There have been few Formula 1 weekends that produced more intrigue than the 1997 European Grand Prix at Jerez. As the deciding race in a finely balanced title battle, it already promised sufficient excitement to create headlines. Throw in the closest-run qualifying session of all time, a moment of high drama on lap 48, and two separate claims of 'fixing', and you have a grand prix for the ages.
The 1997 campaign provided something that F1 fans are crying out for in the current era of Mercedes domination: two drivers from different teams fighting for the world championship. Intra-team battles are all well and good, but they tend to lack the no-holds-barred hostilities that break out when rival outfits are gunning for the title.
In this respect 1997 was a vintage year, swinging between Jacques Villeneuve of Williams and Ferrari ace Michael Schumacher. Heading into the finale, the pair were separated by a single point in the German's favour. Villeneuve had the faster car, but while clearly talented he had shown a tendency to wilt under pressure. Schumacher was an all-round better driver, but his desire to win could take him to dark places. A thriller was in prospect.
Today, F1's season finale is staged amid the gaudy glitz of Abu Dhabi, but in '97 it was held at a wholly unglamorous venue: Circuito de Jerez. If you were being polite, you could suggest that there was a minimalist, dusty aesthetic to the Spanish venue. Or, you could side with one contemporary report, which called it "depressing and miserable," and "a bloody awful place to have to work" that "smelled like Sao Paulo drains."
Though it was plainly no Monte Carlo, Jerez was about to host one hell of a grand prix. During qualifying, it became clear that this would be no ordinary weekend, with the battle for top spot unbelievably close – even for a fiercely contested world title decider. First, Villeneuve set a time of 1.21.072 to bag provisional pole. 15 minutes later Schumacher set out to beat him but, incredibly, set an identical lap time down to one thousandth of a second.
That was strange enough, but when Villeneuve's teammate Heinz-Harald Frentzen made his assault on pole he too recorded a 1.21.072. Incredibly, three drivers had set identical times. Fourth was Damon Hill in his Arrows-Yamaha, lapping just 0.058s off pole in a brilliant but largely forgotten display.
Hill's lap was forgotten with good cause: the three-man pole was entirely unprecedented in F1. It rightly stole the headlines, and to this day remains the closest result in a qualifying session. The rules stated that the grid would be decided by the order in which the laps were set, meaning Villeneuve would line up ahead of Schumacher, with Frentzen third. Team boss Frank Williams sat typically impassive, despite his team's strong showing.
If the race finished that way, JV would have been world champion by three points. But his chances took a blow at the start, when Schumacher fairly glided away thanks to a brilliantly smooth getaway. Villeneuve veered across to cover his line, but the Ferrari had set off with such traction that Schumacher was already leading. Villeneuve also slipped behind Frentzen and, with the leading Ferrari instantly building an advantage, the title momentum had swung in the German's favour.
On lap eight Frentzen let his teammate past, but the Canadian driver could do little to erode Schumacher's advantage out front. It remained Schumacher from Villeneuve after the first pitstop, and the following laps saw the Ferrari increase his lead – with, it has been suggested, a helping hand.
Norberto Fontana only drove in four grands prix, all of them during the 1997 season when he was just 22 years of age. The Argentine had an impressive junior record and got a deserved break at the Ferrari-powered Sauber team, filling in for the injured Gianni Morbidelli.
But, thus far, he had shown little for Sauber. At Jerez he qualified 18th – a second shy of teammate Johnny Herbert – and was now on the verge of being lapped by the title-contending leaders.
Schumacher made it by without fuss, but Villeneuve lost two seconds behind the Argentine, who remained ahead for three corners before allowing the Williams past. Was it a coincidence that Schumacher was able to easily pass the Ferrari customer team's car, while Villeneuve lost considerable time?
Speaking to the Argentine sports magazine Ole! in 2006, Fontana made a claim that had been whispered throughout the sport for many years.
"We were in [team boss] Peter Sauber's motorhome with the masseur and Johnny Herbert," said Fontana. "It was two or three hours until the race started. [Ferrari team principal] Jean Todt entered and went straight to the point: 'By strict order of Ferrari, Villeneuve must be held up if you come across him on the track. To whoever this applies.' And this applied to me."
According to Fontana, team boss Sauber – not present when Todt made his alleged demand – told his driver that he would need to follow orders. The Swiss squad had an engine contract with Ferrari and could not afford to risk a fall out. Sauber has since denied the claim: "Ferrari never expressed the desire that we should obstruct an opponent of Schumacher on the track," he told Swiss newspaper Blick.
Nevertheless, the rumour remains that Fontana tried to hamper Villeneuve at the behest of Todt – who is now president of world motorsport's governing body, the FIA. Fontana never raced in F1 again, but did carve out a successful touring car career back home.
Call it karma or call it coincidence, at this stage Schumacher's title hopes began to unravel. He made his second pitstop on lap 43 and lost time, meaning a smooth stop from Villenueve would see them squabbling over the same piece of track
And so it transpired. After Villeneuve's stop the world title protagonists were nose-to-tail and fighting for the lead. 17 races over more than nine months looked set to boil down to this final stint.
Villeneuve was now in the ascendancy, with Schumacher unable to recapture the pace that had seen him pull away earlier on. Beginning lap 48, the Willaims had cut the Ferrari driver's lead to just under four tenths of a second. As they hit the straight heading up towards Curva Dry Sac, Jacques darted out from behind the Ferrari to make his move.
What followed has become one of the most famous few seconds of modern Formula 1 racing. Coming from a fair distance back, Villeneuve sailed up the inside of Schumacher. As Villeneuve turned into the corner, Schumacher did so too, but then seemed to apply a second turn to the steering wheel and slammed into the side of the Williams. Aerial replays showed it to be a clear attempt to stop Villeneuve – it was Schumacher's obligation to give his rival enough space, but instead he turned in hard. The collision sent Schumacher slithering into the gravel and out of the race; Villeneuve was able to continue, seemingly without any meaningful harm to his car.
Schumacher had been involved in another famous collision three years earlier, when he clashed with title rival Damon Hill (then of Williams) and put both out of the race. On that occasion, it had secured Michael his first world title; this time, it appeared to have backfired spectacularly.
There were now 22 laps to run and, with Schumacher out of contention, Villeneuve needed only a top-five finish to ensure he became world champion. Behind him, the two McLarens of David Coulthard and Mika Hakkinen gave pursuit – and this gave rise to yet another controversy.
During the final laps, the order of these three was reversed, with Hakkinen eventually taking the win from Coulthard and Villeneuve. It may not have been an entirely organic result, however. In fact, speaking to Autosport magazine in 2014, Coulthard stated that the order was manufactured.
"[McLaren team boss] Ron [Dennis] had made that deal with Frank, which none of us knew anything about, that if we helped Williams in their quest to beat Ferrari they wouldn't get in the way of helping McLaren. Ron would probably still deny it today," said Coulthard.
According to his version of events, the Scottish driver was first ordered to move over and allow Hakkinen into P2, because the Finn had lost out when McLaren pitted him to clear the path for Villeneuve's earlier in the race.
"Apparently, I was running behind Mika and they told him to come in to clear the way for Jacques, but that meant I jumped [Mika] at the pitstop," explained Coulthard.
After debating the issue over the radio, DC was convinced to move over and allow Hakkinen through. Villeneuve still led, beginning the final lap 1.2 seconds clear. But, a few corners from home, Hakkinen made it past (without much trouble) to secure his first grand prix win. Coulthard went by too, dropping Villeneuve to third but not denting his claim on the title.
Villeneuve was world champion. Though he was only 26 at the time, his career had very much peaked: the Canadian never won another grand prix, let alone a championship, and rapidly faded into the midfield. He left F1 for good in 2006, dropped in favour of a young Robert Kubica.
Evidently very guilty, Schumacher was thrown out of the championship and sanctioned by the FIA. What's more, his reputation took a hammering, certainly as a sportsman. But, thanks to a dominant five-year spell between 2000 and 2004, he would go on to become statistically the greatest grand prix driver of all time. Today, his indiscretions tend to be seen as manifestations of the ferocious determination that was required to achieve such success.
Little was done about the supposed attempts at 'fixing', perhaps because they had no impact on the world championship. Fontana's allegations of intentional blocking did not lead to a Schumacher title, and Villeneuve supposedly letting Hakkinen win made no difference to McLaren's final placing in the constructors' standings. Perhaps, with this in mind, it was decided to let sleeping dogs lie.
Still, while few would deny that Hakkinen merited a race victory, he took it in dubious circumstances – albeit not of his own making. It seems all the more unnecessary given what he achieved afterwards: over the following two seasons, the Finn won back-to-back world titles and proved himself not only a driver of rare ability, but Schumacher's fiercest rival – certainly more so than Villeneuve.
Almost two decades on, the 1997 European Grand Prix remains one of the most dramatic F1 finales in the sport's history. Perhaps it wasn't all above board, but surely every Formula 1 fan craves something similar when this year's deciding race rolls around.