Villeneuve Wins Formula One (Nov97 Updates)
They sat down together for a quiet beer in the end, once their season-long struggle finally came to a close in a single, spectacular moment at a tight corner called Dry Sack. It was Michael Schumacher who took the initiative, showing up with his wife on the doorstep of Jacques Villeneuve's trailer. By then, the stands were deserted, the paddocks still, at the Circuito de Jerez in southern Spain. And that suited Schumacher fine. For the straitlaced German, who drives for Italy's Team Ferrari in the travelling road show known as Formula One racing, had a difficult task to perform. He had come to acknowledge defeat, no small matter for a proud, even arrogant man who has long been regarded as the sport's reigning monarch. But there is a new sovereign in Formula One now. And for the first time in the circuit's celebrated history, the king is Canadian.
Villeneuve, in only his second F1 season, captured the 1997 world driver's championship in the most dramatic fashion, surviving a brutal, seemingly deliberate attempt by Schumacher to force him off the track and out of contention for the title. It happened two-thirds of the way through the 69-lap European Grand Prix, staged on Oct. 26 amid the dry hills and olive-clad valleys of Andalusia. After trailing Schumacher from the start, Villeneuve finally saw an opportunity to pass on the 48th lap of the race at Dry Sack, a sharp, right-hand turn. The German's scarlet Ferrari took a wide line into the curve and Villeneuve, at the wheel of his Renault-powered Williams, darted up the inside, pulling ahead. And suddenly, in full view of an estimated worldwide TV audience of 350 million, Schumacher lurched right, driving his Ferrari into the side of the Williams, forcing Villeneuve's vehicle into the air. "He hit me really, really hard," said Villeneuve after the race. "We banged wheels and my car jumped off the ground. I really felt the crash had broken something."
For Schumacher, it was a disastrous gamble. The German had entered the European Grand Prix, the last of the season's 16 races, with a one-point lead in the drivers' standings over the 26-year-old from St-Jean-sur-Richelieu in Quebec. He needed only to finish the competition in Spain ahead of Villeneuve to secure his third world championship. But when he collided with the Canadian, he drove himself out of the race. After bouncing off Villeneuve's Williams, Schumacher's Ferrari slewed sideways into a gravel trap and stuck fast. And as he sat, rear wheels spinning ineffectually in a cloud of dust, he watched helplessly as Villeneuve barrelled down the track on his way to the title.
Even then, it was no sure thing. There were still 21 laps to go and Villeneuve's vehicle had been damaged in the collision. "My car felt very strange," Villeneuve later recalled, "especially in the right-hand corners, and the rear end was not stable at all. I was pushing hard for a few laps, then slowing down because the tires were heating up in a very strange way." Still, Villeneuve nursed his Williams along, gradually losing ground to a clutch of pursuers. Finnish driver Mika Hakkinen and Scotland's David Coulthard, both in Mercedes-Benz-powered McLarens, steadily narrowed the gap until they overtook Villeneuve on the last lap, finishing first and second. "I saw Mika closing on me," Villeneuve recounted, "and I did not want to get into a big fight and David was also close so I let them through."
Villeneuve's third-place finish, however, was good enough. It allowed the Quebecer to pick up four points, giving him 81 for the season and a three-point victory over Schumacher. And with that, Villeneuve not only became the first Canadian to capture a Formula One driver's championship but also the first driver of any nationality to hold the top three titles in international motor car racing - the F1, the CART IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500 championships.
It did not take long for Villeneuve to celebrate his triumph in Spain. On returning to the paddock at the Jerez circuit, he was hoisted aloft by ecstatic Williams team mechanics, all sporting fluorescent yellow wigs in emulation of the young driver's crop of peroxide-blond hair. That marked the opening stages of a gigantic party that began in Jerez and later moved on to an all-night disco in nearby Cadiz down on the Atlantic coast. It was a bleary-eyed Villeneuve, pleading for sleep, who appeared the following day for 3½ hours of live television, beamed worldwide. Nowhere were those broadcasts more avidly followed than in Quebec, where they were picked up and retransmitted repeatedly by three of the province's television networks.
In the rest of the country, reaction was more restrained. But Villeneuve's victory did prompt an announcement from the federal government in Ottawa that is likely to have a lasting impact on motor racing in Canada. On the day after the win in Spain, Health Minister Alan Rock announced that he will soon amend an anti-smoking law to allow tobacco logos on racing cars and drivers' uniforms. "We'll do that as soon as we can," said Rock, referring to the legislation that restricts, among other items, brand-name tobacco advertising of cultural and sporting events to the bottom 10 per cent of an ad. When the law was enacted last April, it was met with protest from organizers of the Montreal F1 race as well as officials of IndyCar races in Toronto and Vancouver, who all argued that the annual events were in danger of being cancelled because many racing teams depend on tobacco sponsors for survival.
Canadian motor sport officials anticipate less tangible benefits as well. "Villeneuve's victory is certainly going to raise the profile of the sport in this country," predicted Ralph Luciw, chairman of the board of governors of the soon-to-be-inaugurated Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame in Toronto. Even though the facility, located on the ground floor of a downtown Toronto office building, will not be officially opened until Nov. 18, Luciw reported that a steady stream of curious passers-by have been dropping in since Villeneuve's triumph. "It's sparked an awful lot of interest," he said. "And we hope to spark it further by arranging to have one of Villeneuve's cars on display in the near future."
Villeneuve, meanwhile, is poised to cash in heavily on his triumph. Craig Pollock, the driver's Swiss-based manager, refused to disclose Villeneuve's annual take, but he is believed to have earned, in salary and endorsements, around $10 million this year. And Pollock did concede that "Jacques's value has now shot up considerably, particularly in terms of endorsements."
Just as important, the Canadian driver's achievement may finally lay to rest many of the doubts that have persisted about him in racing circles, engendered in large part by his dyed blond hair, his penchant for rumpled grunge dress and, not least, his candor. Villeneuve, in fact, now finds that he has traded places in more ways than one with his archrival Schumacher as a direct result of the race in Spain. It is the well-groomed Schumacher who has suddenly become the sport's bad boy. The German driver is scheduled to explain his actions at the Dry Sack corner before an extraordinary meeting of the sport's governing body, the FIA, in Paris on Nov. 11. Schumacher conceded last week that he "made a mistake" while stopping short of an outright apology. "It's part of the game," he said. "But I didn't try to foul." If the FIA decides otherwise, the German would face a multimillion-dollar fine as well as a multiple suspension, likely for three races, next season. And if that happens, it is going to be even more difficult to unseat the brash young Canadian who now occupies Formula One's throne.
Maclean's November 10, 1997