As we roll 2017 gently into the buffers at the end of a very long year, we rewind 20 years to recall the finale to the 1997 season – a championship ultimately won by Canada’s Jacques Villeneuve, and the first race won by McLaren’s Mika Hakkinen.
If last month’s Abu Dhabi finale did little to send F1 out with a bang, it was a very different story 20 years. As with this year, the championship fight was between Ferrari and a standout driver operating within a British-run team, but the outcome was far more closely fought.
Unlike today, when the F1 circus leaves Europe for three months of flyaway races that book-end the final third of the championship, the 1997 series concluded in Europe, with the European GP held at Spain’s tight and twisting Jerez circuit.
Villeneuve was fighting Ferrari’s Michael Schumacher, and their showdown proved to be more dramatic than anyone had anticipated, the race going down as one of the most memorable climaxes ever to an F1 season.
But, for McLaren, it’s also fondly remembered as the first-ever grand prix victory for Mika Hakkinen, our very own legendary Flying Finn, after seven years of trying. Mika would go onto log many more successes, and two World Championships of his own.
But that day in Spain was special – not least because it came two years after the terrible accident at the 1995 Australian GP that nearly ended his career.
Back from the crash
That winter, McLaren boss Ron Dennis and the team kept the faith with Mika, who had to work hard to get himself fully fit again. Against all the odds he was ready to race at the start of 1996.
“It took a lot of time to recover from that,” he recalls. “It was really challenging. They pump you full of medication, your fitness level goes really radically down, so it was really tough to come back.”
The accident and his recovery further cemented the already strong bond that had developed between Mika and the McLaren team since he arrived as a reserve driver in 1993. Everyone now wanted to see him finally achieve the potential that had been obvious as he worked his way up the junior ranks.
The ’96 season saw McLaren and engine partner Mercedes make good progress, and Mika and team-mate David Coulthard logged a string of podiums. Over the following winter the team made a further step, and it started the 1997 season with a competitive car in the MP4-12, along with a new silver livery.
When Williams and Ferrari faltered, Coulthard won the season opening race in Melbourne, marking McLaren’s first success since Ayrton Senna won in Adelaide at the end of 1993. It may have been something of a surprise, but it was a sign of things to come.
As the ’97 season unfolded, so McLaren was able to challenge regular pacesetters Schumacher and Villeneuve on outright performance. Mika’s talent had never been in doubt, but now he was in a position to challenge for Grand Prix victories. Time and again, though, he was stymied by mechanical problems, notably engine dramas while leading at both Silverstone and the Nurburgring.
“We had some failures happening that year,” he recalls. “But the reason why these failures were happening was because we were pushing the engine on the limit. And of course inside the team we wanted to have the most powerful engine and be the fastest on the straight line, so we were all pushing for power.”
To his obvious frustration, a first win still eluded him as the final race of the season approached. Would it ever happen for him?
First at the last
Inevitably at the last race at Jerez, the focus was on the battle for the title. In an extraordinary development Villeneuve, Schumacher and second Williams driver Heinz-Harald Frentzen all set exactly the same qualifying times, lining up on the grid in that order in the basis of whose quickest lap was logged first. Hakkinen and Coulthard meanwhile qualified fifth and sixth.
Schumacher jumped into the lead at the start. Frentzen hadn’t read the script, and he snuck in front of his team-mate, leaving Villeneuve third. Mika and David meanwhile nipped into fourth and fifth, but while the two McLarens potentially had the pace with which to challenge the Williams driver ahead, they held back, and stayed out of the fight.
Villeneuve eventually passed his team-mate, and thus the two title contenders ran first and second. Then at the first round of stops, an earlier pit visit for David saw the McLaren drivers trade places. Both subsequently jumped the late-stopping Frentzen, leaving David in third, and Mika fourth.
Out front, Villeneuve began to chase down Schumacher as the second stops approached, while the McLaren drivers ran some 15 seconds or so behind. Michael came in for his final stop on lap 43, and Villeneuve followed a lap later. Jacques knew that his big chance to pass Michael would come on fresh rubber, and by catching his rival unawares – and he did just that on lap 48, diving down the inside. Michael saw him at the last second, frantically turned in, and the pair made contact.
Going out with a bang
In a similar incident in Adelaide three years earlier both Schumacher and then rival Damon Hill suffered terminal damage, and the German, ahead of the Briton on points, secured the title. This time Michael skated to a stop in the gravel trap, and Jacques carried on. If he could finish, he would be World Champion. However, Villeneuve suspected that his car had suffered some damage, and didn’t want to exacerbate things by running flat out to the end.
“The car jumped in the air,” he recalls. “I still managed to stay on the track luckily, but then I slowed down because I thought something was broken. In fact the battery mounts were broken, and it was only hanging on by the electrical cables. I was just kissing the brakes, hitting them slowly, just to drive the car softly. It’s a good thing I did, because otherwise I would not have finished.”
The Canadian knew that he didn’t have to actually win the race to secure the title – and so did Dennis. Up to now McLaren had carefully stayed clear of the title fight, not wanting to influence it, but the complexion of the race had changed, and there was a sniff of a victory.
Changing the order
Coulthard and Hakkinen were caught for a while behind the lapped Jordan of Giancarlo Fisichella, and it was then that Dennis issued what some regarded as a controversial order – he wanted the two McLaren drivers to swap places.
“I was on the radio to David,” recalls former McLaren sporting director Dave Ryan. “I got an instruction, in no uncertain terms, to tell him to move over. It was a chance for Ron to give Mika a win, but at David’s cost.
“That’s David isn’t it? He’s a nice guy and he respected within reason what he was told. Anyone else would have probably told us where to go! I always thought he could have said, ‘I can’t hear you, guys.’ But he didn’t, and to his credit he respected the fact that he was employed, he had to obey instructions, and he did.”
Thus on lap 67, with only two laps left to run, David duly moved over and let his team-mate by. Meanwhile, both men were rapidly catching Villeneuve, who was easing off. The instruction came through to Mika from his engineer Steve Hallam – he was free to pass the Williams.
“Of course I thought I was going to be second,” says Hakkinen. “They called on the radio and said ‘slow down’, then they came on the radio and said, ‘Mika, just flat -out go for it, this is it.’ It was the last lap. I thought what’s going on here?”
In a remarkable sequence of events, both Mika and David passed the leading Williams on the 69th and final lap, as Villeneuve – respecting the fact that they had not pushed him in the early stages – offered no resistance.
The surprised Finn thus found himself greeted by the chequered flag for the first time in his F1 career. David, Villeneuve, Gerhard Berger, Eddie Irvine and Frentzen followed as a train of cars crossed the line. Villeneuve was the 1997 World Champion, and Mika was an F1 race winner, at his 96th attempt.
Up on the podium, looking down at a sea of people wearing yellow wigs in honour of Villeneuve’s title win, Hakkinen appeared a little shell-shocked by the whole thing.
“It felt weird, after seven years finally winning a Grand Prix,” he admits. “It felt unreal. Okay, I knew that victory didn’t come with pure speed, and I knew there was still some work to be done, but of course I was happy with winning it.
“It was just incredible. The last Grand Prix of the year! When I did win it, it was important not just for me, but also for the team, because we finally did it. There was a big celebration, and it was a great motivating factor for the team. It was great to be a Grand Prix winner. It was a beautiful experience.”
He felt that it was his turn: “I think I would have won quite a few races that year, but the engine failed in Nurburgring and Silverstone. I think the team just thought, ‘That’s it Mika, go and win,’ then we don’t have to talk about it any more.’
“And I was so relieved that I didn’t have to speak any more about when I’m going to win! A lot of people were happy for me, because it had been such a long journey, and a tough journey.”
All sorts of emotions surrounded the aftermath of the race, but for McLaren the most important thing was that Mika had finally got that monkey off his back and won a Grand Prix, however unusual the circumstances.
But the saga of the 1997 European GP did not end on that Sunday, however.
Not surprisingly the FIA launched an investigation into Schumacher’s actions, and eventually he would be kicked out of that year’s World Championship, losing his second place – while keeping all his actual race results.
Meanwhile a second enquiry took place after Williams and McLaren were accused of collusion when Villeneuve moved over for Hakkinen and Coulthard. In those days radio messages were not broadcast, but top teams listened in to each other when they could.
Some time after the race, transcripts of some Williams traffic emerged, which to some observers seemed to suggest that Villeneuve ceding first place had been pre-arranged. The story was stirred up in some sections of the media, and the FIA World Motor Sport Council chose to look into the matter, before deciding that no crime had been committed.
“It is quite clear that the result of the race was not fixed,” said then FIA president Max Mosley. “There was no arrangement between McLaren and Williams that Mika Hakkinen was going to win. They were able to demonstrate very clearly that was not the case.”
Mosley made it clear that the last lap changes were simply a case of Williams not wanting Villeneuve to risk his title by trying to hang on to the win, when he didn’t need to.
“It is a fact that Jacques is a fairly wilful person who pursues his own course of action and Williams was very worried that as it was on the very last lap, he would fight for his win. It was described as near panic in the pit, as there they were, within a hair's breadth of the World Championship, that he might in fighting the McLarens have an accident and lose the championship.”
No action was taken against either Williams or McLaren, and finally Mika’s win was secure in the history books.
Crucially, that meant he went into the winter in high spirits, and when he got his hands on the MP4-13 in 1998 he was on superb form from the start of the season. A year after his debut win he secured his first title in Suzuka.
“Like I said, Jerez was such an important motivator and boost for the team. I feel that being loyal to the team in good days and bad days affected everything that happened. McLaren has such an amazing history – history seems to repeat itself! We had great mechanics and great people in the team, so I knew that success would come, sooner or later. It was worth the wait.”