingly ignored his team’s request to pit for fuel and unsurprisingly he ran out when he was in a position to challenge for a strong result.
As Frentzen approached his last stop it was going to be touch and go whether he would beat Coulthard and Schumacher out, but Williams messed up his pit stop and we were denied a close battle, especially as it turned out the Williams had brake issues and Frentzen didn’t even make the finish.
Coulthard stayed ahead of Schumacher to take McLaren’s first win since Senna in 1993, whilst Hakkinen finished third, just ahead of Berger’s Benetton.
As the year progressed Villeneuve emerged as the title favourite, but the skills of Schumacher and Ferrari meant they were more than able to capitalise when Williams and Villeneuve faltered (which was often), and he actually led the championship for a good part of the year.
While Jacques had been strong early in the season Schumacher fought back in the middle part of the year, thanks in part to brilliant wet-weather performances in Monaco and Spa, whilst Villeneuve didn’t help himself by hitting the ‘Wall of Champions’ in his home race. Going in to the last race there was only one point between the drivers - but more of that later…
Jacques and Michael can consider themselves lucky that they only had to worry about each other, though. Their team mates were never going to be a problem - Frentzen never gelled with the Williams team, whilst Irvine was always number two to Schumacher at Ferrari. It was other teams that the challenge came from.
McLaren built a decent car and Coulthard and Hakkinen were very fast, but suffered from unreliability. Benetton had a strong car too, but Alesi had something of a bad year, and Berger’s last season was affected by personal issues. Prost’s Olivier Panis was a surprisingly consistent challenger early in the season as well, and with a bit more luck could have won in both Argentina and Spain. He was third in the championship going into round six in Canada but broke his legs in an accident, ending any hopes of causing some major upsets.
Goodyear had been the sole tyre supplier since 1992, but F1 saw a tyre war again in 1997 as Bridgestone entered the sport. Unsurprisingly the top teams stuck to what they knew with Bridgestone being left to supply a lot of the midfielders.
The thing is that on quite a few circuits the Bridgestones were the better tyres, which allowed some teams - especially Prost - to be a real threat in the races. The closest they came to winning was in Hungary, when Damon Hill used his Bridgestone-equipped Arrows to brilliant effect, only to be foiled by mechanical failure.
In their efforts to catch up Goodyear only succeeded in making tyres that had a tendency to blister, and they weren’t exactly durable either. Even when Bridgestone-shod cars weren’t a factor this contributed to some intriguing races - like in Canada, when David Coulthard made a precautionary tyre stop that ultimately cost him victory.
Six drivers won races in 1997: Villeneuve, Michael Schumacher, Coulthard, Berger, Frentzen and Hakkinen. That’s not a bad number, but there could have been even more.
At the end of the Argentine Grand Prix Villeneuve was really, really struggling and Eddie Irvine was all over him. On a less mickey-mouse circuit he might have found a way past, but Villeneuve held him off. In Spain Panis was reeling Villeneuve in at a huge rate of knots but got severely held up by traffic on multiple occasions, costing him his chance at victory.
In Germany Fisichella was battling Berger for the win but got a puncture, and Hill’s heartbreaking car problem in the closing laps of the Hungarian Grand Prix saw his 30 second lead disappear in just a few laps as Villeneuve snatched victory on the last lap. Alesi was having a duff season but he lead from pole at Monza and only lost the lead to Coulthard thanks to a slightly slower pit stop.
Yeah, I know, ‘coulda woulda shoulda’ means nothing, but if just a few things had gone slightly differently, 1997 could easily have had a record-equalling 11 different winners - the same as in 1982.
Still not convinced by how close 1997 was? Of the 19 drivers who scored points during the year, 15 of them scored a podium. 15 different drivers on the podium! Even 2012, that crazy lottery of a year only saw 13 different podium finishers.
1997 was a great year to be a young driver making your way in the sport, and not just for champion Villeneuve in only his second season.
Jordan had built a very competitive car and had two promising young drivers. Fisichella was doing his first full season having done some races for Minardi in 1996, whilst Michael’s younger brother Ralf was making his debut. Both of them took podiums during the season - Ralf was third in the third race of the year in Argentina (though only after punting his team mate out) whilst Fisichella took podiums in Montreal and at Spa. Fisi would surely have had another in Hockenheim too, having qualified on the front row and battled for the lead before getting a puncture.
Jarno Trulli started the year with Minardi and switched to Prost after Panis’ accident. Finishing fourth in Hockenheim was a strong result but it was in Austria where he really shone - he lead the race for ages and was on for a podium until his engine failed.
Gerhard Berger was forced to miss three races in the middle of the year and his seat was filled by Alex Wurz. At Silverstone he managed to finish third and impressed enough to get a full time seat with the team for 1998.
It wasn’t just young drivers having success either - a young team was as well. Rubens Barrichello finished an excellent second at Monaco for Jackie Stewart’s newly-formed team, though admittedly that was their only points score of the year…
One of the big stories of the year was the return of McLaren as a race-winning team. When Senna left them at the end of 1993 they spent years in the doldrums, suffering with either reliability, lack of pace, or both.
Coulthard took the teams first win in three years at the opening round in Australia and then added another in Monza, whilst Hakkinen added another in the final race at Jerez. On many occasions however they were the team to beat, with Hakkinen retiring from the lead with engine failure on three separate occasions.
It was a sign of things to come as the team nailed the rule changes for 1998 and went on to win both championships.
Speaking of rule changes, 1997 would be the last year of wide cars until 2017, and the whole grid looked awesome. Williams still had the Rothmans livery, McLaren debuted their smart new West livery, and it was also the first year where Jordan put animals on the nose of their car.
Even the backmarkers like Minardi had pretty cars. In fact the only real downside was when Tyrrell introduced the nasty looking X-wings, but I think we can forgive them that.
Sure, the new teams that came into F1 in 2010 weren’t exactly good, but at least they stuck around for a little while and were good enough to qualify for races.
The same couldn’t be said of the Mastercard Lola team. With drivers Vincenzo Sospiri (who was reasonably highly rated) and Ricardo Rosset (who wasn’t), they were a whopping 12 seconds away from pole in Australia, way outside the 107% rule.
Before the next race in Brazil Mastercard had withdrawn their sponsorship and the team withdrew from the championship, never to be seen again. Unfortunately Sospiri never got another chance at F1, whilst we had to put up with Rosset again for a whole year in 1998.
No arguments please, but F1 ‘97 for the PS1 was the best Formula 1 game (although it’s predecessor based on the 1995 season runs it close).
It was just so good in so many ways. There was a proper sim mode with all the things you want from an F1 game like car setup, damage, pit stops, dynamic weather and even tear-off strips for your visor, but there was also another mode - arcade. In this mode the cars had hilarious handling and you could drift your way around Silverstone in less than a minute, clearing checkpoints along the way. Unrealistic, yeah, but it was so much fun, especially with the funky 90s music that accompanied it.
As with many F1 games of the time Jacques Villeneuve wasn’t licensed to be in it, so he went by the inspired name of ‘Driverone Williams’. Thankfully you could edit the driver names and put his real name in, but in commentary Murray would still refer to him as “Williams Number One!” or more simply “The Canadian”, usually sometime after explaining how interesting it was that both Williams and Jordan had opted for an oval air intake.
Then there were the cheats. Oh the cheats. Why don’t games have these anymore? Changing a drivers name to various codes would unlock things like massive tyres, sprites of the commentators, and even a track shaped like an F1 car.
Best F1 game ever? You’re right there, Murray.
Back with the real 1997 season, the whole year ended with one of the most bizarre and dramatic title deciders of all time.
In qualifying Villeneuve, Schumacher and Frentzen somehow all set identical pole position times, with Damon Hill’s Arrows just half a tenth behind. In the race Schumacher shot off into the lead and continued to do so well past half distance.
Then Villeneuve started to catch him. This was incredibly exciting because although they were title rivals we hadn’t really seen them racing together on track much all year (in fact, not once did we see both drivers on the same podium all year!), so the prospect of an on track battle to decide the title was a good one.
Jerez is a very tight and twisty circuit where overtaking is difficult, so when Villeneuve sensed an opportunity he just lunged up the inside from quite a way back. It looked like he’d made it but Schumacher very deliberately and very obviously turned into him in an attempt to take him out. It didn’t work, Schumacher bounced off into the gravel and Villeneuve carried on his merry way.
His car was wounded but he got to the end, although not after some bizarre activity on the last lap which saw him let both McLarens ahead of him. Villeneuve finished third and won the championship, while a disgraced Schumacher was disqualified from the final championship standings. It was a suitably crazy end to a very crazy year.